Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I once quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Robert Cover (1943-1986), the renowned law professor and activist at Yale Law School, once remarked that every legal system or nomos had woven within its own narrative or story. Cover taught that everyone lives in at least one nomos, by which he means a normative universe. A normative universe is "a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void." He is quick to point out that while this universe is not identical with law, it does however contain within it both law and "the narratives that locate it and give it meaning." How apt for this week’s reading of Mishpatim — law writ large— to then reconsider Cover’s words that: "[f]or every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture." Every reader of Torah knows intuitively the truth of Cover’s teaching, namely, that the law, connected with its narratives, constitutes a world. It is only by locating our lives within a common community where our lives can then be shared, and yes, even sane!

So what is the (sane) story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions? To address this question we turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists because they exemplify what Cover is at pains to interpret, especially in this week’s reading. In the mystical masterpiece set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, we find in this Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, that the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's austere illustration depicts the contours of a gavel. The mood and imagery are both inspired by Parashat Mishpatim, with its litany of "of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions." As Rabbi Glazer contends, one can find love "interwoven with the legislative nomos," but at the p'shat (face value) level, Mishpatim is a straightforward code of conduct; as such, it provides an essential foundation for an orderly, civil society. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Devarim -- Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Facebook_CoverDesign_DevarimThe great American boxer Muhammad Ali once remarked: "It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen."

When we turn to the repetition of the Law through its namesake (the Book of Deuteronomy, from deutero, meaning "repetition," and nomos, meaning "law"), we find Moses laying out his legacy plan through the repetition of the Law to the assembly.

Part of this Mosaic legacy entails his recounting the Israelites' 40-year journey from Egypt to Sinai, and eventually to the Promised Land. Part of the challenge along the way has been to solidify a cohesive practice. Moses now recognizes that this practice must take the form of sacral deeds called mitzvot.

Tied up with his reiteration of the Law, Moses also recounts the further challenges he faced as leader – countless battles with warring nations as well as the inter-tribal conflicts surrounding division of land. The generation of the desert, still imbued with the Egyptian slave mentality, must die out before a new community can be truly committed to this covenant.

For the legacy to be good and effective, Moses must transmit to Joshua, who engages in "counter-effectuation" — the possibility of conviction emerging from repetition is how the Mosaic legacy is carried forward with his own imprint.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is a depiction of Joshua. Behind him, loosely rendered, we see spectres of the Nephilim, the giants or fallen angels that reportedly inhabited the Promised Land. Unlike their ten scout companions, Joshua and Caleb believed the Israelites could conquer Canaan's fearsome inhabitants. For his bravery and virtue, Joshua would later inherit the mantle of Moses. "But Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you he will go there; strengthen him, for he will cause Israel to inherit it." (Deuteronomy 1:38) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

A Conversation With Ephraim Margolin

AY_MargolinInterviewOn Saturday afternoon, June 10, following a delicious community kiddush lunch, the Achshav Yisrael committee of CBS presented "Witness To The Birth Of Israel: An Interview With Ephraim Margolin." Although the special Shabbat afternoon program could not be photographed, we want to share some of the highlights.

Achshav Yisrael committee member Eileen Auerbach reports that about 75 people attended the program and the audience was rapt, listening intently to Ephraim's anecdotes and perspectives. More than one attendee remarked that Ephraim was so interesting that the interview could have lasted much longer than the two hours allowed. Indeed, Ephraim has led a remarkably full life and it was a treat for so many to learn more about it.

Ephraim was born in Poland in 1926. He fled with his mother to Tel Aviv in 1936, and wouldn't again see his father, Yuli (Yehuda) Margolin, for over a decade (after Yuli was able to make his way to Israel following extended exile in the Soviet Gulag). For better and worse, Ephraim's time and circumstances ensured that his own life would be uncommonly eventful. Writing of his youth in Tel Aviv, Ephraim shares:

"My mother hardly made a living. I still don’t know how she managed to put me through a private high school. She did physical work seven days a week. Our apartment was open to any new 'olim,' refugees arriving in Tel Aviv. We had dozens of people staying in our small apartment, or just show up for a dinner. We never knew who will come. It was just 'the thing to do.' One of the people who stayed in our apartment after arriving in Tel Aviv came in his Polish army uniform. His name was Menachem Begin. He became head of the Irgun, a major underground organization fighting for the establishment of a Jewish State. He would become prime minister of Israel a quarter of century later and win a Nobel Peace Prize for establishing a lasting peace with Egypt.

I, too, joined the Irgun. While serving, I became its clandestine radio announcer, a three-inch mortar gunner, and a commander of the base for illegally infiltrated children arriving in Palestine. [Years later,] in 1948, I became Menachem Begin’s private secretary."

Ephraim-Margolin-768x576Ephraim also highlighted his work as a lawyer in both Israel and the United States, itself dramatic: "While chairing the legal committee of ACLU, I took on 10 of their cases, pro bono, and won them all. I went into private practice in criminal defense and constitutional cases. For the rest of my career, I did one-third of my cases pro bono. I handled several of the race, gender, and free speech cases during the Civil Rights era. I handled and won the first televised argument in California Supreme Court (whether hypnosis of witnesses made their testimony admissible in court) and handled the appeal of John Gotti in New York."

In this, his 90th year, Ephraim shared his life experiences with the audience and talked about what he has learned as a result of them. His 2016 book, Philosophy of Early Zionism, is available on Amazon, and we highly recommend it. Ephraim is currently at work on another book...and his 49th Annual Yom Kippur Teaching at CBS!

ABOUT ACHSHAV YISRAEL: Achshav Yisrael’s mission is to provide quality programming about Israel to Congregation Beth Sholom and the broader community. Achshav Yisrael programs are open to all age groups and will occur on a regular basis. We intend to create a safe space at CBS for community exploration of Israel.

Achshav Yisrael Steering Committee Members: Eileen Auerbach, Becky Buckwald, Sandra Cohen, Betsy Eckstein, Ovid Jacob, Eva-Lynne Leibman, Ira Levy, Ephraim Margolin, Lucia Sommers

Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Facebook_CoverDesign_AchareiMot-KedoshimIn conversation with a Jewish artist, I recently quipped that all artists must see their art as an offering to the Other Side. "What?!," the artist exclaimed. In order to quell the energy of the negative forces in the universe, I explained, the mystical interpretation of many rituals, especially sacrifice, is understood as a way of assuaging and keeping at bay the Other Side.

So what were the two Young Turk priests, Nadav and Avihu, up to with their offering as ritual artists? The enigmatic scene first described in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47), returns in Parashat Acharei Mot with a sobering lesson about the episode.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta? Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who find in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. Sometimes, though, that ecstasy comes at a price – the Other Side can overtake even the most spiritual of ritual artists.

The fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw rather than engage in the real world with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. For Jewish art to be effective, it cannot withdraw from the world, but must engage directly with it by transforming it.

Reading Parashat Kedoshim, we're reminded that part of the reason Leviticus can be a challenging read is that it often seems as though there are competing voices of religious authority. Recall there are two distinct and independent schools of Torah in the Book of Leviticus — the Priestly Torah and the Holiness Code. There is a fine line distinguishing the Priestly Torah, which is preoccupied with the priestly views of ritual that are distinct from the masses, from the Holiness School, which interweaves the priestly elements of ritual with popular customs.

Interestingly, we see in Kedoshim that the Holiness Code is ecological in orientation, at least insofar as it emphasizes the web of relationships that unite various members of the land community – namely: earth, animal, and humans. Just as it is forbidden to cut "the edge" [pe’ah] of either "field" (19:9) or "human head and beard" (19:27), so we are invited to reorient our lives with greater ecological awareness of the place we play within the web of all sentient beings. Such a planetary awareness is what holiness demands of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an abstract, painterly response to the many instances of "you shall not" in Acharei Mot / Kedoshim. Some contemporary readers are turned off by all these "negative commandments" (mitzvot lo taaseh), but such laws became essential as humans settled in large, agrarian centers. Codified behavior provided increased predictability in social interaction, and these codes of conduct were enforced to direct society toward cohesion and stability; the many prohibitions serve as a bulwark against barbarism and the breakdown of social bonds. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Two

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study is back, meeting each Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants are studying the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

Henry is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. Chapter Two of his exploration appears below.

You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Two: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself. (Have you read Tristram Shandy? If not, you really should. Poor Tristram becomes quite familiar with this sort of thing.)

As I discussed last week, the Written Torah consists of Torah, Prophets, and Writings – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. We know that at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple all of the books of the Tanakh existed in written form. We have the physical examples that were discovered at Qumran on the Dead Sea. Some people believe that the entire Tanakh is the precise word of God. If we accept this (and even if we don’t), how did the word of God come to be written down?

Writing and Jewish law (halacha) are connected from the beginning within the Tanakh. The first mitzvot to be revealed are the Ten Commandments. These come in two drafts. The first, written by "the Hand of God," doesn’t make it to us intact. The one that we actually get to read from is inscribed into stone by Moses.

There are a number of lessons about writing in the Jewish tradition that we can learn from this story:
1) Use of the written word is an attribute that we share with the Divine.
2) Our written texts, physically produced by human hands, are sufficiently similar to those produced by the Divine "Hand" that they can have the full authority of the words of the Divine.
3) The written word can partake of the same permanence – that is, the same perfection – as the word of the Divine received directly.

The Written Law has the virtues of permanence and fixity. Appearing in the written text, it provides a certainty on which the believer can base their confidence that the will of God can be known, followed, and be made a source of constant support.

These virtues can also become weaknesses, however. Permanence is the extreme of orthodoxy. Humanity is ever shifting in location, social mores, technology, artistry, and even temperament. As long as the Law remains at the center of human concerns, permanence works in its favor. But, if the law becomes dislodged from that center even slightly, that permanence is transformed into a weakness.

If the Law requires a physicality, it is always threatened. The first set of tablets is smashed. The people remain without the benefit of the Law until a second set of tablets can be carved for them. Dependence on fixity of physical permanence stifles the preservation of the Law through memory. When the Law enters memory through repeated reading or through memorization of an oral text, it enters the mesh of human memory and, like the human mind as a whole, becomes malleable.

In the First Temple period, both sets of tablets lie in the Ark. They are not brought forth. We never hear of the reading of the Law until the reign of Hezekiah, when a lost scroll (generally assumed to be the Book of Deuteronomy) is rediscovered during the renovation of the Temple. It becomes clear from the aftermath of the reading of that scroll that the Israelites (Judahites) had forgotten most of what Moses had taught. The quality of Jewish faith in the First Temple period seems thin to us now. It appears to be a brittle monotheism lacking all of the intellectual ferment that we associate with the Jewish mind.

The nations of Israel and Judah come under dire threat in the eras of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The coming of a new or renewed faith among Jacob’s children starts to become visible. Writing and the technology of writing plays a part in this change.

Next week, we'll find hints of an explanation of the ties that bind the Written Law to the Oral Law.

READ CHAPTER THREE: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.
Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Introducing Zion(ism) Matters

facebook_zionismmattersThis year, our popular Thinking Matters: Modern Jewish Philosophy mini-course series is introducing an offshoot series dubbed Zion(ism) Matters!

Although we think we know what Zionism means, it is always helpful to revisit its past and present, as well as to consider its future. This exciting new series will explore Zionism through lectures, celebrations, and art exhibits.

Details and readings for upcoming Zion(ism) Matters single classes and mini-courses are included below. (The full 2016–17 course overview can also be viewed as a simple .pdf file by clicking here.)

All classes meet on Thursday evenings from 6:30 – 8 p.m. All sessions are FREE for CBS members, but students are encouraged to make a donation to CBS. For nonmembers, each single session is $12. Alternatively, nonmembers can purchase an 8-session pack for $84, or the full semester subscription for $180.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER FOR ZION(ISM) MATTERS ONLINE


On Love Of Israel
November 10, December 8, January 26, & February 23
(4 sessions w/ Ephraim Margolin, Esq.)


Course Description: Ephraim Margolin is a longtime professor of law who, before moving to the United States, served as Secretary to Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun. He is a Hebrew University and Yale Law School graduate who has a rich knowledge of Israeli politics and culture.

His four-session mini-course will consider Israel through a contemporary lens, drawing on the country’s remarkable history and much Jewish thinking.

Session 1: Limits On Criticism of Israel
Session 2: Glorifying & Rejecting Jewish Power
Session 3: Roots Of Peace And Justice In Israel
Session 4: Self-Hate In Modern Israeli Culture

Readings: TBD

Zions: Home & Exile Beyond The Middle East
December 1
(1 session w/ Aaron Hahn Tapper, PhD)


Course Description: Dr. Aaron J. Hahn Tapper’s one-session class will explore Jewish "zions" outside the State of Israel, with special attention to the dominance of the Diaspora/Zion binary and subordination of non-Middle East Jewish homelands. Dr. Hahn Tapper is the Chair of the Department of Theology & Religious Studies, the Mae and Benjamin Swig Associate Professor in Jewish Studies, and the Founder and Director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco. In June 2016, Dr. Hahn Tapper published Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities (University of California Press).

Readings: TBD

Philosophy Of Zionism In Ahad Ha'am
January 5
(1 session w/ Ovid Jacob)


Course Description: Ovid Jacob joined Rabbi Glazer on the Irving Rabin Community Building Mission To Israel last year. Following that trip, he has become interested in exploring novel ways of connecting members of the Bay Area Jewish community to Israel. This single-session class will explore what Zionism meant to Ahad Ha’am, the pre-state Zionist thinker who found himself at loggerheads with Theodor Herzl. Herzl’s priority was political Zionism, whereas Ha’am is credited as the founder of cultural Zionism.

Readings: TBD


CLICK HERE TO REGISTER FOR ZION(ISM) MATTERS ONLINE

Lead image credit: The background appearing in the Zion(ism) Matters title image is a 1902 illustration by Ephraim Moses Lilien, who was known for fusing Zionist iconography with an Art Nouveau style. Lilien's biographer dubbed him "the first Zionist artist."