Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

The self-revelation of the divine to Moses is a unique moment in our spiritual history and changes the face of monotheism forever.

Emboldened and empowered, Moses and Aaron return before Pharaoh, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice.

Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Pharaoh’s heart of stone. In response to the first five divine plagues, Pharaoh hardens his heart. In response to the remaining plagues, however, Torah states plainly that G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart. No matter the agent, the result is the same; "Pharaoh's heart is heavy." (Exodus 7:14) Rabbi Stuart Kelman, founding rabbi of Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, suggests the first five plagues saw Pharaoh progressively hardening his own heart to the plight of the Hebrews and the demands of Moses. That hardening response soon becomes reflexive, a kind of muscle memory, so that the Pharaoh’s heart was already "sclerotic" by the sixth plague, and G-d merely ensures that Pharaoh "lives out the consequences of his own arrogance and ambition." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1–17:27

How often have you taken advantage of a last minute travel deal?

Today, it may feel good not to know where you will travel until the very last minute; it allows you to discover some new, exotic destination at a great rate. In the ancient Near Eastern mind, however, that same sense of journeying without knowing the destination borders on the absurd. To journey in search of an undisclosed place, as later rabbinic commentators emphasize ad absurdum, positions such a seeker as a madman. After all, if you do not where you are going, the route is filled with endless obstacles and surprises. But in stressing just how outlandish a decision Abram makes, the rabbis are drawing our attention back to the remarkable text in Torah: God commands Abram to relocate and take leave — "Go forth form your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. Sometimes these transformations begin with taking that first step into the unknown.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is connected to Abram's moment of calling. "Go forth!" "Leave Chaldea!" James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) describes Philo of Alexandria's interpretation of this episode: "Philo says something happens: 'opening [its] eye from the depth of sleep,' the soul suddenly becomes aware of God's presence. At that point God will say to the soul, as He Said to Abraham, 'Leave Chaldea!' – that is, leave your old way of thinking, in which the human senses are considered to be the only form of perception, and proceed on to a new way of thinking and, ultimately, to the Promised Land of knowing God." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'et'hanan -- Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtchananHow does empathy resonate with you?

American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once remarked that, "Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy'."

Such oscillation of our empathic experiences resonates with Moses’ proclamation – one that elicits positive empathy — that there is no religion without ethics. Sinai was an encounter with the divine (theophany) that was sealed into the communal heart through Exodus, while this legacy moment in Deuteronomy is designed to be didactic, to emphasize the implications of the Sinai encounter in the communal mind.

In studying Mosaic law, we engender a positive empathy to spiritual practice. This process is a critical marker of Jewish identity that emerges from the Hebrew Bible. More than mere intellectual study, Torah study is a contemplative commitment whereby, in repeatedly encountering and pondering these laws, we are awakened to a newfound awareness, whether through affixing the mezuzah to every passageway, donning tefillin to connect head- to heart-filled action (6:8-9; 11:18-20), affixing tzitzit to our four-cornered garments (22:12), as well as reaching out to the needy (15:8).

No book has had as lasting an impact on the evolution of monotheism within Western civilization as Deuteronomy, and no statement has shaped Jewish consciousness as much as the Shema (6:4). This quintessential Jewish prayer — "Hear, O Israel! YHVH is our God, YHVH alone." — continues to resonate with positive empathy, not only as our final words as we pass onto the next world, but in this world, right here, right now.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a riff on Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, a famous painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. The art historian Malcolm Andrews describes Wanderer as a representation of "the gulf...between the human and the vast world of nature." In our version, the gulf is not so much between humanity and the rest of nature (although that dichotomy is central to the Hebrew Bible), but a gulf between one particular wanderer and the land he has been called to, but will never know. Here, Moses surveys the Holy Land from afar. "Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan." (Deuteronomy 3:27) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Report From Dublin

Rabbi Glazer recently participated in Philosophizing Monotheism, a conference at the National University of Ireland, Dublin. On his return to the States, he shared the inspiring report below.



The wonderful conference was the culmination of an ongoing relationship I have been cultivating with a group of Israeli academics. I've done so with a few intentions in mind.

Ireland2Firstly, I aim to increase the intellectual and spiritual exchange between Israeli and Diaspora scholars that has been challenged recently by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, especially the arm of the movement that calls for an academic boycott of Israel. Secondly, it is essential that we collaborate across our Jewish spheres on academic projects that will shape the future thinking of Judaism and monotheisms more broadly. Thirdly, to further the awareness and integration of these collaborations, I hope to publish and disseminate gleanings from the ongoing exchanges taking place in Israel, Europe, and America.

Aside from having the gift of focused time to present, listen, reflect, question, and dialogue with each other for uninterrupted hours on end, this was a unique meeting of scholars and philosophers of religion from many walks of life, all sharing a passion for what I call Critical Judaism and Critical Religion. To be able to interrogate the core of our respective monotheistic religions in freedom without fear of persecution is a relatively recent modern phenomenon. On the one hand, this gathering recalled the medieval, magical moments of Convivencia during a golden age of Spain (if not the one usually spoken of), when philosophers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were in constant fruitful exchange and allowed each other's theological thinking to challenge, influence, and inspire each other. On the other hand, as Irish philosopher Dermot Moran commented, my theological investigations (which coincide with his research on Dionysius and Don Scotus) put me in the good company of Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza and Giordano Bruno, both of whom were excommunicated for their heresies from their modern communities. Alas, today we live in a very different world. Such accusations of heresy would demand a kind of caring and religious literacy that seems to be rapidly dissolving, especially in the religious spheres of America.

Ireland1Over these days we were blessed to spend together, I came to realize the gift of scholarly exchange from my vantage point as a scholar-rabbi, especially with Israeli colleagues, living both in Israel and in the European Diaspora. They all equally appreciated my perspective, especially when it turned to questions of the future of religious institutions and applications of critical thinking. The quality of conversation and the feeling that our reflections about God, the world, and humanity matter could not be more urgent and inspiring. At this juncture, being in Ireland, presenting in English, and thinking through all the layers of monotheisms, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, mysticism, Hasidism, and its abiding influence on the big questions in philosophy of religion like ethics, justice, cosmotheism, conversion, and doubt will continue to resonate with all of us as we part ways. After a year of planning, we all experienced a light that only appears when scholars from across religious and philosophical boundaries come together in free exchange.

I am grateful as well as for my training at the Center for the Study of Religions at University of Toronto, which really paved the way for this kind of exchange. One of the most remarkable moments for me came in reuniting with a colleague from graduate studies at the Center for the Study of Religions, Mahdi Tourage, (an Iranian refugee to Canada in 1986) to see how decades later we both remained attuned to so many parallel theological concerns in our respective traditions of Jewish and Islamic mysticisms. It was both inspiring and alarming that Mahdi's courageous paper could only be accepted at a forum like this one given that his insightful, critical thinking remains on the margins of the Islamic academe. Ironically, as we discussed this situation at length, he shared with me the struggle that even renowned Jewish scholars of Islam like Aaron Hughes experience with their remarkable critical scholarship, most recently, with Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity. Clearly, the more opportunities there are to normalize and disseminate this kind of critical discourse on the philosophy of religions, especially in Islam, the better the world is poised to enable the evolution of monotheisms.

Gathered outside the conference center in the top photo (left to right) are: Ward Blanton (University of Kent), Itzhak Benyamini (University of Haifa), Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, Dermot Moran (University College Dublin), Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), Mahdi Tourage (University of Western Ontario), Raphael Zagury-Orly (Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), and Joseph Cohen (University College Dublin). Elad Lapidot (Humboldt Universitat, Berlin) and Maureen Junker-Kenny (Trinity College, Dublin) participated, but were already off to other conferences by the time of this photograph.

Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1-17:27

facebook_coverdesign_lechlechaWe move from the displacement associated with the Tower of Babel at the end of last week’s reading to even deeper displacement this week as the Torah introduces us to the journey of Abram and Sarai.

Their leaving home can be thought of as the setting of a tripwire, a process of setting in motion dramatic change. The challenge of starting out on a new venture — which is not limited to physical relocation — is perennial. We are constantly setting the tripwire of change; nothing in life is permanent.

Little surprise then that the Hebrew Bible has no sense of place permanence – the ancestral house or furniture can not be assumed. Instead of such a legacy, God commands Abram to take leave — "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1).

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. The next covenant, this one of circumcision, is enacted by Abraham upon himself and his son, Isaac, while Hagar is banished with Ishmael. In leaving home and beginning this new venture that comes to be known as Judaism, Abram becomes Abraham ("father of multitudes") and Sarai becomes Sarah ("princess"). And so the journey continues...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the vision Abram had following his defeat of King Chedorlaomer. "After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, 'Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great.'" (Genesis 15:1) Here, we see a shield form on a yellow field. The shape of the shield and its markings – at once ocular and solar – are based on designs archaeologists associate with ancient Mesopotamia. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'et'hanan -- Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtHananWhat is empathy to you?

German philosopher Theodor Lipps (1851–1914) often reflected on the quality of empathy, or Einfühlung, seeing it as a key to understanding our aesthetic experiences as well as the primary basis for recognizing each other as thinking, acting creatures. Lipps contends that empathy explains the felt immediacy of our aesthetic appreciation of objects. Because we unconciously project our interior states onto the external objects we encounter, we will perceive an object as beautiful if our internal experiences are positive and as ugly if our internal state is negative.

Such oscillation of our empathic experiences resonates with Moses’ proclamation – one that elicits positive empathy — that there is no religion without ethics. Sinai was an encounter with the divine (theophany) that was sealed into the communal heart through Exodus, while this legacy moment in Deuteronomy is designed to be didactic, to emphasize the implications of the Sinai encounter in the communal mind.

In studying Mosaic law, we engender a positive empathy to spiritual practice. This process is a critical marker of Jewish identity that emerges from the Hebrew Bible. More than mere intellectual study, Torah study is a contemplative commitment whereby, in repeatedly encountering and pondering these laws, we are awakened to a newfound awareness, whether through affixing the mezuzah to every passageway, donning tefillin to connect head- to heart-filled action (6:8-9; 11:18-20), affixing tzitzit to our four-cornered garments (22:12), as well as reaching out to the needy (15:8).

No book has had as lasting an impact on the evolution of monotheism within Western civilization as Deuteronomy, and no statement has shaped Jewish consciousness as much as the Shema (6:4). This quintessential Jewish prayer — "Hear, O Israel! YHVH is our God, YHVH alone." — continues to resonate with positive empathy, not only as our final words as we pass onto the next world, but in this world, right here, right now.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the description of the theophany at Sinai in Parashat Va'et'hanan: "And you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness." (Deuteronomy 4:11) This foundational episode of our religion is fundamentally impossible to depict – it is incomprehensibly grand and stupefying – but perhaps this hybrid supernova-eye imagery captures something of the moment's profound awe. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Lech Lecha -- Genesis 12:1–17:27

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedAgain this week, I turn to the renowned Czech-German writer Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924), who wrote in his Zürau Aphorisms:

The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.

Leaving home activates that tripwire, setting profound change in motion. The challenge of starting out on a new venture —- which is not limited to physical relocation —- is perennial. We are constantly setting off the tripwire of change. Nothing in life is permanent.

Little surprise then that the Hebrew Bible has no sense of permanence or place, be it with regard to an ancestral house or furniture. Rather, G-d commands Abram to relocate, to take leave:

Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart, leaving everything behind, journeying to the land of Canaan with their nephew Lot. As the narrative unfolds, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in the pantheon, but ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing famine, they detour to Egypt, where Sarai is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. The escape is only possible because Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to their release and compensation. Back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom, but Lot is captured by the armies of Chedorlamomer. This unfortunate turn of events forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by MalkiZedek, the King of Salem, in powerful, henotheistic language:

Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth.” (14:19)

As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is MalkiZedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily living.

Upon completing the “covenant between the pieces” that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. The next covenant, this one of circumcision, is enacted by Abram upon himself and his son, Isaac, while Hagar is banished with Ishmael. In leaving home and beginning this new venture that comes to be known as Judaism, Abram becomes Abraham (“father of multitudes”) and Sarai becomes Sarah (“princess”). The journey continues…

- Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: "Abraham and Melchisedek," by Dieric Bouts, 1464-1467

Listen to the audio file of this d'var Torah below!
[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TorahByte_ParshaLechLecha_5776.mp3"][/audio]