Archive for February, 2008

Vayakel: Fire and Rest

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel

As winter continues to blow cold in Poughkeepsie, we come across an
irony of Jewish practice, at least for me. I like nothing better on a
cold day than to sit by a fire in the fireplace (which I’m doing as I
write this). Given that I have an oven for cooking and electricity for
lights, making a fire is more like a meditation and I experience it as
both relaxing and conducive to thought and reflection. Yet the day
devoted to both rest and reflection, Shabbat, is a day when building a
fire is explicitly prohibited, as we learn from this week’s Torah
portion, Vayakel:

“You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the
Sabbath day.” (Shmot/Exodus 35:3)

Now, what’s interesting about this verse is the ancient sages don’t
think it’s actually necessary, because in Shmot 31, we already learn
we’re not supposed to do any “work” [melacha, meaning, intentional
exerting of power over the material world]. Since lighting a fire is
certainly melacha, why does the Torah tell us separately not to light
fires on Shabbat?

One interpretation, going back to the Talmud but mentioned by Rashi
and others, is that the Torah separates out fire from all the other
categories of things not done on Shabbat in order to teach just that:
that each category (like making a fire, or cooking, or sewing, or
digging, or building, etc.) is its own separate practice and not
lumped in with all the others. That is, not sewing is its own
discipline, separate from not writing or cooking, for example.

What I like about this interpretation is how it reminds us that the
practice of Shabbat (and it does take practice) is not “all or
nothing,” but something that we can grow into over time. We might
start by taking on one of the “melachot,” such as cooking, and slowly
increasing our understanding of how to create a “palace in time”
without needing to transform our lives all at once.

On the other hand, fire itself is an interesting problem for
contemporary Shabbat observance, because there is just no getting
around the fact that driving an ordinary car, with an internal
combustion engine, involves igniting and feeding a fire- that’s how
cars move! (Let’s leave a purely electric car for another day.) There
are other issues with driving on Shabbat, but since fire is explicitly
mentioned in the Torah, one could reasonably ask how the Conservative
movement could issue a permissive ruling on the topic, which it did in
the late 50’s. (The famous “driving t’shuvah.)

The authors of the paper permitting Conservative Jews to drive to
synagogue argued that the fire in a car’s engine is not the same as
the fires prohibited by traditional Jewish Shabbat practice because
we’re not lighting the fire for the primary reason of doing something
with it directly (like cooking) but in order to power an engine and
move something (the car) from one place to another. I’m
oversimplifying, but the basic idea of this t’shuvah [rabbinic ruling]
is that the use of fire in a car’s engine is not melacha – again,
defined as purposeful exertion towards changing the world in some
material way- at least not as the Torah itself understood it.

The authors came to these conclusions in order to encourage people to
get to synagogue if they lived far away, which is a great goal, but
nevertheless, the plain meaning of our verse is that fire is not part
of Shabbat. Yes, many will drive to synagogue because it’s too far to
walk, but perhaps the ideal of a Shabbat close to the earth- a Shabbat
practice which makes one feel the heat of summer and cold of winter
while walking under the sky- is worthwhile to remember. Not lighting
fires- including engines- might mean more walking, and simpler meals,
and a calmer way of being, at least once a week, all of which are part
of making Shabbat not just restful, but holy.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Ki Tissa: Foundations and Walls

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

Regardless of the local weather, all over the world this week’s Torah
portion is Ki Tissa, which contains the story of the Golden Calf and
many subsequent injunctions against idolatry in all its forms-
including even having treaties with the “idolatrous” nations that
Israel will encounter when it gets to the Promised Land:

“Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land against
which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst. . . ”
(Shmot/Exodus 34:12)

Based on this passage- which, depending on how you read it, goes up
till verse 15 or so- the ancient rabbis banned certain kinds of
commerce with non-Jews, with the reasoning being that:

1) some of what might be purchased could have been intended for
idolatrous sacrifices, and

2) if Israelites ate and drank the foods of the local “idolaters,” it
could lead to such social friendliness that intermarriage and a
weakening of loyalty to the God of Israel would result.

Among the items produced by non-Jews which were banned by the ancient
rabbis was wine, which they understood to be often used in offerings
and sacrifices to pagan deities. This led them to prohibit “yayin
neshech,” or “wine of libation,” very strictly- that is, any wine
which could possibly have been produced with religious rites in mind.

Going a step further, a more general (and slightly less strict)
prohibition was put on “stam yaynam,” that is, “regular wine” made
outside the Jewish community. Wine that is “mevushal,” which means
cooked or boiled, was considered unfit for ritual use, and is thus
permitted in some situations where other wines would be prohibited.
For example, many strictly observant Jews will not drink wine that has
been sold or even handled by non-Jews, but in some cases if the wine
is “mevushal” it can be bought in an ordinary liquor store or

Thus we get from a verse in this week’s Torah portion which seems to
prohibit making treaties with surrounding nations to that square
bottle of sweet Manischewitz “wine” (Chianti Classico it’s not) which
you may have encountered at a synagogue, Shabbat table or Passover
seder. (I should note here that I’m following Sefer HaHinnuch, a
medieval textbook on the commandments, which does however point out
that some major scholars see the prohibition on the wine of non-Jews
coming out of a verse in Deuteronomy.)

So far, so good- except for the fact that in this instance, the social
context of the halacha makes all the difference in the world. (Once
again, I think I just summed up Conservative Judaism.) Reasonable
people can and do differ on how best to strengthen the Jewish
community, but I personally cannot believe that regarding our
neighbors as “idolaters” is the best way to do so. We live in a world
where the Jewish community stands in religious solidarity with
Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other people of good faith
in coalitions which support social justice and a compassionate
society- can we really lobby, march, or pray with our neighbors one
day and the next day think that drinking their wine will fatally
weaken our Judaism?

Thus, the Conservative Movement has embraced the possibility of a more
lenient stance on the kosher status of wine (while at the same time
pointing out that some wines, especially European ones, can be “fined”
with animal or dairy ingredients, which is a totally different problem
in keeping kosher.) Our teacher Rabbi Elliott Dorff has argued that
the prohibition on “stam yaynam” could be discontinued in a
pluralistic society where most wine is made by large corporations,
unconnected to any religious practice or community at all. I certainly
agree with R. Dorff’s perspective (which is more nuanced than I can
describe in a few words) and I might go even further to say that
traditional practices which depend on a suspicious view of our
neighbors demand moral scrutiny as a general principle.

To put it another way, there are very good reasons to keep kosher, but
a fear that in purchasing wine, one is being tempted to idolatry, or
supporting it in some way, is not, to me, one of them. It is certainly
a great idea to buy Israeli wines to show connection to and support of
Israel, but that is a positive perspective, not one based on fear or

Rejecting idolatry isn’t only about looking at what’s out there in the
world; it’s also about looking within, and uprooting from within
traditional teachings any residual xenophobia from earlier periods of
Jewish history. I believe the prohibition on the wine of non-Jews
falls in that category, and I encourage those reading this to study
the issue further. Conservative Judaism has always seen traditional
practices in the light of evolving knowledge and social perspectives-
let’s drink to that!

Shabbat Shalom,


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Tetzaveh: Discernment and Reason

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh

Your bleary-eyed commentator has just returned from the
Rabbinical Assembly convention in Washington, D.C., which, except for
an ice-storm mishap or two, was a good few days of learning and
hearing interesting things from interesting people, including some
high governmental officials. The most prominent person who addressed
the Assembly was the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts,
who spoke only briefly, but who did in the course of his comments
compare the work of a judge to the ancient leadership model found in
this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh. (Somebody on his staff must have
a good working knowledge of Conservative Judaism, because he mentioned
Louis Finkelstein and Solomon Schechter, too.)

Among other comparisons, Justice Roberts noted that Aharon, the
ancient High Priest, had recourse to a way of divining God’s will in
matters of where judgment was difficult:

“You shall place the Urim and the Tummim into the choshen of judgment
so that they will be over Aharon’s heart when he comes before the
Lord, and Aharon will carry the judgment of the Israelites over his
heart before the Lord at all times.” (Shmot/ Exodus 28:30)

Scholars disagree about what exactly the “urim and tummim” were, or
what they looked like, or how they were placed in the breastplate of
the High Priest, or how they were used, but the general idea is that
they were small objects which when used in a certain way revealed
Divine truth- they were a kind of oracle for tough cases. Justice
Roberts noted that today, judges do not have and cannot claim Divine
truth and therefore must be exceedingly careful in their reasoning and
research. Presumably, there is no other way to render judgment in a
secular and pluralist society.

I appreciate his point, and would agree that even in religious
matters, the human judge must not claim perfect understanding of the
Divine will, but must instead make a well-reasoned case based on
precedent, context, and evaluation of our best current knowledge. (I
think I just gave you a shorthand definition of Conservative Judaism.)
Yet as a matter of religious perspective, I would not agree that there
is an ontological distinction between human reason and “revelation” of
spiritual truth. We certainly don’t have anything like the “urim and
tummim” anymore, yet reason itself is often understood as the meaning
of “tzelem Elohim,” or being created in the Divine Image.

When human beings sit down to humbly deliberate, and use the gift of
rationality to inquire into important questions, and bring various
disciplines (including religious values and traditional teachings)
into the process of discernment, then I would argue that we are, in
fact, engaged in a process of ongoing revelation. We may not have the
utter certainty that Aharon did when he consulted the “urim and
tummim,” but the gift of reason is no less a gift from God, and no
less a part of a mature religious perspective.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Terumah: The Path of Gratitude

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah

It’s been a week of surprises, what with the Super Bowl
and the election results and all that, but on the other hand, the
Torah portion Terumah follows the portion Mishpatim, every year, you
can count on it. In fact, the portion Terumah begins a major shift in
the focus of the book of Shmot/Exodus, from the story of the
Israelites leaving Egypt to the many details of building the Mishkan,
or portable Sanctuary. Because we no longer have a Mishkan, or its
successor institution, the Mikdash [Temple] in Jerusalem , there are
many mitzvot [commandments] in this and the following Torah portions
which are no longer operative.

On the other hand, we can still gain insight into contemporary
practice from the commentary on these mitzvot, some of which are
evoked in spirit even if we can’t actually do them as intended in a
central place of worship. For example, in this week’s portion we read
about the “lechem panim,” or “showbread,” which were 12 loaves set on
a table in the Mishkan and left on display from Shabbat to Shabbat.
(Cf. Shmot/Exodus 25:30.)

Low-carb diets notwithstanding, various commentators explain the
lechem panim as a way to remind the Israelites to be grateful for
their own bread, seen as the paradigmatic blessing as the staple of
life. Abravanel links the “showbread” to the manna, the miraculous
food from heaven, which is itself a symbol of blessing and abundance.
To be grateful for one’s bread was to inculcate a general orientation
towards gratitude and thanksgiving- it was a path towards wonder at
the fact that we can be sustained from the earth.

We no longer have a Mishkan, but we do retain the practice of bringing
two whole loaves to a Shabbat or holiday table and starting a meal
with the blessing of gratitude for bread, which then includes any
other food we might eat afterwards. One commentator, quoted in Chill’s
The Mitzvot, compares our home tables to the altar of the Mishkan, and
says that just as the lechem panim- the “showbread”- was an offering
to God, our home tables are also places where offerings to God are
made, and this is the food we share with the poor.

Giving thanks for our bread helps us be continually conscious of our
dependence on the good Earth we are blessed to live on, and also helps
us to remember that while bread may be a simple meal, there are those
who are crying out for even that. To be grateful is to be humble, and
to remember that our needs are simpler than we usually imagine, and
that we are given only to be able to share- and for these, we don’t
need a Mishkan, just an open heart.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mishpatim: Separating and Mindfulness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

It’s almost Super Bowl Sunday, and after that, Super
Tuesday, and yet before either of these events, oh my goodness do we
have a super Torah portion to study together. That parshah is
“Mishpatim,” which means “laws,” and for the most part, the portion is
concerned with laws for a just and fair society. There are, however, a
few laws concerning ritual and religious practice, including laws
about agricultural products:

“The choicest of the first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the
house of the Lord, your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s
milk.” (Shmot/Exodus 23:19)

Many who learn Torah even occasionally know that the traditional
separation of meat and milk products derives from “you shall not cook
a kid in its mother’s milk,” but it’s less well known that:

1) The first time this idea appears it seems to be connected to
agricultural thanksgiving in the Temple, and

2) “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” actually appears
three separate times in the Torah: as above, plus Shmot 34:26 and
D’varim/Deutoronomy 14:21.

Because “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” appears three times
in the Torah, the ancient rabbis assumed that each appearance of the
text taught something new and different from the other, similar
verses. Thus, we learn that not only are we not to eat milk and meat
together, but we are also not to cook milk and meat together, nor
derive any benefit from a mixture of milk and meat. To put it another
way, each time this idea appears it teaches something new: don’t eat
the cheeseburger, don’t cook the cheeseburger, and don’t profit from
the cheeseburger (and never mind the Pepsi or the chips.)

The actual practice of separating milk and meat is a skill learned and
applied over time, but for today, suffice it to say that milk and meat
foods are typically prepared and served on separate utensils, and a
waiting period is also observed between eating dairy and meat,
especially if the meat comes first. (That’s a longer discussion we’ll
have another time.)

OK, I can just feel many among the loyal readers of rabbineal-list
thinking “uh, WHY exactly does the Torah prohibit this? I mean, what’s
so bad about cheeseburgers?” (Especially if you get them from the
Olympia Cafe . . . )

Much has been written to answer this question, and below you’ll find
links to some good discussions of the classic interpretation.
Unfortunately, the Torah itself does not tell us why we should not
cook a kid in its mother’s milk, nor does the Torah itself offer the
understanding that this is a wider concept. Yet along with the typical
interpretations having to do with consciousness of our blessings, or
practicing holiness in our eating, or kindness to animals, I
personally see this traditional practice as connected to the ancient
Temple offerings- after all, both bringing “first fruits” and not
cooking the kid are taught in what became (in post-Biblical scriptural
enumeration) one verse.

To me, the idea of bringing “first fruits” and other offerings to the
ancient Temple was a ritual enactment of a basic spiritual
orientation: the world and its blessings do not belong to us, but
rather, we are tenants upon the land and thus when we take for
ourselves, we do so with humility and restraint. Bringing the
agricultural offerings was a practice of living humbly upon the Earth-
we are not to take and consume everything all the time, but rather we
should be ever more aware that our needs are less than our wants.

Separating milk and meat teaches the same truth: that we are not put
on this earth merely to consume, nor only for fleeting pleasures, but
to serve. A practice of restraint and mindfulness in our eating
teaches us to make other things more important- and they are!
Cheeseburgers are not a moral evil, but they’re also not the most
important thing in life, and Judaism says: if you can inculcate
awareness and self-limiting in your eating and other ways of
consuming, you can find within yourselves greater reservoirs of
gratitude and giving. Seen this way, the dietary disciplines of
Judaism are practical meditations: the way we eat reflects our values,
and orients our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,


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