Archive for August, 2008

Re’eh: Do Not Add To The Torah!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

We’re blessed in the Hudson Valley with wonderful
seasonal farmer’s markets, and perhaps that’s why twice this week I’ve
gotten questions about strawberries and Orthodox rabbis. It’s not
actually strawberry season anymore but apparently a group of rabbis in
London banned strawberries altogether due to the possible presence of
tiny insects in the berries, and this has caused a bit of a kerfuffle
in the Jewish world and appeared in various news outlets. (See link
below.)

Now, you might think I’m bringing up the Great Strawberry Controversy
because we have a review of the laws of kashrut [kosher or dietary
laws] in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. (Cf. D’varim/ Deuteronomy
14). While it’s certainly true that eating insects (with a few
exceptions) is prohibited as not kosher (cf. Vayikra/Leviticus 11),
it’s also true that for the great majority of Jewish history, we have
eaten common fruits and vegetables without too much worry about things
we can’t see. That is, after washing the fruits or vegetables, there
may in fact be teeny little bugs not dislodged by the water, but if
they’re so small as to be not visible to the eye (of a person with
normal eyesight), then they are consider as not there, in terms of
kosher observance.

I’m actually not bringing this example to teach about kashrut, per se,
but about another mitzvah of the Torah found in this week’s Parsha:

“Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add
to it nor take away from it.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 13:1)

We have a mitzvah, a commandment, not to add nor subtract anything
from the Torah as it is interpreted by the ancient sages. According to
Sefer HaHinnuch [the medieval “Book of Education”] this means we can’t
make up a new mitzvah or do a mitzvah in a completely new way beyond
what is prescribed. For example, waving a lulav at a time other than
Sukkot, or sitting in a Sukkah after the holiday, or adding extra
scrolls to one’s tefillin [phylacteries]- these are all examples of
“adding to the Torah,” and are thus actually forbidden.

However, according to the traditional understanding, developing deeper
or more intense ways of doing a mitzvah is not considered “adding to
the Torah.” So blowing the Shofar extra times on Rosh Hashana (another
example given) might be burdensome, but it’s not a violation of “do
not add.” Our Conservative commentary, Etz Hayim, in a comment on
D’varim 4:2, describes what is prohibited as “quantitative” (doing
something on a different day, for example) rather than “qualitative”
changes (doing something the ordinary way but more intensely, perhaps.)

OK, so far, what I’ve described is the traditional way of
understanding the commandment not to add anything to the Torah. Yet to
me, I think this idea describes a sensibility, a spiritual
orientation, as much as parameters for determining practice. I think
“neither add to it nor take away from it” is also about crafting a
Jewish life within the “golden mean” of rigorous but non-obsessive
religious practice.

In other words- and here’s where the strawberries come in- one of the
great things about Judaism is that almost every mitzvah currently
practiced can actually be fulfilled in a way that is observable and
practical. We do not, in fact, have to obsess over little bugs too
small for the naked eye. We do not have to say “Shma” a hundred or a
thousand times a day- twice is plenty! Our job is not to “add to the
Torah” by thinking of new ways to be stringent, but to live a life
balanced by the three modalities of Jewish spirituality: Torah, avodah
[prayer and ritual], and gemilut hasadim [acts of compassion.] If only
one part of Judaism is emphasized, (a way of “adding to the Torah”),
one might miss out on the other two.

If some Jews don’t want to eat strawberries, it’s OK with me- more for
the rest of us, I say!
According to the traditional understanding of “not adding to the
Torah,” the non-strawberry-eating Jews aren’t adding but merely being
cautious with an existing practice. Yet I think they miss the point of
our verse- which is that religion as a discipline also includes the
discipline of moderation. A Judaism which is defined by how many
things it says “no” to is hardly a Judaism which is all about “choose
life!”

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Ekev: Loving the Stranger

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Ekev, which is a long
peroration from Moshe on how the Israelites must be loyal to Torah and
covenant when they arrive in the Land of Israel.

Among the praises of God that Moshe recounts is God’s special concern
for those in society who don’t fit easily into a patriarchal,
clan-based society:

“[God] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and
befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. — You
too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of
Egypt.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

The JPS translation above is “you too must befriend the stranger,” but
a more literal translation is: you must love the stranger, or “ger,”
which in its Biblical context means someone living among you who is
not an Israelite citizen. The ancient sages understood “ger” as a
convert to Judaism, and thus Sefer HaHinnuch (the medieval textbook of
commandments) understands this as a separate mitzvah to love and treat
kindly and fully accept any converts in our communities. (This alone
proves that Judaism is not an ethnicity, nor a race, but a people,
which one can join.)

Sefer HaHinnuch points out that we already have a commandment to “love
your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which would include the
convert, but posits that we have an extra obligation to love those who
voluntarily join our communities, because they have chosen a path
which may cause them to be separated, in some way, from their families
and communities of origin.

Not only that, but in a very interesting way, Sefer HaHinnuch takes
the original meaning of the verse- love the stranger or non-citizen in
your midst- and adduces it as an additional meaning of this
commandment on top of the normative interpretation, that of loving,
accepting, and being kind to converts. The language is quite beautiful
(taken from the Feldheim translation but made a bit more gender neutral):

“It is for us to learn from this precious mitzvah to take pity on any
person who is in a town or city that is not their native ground and
the place of their ancestors. Let us maltreat him any any way, finding
him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him- just as we
see that the Torah commands us to have compassion on anyone who needs
help.”

Returning to the verse above, we see an exhortation to remember that
we were once in the land of Egypt- that is, far from home, alone,
anxious- and this memory is the source of our compassion. The mitzvah
of loving the “ger” is a mitzvah of becoming more conscious of the
circumstances of people who may not feel fully part of our
communities. It is a commandment to remember any time that any one of
us has ever felt left out, or like we didn’t fit it (I can remember
this from junior high school, for sure, and it was painful ) and using
those memories to connect with those for whom is it is a present
reality right in front of us. In this way, loving the stranger means
recognizing that they are not so strange or alien after all.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Va’etchanan: Learning and Teaching

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

It’s a beautiful summer day and I have good news for you: by the very
act of reading this email you are fulfilling a mitzvah straight from
this week’s Torah portion!

Which mitzvah, you might ask?

The mitzvah of Torah study, which [according to Sefer HaHinnuch, the
book of commandments we’ve been quoting a lot recently] is derived
from a rather well-known verse in this week’s portion, Va’etchanan.
The verse in question appears as part of the first paragraph of the
prayer known as “Shma,” which tells us to:

“impress [these words] upon your children, recite them when you stay
at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.
. . . ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 6:7)

Although the general idea of learning and studying Torah is stated or
implied else where in D’varim, the rabbis see the mitzvah of “teaching
your children” including the act of study- because if you do not
study, how can you teach? There’s even an interpretation that
“children” here actually means “students,” because students are called
“children” in this regard.

So this is interesting: Torah study, which in some ways is the
foundational spiritual practice of the Jewish religion, is actually
derived from a verse which speaks of teaching, not learning. [Please
note, “Torah” is to be understood not in the narrow sense, as the five
first books of the Bible, but in its broadest sense, as Jewish sacred
teaching or text.]

We are not all teachers professionally, but if every Jew has the
obligation to learn in order to teach, that seems to me to be a large
principle upon which we should base our conception of religious
community. Too often, Jewish teaching is left to professionals, but
the Torah itself reminds us that each of us has the obligation to
share what we can, if not in words, then in ritual or compassionate
action. We study not only to solve intellectual puzzles inside our
private minds, but so that we can each be a living testimony to the
power of Judaism to heal the world- and each of us can be a teacher to
others, if we discover our gifts and bring them forth in the context
of spiritual community.

The mitzvah of study is not only about passing something on to
somebody else; it’s about learning how to be more powerful spiritual
personalities. That is why Torah study – in books, in classes, on the
internet, podcasts, you name it – is a foundational commandment:
because it helps us become more ourselves by sharing with others.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Devarim

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

So much going on the the world! The Olympics, the U.S. elections, the
Israeli leadership transitions. . . and, of course, we’re starting to
read the book of D’varim, or Deuteronomy (the “second telling”), the
final book of the Torah. D’varim is essentially a long speech from
Moshe to the Israelites about where they’ve been and what they’ve done
and what they ought to do going forward. Included in his review is a
retelling of the appointment of judges from way back in the beginning
of Moshe’s leadership:

“I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, ‘Hear out your
fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite
or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and
high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s. And any matter that is
too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.’
“(D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:16-17)

A more in-depth look at this passage would compare it to Exodus 18,
where the appointment of judges and the qualifications for the office
are described a bit differently, but let’s leave that for another
time. Today’s question is this: if the judges are given a clear
command to hear all persons fairly, why do they need a second
imperative to “fear no man?” Isn’t it enough to command the judges to
judge all people fairly- doesn’t that imply that they must not kowtow
to the powerful or strong?

By now anybody who’s smart enough to subscribe to rabbineal-list is
detecting a rhetorical question, and indeed, it’s precisely because
those few words “fear no man” seem to convey a separate thought that
the ancient rabbis enumerated a separate mitzvah based upon them.
Sefer HaHinnuch, the medieval textbook of the commandments, says that
“not fearing any man” means that even if the judge is worried that an
evil defendant will kill him or burn down his crops, he still must
rule in accordance with the law and not be intimidated.

The Sefer HaHinnuch brings another example: if a student is present
when the teacher is deciding a case, and the student sees that the
poor man is right and the rich man is wrong, the student must speak
up, even in front of his teacher, and not be intimidated by either his
master nor the litigant.

OK, so far, so good, but given that most of us aren’t banging gavels
and wearing robes, how does this mitzvah apply? To me, the mitzvah is
about having the courage of our convictions despite the potential
unpleasantness of outcomes. When we know- not guess – that a situation
is unjust or unfair, we are called upon not to hold back our voice
from fear. There might be other reasons to be judicious- such as the
desire to preserve human dignity- but it’s important to note that a
religious life is not necessarily one of meek piety in all things.
Sometimes to have faith means to be brave, to take a “leap of action”,
as Heschel put it, or to “fear no man,” – or person- as Moshe
commanded the judges.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Masei: Slowing Our Anger

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Masei

This week’s portion, Masei, describes the places that the Israelites
camped on their way to the Land, and concludes with the laws of the
“cities of refuge,” which were to be established once they actually
settled there. These cities were places where people who had committed
accidental manslaughter could flee and be safe from blood avengers
from the victim’s family. However, the ancient rabbis learn an
important detail from a verse which at first seems to merely recap the
main ideas:

“The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the
manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.”
(Bamidbar/ Numbers 35:12)

According to Sefer HaHinnuch, a textbook of the commandments, this
verse teaches us that no person could be put to death unless they had
the benefit of a proper trial. Even if a crowd of people had seen the
crime, nobody was to receive punishment unless all exonerating
circumstances and laws had been considered by wise and dispassionate
judges.

On a social level, this understanding fits well with the Torah’s
overall ideas of justice, which require deliberation and fairness to
enact. Yet on a more personal level, we could understand this mitzvah-
not to punish without trial- as teaching us to quiet our anger and
seek to understand all sides in a conflict. Anger is easy and leads to
thoughts (or actions) of vengeance, but revenge always presumes that
the avenger is totally right- whereas in most situations of conflict,
a bit of humility leads to the desire to understand the situation from
all perspectives.

That is, we ought not punish someone before the “trial,” or the
conversation in which we hope to see the best in others, if at all
possible, and strive for the as much reconciliation as we can. This is
not easy, but it does bring more understanding into the world, which,
with grace, brings about forgiving where otherwise there might be anger.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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