One of the most quoted Talmudic stories is the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai, the story of a debate between the famous R’ Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the one side and the rest of the sages of Israel on the other side. This is the story of a dramatic upheaval in the Jewish world, whose echoes continue to reverberate down through the centuries to the present day.
Meetings at the well
Yaakov meets the daughter of his mother’s brother at the well, and falls in love with her. What is it about wells that makes them the vehicle for matchmaking? The obvious explanation is that the village well is the community’s vital center—the place where people meet and mingle on a daily basis. Really the question isn’t why wells play so prominent a role in matchmaking, but why the Torah bothers to tell us something so obvious.
Tu B’Av – What is love
Tonight marks the holiday of Tu B’Av, commonly thought of as Israel’s answer to Valentine’s Day, the holiday of love. Ironically the most famous Torah verse of all occurs in this week’s parashah: the V’Ahavta—the statement of Israel’s obligations to love God “with all your heart, and all your might, and all your soul”. This paragraph stands at the very heart of Jewish liturgy. But what can it mean to “love God”? After all, the Torah reinforces again and again that God is incorporeal and totally above anything we can imagine. How are we to love something we can’t imagine? It turns out, this week’s Torah portion offers us some useful advice on maintaining a lasting relationship.
Whoopi Goldberg and the Jewish Question
The recent kerfuffle around Whoopi Goldberg has once again ignited the perennial debate about whether the Jewish people constitute a race. The problem is that such distinctions are modern social constructs, and were invented long after the Jewish people came into being. Jews are not so much a race or a religion, but a civilization—a culture. As a culture, Judaism has its own laws, folk tales, myths, songs, and several similar—but not necessarily identical—religions. We’re a people, and any attempt to fit us into the little boxes designed for and by Western societies is destined to fail.
HaRav Adin Steinsaltz: A place at the four dimensional table
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz saw his mission as nothing less than bringing the Talmud back to the people. Jewish law is meant to be democratic, but only informed citizens can vote? Then, let’s make sure every citizen is an informed citizen! Or at least, let’s make it possible for any citizen who wants to become informed to do so. This is the basis for his decision to translate the Aramaic portions of the Talmud into ordinary Hebrew (the modern equivalent of Aramaic for Israeli Jews) and then into English. His motto was “Let my people know!”
It is not in Heaven: Musings on the Meaning of Torah min Shamayim
Does Bible Criticism undermine faith? I would argue that, if understood correctly, it has the potential to strengthen it! We can try to peer back into history to see the stages of the Torah’s development without in any way detracting from its divine origin. The idea that the incredibly meaningful work that we have today may have been the end result of centuries of development only heightens the wonder. Certainly it doesn’t lessen it. If anything, it makes it seem even more miraculous, that out of all the possible things that might have gone in, just the right bits did make it into the mix, in just the right proportions to create the multi-layered text that we have today.
Eshet Yifat Toar: Some thoughts on a shocking legal ruling
It’s been suggested that the Torah sets out a direction for societal development, pointing the way toward desired reforms, and that in each generation, scholars and governments have worked to continue this line of evolution. One such “signpost” put up by the Torah to show us how our legal systems should evolve is the Eshet Yiffat Toar—the beautiful woman taken in war.
Parashat Terumah – Mind the Gap!
Parashat Terumah is the first of several dealing with the construction of the Mishkan, where the priests would make sacrifice upon a great bronze-clad altar. And yet, only two weeks ago, at the end of parashat Yitro, we read a very different set of instructions: “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it … ” How are we to reconcile the need for this elaborate structure to house God’s presence with the instructions to worship Him using a simple altar of earth? In attempting to reconcile these two very different types of encounter, it may be helpful to look at what comes in between.
Parashat Beshalach: Of Miracles and Folly
In Parashat Beshalah, the Israelites are finally freed from slavery in Egypt. But neither the nation of Egypt nor the house of Israel is ready for the events now unfolding. The Israelites, having lived in slavery all their lives, were naturally fearful of freedom. It makes sense then, that they would need to be rescued against their will. The Egyptians, meanwhile, have reason to feel even more overwhelmed than the Israelites; they have been caught up in a process in which each ill-concieved decision breeds another calamity, and yet, they can find no way out of the cycle. How do we reconcile this seeming lack of free will with the Torah’s usual insistence that humans are free to choose?
Back into the Light: The March Jewish Book Carnival
Spring has officially sprung here in Israel and the hills are alive with wildflowers. We’re beginning to venture out in public again after a long and strange year! So to ease back into what passes for normal, here are some literary recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere.
Drinking Coffee with the Rambam: A review of Judaism Reclaimed
Here I review a remarkable book called Judaism Reclaimed by Shmuel Phillips, which has furnished me with food for thought for the past year. Based loosely on Parashat Hashavua (the weekly Torah reading), the book is actually a philosophical examination of Jewish thought and theology.
Book Musings: Devorah Steinmetz, Punishment & Freedom
In the course of my research for Havruta with a One-Eyed Cat, I’ll be reading a variety of books on topics ranging from Talmud to mathematical logic. Here are some musings on this week’s book: Devora Steinmetz’s Freedom & Punishment, a veritable treasure of Halakhic insight.
Havruta with a One-Eyed Cat
Credit, Hope, and the Law of Conservation of Good
What does extending credit have to do with the evolution of sentient life? And what does either concept have to do with karma and conservation laws? The answer depends on whether your interlocutor is a cat.
Of Property Law & Mortality: Pixel on Bava Batra 29a
With a single line of commentary, a discussion in the Talmud about property law suddenly becomes a glimpse into time, eternity, and mortality. And what better discussion partner for such things than a cat?
Pessachim 10a and Quantum Uncertainty
Pessachim 10a deals with questions of doubt and the limitations of knowledge. Trust a one-eyed cat to explain how these questions are answered by quantum mechanics.