What is the role of fiction in holocaust education? While some argue that fiction and literature have no place at all, one could make a case that The Diary of Anne Frank has done more to cement the lessons of the Holocaust in the minds of real people than any number of documentaries and studies. Art, literature, and film play the same role for civilizations as dreams do for individuals; they allow us to integrate our experiences and learn from them. They allow us not just to remember what happened but to be changed by it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Imagine that the earth was going to be destroyed within five years, and that you were tasked with deciding what literary treasures to preserve? That is the background of the Tanakh that we have today. The Talmud records the bare bones of discussions where scholars fought for the inclusion of those writings that were dear to them, often against ferocious opposition from their colleagues. Amazingly, of all the possible things to include, the famous Rabbi Akiva chose a collection of bawdy wedding songs! What lay behind such an odd choice?
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.
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.
Sukkot is called by our sages “The Time of our Joy” ( זמן שמחתינו ). While other holidays are said to be times of joy as well, Sukkot is singled out in particular by the Torah (D’varim 16:15): “You shall be altogether/only joyful.” (והיית אך שמח) But can we ever be “altogether” joyful? Is there […]
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!”