February 2009

Shabbat: Parsha Terumah

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19. This parsha isn't a very active one. It describes, down to the smallest detail, how the Israelites are supposed to build the Ark of the Covenant. God's specifications are exact and extremely demanding, especially for a nation of people who are wandering around in the desert. But then again, that's basically the point. As is often the case in the Torah, it is the unwritten that is the most important. The Torah is, after all, a living document. It isn't meant to sit like a piece of religious decor, it is meant to be interacted with. That's why we read it every week and that's why it's imperative that we ask questions. The question that springs to mind when reading Terumah is this: If the Israelites are still in the wilderness and God demands that the Ark be made out of every kind of finery imaginable, where are the Israelites supposed to get these materials? That's when we need to look back to an earlier parsha.

Person of the Week: Maimonides

Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. We're going to be taking a break from Wednesday Hebrew to make room for a new feature, Person of the Week. Each week, we will be learning about an individual who contributed greatly to the Jewish world. To start things off, I can think of no person more fitting for this blog than the scholar Maimonides. Maimonides was a 12th century Talmudic sage who operated exclusively in Muslim-controlled territories of Europe and Northern Africa. Like many scholars of his time, he is referred to by a Greek name (Maimonides) thanks to the pervasiveness of neo-classical ideals and fashions. In his time, however, he would have gone by any number of other names, depending on his surrounding community. His Hebrew name is Moshe ben Ma'imon, meaning "Moses, son of Ma'imon". He also would have been known by the very exact, honorific-laden Arabic name Abu Imran Mussa bin Maimun ibn Abdallah al-Qurtubi al-Israili.

Shabbat: Parsha Mishpatim

Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is parsha Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18. Last week we saw the first of many Torah portions that deal with the establishment of the law for the new Israelite nation. Much of this week's parsha focuses on expanding upon those initial laws, from what to do in specific instances to what punishments should result from breaking the law. In regard to that last point, Mishpatim has a famous passage. Many people have heard the expression, "Eye for an eye" in regard to retribution for wrongdoing. This phrase has come to have a connotation of revenge, even vindictiveness, in our modern society. The original meaning of the phrase couldn't be farther from that sentiment. The full passage actually begins by talking about what should be done about violence that causes a pregnant woman to miscarry.

Wednesday Hebrew: The Names of God

Last Wednesday we explored the history of biblical translation as it began in Greek-occupied Alexandria, Egypt. One of the more confounding aspects of translating the Torah is the fact that there are numerous names for Judaism's one God. In the early days of translation and interpretation, this caused no small amount of confusion. Some of those names refer to aspects of God, like strength or healing, while others are poetic metaphors, like father or king. There are too many names of God in the Torah to simply list them here, but we will be looking at some of the more commonly used variations, as well as some of the unusual or unique names. The simplest and likely the oldest Hebrew name for God is El. This term can be traced to the Northwest regions of Semitic-language use near the dawn of civilization. Cultures pre-dating Judaism used the term in reference to their own gods, specifically in reference to divine might and power. When Arabic-speaking people adopted Islam they also adopted a cognate of El, the very well-known Allah. In order to distinguish their El from the gods of other peoples, Hebrew-speakers developed the term Elohim.

Shabbat: Parsha Yitro

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23. This parsha is short, but there are two good reasons for this. First, the episode in next week's parsha must stand on its own (we'll see why next week) and second, there are two very important things that happen in Yitro. The more obvious of the two is the giving of the Ten Mitzvot. Remember, we won't be referring to them as "Commandments" here, as we discussed in a previous post. But before we get to the Mitzvot, there is an interesting and arguably more important scene between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro, for whom the parsha is named. As the Israelites travel farther from Egypt they end up in Midian, which is where Moses lived after being banished from Egypt for killing a task master. In Midian, Jethro still lives and takes care of Moses's wife Zapporah and their two sons. Moses and Jethro have a happy reunion and basically catch up with one another. I'm a big fan of scenes like this. The Torah frequently features family reunions.

Wednesday Hebrew: Notes on Translation

Several times now, I have made reference to the difficulty of directly translating Hebrew into English. This problem has resulted in centuries of debate over the exact meaning of many passages from the Torah. This is not an issue confined to any one religion. Modern Jews who have little to no training in Hebrew, Toritic or otherwise, often approach scripture from the same angle as Christians who only have the Old Testament in their regional vulgate. So, why is Hebrew difficult to translate and why are there so many discrepancies between the many versions of the same passages? The story begins in Alexandria, Egypt circa 300 BCE. At this time, the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon spread throughout the Mediterranean region, including the former Egyptian Empire. After Alexander's death, Egypt came under the control the Ptolemy line, maintaining a decidedly Greek influence in the area, including the Greek language. Alexandria was the home to The Great Library, a collection of texts that was, at the time, unrivaled the world over.

Shabbat: Parsha Beshalach

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is parsha Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16. Often times when modern people reach this part of the Torah they recoil at the sudden appearance of war in this tale of redemption. Without the context of life in the ancient Near and Middle East, this uneasiness with bloody conflict is understandable. Unfortunate though it may be, it has always been an essential aspect of nation building for a people to prove their ability to defend themselves from attackers. Still to this day, even those organizations ostensibly concerned with fostering peace make provisions about war. The United Nations has a list of criteria for those who want to claim themselves a sovereign nation. One criterion is that the nation demonstrate a capability to defend itself from foreign threats. As the Israelites leave Egypt, they are immediately faced with just such an issue. When Moses leads his people from Egypt, the pharaoh attempts to recapture them one last time. This is the famous scene at the Red Sea.

Wednesday Hebrew: Jerusalem

There is perhaps no city on Earth more mythic in emotional scale or more torn by conflict than Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, having been dated to as early as 4000 BCE. Next to Byblos in Lebanon, Jerusalem may be the oldest continually inhabited city in human history. It has been destroyed twice, once by the Babylonian Empire and then by the Roman Empire. It has been under seige, captured, recaptured and otherwise fought over hundreds of times. This makes the origin of its name tragically ironic. At the root of Jerusalem's Hebrew name, Yerushalayim, are three letters. They are Shin, Lamed and Mem. In all semitic languages, that root pattern and its cousins have the same connotation. Shalom, Salaam, peace. There are many early references to the city of Jerusalem. Biblically, the first mention of it is in the book of Genesis, chapter 33. As part of his travels, the patriarch Jacob journeys to a country called Shachem, specifically to a city called Shalem.