May 2009

Shabbat: Parsha Naso

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Shavuot Tov, and Welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89.

Naso picks up where last week's parsha left off. God instructs Moses to continue assigning tasks to specific subsets of the Levite tribe. The Levite men between the ages of 30-50 are divided up by their home region of Egypt and given particular elements of the Tabernacle to guard and carry. Later the parsha names and enumerates the key individuals involved.

There are two very strange parts of this parsha that come in between the segments about the Levites. One is the center of an ongoing Talmudic debate, the other is often (in my opinion, incorrectly) dismissed as archaic superstition. Unfortunately, I only have space to address one of these things, so I'm going to go for the more flashy one. So, let's jump right in.


This week, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. This holy observance commemorates the time when the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is not as well-known in the non-Jewish world as holidays like Channukah and Passover, but it is still a very important day in Judaism.

Shavuot, a Hebrew word literally meaning "Weeks" is one of the few festivals explicitly described in the Five Books of Moses. It falls on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. The term "Weeks" refers to the days in between the first night of Passover and Shavuot which are counted by a special calendar called the Omer. This calendar marks 49 days, with the 50th being Shavuot.

Person of the Week: Perry Farrell

When people think of rock and roll, they usually don't think of Jewish culture, but they should. Like all other areas of show business, Jews have had a significant impact in the development of the art and business of rock, and of pop music as a whole. Indeed some of the most influential performers, producers and promoters come from Jewish backgrounds. Many of them end up adopting stage names to hide the heritage that may distract from their talents, an unfortunately necessary tradition as old as show business itself.

In the 1990's, no Jewish rock musician had a greater impact than Perry Farrell. He was born Peretz Bernstein in Queens, New York in 1959. In 1962, Ferrell's mother took her own life. His family would later move to Miami, Florida. Young Peretz grew up listening to the revolutionary rock of David Bowie and The Velvet Underground, the musical pioneers of the 1970's. From them he adopted a sense of theatrics and high-energy performance.

Shabbat: Parsha Behar-Bechukotai

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34.

This is what I like to refer to as a "loaded" parsha. There's a lot of great content here, most of it entirely new. While Leviticus is mostly concerned with laying out laws and reiterating important concepts, this particular reading gets to the core of Jewish philosophy.

The first big thing in this parsha is the law of Jubilee. This is one of the most interesting, curious practices mentioned in the Torah. Put simply, the Jubilee is a divine decree that every fifty years all of society will essentially reboot. Debts will be forgiven, servants will be released from their bonds, property may return to its original owner and grudges must be dropped. It's a sort of super-sabbath, a giant sigh that affords all people, regardless of station, a chance at renewal.

Person of the Week: Tamar Manasseh

When I was 16 years old, I attended religion school at my synagogue for the Confirmation-level class, basically the "senior year" of a Jewish education. My father taught Confirmation and always capped every year with a class trip to a city with Judaic significance. Most Confirmation classes end up going to Washington D.C. or New York City, but my class took an unusual trip to Chicago, Illinois. Why Chicago? Why not? It's home to a number of historic synagogues, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies and its connected museum, and many Jewish entertainers got their start with the Second City improvisational comedy troupe. On the Saturday morning of our class trip, we walked to shabbat services at a prominent downtown synagogue. We had to go through parts of town where, to put it bluntly, we were the only white people in sight. Race has always been something of a sticking point in Judaism, and in the 21st century Chicago is where the dialogue about the role of Judaism in race relations is happening in real time.

Shabbat: Parsha Emor

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah Portion for this week is Parsha Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23.

This parsha is what I like to refer to as a "little things" parsha. Instead of having one major theme throughout, it issues several smaller, mostly unrelated items. Emor reiterates some old laws, reminds the people to observe certain holidays and it even has a fun linguistic lesson in the middle.

The first thing that springs to mind when reading Emor is the focus early in the parsha on unblemished things. God forbids priests who have some blemish or deformity from performing public rituals, though they are still permitted to carry out the private rites of the priesthood. Similarly, God emphasizes the importance of using only unblemished animals for sacrifice. Though these two laws are on a similar topic, it's not likely that they stem from the same line of reasoning.

Person of the Week: Marc Chagall

Politicians, religious leaders and scientific pioneers are truly important people, but a culture is nothing without its artists. In the study of many civilizations of antiquity, art is all we have left. How much would we know about ancient Egypt without the statues and the paintings preserved inside of the tombs of kings? How deep would our understanding be of the daily lives of the Sumerian people without the fragments of personal votives found in the ruins of a home? Artists document the soul of a people. Without them, our collective histories are nothing but a series of facts, like bones with neither flesh nor blood.

One of the greatest artists of the Jewish culture is Marc Chagall. His colorful, lively paintings depict the joyous spirit of our people using the strange geometry of Modernism that was otherwise so often dark and troubled. Chagall studied under many talented painters, sculptors and theatre professionals in his youth. He faced anti-semitism his whole life but never lost his passion and hope.