July 2009

Shabbat: Parsha Va'etchanan

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Va'etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11.

I frequently refer to certain parshiot as being "loaded", that is, containing an unusually high density of extremely interesting, important information. Va'etchanan, in that regard, is half-loaded. Much of Deuteronomy is concerned with recounting the history of the Israelites and reiterating the most important laws. In a sense, it's a kind of Cliff's Notes version of the Torah after Genesis. Mixed in with this civics lesson are several key passages, some that were intended to stand out and others that came to stand out thanks to the rabbinical construction of the standard liturgy.

Modern Progressive Judaism and Women

Last week's Person of the Week was Gloria Steinem and while I didn't have the space to talk about the subject of Judaism and its view of women very much in that article, I'd like to address that topic in depth today. While there is no doubt that ancient Judaism was, like every culture of the time, quite misogynistic, it is incorrect to assume that the much more egalitarian views of the modern Progressive movement are merely reactions to similar trends in the secular world. Not only is a non-sexist application of Judaism more palatable to 21st century society, it is also philosophically sound within the faith regardless of era.

Shabbat: Parsha Devarim

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22.

We've hit the home stretch. This week we begin Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy, the conclusion of the Five Books of Moses. Much of this book takes the form of Moses speaking directly to the Israelites just days before they are to enter to the Promised Land and officially make their nation. Parsha Devarim takes place in year 40, month 11, essentially zero hour. The people have been in the wilderness staving off starvation, dehydration, plague and war since they left Egypt a full generation prior. At this time, Moses stands before them and reviews their recent history.

Person of the Week: Gloria Steinem

Judaism, among all Abrahamic faiths, pays particular attention to the iconic women in its scriptures and history. While biblical texts can hardly be called non-sexist in even the loosest modern context, the stories of the Torah are downright radical for their time concerning social issues. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jewish women have stood at the forefront of political progress throughout history. Many of the most important individuals in thought and in action during the major strides in civil rights in the 20th century were Jewish women. Of them all, none are as famous or as overtly influential as Gloria Steinem.

Shabbat: Parsha Matot-Masei

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah Portion for this week is Parsha Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2-36:13.

The key to understanding any Torah portion is to find the overarching theme of the narrative. As I have often pointed out, the seemingly random collection of stories and codified laws in a given portion almost always relate to one another thematically. Though there is no hard and fast form for a parsha, one of the more common conventions is to place a general rule at the beginning, followed by a much larger socio-political application of that rule. The two understandings of a mitzvah, the micro and the macro, act as concurrent, counter-balancing metaphors for one another.

Person of the Week: Spinoza

Judaism, like any philosophy, is an evolving field of concepts stimulated by debate. Likewise, it also harbors its fair share of staunch opponents to change. For a significant portion of its existence, Judaism has struggled to define itself. As the world around the earliest Judaic documents changed and new ideas filtered into the intellectual communities that studied Torah, Jews began to struggle with the very definition of what is and what is not Judaism. Our greatest philosophical documents, like the tractates of the Talmud, are nothing if not debates between great thinkers. However, some great thinkers were never even invited to the table because their ideas were too radical for their contemporaries. Among the most influential, controversial figures in not only Jewish thought but philosophy as a whole, few are as well-known as Baruch "Benedictus" Spinoza.

Shabbat: Parsha Pinchas

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1.

Though it may seem that many Torah portions are a mish-mash of unrelated stories, the majority of them are actually careful selections of thematically similar threads. Parsha Pinchas is all about inheritance in one form or another.

Person of the Week: Gracia Mendes Nasi

As we saw with the Person of the Week last week, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, being a Jew in medieval and Renaissance Europe was difficult and often dangerous. But revered scholars and community leaders like Nachmanides were often spared the gruesome fates of common Jews. In Middle Ages Spain there was a significant Jewish population thanks to the comparatively lenient laws of the Muslim dynasties that controlled much of the country. With the Reconquista, Catholic rulers returned to Spain from the north, bringing their much harsher policies with them. Jews were persecuted, expelled and even mass-murdered for their beliefs. As a result, many became Conversos, Jews who outwardly professed Catholicism but practiced Judaism in secret. One of the most influential among them was a Conversa named Gracia Mendes Nasi.

Person of the Week: Nachmanides

One thing to remember about the great sages of Jewish philosophy is that they were not monks studying away in cloisters. They were some of the most prominent, worldly men of their time. In many ways, they were international celebrities. After all, they were the keepers and producers of knowledge both spiritual and secular. In a time when religion was the core of governance at every level, no figure beside the king himself was more revered and respected than the religious scholar. As with any celebrity, a sage was not immune to the pitfalls of tabloid drama. Late in his life, a great commentator called Nachmanides was at the center of a controversy than involved King James I of Aragon himself.