August 2009

Shabbat: Parsha Ki Teitzei

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 20:10-25:19.

There is a seemingly unassuming passage at the end of Ki Teitzei that forbids the use of "diverse weights", which is to say tools with which to cheat people in business. Whether in measuring grain, grapes or gold, everything must be honest and fair. That's what this entire parsha is really about. It is concerned with what the culture at that time viewed as justice and propriety.

Person of the Week: Matisyahu

While there have been plenty of Jewish pop musicians in American history, from the jazz age to the world of heavy metal in the 70's and 80s as well as the diverse grounds of hip hop, few, if any, of them have actively pursued music with overtly Jewish themes. This only follows the non-proselytizing stance of Judaism and there's also the question of whether or not there's enough of a market to support pop artists who make religious Jewish music. Compared to the multi-million dollar industry of Christian pop, which is intended as an alternative to morally questionable secular pop, Jewish music is a tiny niche market. That's what makes the mainstream success of Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu so inexplicable. His work has gone far beyond the novelty that first garnered it attention while still introducing listeners to Jewish spirituality in a very inviting way.

Explaining Messianic Judaism

Many people have heard the term "Messianic Judaism" and are unaware of exactly what it is. Further adding to the confusion, someone who has little knowledge of mainstream Judaism may interact with individuals or writings in the Messianic faith and have little means of distinguishing it from what most Jews consider the central tenets of Judaism. It is important to understand that Messianic principles are not traditional Jewish principles. This is not to say they are bad, only that they differ much more significantly than the name suggests.

Shabbat: Parsha Shoftim

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9.

There is something of a problem with large-scale social order based on religious mysticism. Namely, that any literate person who can put on a good act is capable of pretending to have divine knowledge. This issue is the basis of a significant portion of the written laws of ancient civilizations. A particularly well-known case is that of the Babylonian king Hammurabi. In approximately 1790 BCE, King Hammurabi told his people that the gods had come to him the night before and told him the law. This is hardly the earliest case of codified law in the ancient world, but it stands out by its explicit claim of divine ordination. This is all well and good for just, fair laws, but it's easy to see how dubious claims of godly inspiration can result in tyranny.

Person of the Week: Sandy Koufax

In a memorably funny scene from the 1980 Jim Abraham/Zucker Brothers comedy Airplane! a passenger asks for some light reading material and is handed a thin pamphlet entitled "Great Jewish Athletes". While it's true that Jews don't have as much of a presence in sports as we do in entertainment or academia, there are a few notable names on one field or another. The first one to be mentioned is often baseball legend Sandy Koufax.

Judaism as a Civilization: An Introduction

Over the course of my life I have heard many definitions of what it means to be Jewish. There are those who say it is an ethnicity, others a culture, still others who contend that it can only be a religious philosophy. Frankly, I don't think that any of these designations are entirely accurate. By the same token, I think it's important that we do come to an understanding of just what Judaism or the Jewish life is. I would like to submit, however humbly and inadequately given the limits of this blog, that Judaism is best defined as a civilization.

Shabbat: Parsha Ri'eh

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Ri'eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17.

If ever a scholar needed a quick and dirty reference text for kosher law, Ri'eh is it. As is the trend in Deuteronomy, much of this parsha is a recap of various related rules, morals and ordinances. It discusses what may and may not be eaten, how people may and may not worship and what separates a bondsman from a free man.

Person of the Week: Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Since the early 1980's the most prominent figure of modern sexual psychology has improbably been a short, sweet and often grandmotherly woman named Karola Ruth Westheimer. Most of us know her better as Dr. Ruth. Her frank, thoughtful approach to human sexual relationships now comes with the label "Sex-Positive Culture" and any modern psychologist worth his or her salt is familiar with it. What a lot of people don't know is that the gentle old lady who gives good-natured sex advice is also a dedicated Zionist and a war hero.

Shabbat: Parsha Eikev

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25.

Many figures of speech and famous phrases have a biblical origin. Phrases like "An eye for an eye" come directly out of the Torah and have come to have meaning in just about every language spoken by people who follow Abrahamic faiths. But not all poetic turns of phrase from the Torah made it into the modern age. Eikev is interesting in that contains two lines that are meant to be powerful figures of speech but only one of them has survived into modern parlance. It's not difficult to see why considering the context of one of them.

Person of the Week: Albert Einstein

I've been hesitant to feature Albert Einstein in the Person of the Week column for two reasons. First, Einstein is such a well-known figure and so much has been written about him already that much of what I would write has already undergone a much more thorough analysis than I could offer here. The other reason I've avoided featuring Einstein is because there is some question, however ill-informed, about the degree of his devotion to Judaism. It is that point I would like to address in this column.