A question to the Rabbi: What is the literal translation of the first three words of the Hebrew Bible? Why so some translations say, "in the beginning, God created..." and some say "In the beginning of God's creating..." and what's the difference? A short piece of Torah study...
As some of my recent podcasts have been lectures, I decided to mix it up by sharing a Torah discussion in which I raise a simple question asked by Mechon Hadar's Dena Weiss: At the Burning Bush, when Moses is too humble or scared to accept his mission, and Moses asks God, "Who am I to go to Pharoah?" why doesn't God say, "You're the one who killed an Egyptian to save a Hebrew from being beaten! You're the one who, with no backup or support, took on a large group of male shepherds to stop them harrassing the girl shepherds! You're the one who has made a life in a foreign land all on your own! You're the one born with supreme gifts!?" I ask our group, "If you had a child, wouldn't you point out how successful they've been in the past, that they have natural gifts and talents, and boost their self-esteem? Why does God handle it so differently?" As usual, I've edited out all participant answers (since they were not near the automatic microphone) but I've given summaries of each wonderful answer. (Note that several children participated actively! Wish you could have been there!)
What is Judaism, What is its Influence on Current World Affairs, and Why is Fundamentalism a Very Modern Movement?
This is my lecture to the World Affairs Club where they assigned me to present on the Influence of the Abrahamic Religion of Judaism on World Affairs as the first of a three part series on the influence of the Abrahamic religions. While the topic is problematic (how does "religion" cause "history?"), I address the essentials of Judaism, focus especially on the rise of fundamentalism in the last twenty years as a result of the internet, and consider how fundamentalism itself is a "modern movement with an anti-modern rhetoric." I also look at how seeing religion as the cause of, say, terrorism, fails to see the geopolitical context that leads to this phenomenon. I apologize for my voice fading when I faced the Powerpoint slides on the screen [and I am happy to share the Powerpoint with you --just email me]. I did not include the 1 hour Q&A session afterward in which I addressed the U.S. endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, my polemic against the Anti-Semitic and destructive BDS movement, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and whether the world would be better off without theism entirely. If you want the slides, just contact me and I'll send you the PDF.
Abrahamic Faith: Living in the Present and Future Moment Concurrently, and Having Nothing to Do with How We “All” Share the Father
"And because (Abraham) had a faithfulness in God, He reckoned it to him as righteousness." Few lines in Torah have done more theological mischief than this verse of five Hebrew words in Genesis. Is it really the essense of "Abrahamic faith" that "Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all share?" Or is the latter an imposition on the text to suit personal motives? Is Abraham's faith about obedience, or about being the first to have the correct theology [though it seemed Noah had that], or about something else? How is his "faith" connected to the rest of his life, whether setting out on a risky self-made future, creating various covenants and negotiations, going to war, or offering his son Isaac as a potential sacrifice? And what is his "religion" if he doesn't have Revelation yet and so isn't doing mitzvot? In this Torah study [with questions edited out], we bring the perspective of scholars like Jon Levenson (Harvard) to enlighten what these words mean, what a "promissory faith" is, and how it applies to our lives today.
When You Have Forgotten Our Story, Your Only Ethic is Survival: The Rise of White Supremacy and the Importance of History
My thesis is: When you forget our collective history, and its true part of God's unfolding in this world, you're only left with an ethic of survival. The ineluctable connection of history and purpose is so well known to those on the far right and the far left, that their common tactic is that they must lie about history and create an alternative history that is false. Whether you're a gullible skinhead, a fervent Jew whose only ethic is Jewish or Israel survival, or a leftist who insists that every historical story is a constructed narrative that does nothing more than mask the only reality which is a power play of winners and losers, you only achieve the aim by lying, by lying about the facts, and thereby lying about God's role in history, which forms the very basis for the purposes that America and Judaism stand for.
If you can, download the KABBALAH & AMIDAH PDF and refer to it. It's a three part folio I created that uses color to track Kabbalistically significant parts of the Shabbat Amidah prayers, and shows the progression of God sefirot/attributes/emanations on Shabbat.
In this presentation, I look at the Amidah, called "The Prayer" (ha-tefillah) in the Talmud, in its evolving Shabbat version. This Amidah is an enigma inside of an enigma, a silent meditation inside of a public pronouncement, a fixed prayer which suddenly changes (in a revealed yet concealed way) on Shabbat. Full of Kabbalistically significant references, I trace a mystical, cosmic progression that accompanies each and every Shabbat, from free-flowing Chesed Shabbat evening with a focus on Nature, intoxication, forgiveness,love, blessing, and the home, through Revelation/Power/Law/Direction/Distinction/Path on Shabbat morning, to Redemption/Balance/Wholeness/Oneness/Renewal Shabbat afternoon.
Aren't New Year's Resolutions some kind of recent thing? Well, actually, resolution vows are a central part of the Temple offerings, and are expected to play a major role in your High Holiday prayers and spiritual work leading up to the shofar blast ending Yom Kippur. We know why the Talmud played them down, but maybe we play them down today for another reason altogether: namely, they don't fit with modern conceptions of "spiritual." But that's where we are completely mistaken: the core Shema spirituality of loving God with our "me'od," our excess, as the proper reciprocal response to Blessing, relies on being open and clear about the role money, good fortune, and our own wishes and desires play in our lives.
Chapter 6 of Exodus concludes a long process of distraction by Moses from the revelation and mission given him by God in chapter 3. It concludes with his infamous "speech impediment." Is this really a speech impediment as taught in Sunday schools by fundamentalists? Or do we need to say such things because it reflects a deep aspect of ourselves that it is too uncomfortable to confront? Why do we neglect opportunities to speak in this world and turn down leadership --let alone even find excuses not to ask a question or write a thank you note-- because we "are not good at speaking"? Why do we tell others, "Well, if you read some website or book... or if you just listened to what 'they' (experts) say... then you'd know..." instead of taking ownership of our positions and our own voice? How do we follow Moses' path from "I'm bad at speaking" to "Words [the fifth book of the Torah]" where Moses owns his voice in an entire book of lectures?
With the long process of avoiding his speaking role by Moses now concluded, God tells Moses that when he speaks, he will be "God" to Pharaoh. Drawing on a teaching I learned from the great Conserative rabbi Rabbi Brad Artson. this single line may contain the most concise expression of religious ethics ever. We can go from avoiding our voice to finding out how to live your voice.
Like other Torah topics including sacrifice, slavery, and creation, Leviticus's preoccupation with skin disorders offends many, prompting outrage and elaborate comparisons to historical examples of horror and immorality. And like those earlier topics, it's as if people aren't reading the Torah, but are projecting their own sensitivities -- an inevitable part of the hermeneutical circle of reading, but one which tells us more, sometimes, about the reader's sensitivities than about the Torah message. I discuss prominent, recent views of Tsarat skin disorders that sees in the Torah the judgmentalism of the insensitive medical establishment, the insensitive observer of a transgender individual, even the Nazi, and I counter with the fact that these readings fail to see the main point of the "out of the camp treatment" being the reintegration of these individuals back into the camp through the declaration of full purity by the head priests/kohanim. This changes everything. If anything, the Torah is providing a fairly obvious example of universal health care --paid for by public tithing-- right before our eyes. Why can't we see it (in a section all about seeing)?