How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

April 28, 2006

By way of introduction…

Filed under: Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 19:40

I guess I should say something about myself, now that this is working, and now that I’ve commited myself to updating it regularly… But maybe not… Perhaps I should just go ahead and keep posting these old divrei Torah, and once I get that out of the way, I’ll start posting current-event, what’s-on-my-mind-at-the-moment blog posts. Next dvar Torah: delivered May 14, 2005, for parashat Emor:


Laws, laws, laws.

Laws of priesthood. Laws for the holidays. Laws of ritual sacrifices. Criminal laws.

This week’s parasha, Emor, is all about laws. Booooring, right? Well, not quite. Because just when you think you can’t take any more of the legalese, you reach the end, and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc…” (ch. 24 v. 20)

Well, truthfully, that’s not the only interesting bit. Just before this is a juicy bit about some schmoe who blasphemed. His sentence is that he’s stoned to death by the entire community. Granted, this is pretty dramatic, and it should make us grateful that the holy name is, thank God, ineffable.

But what’s a little stoning when you’ve got “an eye for an eye”?

Of course, over the generations our sages have interpreted this verse figuratively and metaphorically, not literally. Rather than taking the life of a healthy cattle animal to compensate for a destroyed one, for instance, the rabbis taught that the injured party – the dispossessed owner – would be paid the assessed value of the animal. This was even extended to cover human bodily injury. Granted, the punishment for murder was the death penalty, but, again, the rabbis made it so difficult to carry out this most harsh of sentences that it was effectively abolished. Namely, it was reserved for cases in which there were two witnesses, and the murderer was warned about the consequences of his actions and went ahead anyway. Of course, all these laws were written for a time when Jews ruled their own destinies and had political and social standing that made having the rules relevant. As we know, until the 20th century, those times were scant indeed.

This Shabbat, having just observed Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – and Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut – Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day – I wish to draw your attention to the one place where these rules of law are relevant once more. Law and order in the modern state of Israel is partly, if not largely inspired by the ancient verses we read each week. This goes beyond the mundane things like the lack of public transportation on Shabbat and holidays, and the fact that you can eat out throughout Passover AND keep kosher.

It is reflected in the fact that Israeli society puts such a high value on human life that the death penalty is reserved only for war criminals, and, as such, has only been carried out once, famously, in the case of Adolf Eichmann. Despite years of criticism and protest, successive Israeli governments have resisted extending capital punishment to terrorists. It is telling that, as the Torah instructs, Israel’s laws apply equally to its own citizens and the gerim – the strangers or foreigners – living under its jurisdiction. Thus, the calls to expand the death penalty to apply to convicted terrorists have been rejected along with those calling for the execution of “unique” criminals like Yigal Amir, the assassin who murdered Yitzhak Rabin.

Behind this reticence about state-sanctioned execution, I believe, lies the underlying respect for not only life, but the body in which we live it. Because really, what is “an eye for an eye” if not the Golden Rule stated in reverse? As Hillel famously said to the aspiring convert who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go and study!” So, while codifying capital punishment in such a way as to make it singularly difficult to prosecute, our tradition built in the powerful mitzvah of taharat ha-met – purification of the dead – an intense and empowering ritual that I’ve had the honor of participating in a couple of times over the last several months. (This is a rite in which members of the community prepare a deceased’s body for burial.)

Our bodies, the tradition tells us, are not really our own – they’re on loan from God. And as such, we should take care of them, from the moment we arrive on this earth until literally the moment we reenter it. Judaism’s abnegation of human sacrifices, a common practice among the pagan peoples surrounding the ancient Israelites, is one of the principal tenets that separated us from the masses – made us a goy kadosh – and has helped sustain us through the ages.

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Jewish scholars seem to have internalized this philosophy long ago, and it is our privilege to read the verses that inspired them and be galvanized in our own turn to act in ways that exalt our bodies.

April 26, 2006

Tilling on Shabbat

Filed under: Shabbat — howdoyoujew @ 15:31

When I moved to San Diego for graduate school in 1999, I made a commitment to myself not to work on Shabbat. Notice I didn’t say “to observe Shabbat,” with its connotations of not driving, not using electrical appliances, etc. My observance of Jewish ritual and practice had been evolving for years, and I was comfortable in the Conservative part of the spectrum, itself allowing for a great deal of diversity and customization. I simply decided not to do schoolwork on Shabbat; I knew I’d be plenty busy the rest of the week with it, and I wanted to set aside a day when I’d be forced to concentrate on other things. I managed to live up to that commitment for the entire run of my Master’s Degree studies, including getting my department to alter the comprehensive exam schedule, normally Friday to Monday, to accommodate me (and a fellow student, more formally observant than I).

Since then, I’ve gotten married, to a woman blessedly on the same page as I was in terms of observance. We’ve maintained the sense of kedusha – holiness and separation – by trying not to do things on Shabbat that “felt” like work. Thus it was with a conflicted mindset that I agreed, on this particular Shabbat, to join my father-in-law for some yard work. The decision was weighing on me even more since I’d decided to wear a kippah full-time during the Omer; going to a non-kosher restaurant and ordering something that wasn’t explicitly treyf was one thing, but how could I go into a business and carry out a monetary transaction? Now, as I sit here with my hands in so much pain that typing is something of a chore, and my head covered by a baseball cap, I truly appreciate the blessing of this day, and of my tradition.

The work in question was tilling the back yard in our new home, and both front and back at the in-laws’. It involved renting a roto-tiller – a gasoline-powered implement – and not a small amount of manual labor, clearly violations of the Shabbat in traditional terms. But several things occurred to me in the span of the couple of hours it took us to complete the work. First, after guiding the tiller in my own yard for 10 minutes, I gained a new-found respect for my 65-year-old father-in-law, whom I already thought of highly. His strength of body and character are inspiring; I would love to have his constitution in three decades, when I catch up to him.

Immediately following on this thought, I was struck by the image of one of my ancestors, watching his father tilling his field – without the aid of a motorized tool, and having much more property than the typical suburban American home. Then I realized what time of year this was: we just celebrated Pesach, and are in the period of the Omer, anticipating the arrival of Shavuot, which, notwithstanding the rabbinic connection to matan Totah, was at its origin a harvest festival (historically, the Omer was the portion of grain brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering immediately after Pesach).

So it was that doing yard work – on Shabbat, no less – became a transcendent, Jewish experience. The point of my wearing a kippah – the point of virtually every Jewish ritual, in fact – is to add spiritual significance to everyday acts. This can’t be done casually; simply going through the motions doesn’t count. So, while I’m no scholar or expert, I know enough to stop, think, and appreciate a moment that’s informed by Jewish experience. I also know enough to know that my interpretation wouldn’t sit well with a lot of people, even in my own denomination, and I’m aware that I have plenty more to learn, such that my own feelings on the subject might change over time. Still, this Shabbat morning provided me with at least as much spiritual nourishment and food for thought as shacharit and Torah services at shul would have, and for that I feel truly blessed.

Parah kedosha!

Filed under: Uncategorized — howdoyoujew @ 15:29

That’s “Holy Cow!” for you non-Hebrew speakers. I’m just a little excited about getting WordPress working on this latest try. I wish I knew what was different from all those times I tried at home… except for the fact that I’m at the office. Shhh!

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