God Goes Hollywood in Exodus: Gods and Kings

Spoiler alert: Morgan Freeman does not play God in Exodus: Gods and Kings.  And this is only one of the many courageous risks that director Ridley Scott took in bringing the story of Moses to life in the just released movie. Instead of trying to depict the literal text of the Bible as we saw in the 10 Commandments with Charlton Heston, Ridley Scott does midrash-Hollywood style.

For those of you that have read the Bible and for those of you that have it in your ibooks queue, what you may not know is that it does not read like Gone Girl. There are a lot of gaps, duplications and conflicting stories in the ancient text. Since the 2nd century AD rabbis have added Midrash -commentaries, stories and interpretations- to try and fill in the gaps and make sense of these teachings. These midrashim have become essential to the body of work known as the Jewish tradition because they bring the stories to life and make them applicable to our modern lives.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is Midrash in the year 2014. The movie was clearly trying to answer some of the unanswered questions of the Moses story:

  • What was the relationship between the brothers in the palace growing up? Were they competitive or were they close?  
  • How did Moses talk to God? Was he delusional? Did he have visions? Did he see angels?
  • How did the Red Sea part? Was it truly miraculous, or was it just low tide that day?

I am not a movie critic so I did not evaluate Exodus: Gods and Kings for its entertainment value. I haven’t devoted my life to studying Judaism to be entertained. Some of the teachings are very troubling, and at times have left me angry and confused.  The reason I became a rabbi is that I believe if I am willing to wrestle with the texts even the problematic ones, the tradition will guide me to live a more moral and meaningful life. 

There is a teaching in Judaism that when we pray, God speaks to us; but when we study, we speak to God. Last Thursday I ran to the first showing of Exodus at 8 pm* because I wanted to study the midrash of our time. I wasn’t looking to come out of the movie and say; “Those plagues were amazing” (even though they were!). Rather I wanted Exodus: Gods and Kings to challenge me, to force me to think, and to help me continue the ongoing conversation of my tradition with all people of all religions and backgrounds.

Ridley Scott, Steven Zaillian, Christian Bale and every single person (including all the extras) involved in the making of that movie and bringing it to the world stage- Yasher Koach which means “Kudos to you” for reminding us that the Bible is still the most compelling book of all time.  

*IPIC Theaters releases movies the night before at 8 pm if you want to get a first glimpse.

Women and Torah: Masking words

Especially during this time of year, when many of us disguise ourselves for the holiday of Purim, the idea of masks is usually associated with people. Even in politics and everyday life, we talk of people masking their real intentions or hiding behind a façade.

But in Judaism, and in particular the study of holy texts, words hide as well.

In fact, it’s hard to enjoy a talmudic or midrashic text without appreciating this very idea: It’s what’s behind the text that’s really interesting.

I got a taste of this at a class I attended recently at Limmud NY.

It’s worth reading the full text of midrash we studied:

“A story of R. Akiba’s son when he married. How did he conduct himself? After his wife entered the nuptial chamber with him, he stayed awake the whole night, reading in the Torah and studying Haggadot. He said to her: ‘Fetch for me a lamp and light it’: and she fetched a lamp for him and kept it lighted for him the whole night. Standing by his side, she held the light for him.

“He opened the scroll, and he unrolled it from the beginning to end, and from end to beginning, and all night she remained standing, holding the light for him until dawn came. At dawn, R. Akiba approached his son and asked him: ‘Is she well found or ill found?’ and his son replied: ‘She is well found.’ Hence, Who so finds a wife finds a great good.”

Yes, it’s hard to imagine a more chauvinistic text.

Seriously, is this how you treat your wife on your first night of marriage? You ask her to hold a lamp all night so you can study Torah?

Even worse, this harsh treatment seems to be a test of whether the bride will be a good wife or not, as suggested by the groom’s response to his father in the morning: “She is well found.” In other words, she’s the right woman because she obeyed me like a slave!

I found this “mask” of chauvinism so obviously distasteful that I couldn’t imagine a positive interpretation, and I nearly left the class. 

But I was also intrigued, so I stayed, encouraged perhaps by the fact that our teacher was a woman.

The class itself was titled “Feminist Religious Education: How Should We Do It?” and was led by Renana Ravitsky Pilzer, the head of the Beit Midrash at Jerusalem’s Hartman High School for Girls.

Pilzer is one of the founders of the well-known Shira Hadasha feminist Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem and is pursuing a doctorate in Midrash and Gender at Bar-Ilan University. She had a sweetness about her that was dissonant with the harshness of the text.

Slowly, methodically, gently, with the mind of a surgeon and the heart of an artist, quoting commentators and studying the hidden meaning of words, she “turned and turned” the text over until she unmasked its ugliness to reveal holiness.

First, there was context: The son was rebelling against his famous father, who had left his wife for years to study Torah. When the son said, “She is well found,” he conveyed this message: “Unlike you, Father, I don’t have to leave my wife to study Torah.”

Then, there was the idea that Torah learning on that first night together was a shared experience — they were both learning. One interpretation quoted by Pilzer went as far as to say that the wife herself was teaching her husband, by “lighting the way.”

Underlying the whole text is the notion that a marriage needs shared ideals and a common pursuit in order to succeed.

The consummation of this marriage, the text suggested, started with God’s Torah. By making clear that they would both serve the Torah with equal passion and dedication, the husband and wife could now serve each other.

Now, you can be a cynic and call this a positive spin — which was my inclination.

But, the way Pilzer explained it, this trusting embrace of the text, this giving of the benefit of the doubt that precedes sharp inquiry, is itself a crucial part of the learning.

As you dive into midrashic or talmudic texts, it’s as if you’re entering a giant Purim party, where you encounter a million disguises that must be turned over and over to uncover an essential teaching of meaning and goodness.

Maybe this is why Jewish texts have lasted for thousands of years. These are not self-help texts that lay out “the 10 steps to a happy marriage,” which you forget the minute you’ve finished reading them. It’s one of the ironies of language that in the area of life lessons, clarity, which demands so little of us, is overrated.

Clarity is certainly not a virtue of Jewish texts. Because so many of our teachings are circuitous and opaque, they invite the student to invest great energy in order to decipher and understand the meaning. 

My experience at the Limmud class taught me another lesson: We need more women to teach Talmud and midrash. The text, on the surface, was so problematic and “anti-women” that I might not have stayed had we not been studying with a woman.

Just as Rabbi Akiba’s son needed his bride to “light the way,” we need women to help light our way, as well. 

Chag Purim Sameach

Willing to sacrifice: Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

The mind of the midrashist drifts effortlessly over the face of the Tanakh as verses from the Torah conjure up similar verses and phrases from other sacred books. Thus, our parasha’s descriptions of the thanksgiving offerings and the free-will offerings call to mind a phrase found in Psalm 50: “The one who sacrifices a thanksgiving offering honors me.” And the midrash here in Parashat Tzav uses this phrase as a springboard for its exploration of the theme of gratitude to God. And then, having introduced this phrase, the midrash goes on to look at the somewhat enigmatic next phrase there in Psalm 50, a phrase which the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation literally labels “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”

The one word that is readily identifiable in the phrase is “derech,” meaning path or way. And what’s also fairly clear is that verse’s closing words (“will be shown the salvation of God”) speak in praise of this person whose path or way is proper. The midrash, as is its way, offers its interpretation of the phrase by telling us a story.

Rabbi Yanai was known for the gracious hospitality he extended to scholars and learned men. Not a single one could pass through his town without breaking bread at Rav Yanai’s table. It once happened that a scholarly looking man appeared in town, and, as could be expected, Rav Yanai ushered him into his home on sight. As the midrash tells the story, “Rav Yanai fed the man and gave him drink. He examined him in Scripture, but found that the man knew nothing. In Mishna, but again found that the man knew nothing. In Aggadah, nothing. In Talmud, and again nothing.”

Rav Yanai was becoming agitated, as he had clearly overestimated his guest, and frankly, preferred to expend his resources on people of stature. In a last attempt to uncover at least some minimal literacy in his guest, Rav Yanai asked the man to lead the blessing after the meal. But confirming Rav Yanai’s worst fears, the man ducked and said, “Let Yanai lead the blessing in his own home!” Angry and frustrated, Rav Yanai then laid a trap for the man, proposing that he repeat after him. When the guest agreed to do so, Rav Yanai looked his guest in the eye and said, “A dog has eaten of Yanai’s bread.”

As shocked as we might be by this outburst, the guest was this and more. The man grabbed Rav Yanai by the shirt and said, “You are withholding my inheritance from me!” 

“What inheritance of yours could I possibly be withholding?” Rav Yanai retorted. 

“One time, long ago,” the guest replied, “I was walking near the entrance of a school, and I heard the children recite, ‘The Torah was commanded to us by Moshe, an inheritance of the people of Jacob.’ It is not written that the Torah is an inheritance of the people of Yanai, rather that it is an inheritance of the people of Jacob.” 

Chastised and recognizing his error (though still apparently proud of his table’s reputation), Rav Yanai inquired of the man by what merit he thinks God brought him to dine there that day. 

“I have never returned an insult in kind, and I have never encountered two people quarrelling with one another without endeavoring to make peace between them,” the man replied. 

“You possess so much derech ertez [the way of upright behavior], and I called you a dog!” Rav Yanai then ascribed to him those words whose meaning JPS was uncertain of, rendering them “the one who is thoughtful and deliberate in his way, will be shown the salvation of God.”  

What makes this story truly remarkable is that it is recorded in the midrash at all. And not just because it portrays one of the Sages in a negative light, but because there is only one way it could possibly have entered the stream of rabbinic lore. The unnamed guest couldn’t have achieved this, and there were no witnesses to the story. Indeed, the story is told by Rav Yanai himself. And this is remarkable. 

We often wonder what gifts we can leave for others, how we can best contribute to their welfare and well-being. Rav Yanai’s ultimate teaching here is that it is a great gift to share stories that are unflattering to us, when these stories will save others from our mistakes. It’s a hard gift to give, and I’d presume that Rav Yanai knew that there was a good chance that his story would be told for countless generations to come. Yet he gave the gift anyway.

Parshat Tzav speaks a lot about the willingness to sacrifice for God. In its characteristically circuitous way, the midrash on Tzav has illustrated what this willingness looks like.

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.

Shavuot 5768: Midrash love

When I think of Torah, the first thing that comes to mind is a divine, rigorous system of laws that guides an ethical and holy way of life.

The last thing I think about is whimsy and romance.

Yet, over the past few weeks, as part of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation, I have indulged in a poetic and literary aspect of Torah that has moved me in an unusual way.

It’s called the midrash.

Midrash is a mysterious part of the rabbinical literature. It comes in many forms, but the major idea is to seek a better understanding of scripture through stories, homilies, parables, poetry, word play and so on.

Midrash is an integral part of the haggadah tradition of Jewish learning, which emphasizes narrative and philosophical commentaries, rather than strict talmudic and legal analysis.

In the yeshiva world, midrash and haggadah are the granolas of Torah learning — not taken as seriously as the meat and potatoes of Talmud. They’re seen as being too wishy-washy, too flaky and open to wide interpretation. The law is grounded, the midrash and haggadah are “out there.”

Well, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a piece of “out there” midrash that has moved me to no end. Last Shabbat, I brought this midrash to B’nai David’s monthly “Nosh ‘n Drosh” class and shared it with a small group of shul members. Here’s the gist of the midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah):

A husband and a wife go to a well-known rabbi to get a divorce. They have been married for 10 years and do not have any children. Since they observe Jewish law, the man must marry another woman to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

The rabbi sends the couple away and tells them to make a “holiday” for one night. Since they were united in celebration, he explains, they must separate the same way.

The couple follows the rabbi’s instructions. During their private celebration, the husband, now a little inebriated and in a festive mood, tells his wife that she can have anything she wants from the house and bring it to her father’s house.

While he is sleeping, she orders the servants to pick him up and transport him in his bed to her father’s house.

He awakes at midnight and says: “My beloved, where am I?”

She says to him: “In my father’s house.”

He says: “What am I doing in your father’s house?”

She says: “Is that not what you said to me last night, ‘Anything you desire in my house, take it and go to your father’s house’? There is nothing I desire more in the world than you.”

They went back to the rabbi and he prayed over them and they had children.

The more I reflected on this midrash, the more it moved me. The couple was so obsessed with their obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” that they forgot how much they loved each other. The rabbi (in the actual midrash, it is the famous Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar), by sending them away for a one-night “holiday” — even though the law called for a divorce — liberated them just enough from their obligations that they could rekindle and rediscover their love for each other.

The rabbi could have given them a blessing for children at the beginning, but he wanted to test their love. He knew how important it was for children to have parents who love each other. When he saw how much the husband and wife wanted to be together, he saw they were worthy of the blessing.

For me, the midrash also spoke to a romantic notion of purity in relationships: The idea that “I want to be with you because I want to be with you.”

We don’t need to create something to want to be with each other.

I could have gone to any number of Torah classes on love and relationships and not absorbed as much spiritual nourishment as I did from this one little midrash. The quirky love story drew me in. It disarmed me. It didn’t preach to me or tell me what to do. It worked on my imagination and made it take off.

Even more, it made me marvel at our tradition.

How remarkable that a religion that is literally inundated with laws and codes of behavior can find the time for literature and parable?

How extraordinary that the same rabbis who pontificated endlessly in the Talmud on the minutiae of this law or that law, would find the mental and emotional space to explore the poetic and philosophical unknown?

When comparing the world of law (halacha) to the midrashic world of stories and philosophy (haggadah), the great Jewish poet Haim Bialik wrote: “Halacha wears a frown, aggadah a smile. The one is pedantic, severe, unbending — all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable — all mercy. The one is concerned with the shell, with the body, with actions; the other with the kernel, with the soul, with intentions. On one side there is petrified observance, duty, subjection; on the other perpetual rejuvenation, liberty, free volition.”

Lest you think Bialik favored one over the other, he concludes: “Halacha and aggadah are two things which are really one, two sides of a single shield. Aggadah is the plaintive voice of the heart’s yearning as it wings its way to its haven; halacha is the resting place, where for a moment the yearning is satisfied and stilled.”

Some days, the voice of the heart’s yearning is the one we hear the loudest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

An inconvenient voice

Moses buries him.

Literally – he opens up the earth, and Korah and his followers are swallowed alive.

The rabbis of the Midrash were more graceful. They only buried him literarily and morally – projecting upon him every evil motive and base intention.

For the rabbis, Korah becomes the personification of manipulative demagoguery, personal greed, vicious envy of power and position, exploitation, arrogance and rebelliousness; a rebel he is.

After the people Israel are condemned to wander the desert 40 years, Korah raises a revolt against Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).

It is too easy to label Korah evil and dismiss his claims. There is nothing in the pshat, the simple reading of the biblical text, to castigate Korah as the embodiment of evil. In fact, it is suspicious how ready everyone is to get rid of him. What are we covering up? What truth does Korah know?

At Mount Sinai, God proclaimed, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Korah asks: If we are all a kingdom of priests, what is the special prerogative of one who proclaims himself “spiritual leader”? Instructing the building of the Mishkan shrine, God announced, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

Korah wonders: If God already dwells among the people, who needs intermediaries and functionaries to reach God? In Leviticus, God commanded: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

Korah points out: Holiness, the quality we share with God, is within our reach. Not an elite, but holiness is within us all. Moses himself offered: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29).

Korah responds: Shouldn’t this be our goal? Not to elevate another Moses, but to elevate the entire community to his prophetic vision?

Korah is a rebel, no doubt. But he is a holy rebel. He rebels in obedience to God. And Moses’ impulse to bury him represents a serious failure of leadership.

A healthy community needs holy dissent. A healthy community needs voices demanding a renewed commitment to ideals. A healthy community needs to be reminded that its moral compromises are just that, compromises – the best we could do under the circumstances, not the best we could do. Korah is an irritant, a source of aggravation, a challenge to authority and to accepted practice. It’s no wonder we want to bury him. But a living community of conscience and spirit needs a Korah.

Another great spiritual dissident, Martin Buber, taught that a spiritual community swings between poles of “religion” and “religiosity.” “Religiosity” refers to those rare ecstatic moments when the Absolute breaks into our experience and reorients our vision and values. These are moments of passion and insight. But they are fleeting. “Religion” is born when these moments are captured, organized and preserved in symbols, texts and rites. At the heart of spiritual life lives this tension: As “religion” settles into holy tradition, it loses touch with these original moments of ecstasy and revelation. It loses its creative energy. Religion needs religiosity.

“Religion is true so long as it is creative,” Buber wrote, “but it is creative so long as religiosity is able to imbue [it] with new and incandescent meaning. Once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue.”

One of the wonders of Jewish history is our continuing capacity to welcome and absorb holy dissent. We are a living community, held together by deep bonds of family and communal solidarity, and not just a church bound by dogma. Therefore, there has always been room to embrace dissent and rebellion without destroying the Jewish people. Prophets challenged Priests, and they were included in the Bible. The rabbis disagreed about almost everything, and the Talmud proclaimed: “These and these are the words of the living God.”

Mystics and Chasidim challenged rabbinical authorities, and their voices were added to the symphony of Jewish wisdom. The greatest Jewish rebellion in Modernity was Zionism. And today, we are all Zionists. We are a creative people because the voice of Korah lives.

We are committed to teach our children the Torah of Moses – Jewish continuity, faithfulness to the Jewish past, loyalty to tradition and ancestors. Their curriculum must also include the Torah of Korah – holy rebellion, spiritual dissent.

Alongside continuity, let us celebrate the creative overturning and reinvention of Jewish life and vision.

That, too, is our holy tradition.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

Full circle

My daughter, the animal lover, has a father who isn’t. A hamster is the biggest pet I’ve gotten talked into so far. It lives in her room, and basically I wouldn’t even know
it was there except for one thing — it’s nocturnal.

All night long I could hear Ruby the hamster running in its wheel. The endless spinning and squeaking was driving me crazy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

I marched into my daughter’s room, bypassing her and heading straight for the tiny workout nut. I was ready to snatch it and its blasted wheel out of the cage, when something made me stop. I stood transfixed at the sight of Ruby exercising, and it hit me how much the two of us have in common. That hamster is living my life, I thought, running, running, running in endless circles, and not really getting anywhere.

I granted a stay of execution.

For all of the benefits running in circles affords a hamster, there are no positive implications when we use the expression “running in circles” to describe our own lives. With all we have to do, it often feels that all we are doing is keeping up. The opportunity to move ahead somehow eludes us.

Ironically, this time of year is all about going in circles. But unlike the stressful, unconstructive feeling of running in circles that we experience in our weekday routine, the circles of these holidays have a definite purpose and a positive message. Both Sukkot and Simchat Torah are characterized by communal hakafot, or going around in circles.

On Sukkot, we hold the arba minim (the four species) and proceed in a circle around the Torah, thereby proclaiming its centrality and holiness in Jewish life. On Simchat Torah, we remove all of the Torahs to the periphery of the circle, and march around an empty center.

What is the purpose of an empty center? To quote Rabbi Solovetchik (zt”l), “The answer is that the center is not empty. God is symbolically there. When nobody is there, Someone is there. There is no place bereft of His presence. The encircling Sifrei Torah pay homage to their Divine Author, acknowledging that the purpose of Torah is to direct us to God.”
Whether we are circling the Torah or circling God, there are two mathematical facts about circles that have great theological implications.

The first is that all points on the circle are equidistant from the center.

When we march in the hakafot, we are demonstrating that the Torah belongs to all of us, equally, and that we all have equal access to God.

There is a beautiful Midrash about the arba minim that illustrates this idea. Consider the etrog, or citron. It has a good taste and a good fragrance, symbolizing the Jews who possess scholarship and good deeds.

The lulav, or date palm branch, has a good taste, but no fragrance. It symbolizes Jews who possess scholarship, but few good deeds.

The hadassim, or myrtle, have a pleasant aroma but a bland taste. It represents the Jews who perform good deeds but are ignoramuses.

And finally, the aravot, or willow, have no pleasant smell or taste, standing for those among us who, sadly, have no redeeming features whatsoever.

Only the etrog is “perfect,” but one cannot recite the blessing on the etrog alone. It must be held tightly together with the other three species in order to fulfill the mitzvah. God wants us to stand together. No one has to be excluded from His Presence. You can be a Moses, an Abraham, a Rabbi Akiva or an ignoramus who isn’t even a very nice person. As long as you stand in that circle, you have the same access to God and His Torah as anyone else.

The second mathematical fact about circles is that the starting point and the ending point are one in the same. When we march in a circle we keep returning to where we started, as opposed to marching in a line where we would move away from the beginning point. The whole of Judaism is predicated on this concept — that our history is not far behind us in some distant past, but that our heroes and heroines, and all of our collective experiences, are very real to us today.

We look to Jacob to learn how to survive an oppressive exile, and Joseph shows us how to deal with success in exile. Queen Esther ably demonstrates how to outsmart a manipulative, deadly enemy. Rashi is not some scribbles on a page, but he is our best friend when we study the Chumash or Talmud, patiently helping us make sense of it all.

We don’t “commemorate” the destruction of our Temple; we sit low to the ground and mourn the loss as if it happened in our own generation. We sit at a seder every Passover with the goal of feeling as if we ourselves left Egypt, not some group of slaves thousands of years ago. We have a State of Israel today because even after 1,900 years of exile, we felt inextricably connected to that land. Like a circle, we never move too far away from where we started.

Physically, moving in circles like Ruby the hamster is a frustrating experience. In short, it gets us nowhere. But philosophically, participating in hakafot, can bring us to a new place. A place where we reconfirm that God and His Torah are at the center of our lives; where we rekindle that sense of unity and equality among all Jews; and where we reawaken the past, and immerse in the lives and events that have sustained us as a people for thousands of years.

In short, it brings us full circle.

Chag sameach.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

A Banner Day

At the beginning of the month, I joined the hundreds of thousands of people who marched from MacArthur Park to the

La Brea Tar Pits in support of basic rights for immigrants, the strangers among us. I was worried about my family becoming separated in the throng of marchers, so I brought a bicycle flag, a little neon triangle on a tall lightweight rod, upon which I’d written in sharpie: “Klein Family.”

We were surrounded by banners, some hand-painted, some mass produced, words passionately imploring in Spanish and English, flags of different countries rippling toward helicopters as we marched ever so slowly.

At one point my husband and daughter became separated from my son and me. My son held up the little orange flag to reunite us. It was just an orange fleck in a sea of waving banners, with no message, no political statement. It said simply: “Here we are. Find us, join us. Don’t let us be lost. We love you.”

Perhaps that was the essence of every banner that was flown that day.

This week’s Torah portion creates a picture of the 12 tribes of Israel marching over the wilderness terrain in well-organized troops, the divisions of Judah to the east of the tabernacle, Ephraim on the west, and the other tribes assigned to positions in between. An army of men, women and children who once marched hunched over from intolerable service to Pharaoh were now marching upright, in formation, in service of God, with banners streaming above them, as it is written: “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house” (Numbers 2:2).

Some imagine the 12 banners were designed each according to the character of the sons of Jacob, much like the signs of the 12 months of the year in the zodiac. Others say that the color of the banners matched the colors of the 12 gemstones imbedded in the High priest’s breastplate, ruby red, golden topaz, glittering sapphire.

According to the Midrash, the Israelites witnessed the angels at Mount Sinai, each with their flowing banner, singling them out as precious to God. The Israelites also wanted to be unique, to be counted. Bamidbar is primarily focused on counting and arranging the Israelites, who stands where in relation to the Tent of Meeting.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) explains: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself upon Mount Sinai, 22,000 angels descended with Him, as it is said, ‘The chariots of God are two myriads, two thousands; The Lord is among them at Sinai in holiness'” (Psalms 68:18), and they were all arrayed under separate banners, as it is said, “Marked out by banners from among myriads” (Song of Songs 5:10). “When Israel saw them arrayed under separate banners, they began to long for banners, and said, ‘O that we also could be ranged under banners like them!’…. They said, ‘O that He would show great love for me’: and this is also expressed in the text, We will shout for joy in Your salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners.’ Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to them, ‘How eager you are to be arranged under banners; as you live, I shall fulfill your desire!'”

As a child, my family would often spend the summer on Fire Island, off of Long Island. I remember walking all the way to the tip of the island, where there stood an old weathered lighthouse that had become a museum.

Inside, there were old pictures of the original family who operated it, parents with two children. The docent explained that the father would make his children wear bright red hats while they played on the reed-swept dunes. That way, when he was high in his tower, he could look down and know exactly where they were.

We run through the reeds, explore the dunes, and our Father, the light-keeper, keeps His eye on us. Not one of us should be lost. At the end of the day, not one of us should be left out. Not one of us should be unembraced by the banner of love, when evening falls, like a blue-and-silver-threaded tallit over creation and everything in it.

Zoe Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.


Bar/Bat Mitzvah – A Postmodern Coming-of-Age Guide

“Bar Mitzvah: A Guide to Spiritual Growth” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin (Assouline, $24.95)

When a book on bar mitzvah opens with a poem by Rudyard Kipling and a quote from French ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it’s clearly not your usual bar mitzvah book, of which there are many.

“Bar Mitzvah: A Guide to Spiritual Growth” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin is thoughtful, poetic, challenging, mystical, sometimes puzzling, stylishly designed — maybe the first postmodern book on the subject. It could be a model for how to write an introductory work: A French philosopher and a rabbi, Ouaknin assumes a certain sophistication on the part of readers and gently raises them up, rather than talking down, and at the same time, provides perspectives that will enlighten readers at all levels.

Young men and women approaching bar and bat mitzvah, their parents and those who teach them will find much of interest. In addition, readers seeking a portal to understanding Judaism and a fine teacher will also be drawn to this work, which covers Jewish identity, prayer, tallit, tefillin, reading from the Torah, the speech and more — each subject opening up to wider issues — with brief notes on the party and bar mitzvah celebrations around the world. Ouaknin opens each section with a quote drawn from philosophers, poets and Chasidic masters.

Ouaknin’s field is the ethics of interpretation. His previous books include “The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud” (1995), “Mysteries of the Kabbalah” (2000) and “Symbols of Judaism” (1996). He divides his time between Jerusalem and Paris, where he directs the Aleph Center for Jewish Studies in Paris. In Israel, he teaches comparative studies at Bar Ilan University.

In a telephone interview from his home in Jerusalem, where he spends three weeks per month, he apologizes repeatedly for his French-accented English, which needs no apologies. To speak with him is to experience the depth and playfulness of his mind, and the width of his vision.

For Ouaknin, the principal act of the bar mitzvah, the essence of Judaism, is not putting on tefillin or a tallit, but reading the Torah — and not simply reading but interpreting. He speaks of a dialectic between text and interpretation, that to grow involves understanding and reading and creating, following tradition but not repeating the ways and words of one’s parents.

“To innovate, to create, is to be free,” he said.

“After reading this book, I hope the child will be open to Talmud, Midrash, kabbalah, philosophy and literature, and to make the book a friend — to understand or feel when seeing a book that he’s also receiving a smile, not just the letters,” he said.

But he cautions against being enclosed with books.

“The most important thing in life is to meet the other,” he said. “I have said that love is the meeting between two questions. The man is for the book, the book is for the man. The link is the true aim — to meet the other, and also to meet God, to be able to enter in the way of transcendence, to be better and higher.”

Born in 1957, the author grew up in Paris, the son of a rabbi and a professor. His father’s family is from Morocco; his mother’s from Alsace and Luxembourg. He says that these two different traditions, Africa and Europe, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, inform the way he thinks and lives. His father still serves as a rabbi, and his mother is a professor. That work is more of a passion than a job is something he inherited from them.

Ouaknin studied at yeshivas in France and spent two years in Gateshead Yeshiva in England, where he thought he would pick up English, but instead learned Yiddish and tennis. He went to medical school for two years before shifting to the study of philosophy at the Sorbonne while attending rabbinical school.

In the section on prayer, he discusses structure, time of prayer, the siddur, how prayers are gathered as they rise from human lips, prayer as an outpouring of the heart, prayer and meditation, prayer and psychoanalysis. He quotes Kafka, whom he teaches at Bar Ilan: “Art, like prayer, is a hand stretched out in to the dark, seeking to catch something from grace in order to transform itself into a giving hand.”

In writing about tefillin and tallit, he draws on kabbalistic and other teachings. He explains that the fringes on the tallit “compose a text made by the knotting of the threads, by a process of weaving and twisting which cannot fail to evoke a form of intelligence not satisfied simply to perceive, understand, and analyze things, but which must connect, weave and twist them together, to offer a complex texture of thought.”

The idea that this French philosopher would turn his attention to the subject of bar mitzvah was initiated by Prosper and Martine Assouline, the husband-and-wife team who run the French publishing company, known for their finely designed illustrated books, with offices in New York and Paris. Prosper Assouline was grappling with questions of how to transmit ethics, values and meaning, as his own son, Alexandre, was approaching his bar mitzvah. The book, intended as a gift for the young man, was to be a heavily illustrated volume in the publisher’s “Symbols” series. But as Ouaknin began the project, he realized that the subject required a more text-centered approach. And, he felt that he didn’t want to draw only on the world of books, but wanted to have direct contact with teenagers.

He then began working on the book with Francoise Anne Menager, a history and literature teacher in a vocational high school with whom he had worked on projects related to the culture of the written word and its transmission. When he had spoken earlier about Jewish literature at her school, to a group of girls mostly of Muslim and African backgrounds, he experienced true encounter, the essence of literature.

After the manuscript was complete, he would meet with Alexandre Assouline to discuss the work and measure its pertinence, and they’d engage in sincere dialogues about theological and psychological questions. As Ouaknin, the father of two sons and two daughters who all read Torah at their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, writes in the book’s preface: “I was no longer writing a book about bar mitzvah, I was actually experiencing the responsibility of passing on, not words, but a power which gives the other the possibility of growing.”

Why Are We Jews?

“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder we cried when we learned of the sale of Joseph — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik

Oh to be a fly on the wall of that great and dramatic confrontation between Judah and Joseph. The scene: Twenty-two years after being sold, Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to become Egyptian viceroy. Joseph frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph “graciously” offers to exonerate all the brothers — barring Benjamin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Judah, the engineer of Joseph’s sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial viceroy and delivers a poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Benjamin:

“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Benjamin] is not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)

In the face of such courage, it is Joseph who crumbles — breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity. How deliciously ironic that this man of control, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to withstand Potiphar’s wife’s temptations and strong enough to remain hidden for more than 22 years, capitulates to Judah.

Wherein lies the power of the Judah personality? Is this the same Judah who initiates the sale of his brother and whose conduct in the Tamar episode raises troubling questions? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence of Judah’s siblings. Why is it Judah alone who stands tall in the face of the hostile viceroy who wants to seize Benjamin? Are they not all certain of the consequent early demise of their father Jacob?

Our sages portray the development of the Judah personality. A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Judah begins to contemplate the enormity of his actions and their effect on Jacob. Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his former daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.

Unlike his role in the Joseph saga, in this epic, Judah does not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father (if this story seems puzzling — you might want to read it in its original). Tamar knows, but refuses to vocally pinpoint Judah as the father of her children. Instead she opts to merely present Judah with the evidence and ultimately forces him to make a momentous decision. In the presence of his father and grandfather, comments the Midrash, Judah is confronted with a massive internal crisis. Shall he remain passive or admit that he sired the children? Will Judah choose ephemeral ease over eternal excellence?

“Tzadkah mimeni” (“She is more righteous than I”), Judah declares. (38:26) Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth. Precisely here, our sages majestically declare, does Judah earn his messianic stripes. Judah has made mistakes in the past, but he is now willing to accept responsibility. The metamorphosis is almost done. For if Judah is able to admit responsibility it is only natural that when the crisis of Benjamin strikes that Judah plays the lead role and proclaims: “Anochi e’ervenu” (“I will be his guarantor.”) (43:9)

It is striking that Judah’s sense of responsibility now transcends his own self and creates a sense of obligation to the other. Ultimately, this proactive responsibility has a profound curative effect, as the brothers are reunited and the family healed.

Often parents in their role as mediators in great sibling struggles are privileged to hear various restatements of “it all started when he hit me back” — an argument of impeccable logic. It is not all right for our children to shirk blame. Sacred duty requires that we invest them with a sense of accountability, however unpleasant or frightening that might be. In our efforts to provide our children with everything, we may deprive them of the great gift of responsibility, engendering in its stead a sense of entitlement.

For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called Yehudim — or Jews — a derivative of the word Judah. We are not Yissachars, Dans, nor are we even Josephs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take responsibility for our flaws. Even as we do not control our circumstances, we surely control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms the basis of real spirituality. Once we acknowledge that we are accountable for ourselves and indeed for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to unlock the grand potential stored within.

This Torah Portion originally appeared on Jan. 2, 2004.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at YULA.

Punk Princesses: Jews With Attitude

There were always Jews in punk, even before there was punk.

“It really begins with Lenny Bruce,” says Steven Beeber, whose new book “The Heebie Jeebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” will be published next year by A Capella Books. “Bruce sort of epitomizes the attitude, the whole smart-ass, clever truth-telling.”

In fact, the punk attitude is also a Jewish attitude that begins with the midrash, in which Abram smashes all but one of his father’s household idols and blames the sole survivor for the wreckage.

In its early days, punk was not only a form of music but also a philosophy, a way of looking at the world. And for three Jewish women musicians, it still is all that and more.

Jewlia Eisenberg, the founder and leader of Charming Hostess, a constantly mutating musical aggregation from the Bay Area, embraces the label “Jewish punk diva” with glee.

“Punk is a form of opposition,” Eisenberg wrote in an e-mail interview. “Real punks are radical in politics and culture. Punk is about screaming and dancing your way out of the margins. Punk is anti-materialist, DIY, direct, and in your face. Punk is a point of view; it’s a site of resistance, it’s a community…. And I can get with all that.”

But if you listen to records made by Charming Hostess — or Annette Ezekiel’s band Golem or Sophie Solomon’s Oi Va Voi — and expect shrieking three-chord rock played at the speed of light and the threshold of permanent hearing damage, you will be surprised. And if you are looking for torn T-shirts, safety pins and Doc Martens … well that’s so 1970s.

Or as Eisenberg dryly observes, “[Punk] is not defined simply by its symbols, which indeed are used to commodify punk and the energy it represents.”

Although the original spirit of punk was a kind of working-class outrage, expressed through a do-it-yourself homemade aesthetic, Eisenberg, Ezekiel and Solomon are university-educated, trained musicians. Of course, punk itself moved beyond three chords and inchoate snarls almost immediately, but the music of Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi is stunning in its complexity.

Which is not to say you can’t dance to it.

When Golem played a couple of weddings during their West Coast tour this fall, there were horas and mosh pits side by side.

“Oh, yeah, that was our moshiest tour so far,” Ezekiel says with a grin.

So is Golem punk?

“It’s hard to label our music,” Ezekiel says. “I’m doing straight-up Yiddish music with a punk or rock attitude, but it’s not something you can see from the music.”

Heeb Magazine thinks they are punk, so much so that they won the award as “best punk band” at the publication’s first Jewish Music Awards. Reminded of this, Ezekiel laughed a little then noted that a friend of the late Joey Ramone, who was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award at the same ceremony, came up to her after hearing Golem and said approvingly, “You are so punk!”

For Ezekiel, too, it’s a question of attitude. She compares Golem’s approach to that of some of the more tradition-bound klezmer revival bands.

“I know deep down that we are punk, that we are a wild, edgy band,” she says. “I love the klezmer revival, but sometimes it’s missing the visceral energy, and everyone is playing the same material.”

By contrast, Golem leans more heavily on songs from Yiddish theater, perhaps not in a style that Molly Picon or Seymour Rechseit would recognize.

“People are always asking us why we don’t play more originals,” Ezekiel says. “I have no interest in writing songs. The research is what I love, and we reinterpret the songs we find by adding new elements.”

By contrast, much of Charming Hostess’s material is written by Eisenberg, although she draws on a bewildering variety of texts for her lyrics, ranging from the correspondence and diaries of Walter Benjamin to the verse of Bosnian poet Sem Mehmedinovic. She runs them through her own cerebral Mixmaster and creates delirious music for three female voices and occasional instrumental accompaniment. The result is best described by Ari Davidow, proprietor of the splendid KlezmerShack Web site (www.klezmershack.com) as “what Sweet Honey in the Rock might sound like if they had a bit more punk sensibility and broadened their range to include Balkan Ladino and Jewish campfire tunes.”

Eisenberg herself describes Charming Hostess’ music as “nerdy-sexy-commie-girlie,” and can number Ezekiel as one her most enthusiastic fans. Golem and Charming Hostess played a number of concerts together in California last fall, each described the experience as a joy.

“We even did some tunes together, which was great fun,” Eisenberg notes.

“I’ve never been so happy with a double bill before,” Ezekiel says. “We’re both really into the background and research and culture behind the music we perform, but we’re not bogged down by it.”

“I was talking to Annette today,” Eisenberg wrote, “and I told her why I think the … music of Charming Hostess and the raucous klezmer of Golem are a good double bill; Charming Hostess does avant music framed by a folk sensibility and Golem does folk music framed by an avant sensibility.”

Sophie Solomon, like Eisenberg and Ezekiel, was trained as a classical musician. Her own sensibility is certainly avant, although she would probably opt for hip-hop rather than punk as a label, and Oi Va Voi’s wildly energetic mix of Yiddish, Balkan, Roma, rock and rap undoubtedly draws on as wide a range of folk musics as Hostess or Golem.

Asked about Solomon, Ezekiel exclaims, “Yeah! She’s taking the old stuff and making it sexy, wild and contemporarily relevant. Totally!”

Solomon’s own musical background includes stints as a DJ at clubs and raves in her native England, and she is probably as well-known here for her collaboration with Josh Dolgin, better known as Socalled, on the “Hip-Hop Khasene,” a spirited meeting of Jewish wedding, turntablism, sampling and rap, as for her frenetic fiddle playing with Oi Va Voi. Coincidentally, Golem was also part of a highly publicized musical spoof of Jewish wedding traditions, “Golem Gets Married,” featuring a cross-dressing bride and groom and the band’s spirited musical readings of traditional tunes.

“Hip-Hop Khasene” is a project that speaks directly to Solomon’s own interests and underlines her affinities with Eisenberg and Ezekiel.

“I want to evoke the Jewish musical experience of the past two centuries,” she says, discussing the live version of “Khasene.” “You hear a sample from Naftule Brandwein at the same time that [80-year-old] Elaine Hoffman Watts is playing onstage with David Krakauer and me.”

Socalled’s sampling magic and breakbeat manipulation speak directly to Solomon’s desire to combine Jewish music cross-generationally and her own cross-cultural influences.

“The collage nature of what Josh does is particularly interesting to me,” she says. “I wanted to do something that is authentic — these are real, living wedding traditions — and the concert is like a wedding from beginning to end, the wedding ceremony from ‘Dobriden’ to ‘Zay Gezunt.’ But I also wanted to do something that raises questions about what ‘authentic’ is. This isn’t 19th-century Eastern Europe.”

In a way, Solomon’s remark about authenticity sums up the distance that punk has traveled from the Sex Pistols, the Dictators and the Ramones through the hip-hop world and into the contemporary Jewish music world inhabited by Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi. As Steven Beeber says, “Hip-hop is the new punk, and has been for a long time.”

So are these women Jewish punk divas or Jewish hip-hop divas or what?

Ari Davidow, a particularly astute observer of everything klezmer and beyond, remarks, “The issue … is less punk than mash-up — the incredible variety of sounds you get when people who have grown up part of the rich tapestry of musical heritages now care enough about Jewish sources to do a Jewish remix.”

Charming Hostess’s most recent album is “Sarajevo Blues,” on the Tzadik label. They will probably be performing in Los Angeles in February. Golem’s most recent CD is “Homesick Songs” on Aeronaut Records. Oi Va Voi’s most recent recording, “Laughter Through Tears,” is on the Outcaste label, and “Hip-Hop Khasene” by Solomon and Socalled is widely available.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.


Task at Hand

In the essay “The World as I See It,” Albert Einstein wrote: “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

I understand tikkun olam, the repairing and healing of our world, as the central calling of our people. All of the prayer, teaching, outreach, pastoral work and congregational activities that I help facilitate lead me back to the notion that they are somehow helping to add the necessary energy into our global cosmos, which can facilitate the advent of a new and better time for all people. And I know that each of us is working, in our own way, to help better the world.

But how do we know what to do, when to do it and how much energy to apply to any given task? We are all so busy, so overscheduled that we need to prioritize the ways in which we help others, ways in which we give back to the world. All of us need the reminder that Einstein found in his life. I know that I struggle with balancing my time among the needs of my local community, my larger Jewish and American communities, Israel and the rest of the world. I learned from the Torah this week, however, that my balancing act might actually not be appropriate.

This Shabbat, we begin Bamidbar. Two verses near the end of the parsha, speaking about the roles of the Levites, say, “But thus do unto them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach unto the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in, and appoint every one to his service and to his burden. But, they shall not go in to see the holy things, as they are being covered, lest they die” (Numbers 4:19-20). It is clear that the work of the Tabernacle was incredibly holy and invariably dangerous, as both the Torah and subsequent mishnaic writings tell us. However, one midrash from Bamidbar Rabbah expounds on the unique dangers facing the Levites:

Rabbi Eleazar Ben Pedat said, in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra: The sanctity of the ark caused the people to be struck down by it, and all would run away preferring, at all costs, to take some other vessel — the table, the candlestick and the altars. The ark would thereby be slighted and the Holy One Blessed Be would be angry with them: let Aaron and his sons come along and give each one their task and burden so that they will not be able to transfer from one service to another and from one burden to another.

In Bamidbar Rabbah, Rabbi Samuel Bar Nachman said: Heaven forbid that the sons of Aaron should leave the ark and run to the table and candlestick. On the contrary, they were ready to give their lives for the ark…. Rather, they knew that whoever carried the ark merited greater reward. All would then leave the table and candlestick and come running to the ark, in order to reap a greater reward. As a result, quarrels would arise and each one would claim the right to carry the ark, thereby slighting the other appurtenances. Let Aaron and his sons come along and give each one their task and burden….

To me, the opposing rabbinic views here illustrate the great struggle in doing tikkun olam. Many of us want to do the work of local healing, which is perhaps not that exciting or glorifying, as incredible and necessary as it is. Yet, if the chance comes along to be part of a larger effort, one that might bring recognition, greater reward and is exciting, we might take that chance, leaving the ordinary, but as important, work to someone else. Conversely, there are those of us who shy away from the larger efforts, seeing them as too burdensome, cumbersome or overwhelming, choosing instead to stay focused on the needs of our local community.

There are dangers in all of these choices, dangers that the midrash helps us to sort out. The work of local efforts, namely homeless shelters, soup kitchens, clothing drives and volunteering in a number of capacities, can’t be dropped when the chance to work on a larger campaign presents itself. And, the larger campaigns, such as ending the genocide in Darfur, making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, fighting our government as they strip social services from the poorest and neediest in our country and ending poverty and hunger in the world, cannot be shied away from because they are too daunting or overwhelming. We need to be battling on all fronts, each one of us taking the task that we are best suited to fulfill.

That does not mean that we cannot sometimes interchange our tasks and do different things, but rather, we must always be certain that someone is working on both the smaller and the larger tasks of tikkun olam. As Pirke Avot teaches, “The day is short, the work is long … it is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we ever free to desist from trying.”

This midrash helped me to focus my attention and not juggle everything; I hope that it can do the same for you. May God bless our hands as we work in all corners of our community, nation and world to bring about a world of peace, humanity, justice, food and love for all beings.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Learn more about PJTC at

A Divine Call to Action

Once, on a mission to Israel, we needed a minyan for a prayer service during the airplane flight. We were a total of six men in our group, so we began to scan the plane for the remaining four for the requisite 10 men.

As I went up and down the aisles, one fellow turned to me and said, “Rabbi, make sure you get Jews for the minyan.”

I looked at him in astonishment and assured him that I had no other plans. But why was he worried? He replied that many years ago on a flight to Israel they also needed four men to complete a minyan. They went around calling out “We need four for a minyan — four for a minyan.” Before they knew it, four guys got up and joined them. They handed the men kippot and started the service. Suddenly the newcomers stopped the proceedings and asked what was happening. The others explained that they needed four more men to make the minyan. The newcomers, astounded, said, “We thought you were asking for four Armenians, so we joined you. We are not even Jewish.”

These fellows responded to the call but misinterpreted the message. This week’s Torah portion teaches the same lesson about the importance of hearing the call correctly. The portion begins with the words: “And the Eternal called unto Moses,” (Leviticus 1:1). Our sages point out that this wording is unusual. Generally, in Scripture, we encounter the expression that “God said to Moses” or “God spoke to Moses.” As one rabbi noted, you don’t have to be a biblical scholar or even barely familiar with Hebrew grammar to appreciate that the phrase “and He called” suggests that the mind of the person addressed is not attuned to or in communion with the mind of the speaker. One doesn’t call a person with whom one is in intimate conversation or rapport. One calls a man to attract his attention.

The midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni uses this insight to provide a beautiful homily. The midrash points out that the one who flees from positions of honor and authority, achieves honor and authority. The Yalkut provides many examples of great Jewish leaders who illustrate this principle and comments that Moses represented the best example of all.

The Yalkut tells us how Moses tried to reject the appointment to be the savior of the Jewish people and lead them out of Egypt. God, however, was adamant, and Moses performed admirably. At this point the Midrash comments:

“In the end he brought them out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, brought down manna from heaven, provided water from the well and quail from heaven, caused them to be surrounded with the clouds of glory and erected for them the sanctuary. Having reached this stage, Moses said, ‘What more is there for me to do?’ And he sat in retirement. Thereupon the Holy One, Blessed be He, reproved him saying, ‘By your life! There is still a task for you to perform that is even greater than that which you have done until now — to teach my children my laws and to instruct them how to worship Me.'”

If “Vayikra,” the call to continue his task, applied to the greatest leader we ever had, how much more does it apply today?

Why, for example, is philanthropy for Jewish causes suffering among the most affluent and generous of Jewish generations?

Why is higher education in Jewish studies absent among the most educated and cultured in Jewish history?

Why is commitment to a Jewish homeland missing after only one generation past the Holocaust?

At a similar juncture in Jewish history, the great sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That question challenges us today to go back to work, “Vayikra,” to achieve a positive response to God’s call.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Finding a Kindred Spirit in a Patriarch

"The Discovery of God: Abraham and The Birth of Monotheism" by David Klinghoffer (Doubleday, $26).

David Klinghoffer’s biography of the patriarch Abraham rides on a new wave of interest in the Bible, and a growing sense of the Abrahamic heritage that Christians, Jews and Muslims share.

Many books on biblical subjects have recently been published. In addition to Kinghoffer’s "The Discovery of God," there is Norman Podhoretz’s "The Prophets" (Free Press), Bruce Feiler’s "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths" (HarperCollins) and James Kugel’s "The God of Old" (Free Press). Also, forthcoming is Leon Kass’ "The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis" (Free Press). Literary analyses of the Bible have long been with us, but undoubtedly the current trend has also been influenced by the ascendancy of the Religious Right in American politics, and the high visibility of Bible study in the White House.

Klinghoffer, however, has written his biography of Abraham out of a deeply felt personal affinity. As a convert born to a non-Jewish mother but adopted by Jewish parents — he discusses his spiritual odyssey in "The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey To Jewish Orthodoxy"(Free Press, 1999) — Klinghoffer sees himself as the spiritual son of Abraham in a very immediate way. He feels they both grew up in a spiritual vacuum.

"In [Abraham’s] case, it was the decaying roots of Mesopotamian paganism," Klinghoffer explains in an interview. "In my case, it was secular liberalism," which was found to be spiritually dissatisfying.

Klinghoffer had to reach out beyond his milieu as Abraham went beyond his father, Terach. Perhaps, as a consequence of his personal history, there is much in his Jewish piety that finds common ground with a Christian evangelical approach. He has no problem in depicting Abraham as an evangelist and missionary, a description that might make many Jews cringe.

At the same time, his personal history has made him particularly sensitive to the religious psyche, as he traces Abraham’s awakening to God. Abraham emerges not unlike the contemporary Klinghoffer, with a strong moral sense, as when he bargains with God for the righteous of Sodom, but he is also beset by much self-doubt.

There are no archaeological inscriptions relating to Abraham, or scientific proofs of his existence. Klinghoffer uses the shards of information about the ancient Middle East to piece together the context in which Abraham lived, advancing the theory that Abraham was born at a time of upheaval, a window of opportunity for new views to emerge. Sumerian civilization was in decline. Amorite nomads had swept over Sumer, and it is surmised that Abraham’s ancestors were among these Amorites, who were eventually integrated into Sumerian civilization.

As far as the Abraham story itself, the biblical style is very spare in the information it presents. There are also repetitions and excisions, typos and poor literary structures. Klinghoffer is hypercritical of the secular scholars who attribute this to the fact that the Bible is a composite of various texts from different times, which a redactor pieced together. He proposes instead the traditional view that the Bible was divinely given, and encoded in the Bible are interpretations of the biblical stories, later collected in what is called Midrash. They flesh out the cryptic dialogue of the Bible, and expand upon the context in which events are happening.

It is from the Midrash that we learn that Abraham faced 10 tests. Nimrod, who represents the ruling class of Mesopotamia at the time, throws him into a fiery furnace when he refuses to accept paganism — and God himself rescues Abraham. Klinghoffer explains that until that time, his recognition of God was an intellectual one. But once God saved him, Abraham’s faith becomes grounded in an actual relationship.

Sensitive to the vagaries of the religious psyche, Klinghoffer traces the relationship of Abraham and God through all its vicissitudes: Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command to leave his homeland for the unknown territory of Canaan; God’s promise that he will create a nation from him; the influence of the Egyptian Hagar upon Abraham. The stakes are high.

According to Klinghoffer, Abraham’s pilgrimage "was all about either losing or securing the future of his monotheism."

That is why the final and tenth test, the Akedah (Binding of Isaac), answering God’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac, is so incomprehensible.

Abraham had stood up to many challenges, but according to the Midrash, he is plagued by self-doubt, that he has not sufficiently expressed his love of God. It gives lie to the view that the religious person lives in the smug certainty of his belief system.

Through the Akedah, God wants to teach Abraham about himself.

"Abraham did not know what the course of his emotions would be … his inner response," Klinghoffer writes. "To slay Isaac would mean rendering his whole life’s work absurd…. Also, it would nullify the virtue of chesed (kindness) for which he was known."

Nevertheless, the Akedah was necessary, according to Klinghoffer, to demonstrate to Abraham his dedication to God.

Klinghoffer is insistent that Abraham was a historical figure. And yet it is difficult to reconcile this assertion with his literal approach to Midrash. At times, he uses the Midrash as a springboard to a deeper understanding of Abraham and monotheism. But he often relates to Midrash as literal reality, rather than symbolic or dreamlike, the "Unconscious of the Bible," as the biblical interpreter and teacher, Dr. Aviva Zornberg has suggested.

Klinghoffer is not a fundamentalist. But he uses Midrash in a fundamentalist manner. He is a personable writer, with a large range of voices: biblical interpreter, religious psychologist, commentator on contemporary culture. A former editor of the right-wing journal, The National Review, and educational director of "Toward Tradition," an educational movement of Jews allied with Christians, he is very much aware of Abraham, not only as the founder of the Jewish people, but as the prophet of a monotheism from which Christianity and Islam emerged. Unfortunately, there has been much sibling rivalry among the heirs of Abraham, with the Jews, the original people of Abraham, particularly suffering Christian persecution. Klinghoffer feels that in recent years, this has begun to change. There is greater rapprochement, at least among Jews and Christians, as many Christians support Israel, returning to the basic biblical story.

At a time when the conflict with Islam is particularly felt, he holds out the ecumenical hope that someday all the heirs of the Abrahamic heritage, including Islam, will be able to live in peace, and the "household of Abraham can become a paradigm of mutual understanding."

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic writing about social, cultural and religious issues. She’s a columnist for Hadassah Magazine and a regular contributor
to the Jerusalem Report.

The Big Question

We’re now in the midst of a period called Bein HaMetzarim, a three-week period of national mourning for tragedies throughout Jewish history.

The most powerful of these tragedies was the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem; these three weeks culminate with Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates this tragedy.

While growing up, I resented that the Bein HaMetzarim fell during summer vacation. The summer was when we were out of school, unfettered by school rules and homework. Why did the rabbis have to put a damper on a kid’s summer by sticking such a sorrowful period of three weeks smack in the middle? I especially disliked the rabbis for their ban on swimming during the nine days between the first of Av and Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av). You want to restrict my swimming? Do it in February — not during a searing August!

Part of the mourning process is the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) on the evening of Tisha B’Av (Aug. 6). This five-chapter dirge is Jeremiah’s moving account of the First Temple’s destruction. Eicha — how? — was the first word that Jeremiah used to describe the devastation. It expresses the horrified bewilderment of a person who has witnessed his entire world crumble all around him.

The Midrash (Torah commentary) introduces Eicha by noting that three prophets used the word: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, “How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance?” (Deuteronomy 1:12); Isaiah said, “Howhas the faithful city become a harlot?” (Isaiah 1:21); and Jeremiah said, “How does the city sit solitary?” (Lamentations 1:1).

Rabbi Levi said, “It may be likened to a matron who had three groomsmen: one beheld her in her happiness, a second beheld her in her infidelity and the third beheld her in her disgrace. Similarly, Moses beheld Israel in their glory and happiness … Isaiah beheld them in their infidelity … Jeremiah beheld them in their disgrace; and all three exclaimed, ‘eicha!'”

We can understand the connection between Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s “hows.” Isaiah was lamenting the Jews’ spiritual nadir shortly before the destruction of the Temple, while Jeremiah was lamenting the consequent destruction. But when Moses exclaimed “eicha,” he wasn’t lamenting at all. He led the Jews during their spiritual apex, hundreds of years before the Temple era. He was saying, “Wow! What a colossal people. How can I, humble Moses, possibly bear the brunt of this massive nation?”

He was a doting parent, kvelling at the spiritual, emotional and physical growth of his children over the course of 40 years in the desert. Why, then, does the Midrash tie his “how” with the other two?

The fact that Tisha B’Av falls in the summer is not just a stroke of bad luck. God deliberately destroyed the Temple in the summer. Summer, when the world is outside their closed homes and offices, taking vacations, having fun. Summer, when there is the greatest propensity for calamity, because of our carefree attitudes. This is why it’s worthwhile to take some time amid all the fun to contemplate our sad history; to remember that it was these good times that precipitated a carelessness in our spiritual devotion that escalated into the ultimate destruction.

What’s the last thing we do at a Jewish wedding, under the chuppah? Break the glass. We deliberately put a damper on our simcha (celebration), to remind ourselves that our intense happiness should be channeled toward productive spirituality, instead of the narcissistic gratification — prevalent in too many marriages today — that leads to so much destruction. One thought of the Temple is all it takes to put our joy in the proper perspective. God, then, is not being a killjoy; He’s just reminding us that our “summer fun” should be integrated with spirituality, not estranged from it. And that’s precisely why Moses shouted “eicha.” Remember, says Moses, use your joy and prosperity as tools in the service of God instead of tools for self-destruction.

I know it may be inconvenient to have Tisha B’Av during summer. It may interfere with your summer plans, be it a cruise, family getaway or just a day at the beach. But try to take some time to appreciate all the divine blessings in your life, and connect them to the tragedies that have occurred throughout history and still continue. Connect the “how” of a prosperous today to the “how” of yesterday’s persecutions. Break the proverbial glass this year on Tisha B’Av. Appreciate that our heaven-sent blessings are tools for coming closer to our Maker. If we do our job correctly, next summer we’ll get to swim on Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehila at Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park.

A Portion of Parshat Shmot

It’s a new year and a new book of the Bible. Last week we finished Genesis. This week we start Exodus. In it we will follow the Israelites’ move from slavery to becoming a free nation. Have you decided to free yourself of anything this year? Are you letting go of watching too much Nickelodeon or being glued to your GameBoy? What will you become free of this year?

When God tells Moses that he must be the Israelites’ leader, Moses says, “But they will not listen to me. It is difficult for me to speak.”

Rabbis have a famous Midrash about this verse:

Pharaoh’s astrologers discovered that Israel’s leader had been born. They wanted to find that leader and kill him. In order to test Moses, they placed a plate of jewels and a plate of coals in front of him. They figured, if he goes for the jewels, he’s the future leader. Moses did indeed go for the jewels, but an angel took his hand and moved it to the burning coals. Baby Moses burned his hand and put it in his mouth, thus burning his tongue. From that day on, he could not speak well.

What is a Midrash? It is a story that the rabbis write in order to answer a question. In this case, the question is: “Why is Moses unable to speak?” The Midrash tells us this story for a reason. It says: Yes, it may seem cruel to have to hurt a little baby like that, but it had to happen if the Israelites were going to be saved. It says: Sometimes you must look past the immediate hurt and understand the good that will come from it.

Book Corner

“The Market Wedding,” by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Regolo Ricci. October 2000. For ages 5-10

Two poor shopkeepers fall in love, spend all their savings on a very fancy wedding. Their friends, who are poor, don’t feel that they are good enough to attend. But the newlyweds won’t experience any joy if their friends can’t share in the simcha. Read and find out how it ends. Richly detailed illustrations of old Toronto add a nostalgic feel to this story, based on an old tale by Jewish writer Abraham Cahan.

A Divine Voice

God spoke to me once when I was 12 years old. Although it happened years ago, I remember it as clearly as if it were today. Revelation is a tricky thing. I am reminded of the Midrash that when God gave the commandments at Mt. Sinai, God speaks to the Children of Israel in a divine voice so powerful they are too terrified to hear anything beyond the very first word of the first commandment. Since even that was too much to bear, God arranged it so they only heard the first letter of the first word. The first word is Anohi (“I am”), and the first letter is an alef, which is silent. So the rabbis teach us that what the Jewish people heard when God spoke was the Divine Silence of the mitzvot. Within that Divine Silence, each woman and man experienced her or his own unique divine revelation.

That was my experience, too. It happened on a Boy Scout trip to the High Sierras in the summer after sixth grade. It should have been one of the great summers of my life. Instead it was a disaster. In that one summer, I went to camp in Catalina, Jewish summer camp in Saratoga and a High Sierra backpacking experience. I was miserable, anxious and homesick during each one.

I sat on the sidelines during the entire time at Catalina, depressed and unwilling to participate in much of anything. I was actually sent home early from Camp Saratoga (an experience that left me one of the few kids in history to be told he “failed” camp!), and I was profoundly homesick in my pup tent high atop the Sierra Mountains — even though my father went on the trip with us.

Now I suppose I could simply chalk it up to a summer of raging adolescent hormones. It was certainly that. But that wouldn’t really tell the whole story. For adolescence is not only a time of great physical upheaval, it is often the most emotionally disorienting and confusing time in our lives as well. It certainly was for me.

When I was growing up, I was always the smallest kid in class. Whenever we took class pictures and lined up according to height, I was inevitably at the end of the line. I’m not sure if anyone has done a double-blind study of such things, but I can tell you from personal experience that the simple logistical decision of lining up kids for a picture can seem to have near cosmic significance to the fragile ego of a child. I was certain that being at the end of the line was as much a judgment on my social stature as it was on my physical size.

It was this less-than-secure sense of self worth that I shlepped with me to all those camps that summer, particularly prevalent high atop the mountain in the Sierras.

It must be something about mountains. For it was there in this week’s portion that Moses had his encounter with God, and it was on a mountain that I had mine. I have often wondered how long Moses had to stand and watch before he noticed that the bush was burning but not burning up. The Torah tells us that only after his internal realization did God effect a divine revelation. In my case, I was alone in the tent when I heard God’s whisper. To this day I don’t know why. I only know I heard an unmistakable message to stop whining, and start worshipping — to stop focusing on all I wasn’t and start realizing all that I was and the miracles that were everywhere if I was willing to open my eyes and see them. I was only 12, but my life has never been the same.

Steven Carr Reuben is rabbi at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

The Truth Hurts

Before God created the human being, according to alegend of the Midrash, He consulted the angels of heaven. The angelof peace argued, “Let him not be created; he will bring contentioninto the world.” But the angel of compassion countered, “Let him becreated; he will bring lovingkindness into the world.” The angel oftruth argued, “Let him not be created; he will be deceitful and fillthe world with lies.” And the angel of justice countered, “Let him becreated; he will attach himself to righteousness.” What did God do?He threw truth into the Earth and proceeded to create the humanbeing.

The Rabbis knew that there is a fundamentalincompatibility between human beings and truth. We don’t want truth.We can’t tolerate truth. Especially truth about ourselves — ourfailures, our limitations, our finitude. Once a year, at Yom Kippur,Jewish tradition forces us to face the truth.

Yom Kippur is an unusual holiday. We are such apassionately life-affirming culture. We cherish and sanctify life.Any ritual law of the tradition may be suspended to save or protect ahuman life. We say “L’Chaim!” (“To Life!”) over every glass ofwine.

But on Yom Kippur, we confront death. We rehearsedeath. We deny the body — fasting (which, for Jews, is a form ofdeath), abstaining from sexual intimacy, and removing our jewelry andfinery, our fashionable clothes, our polished, comfortable shoes, todon the simplest of garb. Tradition dictates the wearing of a kittel– a death shroud. In medieval monasteries, monks slept each night intheir coffins, to remind themselves that the wage of sin is death.That’s morbid. But to don a shroud once a year, to seriously confrontdeath, is cleansing. For, in the face of death, all therationalizations, all the excuses, all the defenses fall away, and weare forced to see who and what we really are.

The philosopher Franz Rosensweig taught that onYom Kippur, the Jew is given the unique opportunity to see his or herlife through the eyes of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, whatin our lives matters? What is real? What is important? What isvaluable? And what, from eternity’s perspective, are all the needlessobsessions and worries that waste our souls and sap ourstrength?

Despite all our evasions, the truth is that wedon’t have an endless string of tomorrows. Life is finite. And life’sfinitude forces us to have priorities and makes our choicesimportant. Pretend for a moment that you had only 25 hours to live.To whom would you run to say, “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” or “I loveyou”? What relationships would you attempt to resolve, to repair?What would you be proud of in your life? What would you regret? Whatwould you most miss? Now, why are you waiting? I have been a rabbilong enough to know that the saddest, most bitter tears at thegraveside are those for the life not lived, for the love not shared,for the tenderness not expressed, for the words unspoken.

“Teach us to number our days,” prays the Psalmist,”to get us a heart of wisdom.” Ordinarily a morbid thought. But oncea year, confronting the truth liberates us from the bondage ofillusions and excuses so that we can begin the new year with renewedstrength, with renewed vision, with renewed hope. Gemar Tov. May yoube sealed in God’s Book of Life for a year of sweetness and peace.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.