Wednesday, July 19, 2017

We the Sheeple

If Torah portions were countries, Matot would be New Zealand.
No, that has nothing to do with Middle-earth; it's just that Matot has a lot of sheep, more than people. Arguably, it should have a pretty epic Battle of the Five Armies too, but the five kings of Midian are eliminated pretty quickly in Numbers 31. (Down with the Pentarchy!) The Torah then spends 46 verses excruciatingly detailing the fate of the booty, which is tallied ewe first.
And the booty, being the rest of the plunder which the men of war had caught, was six hundred thousand and seventy thousand and five thousand sheep (31:32).
Why is this so important? Counting sheep is a metaphor for an activity so boring it's guaranteed to put you to sleep. Could sheep represent something else? Many of the Prophets liken Israel to God's flock, from Amos to Micah, from Jeremiah to Ezekiel (36:37-38):
I will multiply their people like sheep. Like the sheep for offerings, like the sheep of Jerusalem on her holidays, so will the ruined cities be filled with people like sheep.
Now, if Israel are sheeple (in the good sense), what would be the significance of the number 675,00? Fortunately, if we're looking to get arithmetical, Numbers is the Book for us.
Flip back a few chapters (to 26), and we find a census of the Israelites earlier that year, totaling 601,730. But the 23,000 Levites are counted separately, so let's call it about 625,000.
But immediately before the census, 24,000 fall in a plague (that, by the way, is the reason for war with Midian in the first place). That brings us to 649,000.
Ten chapters before, we are told that fifteen thousand perished in the Korahite rebellion and its aftermath. That makes 664,000.
Now we have to guesstimate. There are two massive plagues that take a bite out of the people: one in ch. 11 when they eat some bad quail ("a very great plague"), and one in ch. 21 when they are beset by snakes ("a great many people died among Israel"). Let's call it a thousand each, which would bring us to 666,000.
(I know, between the lamb metaphors and the 6-6-6, it's getting very New Testament-y in here. But bear with me.)
Now we have to skip back to the Book of Exodus and the first major catastrophe after leaving Egypt: the sin of the Golden Calf in ch. 32. Its worshipers are dispatched by three methods (see Talmud Yoma 66b): by drinking the water with ground-up Calf in it; by Levite swordsmen; by a plague directly from God. The verse only tells us about the death toll from the middle, immediate method, three thousand. But assuming the other two methods had similar casualties, that would bring us to 9,000. Add that to 666,000, and you get 675,000.
This is the heartbreaking part. The war with Midian is Moses' last hurrah. "Wreak the Israelites' vengeance upon the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people" (Num. 31:2). It's only natural for him to record it in painstaking detail, especially the parts with echoes of the past: not only the generation whose children would fulfill their dreams, but the tens of thousands who never got that far. All those who never got to see the Promised Land weigh on Moses' soul -- until he too is buried beside them.W

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Wondy's Tzeniut

Said Rabbi Johanan: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty (tzeniut) from (cf. Talmud Eruvin 100b).
OK, that's a free translation. The Talmud actually refers to hatul, the post-biblical Hebrew word for cat. But in Scripture itself, hatul is the term for a wrap or cloak, and in this summer's Wonder Woman, Diana spends her time off the battlefield in a cloak. No Man's Land in November is chilly, remember.
Meanwhile, the public debate over issues of tzeniut is not cooling down at all. My social-media feed is swamped with disturbing articles about how hot some five-year-olds are, mansplaining pieces on sex separation at graduation ceremonies and Supreme Court cases over slut-shaming mayors. The Wailing Wall wailing is, at its root, about how immodest some men find women at prayer. The debate over dress codes (for women only) has spread from the Knesset to Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, actual sexual abuse at Tel Aviv's Belz Talmud Torah and the denunciation of halachic prenups by American Gedolim (Torah "greats") -- y'know, the stuff which actually sullies Judaism's reputation -- barely registers.
Maybe it's time for a refresher on what tzeniut really is. The favorite verse employed by the modesty police is Psalms 45:13/14:
All honor of the princess is within; her raiment is of golden interlacements.
Sounds a lot like Princess Diana's golden tiara, bracers and lasso -- but I digress. The Talmud invokes this verse three times. The first time, it is to explain why the women of Ammon and Moab are not on the hook for their husbands' inhospitality (Yevamot 77a). But the next two times, the verse provides a hava amina, a supposition, which the text immediately corrects.
You might think that even so she should not go about to earn a living because, as Scripture says, "All honor of the princess is within," but now you know [otherwise].(Gittin 12a)
Rather, this refers to the litigants. Now, do men come to seek justice and women not come to seek justice? You might suppose so... But why would you suppose so? You might say that is not the way of a woman, as it says "All honor of the princess is within," so it tells us [otherwise]. (Shevuot 30a)
In other words, the Talmud goes out of its way to correct the misapprehensions of this verse, lest tzeniut considerations lead us to exclude women from the courtroom or the workforce and saddle them with the responsibility of hosting guests.
And what about the battlefield? There's a verse for that, Joel 2:16: "The groom shall leave his chamber, and the bride her huppa." The Talmud (Sota 44b) says this refers to any war which is a mitzva.
Yes, some people will, in practice, limit tzeniut to a code of dress. They will clutch their pearls over Diana of Themyscira's short skirt and bare shoulders. But there's a reason for Wondy's functional attire. (In fact, the biblical "Gird your loins!" refers to pulling up your hem so your legs are free for battle.) She is the honorable princess, portrayed by an Israeli Jewess, and she will not be forced from the workplace, courthouse or battlefield. Instead, she's fighting for the three pillars of truth, justice and peace (Avot 1:18).
Sometimes you can learn a lot more about tzeniut at the movies than in the beit midrash.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Up Shittim Creek

Manspreading is a problem of biblical proportions.
In the final verse of this week's Torah portion, the Israelites arrive at their final station in the desert (Num. 22:1): "Then the Israelites traveled to the Plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho."

Yet the final chapter of next week's portion begins (ibid. 25:1): "Israel settled in the Shittim, and the men began to whore with Moabitesses." (Yes, men can whore; in fact, in the Bible, the verb is more often employed in the masculine than in the feminine.)
Wait, "in the Shittim"? What are they doing there? Lower-cased, shittim are acacia trees, but here it's a place name -- one we've never seen before. We have to skip ahead to the travelogue in Numbers 33 to understand that:
They traveled from the mountains of Abarim, and they camped at the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. And they camped on the plains of Moab along the Jordan from the House of the Wastes to the meadow of the Shittim. (vv. 48-49)
After 40 repetitions of the refrain "They traveled from [X], and they camped at [Y]," suddenly we have encampment without departure. The camp of Israel does not move, but the men of Israel do -- to the point of settling in Shittim.
The results of this are catastrophic, as the Israelites begin embracing Shittite culture, in particular the worship of Baal Peor. What makes this Baal so bad? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) explains:
Rav Judah said in Rav's name: A gentile woman once fell sick. She vowed, 'If I recover, I will go and serve every idol in the world.' She recovered, and proceeded to serve all idols. On reaching Peor, she asked its priests, 'How is this worshiped'? They replied, 'People eat beets, drink beer, and then make diarrhea before it.' She replied, 'I would rather fall sick again than serve an idol in such a manner.'
However, the men of Israel lack the self-respect of this paganess, so "Israel adhered to Baal Peor, and the Lord's anger raged against Israel."
What follows is a plague that kills tens of thousands of Israelites, then a war of vengeance waged by Israel with even more casualties.
And that's why, when the time comes to decamp from the Plains of Moab, Joshua (2:1-3:1) sends spies "from the Shittim." They go to the house of a whore in Jericho, but the only thing they seek from her is information. In return, they spare her and her family, and the Israelites are able to cross the Jordan to the Promised Land -- with focus and purpose.
But this is not the last time Shittim shows up in Scripture. Joel 4:18 states: "In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water. A fountain will flow out of the Lord's house and will water the stream of Shittim."

Shittim represents the wild excesses of a young nation -- unruly, unbound, unmoored. The Temple, God's house, symbolizes divine inspiration: peace, tranquility, purity, purpose, justice.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could think about it in that way again?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Secret Jewish Origins of!

While Moses may sound like an Egyptian name, did you know that Moses was portrayed in the move History of the World, Part I by noted Jew Mel Brooks? What about Moe of the Three Stooges, birth name Moses Harry Horwitz? Oh, and bartender Moe Szyslak from The Simpsons is voiced by Hank Azaria... a Jew!
OK, I made that quote up. But let's be honest, you've probably seen a lot of these articles over the past few years. Jewish media need to be on top of trends, and you can't let a story go cold... or even a body. Did a beloved musician die tragically? Read The Forward's "The Secret Jewish History of Chris Cornell and Soundgarden." (There is none.) What about a terrorist attack? Look, it's The Forward again with "Can Kabbalah Help 'Broken' Ariana Grande Heal After Concert Bombing?" (Only if Madonna counts the sephirot backwards.) Maybe it's time to get political? Tablet screams: "Ivanka Trump Mistakenly Identifies the Western Wall as Judaism's 'Holiest Site.'" (The pedantic author also gets it "wrong.") And these are only from the last month!
But this star-kaker trend may have reached its nadir with an article from Haaretz, the reputed gold standard of Jewish/ Israeli media.
I refer to Nathan Abrams' "The Secret Jewish Origins of Wonder Woman," which is so much the epitome of anti-journalism I expected to see it in The Qwardian.
It starts off with a tiresome retread of the international hand-wringing over Gal Gadot: Is she white? Is she Zionist? Why does that matter? Actually, Abrams glosses over the third question, because he needs to get to his thesis, which is about Diana of Themyscira, not Gal of Rosh HaAyin--that she is secretly Jewish!
Wait, Wonder Woman had Jewish creators? No, but lots of Golden Age comic-book superheroes did, so...
Wait, the character is Jewish? Sure, she was molded from clay, and that's got to be a Golem of Prague reference, because there's no precedent in Greek mythology, right...
But her publisher, MC Gaines, was Jewish, so that counts via the Sandler Standard ("So many Jews are in showbiz/ Tom Cruise isn't, but I heard his agent is!").
I mean, tikun olam, fighting Nazis, feminism all seem Jewy, so... Case closed!

What really sticks in my Golden Girdle of Gaea is the rank ignorance and laziness of this piece. You see, there is a Jewish comic book legend who wrote Wonder Woman longer than anyone, a stunning run of over twenty years, from #22 in 1947 to #176 in 1968. His name is Robert Kanigher, son of Rebecca and Ephraim from Romania. You don't need to strain to make Bob Kanigher Jewish. Not only did he shape Wondy's story from the late Golden Age to the height of the Silver Age, he created iconic superheroines Black Canary and Rose & Thorn (not to mention Wonder Girl). He also created Ragman, the vigilante from Gotham City who actually turns out to be Jewish (and inspired by the Golem).
Jews have a lot to be proud of, in terms of our culture, art and science. The desperate need to make every hot celebrity or cause "Jewish" belittles that proud heritage. So raise a glass to Bob and Gal, but don't try to dunk a superhero made of clay in the mikveh!

Monday, June 5, 2017


We never settled on a good name.
National Religious? Religious Zionist? Srugim, the cheeky, called us, after the kippot serugot (knitted/crocheted yarmulkes) our men wear. Modern Orthodox, foreigners called us. Mizrachistim, the ultra-Orthodox called us. Messianists, the secular left called us.
I’ve always preferred Dati, which is what the pollsters call us. Dat is a biblical word, but of foreign (Persian) origin, which exemplifies what we stand for: an unwavering commitment to Jewish law and tradition, on one hand, and engagement with contemporary society, on the other. We sought to build a bridge between the secular, alongside whom we worked and lived and fought, and the Haredi, whose talmudic language we were conversant in and cherished.
But I’m not sure that’s true anymore, especially considering what happened just the day before yesterday. It didn’t make much news, but slowly filtered through social media: convicted sex-offender Mordechai Elon opened his new “Jerusalem Hall of Meeting and Study” to muted fanfare. Here, on Israel National News (Arutz 7), you can watch him installing the mezuzah to dedicate the site.  INN helpfully puts it in the “Kippa Seruga” section, naturally.
I’ve talked about Elon before — wait, he’s a rabbi, one must not forget that! Let’s give him his proper title then: I’ve talked about Pederabbi Elon before in this forum, in “Sorry, Rabbi, it’s not OK” and “Indecent acts.” But I naively thought that he would go away after his conviction for sexually assaulting a minor and his decision not to appeal.
I could not have been more wrong. Pederabbi Elon keeps popping up, again and again, to give public Torah lectures, even though he’s legally barred from contact with youth. And now he’s got a brand spanking new study hall, across from Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, 59 King George St.
Now, the Elon family is Dati royalty. His father was deputy president of the Supreme Court, where one of his brothers served as well; while another (recently deceased) was Minister of Tourism, his sister-in-law being a famous author. Oh, and one of his sons is chief rabbi of Caesarea, where our prime minister has his palatial residence.
I thought we Dati were supposed to be different. Didn’t we criticize the Haredim for welcoming back convicted sex offenders like Pederabbi Eliezer Berland? Aren’t we the ones who believe in our court system fulfilling the vision of the Prophets to build a society of justice and compassion? Yet, with nary an admission of guilt nor apology, we welcome back Elon, and the most we can hope for is a Facebook debate: Rabbi Lichtenstein opposed him, Rabbi Druckman supports him, ask your Local Orthodox Rabbi.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. We cancelled our subscriptions to any media that challenged us, and our reading list now spans the “spectrum” from BaSheva to Israel Hayom. We clustered in like-minded communities and cut ourselves off, built yeshivot and synagogues that tolerate only one type of Judaism, and founded political parties to funnel money to them. We out-haredied the Haredim. Now what?
At long last, have we left no sense of decency?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Biblical slut-shaming

Once Rashi calls you a slut, it's hard to come back from that.
But that's exactly what happens to the only woman named in Leviticus, in the passage of the Blasphemer.
And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses. His mother's name was Shelomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. (Lev. 24:11)

This lauds Israel, as the verse publicizes her to say she alone was a zona. (Rashi ad loc.)
Now, you might quibble about my translation of zona, but it's certainly not a term of endearment or approbation. Why would Rashi (c. 1100) say something so horrible about this woman? Well, there's a strong Midrashic tradition connecting the "Egyptian man" who fathered the Blasphemer to the "Egyptian man" slain by Moses way back in the second chapter of Exodus. This Egyptian overseer was beating a Hebrew man, and according to the Midrash, it's because the latter discovered the former with the latter's wife, Shelomit.
However, there are two radically different approaches to this story, though both are in Midrash Rabba. This compendium has many different sources, so Exodus Rabba and Leviticus Rabba are not by the same people (or even from the same millennia).
LR 32 calls Shelomit a strumpet, maintaining that she used her flirtatious laugh to draw the Egyptian "to corruption with her."
ER 1 tells a different story:
She was the only one ever suspected of illicit relations...
For one time an Egyptian overseer came to the home of an Israelite officer, and he set his gaze upon his wife, who was shapely and unblemished. At cockcrow, [the overseer] arose and fetched [the officer] from his house. The Egyptian returned and had sex with his wife--who thought that he was her husband--and impregnated her. Her husband returned to find the Egyptian leaving his house. He asked: "Perhaps he touched you?" She replied: "Yes, but I thought he was you." Once the overseer realized that he had been discovered, he returned [the Israelite] to backbreaking labor, and he started beating him, seeking to kill him. Moses saw this...
We have a term for that now: rape-by-fraud.
This may explain the very different view of Shelomit adopted by the Netziv. In his biblical commentary (Hamek Davar, 1880), he argues:
The verse mentions her by name because she was renowned in Israel; it was her prominence which caused him to be brought to Moses and for everything to be done according to the letter of the law. Otherwise, the bystanders would have stoned him immediately upon hearing something so outrageous, as alluded to in the next verse. But because "His mother's name was Shelomit, daughter of Divri," and she spoke prodigiously, she brought the mob to a halt and had him conveyed to court, "And they placed him under watch."
Indeed, every element of her name alludes to this. Shelomit brings peace (shalom) through the word (davar) of truth, allowing her son to be brought to judgement (din). 
The fact is that Shelomit is the lone named representative of the generation of women whose righteousness brings about the Exodus (Talmud Sota 11b) and who live to enter the Land of Israel (Sifre Num. 133). There must be a reason that her name is carried by so many decent people, men and women, throughout Scripture. There'll be no slut-shaming of Shelomit on our watch!

Saturday, April 29, 2017


When is a national dream realized? When does a people's journey reach its destination?
I ask because it's that time of year again, as we confront the string of post-biblical holidays in the spring. The Exodus itself seems to have an ambiguous ending, as for millennia we've debated whether the atzeret (from atzor, stop) of Passover, its finale, is the seventh day (as in the Torah) or the fifty-first day (as in the Talmud). But here's a truly radical suggestion: what if the Exodus actually lasted sixty-nine years?
This is suggested by some of the verses we read yesterday, in the passage discussing house leprosy. Attributed to Rabbi Eleazar b. Shimon (of Lag baOmer fame) is "There never was a leprous house, and never will be. Then why was its law written? That you may study it and receive reward" (Talmud Sanhedrin 71a), so let's expound a bit.
The law of the leprous house is preceded by God's declaration that he will give the Land of Canaan to the Israelites "as a possession" (Lev. 14:33-35). The Talmud (Yoma 12a) says:
As a possession"--until they conquer it. If they have conquered it, but not divided it by tribe; if they have divided by tribe, but not by clan; if they have divided it by clan, but each does not recognize what is theirs, whence do we know [that the law does not yet apply]? "And whosever house it is shall come"--the one to whom it is unique.
Thus, there are four stages of "possession": military, political, communal and personal. Now, how long does each take? The Talmud talks of seven years of conquest and seven of division (Zevahim 118b), which accounts for the first two stages. We can assume that the next two also take seven years each (seven years being the standard agricultural cycle in the Torah), which would jibe with the total given for Joshua's rule: 28 years (Seder Olam Rabbah 12:1).
But when should our count start? Well, we famously talk about four expressions of redemption used by God right before he sends Moses to bring the Ten Plagues on Egypt (Exodus 6), but God also promises "I will bring you to the land" and "I will give it to you as an inheritance." (Hm, "I will give" (ve-natati)--the exact same term used in the verses from Leviticus.) That's about a year before the Jews leave Egypt, so we have 41 years of Moses + 28 of Joshua = 69 years until God's promise is realized. As the latter puts it (23:14): "“Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed."
So here we are, 69 years after Independence. What will Israel be in year 70 and beyond? That's up to each of us, and our unique part of this glorious inheritance. The dreaming is over; time to wake up.