LECH LECHA – on journey, on biblical sexism, on circumcision, and on the power of choice.

Lech Lecha means “go forth” and in this parshah God tells Abraham to leave his home and venture forth (to an unnamed destination). In return he promises Abraham a progeny numbering greater than the stars. Abraham, his wife (Sarah), and nephew (Lot) in tow, makes the journey. Religious authorities have always viewed Abraham’s “wandering” as a precursor to the larger Jewish wandering in Exodus, and also a sign of his extreme faith. The text foretells that the Jews will be enslaved but then set free (later
confirmed in the book of Exodus – a sign that God had a plan all along).
What can Humanistic Jews learn of this biblical scene? Perhaps not that we are all living according to a divine plan, but that sometimes there is no plan and things have a way of working out. Abraham does not know where he will end up, but he makes his journey with courage. This may resonate with many Jews whose families had to journey to new lands for the good of their future descendants. Abraham is promised a nation, but the average Jew who moved to North America, Israel, or another country of refuge, did
so with the hope of prosperity for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. My grandparents, for example, fled Europe after the Holocaust and settled in Uruguay. It is hard to imagine the culture shock of leaving Poland – and Poland under war, at that – to move to South America. Their journey to an unknown place was made with their future progeny in mind. My father was born there immediately after their arrival. In Julius
Caesar, there is a famous line in which Caesar, ignoring warnings concerning the Ides of March, decides to follow his plan no matter what. His story does not end happily. When his henchman bemoan that “Caesar shall go forth,” it is with much trepidation. But Caesar was determined to make his own plan, to chart his own course. In “Lech Lecha” we are asked to think of all of the myriad ways in which journey is metaphorical for transformation. We are empowered to decide how and when we “go forth.” Also important in this passage are the sections pertaining to Hagar (who is also promised that her son will have descendants in great number), and her suffering. This is
the torah portion in which the birth of two nations is signified in text. They are born in conditions of uncertainty and suffering.
Sarah’s infertility is the reason Hagar mothers Abraham’s first child. The story of the jealousy between the women is exemplary of a male chauvinism inherent to the biblical text: the struggles of women are petty, but those of men are heroic. Sarah is jealous of Hagar, and wants her banished. God tells Hagar that if she returns, and submits to Sarah’s harsh treatment, then she will bear a son Ishmael in return for her suffering. The image of Sarah here is hardly positive – striking for the first matriarch Jews revere. The story here establishes the basis for the lingering conflicts between the descendants of
Ishmael (Islam) and those of Isaac (Judaism). But we can find compassion for the matriarchs who ignite this conflict. They are both powerless in a world in which their fertility is the sum total of their worth. They must vie to carry on the Abrahamic promise.
In “Lech Lecha” God and Abraham form their “sacred covenant” in which
Abraham promises that the future generations of males that spring forth from his line with be circumcised. Circumcision is an issue with which many Humanistic Jews wrestle. We do not believe in the “Brit” part of the “Brit Milah” – this covenant with God does not hold meaning for us. While many choose to circumcise due to affiliation with the Jewish community and its historical legacy, as well as for other reasons, this Torah passage no
longer provides the sole reason behind the choice. This is a reminder that throughout the generations Jews have accepted, adopted, and also altered aspects of their heritage. Previous generations were able to chart a course for us – we have followed in the figurative footsteps of our forebears – but we also get to chart our own course as we become fully engaged Jews, citizens, people. As we “go forth” we must decide which elements of tradition we wish to retain, wish we wish to alter, and which we wish to
exclude. These are not always easy choices, but they are ours to make.

Noach – On climate change, on diversity, and on peace

The Noah story reminds us about the fragility of this earth. The imagery of the flood takes on new significance in light of the urgency of climate change. Jewish environmentalism uses the Noah story as an allegory for the consequences of our choices today, something that can unite us in common purpose. Last month, Jews across the religious and cultural spectrum joined the People’s Climate March. We marched as Jews, as people, concerned about one another, our broader human family, and our planet. This was a moment of communities joining together – which also fits with the theme of the Noah parshah.
The text lays out a genealogy of the descendants of Noah. It is a reminder that, according to our earliest stories, we all spring from the same source. This is a repeated theme in the Torah. The many genealogies provided are a reminder that we are descended from these figures. The repetition in later books that we were those who were saved from Egypt (we say this at our Passover seders; we insert ourselves in the Exodus narrative), is a reminder that we are implicated in the stories we read – even centuries later.
Just as we are all meant to believe we were delivered from Egypt, the text encourages us to see ourselves as descended from those who survived the flood. There are other ways in which the Noah story prefigures the Exodus story. The 40 days of rainfall reminds us of the 40 years of wandering. Both Noah and Moses are “deliverers” of our people to a better land. And in both stories we are meant to believe that God saved us.
From a humanistic perspective, we can’t accept that God will
get us out of predicaments (especially those that we ourselves create). Rather, we must
save ourselves. Whatever is the flood that rises around us, seeking to consume us, it is up
to us to build an ark. It is up to us to care for the animal-life of our planet. It is up to us to
seek safety and security wherever we are, and create it in any land on which we find
Also last month, coinciding with the timing of the march, Ha’aretz reported that scientists discovered Ashkenazi Jews stem from approximately 350 people. Like we find in the Noah story – we are family. This parshah concludes with the story of the Tower of Babel. We
have just been told of the various nations on earth that spring from Noah’s line. The tower
of Babel reminds us of diversity – within and without our Jewish family. As Jews, we speak many languages from Yiddish to Ladino to Hebrew to the many diasporic languages we have acquired. We are a diverse group that still comprises only one of many peoples sharing one earth.
As family and community we need to unite in common purpose. We need to come together to build the ark for our day. The Noah story prefigures peace – it gives us the symbols of the dove and the rainbow. The story of the Tower of Babel encourages us to continue to work towards the perpetuation of that peace – despite difference.

Bereshit – On Jews disagreeing from “the beginning,” on Eve’s subservience and subversion, and on worldly beauty and ugliness.

Thanks for returning to my blog! We are at the start of the Torah portion (parshah) cycle for this year. See last week’s post for my view on the what and why of Humanistic Jews reading the Torah. Each week, you’ll see my reflections on the Torah portion of the week, from my view as a rabbi and as an individual. Let’s begin at the beginning with “in the beginning”…

The common joke about Jewish dissonance and disagreement is that if you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions. How fitting, then, that the very first line of the Torah has given way to a multitude of meanings, which arise out of a translation issue (the first of many in the Torah). The first line could be translated as. “When God began to
create heaven and earth.” The same line can also be understood to say “in the beginning of God’s creation.” The two mean vastly different things. In the former, God pre-exists the earth; in the latter, there appears to be a vastness and a void that God fills; God creates himself along with the world. The question arising from the two meanings is a well-known theological problem. for those who believe God created the world, who created
God? This is the perfect entry point for Humanistic Jews. We can see that the Torah does not offer one consistent theological position, but rather it opens up questions and demands that individuals and communities rise to the task of answering them.
In addition to the confusion around how to translate the opening of the Tanakh, we are presented immediately with a contradiction between the first and second chapters. Both tell creation stories and they differ significantly. In chapter 1 we have an account of the creation of the heavens and the earth in six days. It is not, however, the only story we get. The story that immediately follows is of the creation of Adam and the Garden of
Eden. These stories get sewn together in most translations and, it is true, they are not mutually exclusive. Nonetheless the story of Adam and Eve could exist without chapter 1 and many scholars comment that the two stories likely existed separately. What we can learn from this as Humanistic Jews is that our insistence that we can question the world, assert our own ideas about it, and argue about that which we don’t know for sure, is a
long-held part of Jewish tradition. Disagreements even about creation make their way into our foundational text, highlighting the diversity of thought that has always been crucial to Jewish culture and humanity more broadly.
There are still further competing narratives in the same story. In addition to varying theories on how the world was created, the text posits two competing stories for the creation of woman. In chapter one the text says: “And God created man in is image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”. In chapter two, the creation of Adam and Eve, we find that Adam, lacking a “fitting helper”, was made to sleep so that God could “fashion” Eve into a woman from Adam’s rib. In the
first chapter, man and woman are created at the same time and as equals. They are both created in God’s image and they are exist side by side. The Adam and Eve creation story is more narratively interesting. It is written as a story, as opposed to a factual record. Through the narrative, we glean attitudes about women at the time. Eve is created just after Adam has named all of the animals, thus establishing his dominion over the living
things. Eve is created to be Adam’s helper in administering to these things but, given that she is named along with the animals Adam tends, and given that she comes out of his body, the text implies that she is to be subservient to him.
Perhaps her supposed subservience makes her subversion of eating the forbidden fruit all the more shocking. To be fair to Eve, she is not present when God commands Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for this warning comes prior to her creation. However, we know that she knows about the commandment because she relates it to the serpent. Still, though, commentators rarely mark that Eve did not hear the command herself and this may have contributed to her disobedience. Nonetheless, she
provides an interesting figure for woman as temptress. She is one of many women in the bible who are act sinfully due to either weakness or ambition. Others include Lot’s wife, Delilah, and many more.
Many feminist scholars note that Eve does not deserve the bad reputation she gets through the story. She is not the only one who eats of the apple (Adam does too), yet she receives most of the blame. When the God-character questions Adam about it he says that “The woman You put at my side – she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (3.12). Adam plainly and clearly throws Eve under the bus. So much for masculine courage and control. A humanistic reading of this text can see Eve in feminist terms; we celebrate
defiant and strong-willed women; we celebrate the quest for knowledge and power; we believe in questioning authority. The text also begs for a feminist interpretation of the punishment of Eve. The God-character says: “I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3.16). The writers of this story were very clearly trying to put
women in their place; they showed that women are not to be trusted, and are inherently defiant, and thus must be controlled.
Beyond the feminist interpretations of the passage, Eve reminds us that we value knowledge over faith. We do not wish to follow commandments without the knowledge of why they may lead to good. Eve may be responsible for the “fall” but she is also responsible for our capacity to think and criticize, to be fully engaged with our world. She is, therefore, a heroine of Humanistic Judaism.
As the Torah portion continues, we get the story of Cain and Abel. These are the first pair of brothers to know jealousy and to fight. The Torah begins with stories of both creation and destruction. The world we have been given is beautiful, yet through our choices we make it ugly. The expulsion from Eden is one example, and brothers killing brothers is another. This is a reminder that regardless of how we believe the world got here, we have a responsibility to protect it and to protect each other. Life is precious, and
it is the folly of humanity that we sometimes forget our humanity. The first portion of the Torah asks us to pause and wonder at the marvel of our own existence and, simultaneously, to be careful not to squander the wonderful gift that is life.

Humanistic Torah commentaries

Humanistic Torah commentary – weekly blog posts for 5775

This year, each week I will publish a commentary on the weekly parshah. This project was my rabbinic thesis – a Torah commentary from a Humanistic Jewish perspective. Through it, I came to learn, reflect on, and add my voice to the centuries of rabbinic contemplation of our earliest stories and texts. I hope you’ll find these commentaries accessible, engaging, and thought-provoking.
This first entry is my introduction to my Humanistic Torah commentary from that rabbinic thesis. It will set the stage for the weekly writings that will follow the weekly parshah read by Jews around the world. If you’d like more information on how Humanistic Jews view Torah, you can also watch me in this Youtube video from my congregation’s website: http://www.oraynu.org

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6iFhezADC0

“In the beginning….” This is the phrase that begins the vast canon of the Jewish textual tradition. The Torah is the sacred text of the Jewish people, and has been read, studied and interpreted for over two millenia. It is not, as some imagine, a static document that was written and frozen. Rather, it is a living document; its history of writing, re-writing, and redaction is part of its dynamism, but so too are the ways in which the multitude of interpretations applied to the text have altered the way the text is
viewed itself. This can vary according to theological position, religious/cultural movement, and individual understanding.
Humanistic Judaism lays equal claim to the Torah as any other Jewish movement. The tradition of reading and studying text, rooted in Torah study, has given way to the thinkers of the haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), and the ways in which Jews as a people
have valued education and critical thinking. These are cornerstones of Humanistic Judaism. The Torah is not a simply text to understand; part law code, part anthology of myth and story, part history, its various elements coalesce and challenge us to find ways of understanding and interpreting the text that lend meaning to our own view of Judaism
and to our own lives.
Many traditional Jews have viewed the Torah as mostly a historical
document which tells the real stories of our earliest ancestors. Modern archaeology has confirmed what scholars, investigating textual contradictions and the history of the Torah’s writing and redaction, have known for centuries. there is little evidence for the
historicity of the bible. The events of the Torah are not “true,” although they have given Jews a sense of the truth of their identity over the generations, and they point to truths of human behaviour, family life, community, and values that we do find interesting. This project, however, is not about arguing for why Humanistic Jews should read the bible, or
how. It is not about the nexus between history and fiction in the bible. These themes arise periodically in what follows, but are extant to the thrust of the project itself. The goal of this work is to provide Humanistic Torah commentaries, according to the divisions
created by the weekly parashot (sections of the text read in synagogue each week). This is so that Humanistic Jews may find new and deeper meanings in the text, those more applicable to and consistent with their own view of Judaism. This commentary does not
fear historicizing the text, but nor is that its focus. Rather, the purpose is to provide material for Humanistic Jewish communities and individuals.
No Torah commentary can be exhaustive. In fact, each weekly entry touches on only a fraction of what could be brought forth from the Torah text. This project does not claim to be THE Humanistic Torah commentary, but rather A Humanistic Torah commentary. It is, however, the first that addresses the entire Torah from a Humanistic perspective. This commentary considers midrashic sources from the long history of the
rabbinic tradition, thinkers/critics such as Rashi, Sforno and Nachmanides, and newer commentaries such as The Woman’s Torah Commentary edited by Elyse Goldstein. Most of what follows stems from my own viewpoint and understanding of the text. I am not a biblical scholar, and nor are my insights into the text more authoritative than anyone
else’s. If you disagree with my views then you are part of a long tradition of disagreement and dialogue about how to interpret Torah. My goal is not to put an end to this dialogue, but rather to enter into its conversation and, perhaps, to start making Torah scholarship more central to Humanistic Jewish practice. It is part of our intellectual tradition.
There is a personal side to the commentaries here. As a rabbinic student I began to mark Shabbat. Along with my husband and whichever of our friends and family choose to join us from week to week, we light candles, drink Manischewitz, eat sweet challah, and enjoy a meal. I also use the time on Shabbat to read the Torah and haftorah portions
and various commentaries. Writing my own has become a natural extension of this practice as I too wish to engage with the writers and thinkers I encounter. For me, the celebration of Shabbat has filled a need in me to mark a special time of the week. The ideas to be explored helped to make the experience intellectual as well as emotional. I hope that others find what follows meaningful.