August 2009

Snapshots from a weekend:

1. This afternoon we attended a wedding of two Jews. Backyard, simple, classy. Casting straight out of a Hugh Grant movie. The ceremony was performed by a judge. Beforehand the mother of the groom explained how the couple had “personalized” their wedding–everything from the huppah to the food to the music was their concoction, with a little help here and there from parents. Sheva Brachot, the traditional seven nuptial blessings, were recited later on. There was a ketubah, though it took the form of vows rather than a traditional Jewish marriage contract. Lots of men wore kippot.  After the ceremony the couple “spent a few moments together in yichud,” or seclusion.

My mother in law asked me afterwards if it was a kosher wedding, and I responded that according to halakha it wasn’t–there was no point at which the groom gave the bride a ring and said, “With this ring you are consecrated to me according to the law of Moses and Israel” in front of two sabbath-observant witnesses; the ketubah was not technically a ketubah. Yet the fact remains that, in these times, this was a pretty Jewish wedding.

2. One of the relatives coming to the wedding relayed the following story: Her flight from New York was delayed on Friday for hours and hours. An Orthodox-looking woman and her child were to get on the flight, and were clearly getting worried about whether they would make it to their destination for Shabbos. They get on the plane when it’s time to board, and as they are taxiing to the runway, they realize that they won’t make it. They ask the flight attendant if they can be let off the plane. Amazingly, the flight attendant says yes. The plane taxis back to the terminal, they are allowed off the plane, their luggage is removed, and the plane now has to get back in line to take off. It adds an hour to the flight, which itself was not direct–many people missed connections. (more…)

It turns out the most popular page on my site is the recorded liturgy page. I haven’t recorded anything new for the High Holidays in a number of years, so this year I sat down at my mac and sang out Rosh Hashanah Musaf from the Amidah through Kaddish. It’s a little over an hour. Please feel free to download and spread the word. I will hopefully add some additional parts of davening on the page as well, provided I can make the time. I do ask that if you’re going to download you please make a contribution to NU Hillel. Many thanks.

Within the Torah portion of Re’eh, we find the first of three repeated commands to thoroughly investigate potential wrongdoing: “When you hear that in one of the cities that the Lord your God will give you to reside in, that bad people have gone out from your midst and led the residents of their city astray, saying, ‘Let us go worship other gods,’ that you have not known. And you inquire, and investigate, and question thoroughly, and behold it is true: this abomination has been done in Israel.” (Deut. 13:13-15) In next week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we find parallel passages using the same language of “investigate thoroughly,” (Deut. 17 and 19) in the cases of individual idolaters and false witnesses.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 40a) learns from these three sentences, and the seven combined words used within them, that judges are to make seven types of inquiry into the facts of a case. They are to ask the witnesses about the year, the year within the seven year sabbatical cycle, the month, day of the month, day of the week, time of day, and place during or at which the event about which they are testifying took place. According to the commentary of the Torah Temima, by Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, this extensive procedure is “effective for ascertaining the substance of the truth.”

We know that the ancient Rabbis were not enthusiastic about exercising the death penalty, which is potentially at stake in all of these cases. If so, then we could understand the Talmud’s injunction to thoroughly investigate as really saying, “There’s no way you could ever really investigate to that depth, that you could be 100 percent certain about the truth,” and therefore these investigations serve to hedge against the possibility of actually carrying through with execution. We can never be certain of the truth.

At the same time, Epstein’s commentary suggests that he takes the Talmud at face value, and that in fact we can know the truth if we go through this process. If so, then we can be confident that the person we’re executing really deserves it, and we don’t have to carry any doubt that we might be wrong. Indeed, how could we execute anyone if we were not completely certain that we know the facts?

So which is it? Do the Rabbis, in interpreting the Torah, believe that we can be certain in our knowledge about such weighty issues, or are they creating a mechanism to prevent us from acting because they believe we fundamentally can never really know? Implicitly this question extends to all knowledge, since all life, all being, is framed by death, the possibility of not being.

A blog post is not the place to treat this question in all its dimensions, and perhaps it’s simply best to ask it. Can we be certain in our knowledge, or is all knowledge tentative, provisional? If the answer is no, we risk arrogance; if the answer is yes, we risk complacency. As we enter the season of Elul and our thoughts turn toward the soulful introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this is one of the timeless, inescapable questions.

Shabbat shalom.

I’m spending the week at Camp Ramah Darom for the fourth annual Hillel Engagement Institute. Good stuff being discussed, and I’ll try to write one or two more dispatches before I’m done.

I actually managed to have a late-night discussion with my roommate for the week, Dan Libenson. (I say this because usually at these conferences I just wind up falling asleep, and the much-anticipated late night discussion doesn’t actually materialize. Not so in this case.) Among the things we talked about was a mutual friend’s idea for creating a building–a space–in an urban center to enable post-college Jews to do what they did in Hillel, namely show up and create Jewish life in the way they want to.

My response to this was that I think our friend was asking the wrong question. The question to start with, it seems to me, isn’t, “What does Hillel do?” but “What does college do?” Yes, Hillel is particularly special in the Jewish world, but that’s only because college is special within the larger structure of life. “Bright college years with pleasures rife, the shortest, gladdest years of life,” as my alma mater goes. College is the time and place when we show up and feel like we can do anything; Hillel is simply the Jewish manifestation of it. And since college is never re-created later in life (I could be wrong there, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about that), Hillel is also never re-created.

So the question to ask then is, “What do people take with them from college? And what would this teach us about what they can and should take with them from Hillel?” (This article from today’s Inside Higher Ed provides a nice insight.) In our conversation last night, Dan and I identified a few things that people carry away from college: Knowledge and skills, values, habits, relationships, and memories. No doubt there are others. The combination of these things may well result in the kind of nostalgia (love?) people tend to have for college (see the alma mater song quoted above), because college is associated with these very formative elements of our identities.

By implication, Hillel should be providing Jewish knowledge and skills, Jewish values, Jewish habits, Jewish relationships, and Jewish memories. And that’s largely what we do. But now try to define all those things–and you have what I spend most of my working life trying to figure out.

The Torah portion of Ekev continues Moses’s main discourse in Deuteronomy, a combination of soaring rhetorical flourishes and reminders to remember the past. The second paragraph of the Shema comes from this week’s Torah portion, as do the classic words, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the Lord your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul.” (Deut. 10:12)

In the middle of all of this is a beautiful passage about the land of Israel: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey.” (Deut. 8:7-8). This is standard Deuteronomic stuff, and not especially worth mentioning, except for the fact that from this passage–verse 8, specifically–the Rabbis derived an important halakhic concept,  namely the order in which various foods should be blessed.

A classic test of a yeshiva student’s skill was to place a table full of foods in front of him and see if he could correctly determine the proper order in which they were to be eaten. Verse 8 establishes such an order: Wheat and barley (grains), grapes, figs and pomegranates (fruits), olive oil and honey (foods derived from a process). So if one had bread, an apple, olive oil, and wine on the table, the correct order in which to eat them would be: bread, wine, apple, oil, following the order of the verse. There are tricks within the system (such as, for instance, the way we drink wine on Shabbat and holidays before we eat bread; we therefore cover the bread, so as not to violate the order prescribed by this verse).

Why do I bring up such a seemingly mundane item? Because Moses’s next words give us the commandment of Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals: “When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.” Moses instructs thanksgiving over food quite early on in the commandments of Deuteronomy–before the social legislation of the upcoming Torah portions; before the commandments about the holidays, or even about idolatry (Moses recounts the episode of the Golden Calf in the chapter after this one). This is very significant, because it establishes that awareness of our eating is one of the key foundation stones of the Torah’s envisioned civilization. As Moses reminds the Israelites a few verses earlier: “Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

There is a growing movement among Jews and in the general society to be much more conscious of our food–of where it comes from, what it consists of, who made it, its carbon footprint. This is a very important thing, and it marks a return to the values of the Torah. Next week we will receive the laws of kashrut again from Moses; but this week, even before being reminded of the technicalities of kashrut, we are reminded to be aware, to pay attention, to be humble, and to be thankful. We indeed live in world like the one Moses describes: we “live in cities with walls that reach to the sky,” where “the people are strong and tall.” It is precisely in this environment that Moses reminds the Israelites and us that we must pay attention and remember the giant significance of tiny actions.

Shabbat shalom.