Friday, January 22, 2010


I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 18:2-4)
Consider the challenge posed by this passage. The Israelites are told to enter the land but not to copy either the practices of the people among whom they have lived for centuries nor those of the people who will surround them in the new land. Do not take from the old place or the new place, they are told. It seems impossible. How can you not be influenced by the world and culture in which you live?

The Torah proposes that when the people of Israel enter the land of Israel they start from scratch, free from those outside influences. This is no easy task. If you erase everything to create a clean slate, what do you have to work with? The entry to the land, however, transforms everything. The people, fresh from Mt. Sinai, bring with them a new ethic and the land becomes transformed to meet them.

The moment when the people enter the land, then, is idyllic. The meeting of the renewed people with the renewed land. If I could translate that moment into a visual scene, I might end up with the one described by mishnah Sotah 7:5 (32 a-b, in purple below). It must have been a soul-shaking moment for every individual present.
When Israel crossed the Jordan and arrived before Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal in Samaria, near Shechem, beside the oak of Moreh, …. six tribes went up to the top of Mount Gerizim, and six tribes ascended to the top of Mount Ebal. The Kohanim and Levites and the ark of the covenant stood at the bottom, between the mountains.
According to Wikipedia, these two mountains are among the tallest in the land of Israel. Mt. Gerezim is on the south side of the valley, Mt. Ebal on the north, and Nablus sits in between. The people, after crossing through the divided waters of the Jordan River (Joshua 4), spread out through the valley – half to one side, half to the other. The sacred ark, with its caretakers, remains in the middle.

The Kohanim, who have conducted the holy service of the people since the Tabernacle was built, and who will continue in that role, serve as masters-of-ceremony. The Kohanim surround the ark, then the Levi’im circle them, and all Israel surround them, since it says, “And all Israel and their elders and officers and judges stood on this side of the ark and on that...” (Joshua 8:33).
It is a dramatic moment. How could you help but stay focused on the central point – the ark which led you through the desert, which divided the waters of the river for you, which will now usher you into the land?

This moment contrasts with Moses’ vision on Mt. Nebo before his death (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). God showed him the whole land, its width and breadth. Moses saw land and palm trees, desert and plain. The people, actually in the land, see only the Ark of the Covenant. Moses saw the promise of sacred geography; the people, by contrast, were presented with sacred life. The focus was not where they would live, but how.
They turned to face Mount Gerizim and began with the blessing: “Blessed is the man who does not make a graven or molten image.” And these and those answer, “Amen.”
They turned to face Mount Ebal and began with the curse: “Cursed is the man who makes a graven or molten image” (Deuteronomy 27:15). And these and those answer, “Amen.” [This procedure continued] until they completed the blessings and the curses.
I imagine their voices echoing through the valley – each side boasted several 100,000 voices. If I were the director I would have everyone chanting. The tune would be simple, just enough to maintain an on-going momentum as the list of blessings and curses bounced back and forth across the valley.

First one side speaks, and their words call forth a thundering, “Amen.” Then it repeats from the opposite side. The rhythm of the alternating voices, punctuated by the resounding, communal, “Amen,” would be heard by the ears and felt through the soles of the feet until it penetrated into the heart and soul of every person there – from the woodchopper and water carrier to the tribal chiefs and high priests. On that day the holy words were truly before your eyes and in your heart.

If you were present that day, you would remember it. It is reminiscent of Mt. Sinai when the Holy One of Creation presented the people with the Torah. But this generation who were now entering the land had not been privileged to experience that holy moment. This time the words were the words of God, but the voices were those of men and women and children. They actively gave voice to the covenant by which they would live.

It is an appropriate change. While they wandered in the desert they had been under Divine protection. They had eaten manna. Their clothes had not worn thin, their shoes held up, they lacked for nothing. God cared for them well. But once they cross the Jordan they bear human responsibility for human actions. The covenant now exists in their homes and businesses, in the fields, and along the roadways. The moment of entry into the land marks the transference of the covenant from Divine realms to human commerce.

As dramatic as this moment might be, it is only a moment. In due time this generation will pass away and the next generation will not have experienced this mini-Sinai. It is an eternal problem -- one generation’s experience is mere history to the next. Nonetheless their very existence on the land depended on keeping the covenant alive for generations to come. One final ceremony marked that day.
Afterward they brought stones and built an altar and plastered it with plaster and they wrote on it all the words of the Torah in seventy languages.
The twelve stones, one carried across the Jordan by each tribe (Joshua 4:2-3), represented the entire people. Every person could show his son and daughter that they were part of that whole. Their physical attachment to the covenant was visible and permanent. The words of the covenant were in all the known 70 languages of the world – universal translation assured that every person could understand what was expected of them.

I don’t know what happened to those stones. I wish they still stood to call us back to our roots. I would have liked someone to say to me, “Here is where your great-grandparents heard the words that have guided our family, and here is the stone our tribe contributed to make this foundation secure.” I wish I could offer such physical proof to my children, to my congregants, and to you. That evidence is gone. But we still have the story, and that will have to be enough.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Which is more powerful: love or fear? / Sotah 27b & 31a

Which is more powerful and lasting: love or fear? A corollary question: do you keep Jewish traditions because of other people or because of God? And if because of God, is it out of love or fear?

For many Jews, living Jewishly is about family, community, ethnicity, and history. Jewish traditions, rituals, and practices emanate from their relationships with other people (present and past). For others, it is a direct response to their relationship with God. They do what they do either because they love God, or because they fear God.

Curiously, the mishnah in Sotah 27b asks about a Gentile and what lay at the root of his loyalty and commitment to God: they ask about none other than Job. R Yehoshua b. Hyrcanus attributes Job’s service to God to his love for God. R. Yochanan b. Zakkai, however, as R. Yehoshua tells us, taught that Job served God out of fear.
On that day R. Yehoshua b. Hyrcanus expounded: Job only served the Holy One Blessed be God out of love, as it is said, Though he slay me yet will I wait for him (Job 13:15). And should it still be in doubt whether the meaning is “I will wait for him” or “I will not wait,” there is another text to declare, until I die I will not put away my integrity from me (Job 27:5). This teaches that what he did he did out of love. R. Yehoshua [ben Chananiah] said: Who will remove the dust from our eyes, R. Yochanan b. Zakkai, since you have been expounding all my life that Job only served the Omnipresent out of fear, as it is said, that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil (Job 1:1). Did not Yehoshua, the student of your student, teach that what he did was from love?
The gemara on Sotah 31a discusses this mishnah. R. Meir draws a parallel between Abraham and Job to conclude that both served God out of love, rather than fear. He doesn’t suggest what the difference is between serving God out of love or out of fear, however. R. Shimon b. Eleazar, however, declares that serving God out of love is superior to serving God out of fear because the attachment forged by love lasts through many more generations.
It has been taught: R. Meir says: It is declared of Job one who feared God (Job 1:1) and it is declared of Abraham you fear God (Genesis 22:12). Just as “fearing God” in the case of Abraham indicates from love, so “fearing God” in the case of Job indicates from love. Whence do we have it in connection with Abraham himself [that he was motivated by love]? As it is written: The seed of Abraham who loved Me (Isaiah 49:8). What difference is there between one who acts from love and one who acts from fear? The difference is explained in this teaching: R. Shimon b. Eleazar says: Greater is he who acts from love than he who acts from fear, because with the latter [the merit] remains effective for a thousand generations but with the former it remains effective for two thousand generations… (Sotah 31a)
I would have thought that had he said that love evokes a strong bond than fear in the lifetime of one individual would have been interesting enough. Love inspires behavior for the sake of the relationship, to bind the two parties more tightly, to express appreciation, to bring pleasure. Throughout the ages, Jews have engaged in mitzvot (commandments) to feel God’s presence more keenly in their lives, to express their appreciation for God’s blessings, and to fulfill obligations they believed would please God (from the earliest sacrifices whose rei’ach ni’cho-ach – pleasing odor – was understood to please God). Fear also inspires behavior, largely to avoid negative repercussions and punishment. Love draws one in, but the urge to serve out of fear evaporates as soon as the perceived threat is withdrawn. I have always considered the religious claim that God desires our fear peculiar and misguided, and most likely designed for manipulation of people by those who promulgate such ideas. If God is a punishing God, God is also an immorally capricious God, because punishment is meted out arbitrarily and unjustly. Job recognized this (not the job of the first and last chapters of his book, but the real Job of the poetic dialogues that comprise the vast majority of The Book of Job.

R. Shimon b. Eleazar makes quite a different point, however. He tells us that love that induces the bond of attachment and the desire to serve lasts for many more generations. This approach to Judaism – positive, warm, loving, affirming, joyful –is attractive from generation to generation. This attitude toward Judaism opens the door to creativity and innovation, celebrating each generation’s encounter with the Covenant and role in redefining it for their own lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, January 15, 2010


The first communal prayer “service” took place on the shores of the Reed Sea. The way they prayed on that day continues to resonate in our contemporary synagogues.

When the people were safe on the Eastern shore of the Reed Sea, when they realized they were finally and completely free, they spontaneously knew to praise their God who led them to freedom. "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song unto the Lord and spoke saying…” (Exodus 15:1).

But how did they sing? The particular, and somewhat odd, wording of the verse offers the sages the opportunity to speculate on the manner in which the song was sung. The details of their grammatical problem may lead us astray; it is sufficient to know that it led the sages to find multiple possibilities for how to recite this prayer. The sages, on B. Sotah 30a, suggest four models for reciting the Song of the Sea. Each of these models is recognizable in the regular synagogue service. I encourage you to consider how these methods fit in your own style of prayer.

1) A litany.
According to the Tosefta (T. Sotah 6:2) Rabbi Akiba teaches that the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, recited the song for Moses, much the way God spoke to Moses in other places. Moses repeated those words to the people. “How did they say that song? Like an adult who recites the Hallel [for the congregation] and they answered him with his opening refrain.” Moses, Akiba suggests, is the “adult” and the people are the responding congregation. They are the newly freed slaves who are not yet capable of, or obliged to act with, adult behavior. Moses recites the song like a litany that might be heard in a contemporary church service. As Moses recites the people respond to each new phrase with one set phrase, “I will sing to the Lord.” I can imagine the steady, repetitive voices of the people building in strength and emotion as Moses recites the dramatic verses of this song.

A contemporary version of Baruch She-Amar has the cantor singing through the prayer while the congregation responds to each line with the words, “baruch hu u-varuch shemo.” The sing-song rhythm builds and gives power to the words of the prayer.

2) Repeat after me.
Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Yosi HaGalili suggests that “They proclaimed the song like a child who proclaims the Hallel [in synagogue-worship], responding to him with the foregoing phrase.” This is the way we traditionally recite the closing passages of the Hallel, the Songs of Praise recited on holidays. The reader chants the entire phrase and the congregation echoes those words. Particularly for one who is not fluent in the language of prayer, like the newly freed slaves, this method allows one to speak in an awe-filled moment.

3) Antiphonal chanting.
Rabbi Nehemiah offers a third alternative. “[They proclaimed the song] like men who recite the Shema’ in the synagogue-worship… for he first opens, and the rest reply following him.” According to Tosefot’s comment on this passage Rabbi Nehemiah envisions Moses reciting the first half of each verse and the people answering him with the second half of the verse. Each matches the other as the words of prayer grow and deepen.

This is the way we chant Ashrey, Psalm 145, with the reader and the congregation chanting alternate verses, each answering the other. In contrast to the models offered by Rabbi Akiba or Rabbi Eleazar, here the reader and the congregation are peers. Each side speaks their words independently, but they are connected one to the other. Both are necessary voices if the prayer is to express its full praise.

4) Individual prayer.
Without the commentary of Tosefot I would have assumed Rabbi Nehemia to say that
Moses sang out the opening words and then everyone continued individually. This describes many traditional services. The shaliach tzibur, prayer leader, chants the opening words of the prayer and each person proceeds on their own.

Rabbi Nehemia gives everyone more credit. He presents Moses as one who is accustomed to spend time in the synagogue and who knows the proper protocol. Once Moses indicates that it is time to offer these praises everyone takes responsibility for themselves. This is a band of equals who speak to God each on their own behalf.

As I noted above all of these modes of prayer exist in our contemporary synagogue service. Which fits you the best? Do you prefer to be led, or would you prefer to speak for yourself?

Some of the hottest trends in the Jewish world suggest that how we pray matters. Tablet Magazine recently ran an article titled, “Prayer Unbound”, which reviewed the trend toward niche siddurim (prayerbooks), the on-line wiki-like “Open Siddur Project”, with some comment on the proliferation of independent minyanim. They quote Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar: “When people are not satisfied by traditional prayer service, is it the words or the performance of the prayers that’s tripping them up?” For those who are creating their own prayerbooks or their own minyanim, how we pray matters.

The debate in B. Sotah 30b confirms that the way we pray has mattered from the start. The alternative modes of prayer described by Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Yosi HaGalili and Rabbi Nehemia echo our modern debate of how best to construct prayerbooks and lead services. One hopes that within that debate, however, we do not lose track of the most important point: prayer is a tool to help us express praise to the One who brought us out of Egyptian bondage and continually renews the work of creation each day.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Apotheosis (you always wanted to know what it means, right?) / Sotah 14a

“Apotheosis” is one of those words I run into now and then and have to look up each time. It never sticks in my head, but hopefully this posting and this piece of gemara will work like Crazy Glue.

“Apotheosis” comes from the Greek ἀποθεόω meaning “to deify” or “become divine.” The term refers to an individual or group that has been elevated to godlike stature. Historical examples include the Hellenistic leader Philip II of Macedonia and most of the Roman emperors. Here is the famous painting, “The Apotheosis of Homer,” by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

In Ingres’ imagination, Homer rises above the human realm to join the divine beings in heaven.

The type of apotheosis our Sages have in mind, as reflected in the teaching of R. Chama b. Chanina in Sotah 14a is quite different: one becomes most godlike when one engages in the difficult, uncomfortable, and messy work of caring for those most vulnerable and most hurting here on earth in this world.

The Sages are discussing the location of Moses’ burial site. It has been suggested that it is a magical, mystical place that no human can locate, or perhaps that it is located near Baal-Peor to atone for the egregious sin committed there (see account in Numbers chapter 25). Into this discussion a teaching of R. Chama b. Chanina is inserted because his last (of four) points relates directly to the burial of Moses:
R. Chama b. Chanina further said: What is the meaning of the text: You shall walk after the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 13:5)? Is it even possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah; for has it not been said: For the Lord your God is a devouring fire (Deuteronomy 4:24)? But [the meaning is] to follow after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be God. Just as God clothes the naked, as it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21), so should you also clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick, as it is written: And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1), so should you also visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, comforted mourners, as it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son (Genesis 25:11), so should you also comfort mourners. Just as the Holy one, blessed be God, buried the dead, as it is written: And [God] buried him in the valley (Deuteronomy 34:6), so should you also bury the dead.
Four specific behaviors are mentioned:
  1. Clothing the naked
  2. Visiting the sick
  3. Comforting the bereaved
  4. Burying the dead
Can we imagine God engaged in the nitty-gritty of these tasks? Perhaps a prior question ought to be: can we image ourselves engaged in these tasks? For many people, these are tasks that place us in contact with people and situations that are unsettling, disturbing, and frightening. These four situations, and the people who are caught in these four situations challenge many of to the core. As the saying goes, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And even if your theology doesn’t match that statement, these are four of the most “messy,” nitty-gritty situations of ordinary life that require loving attention. These are the very situations to which God personally attends. God doesn’t send angels; God does it with (as it were) God’s own hands. When we stand in that spot, attending to those most in need, we stand in God’s shoes and we extend God’s loving hands (our own).

R. Chama b. Chanina teaches us that being godlike does not mean sitting on a throne and having an angel crown us with an olive wreath or elevate us out of this world to the heavenly realm. Apotheosis occurs when, like God, we attend with our own hands those most in need, most in pain. We raise ourselves to heaven when we become most human.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Happy New Year – 2010!! May 2010 bring many blessings to you and to our world. With this posting we complete Chapter 1 of Tractate Sotah

It's time to offer a summary and some reflections on our chapter, which comprises roughly one-quarter of tractate Sotah. Opening chapters of Talmud, as of other literature, point us in the direction of what is to follow. The discussion in this chapter frames what we will encounter in the remaining chapters of the tractate.

My most basic question is: why does this tractate exist? Not every mitzvah of the Torah rates its own tractate; most don't. While the Sotah ritual was no longer possible by the time of the Mishnah, nonetheless it is unique in asking God to intervene directly in human affairs. In other cases human courts are competent to judge, but here where guilt or innocence cannot be determined, we ask God's intervention. The last chapters of this tractate deal with similar instances where our interaction with God is particularly direct: where we can use the common language to address God, the preparations for going to battle, and the eglah arufa, the ritual performed by community leaders in the case of an unsolved homicide.

Viewed from that perspective the entire first chapter can be read as a preparation for inviting God's intervention. Three topics form the outline of the chapter: the warning given by the suspicious husband to his wife which assures there is proper cause to call forth God's intervention, the preparation of the woman for the ordeal which preserves the proper protocol, and a reflection on God's eminently fair justice. This last section reassures us that God’s intervention into human affairs will be appropriate and fair.

The opening mishnahs focus on the warning given by the husband to his wife: what witnesses are required, what constitutes a proper warning. Before diving into the procedural details the sages reminds us how precious marriage is. They teach that making a marriage is harder than splitting the Reed Sea. They speculate that marriages are divinely ordained matches, made in heaven even before one's birth. It is as if the sages want to warn the husband to think long and hard before invoking Divine participation in this ordeal.

What would motivate a husband to resort to this humiliating ritual? It is not his only option. Divorce is possible. If the infidelity is certain, there are normative legal avenues to pursue. The Sotah ritual places the woman in limbo: neither permitted nor free, neither guilty nor innocent. Does the husband choose this option based on his psyche or on his wife's actions? Does he act from pure or base motives? The mishnah opens with neutral language, ““He who expresses jealousy to his wife concerning her relations with another man”, but the sages understand that it is a moment filled with emotional angst. I believe the question of motivation lies behind the extended reflections on jealousy, faithfulness, arrogance and humility found in this chapter.

The third mishnah and beyond set the stage for the ordeal itself. This discussion recognizes the indeterminate status of the woman. If she were otherwise eligible to eat trumah, the part of the Temple offerings reserved for the priestly families, she is not permitted to do so for the interim. While she is not divorced from her husband, she is also not permitted to have sexual relations with him. It is as if she were temporarily in suspended animation. She does not have the privileges which she had prior to the accusation, but she is not yet free to adopt a new status. It is an uncomfortable limbo, characterized by a strange discussion of whether her husband can be trusted to escort her to the site of the ordeal, or whether he would now be suspected of having marital relations with her along the way.

When she arrives at the Temple, the site of the ordeal, the priests urge her to speak. They tip their hat to the idea that she is within her rights. They tell the tale of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), with its dramatic ending when Judah declares that Tamar is more righteous than he. But the bulk of this section moves in the opposite direction with the priests urging her to confess her guilt. It feels heavy-handed, and it is. It runs contrary to our contemporary notion that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It defies our sense of fairness.

The priests, however, have a different understanding of that moment. There is more at stake here than the guilt or innocence of one woman. There is more at stake than the survival of one marriage vow. The accused woman will stand at Nicanor's Gate, on the liminal edge between the holy and the profane, and she will be tested by God. While one hopes that God's intervention will be limited to the case at hand, how can one know? What if God's action set in motion ripples that extended far beyond the question of one woman's guilt or innocence? Is the world as we know it safe?

The Mishnah reassures us that Divine justice is measured and precise. The mishnah states: By that same measure by which a man metes out [to others], do they mete out to him. God's justice, the Sages insist, maintains an exquisite balance. The punishment or reward precisely matches the individual's behavior. In the case of the Sotah it is the woman's own presumed behavior that defines the treatment she receives: She primped herself for sin, the Omnipresent made her repulsive. She exposed herself for sin, the Omnipresent exposed her.

What is true in the case of the Sotah is generally true. The last third of the chapter is devoted to long midrashic passages illustrating the principle of “measure for measure”. Those who do wrong are punished in appropriate measure and style, and those who do good are similarly rewarded. “Samson followed his eyes, so the Philistines blinded him.” Absalom's hair did him in. But Miriam, Joseph and Moses were all rewarded even beyond the measure of their deeds. In each case God's intervention addressed the particular need of the moment – reward or punishment – and no more.

These midrashic justifications are clever and engaging, but raise troubling issues. One concerns our understanding of justice. Do we seek pure black and white justice? Is there no gray area of doubt that clouds our certainty? Particularly in the case of the Sotah aren't we concerned to know what led to the disintegration of the marriage; to understand what led these “two loving friends” [from the marriage ceremony] to become such adversaries? Isn't there room for mercy and compassion in the process of judgment?

When do we invoke God's intervention? Here we do so with some care, cautious to see that God addresses only the guilt or innocence of this one woman. The invitation is not a request for God to judge the world as a whole. Indeed Mishnah Berachot (9:3) warns against crying out to God for what is past, condemning it as a prayer offered in vain. If God can discern guilt or innocence that is indiscernible to human eyes, why should God be unable to affect the gender of a child or protect a home from danger? Similarly in the oft-cited story of the Oven of Achnai (Baba Metzia 59b) the sages rebuff the attempts of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who calls on the Bat Kol, the Divine Voice, to prove his halakhic position correct. The Sages are wary of invoking God's intervention in the course of human events.

On one level this tractate provides the details for an ordeal prescribed by Torah. On a deeper level this allows us the opportunity to reflect on what it means for God to intervene directly in our lives. This opening chapter sets the stage for a broader discussion on God's Presence in the world.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser