Virtuosity Savored

A blog by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Month: August, 2020

Grappling with Inequality: Ki Tetze 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: In what ways does the Torah text properly address inequalities in ancient society? In what ways does it fall short?

There is no doubt that some of the rules in this week’s Torah portion are not congruent with modern ideas of equality and decency:

The Pitch: “If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father 50 [shekels of] silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her.” – Deuteronomy 22:29-30

Swing #1: “Legally, virgins were the highly prized responsibility of their fathers.” – Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex & Desire 57

Swing #2: “Married to the man who raped her?! Presumably, hopefully, this means that the choice was hers as well as her father’s.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Swing #3: “The sin of the Jewish people at the episode of the golden calf was akin to that of the rapist. We, who have been told ‘You shall not have any other God,’ have subjected God to the pain of our making another god for ourselves.” – Shnei Luchot HaBrit

Late-Inning Questions: Do our commentaries seem to feel uncomfortable with these rules of the Torah? Or are they trying to make sense of them? Is it blasphemous to say that modern Judaism has improved some upon Torah laws?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: In the interest of safety, our High Holiday services this year will feature very few people in the pews. But you can help fill up our seats by making a donation and submitting a photograph of yourself and/or a loved one, which will be turned into Foamcore cutouts and placed in the otherwise empty seats! Contact lisaabbey57@gmail.com or 716-510-1990 for more details by September 4th.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of potentially improving rules, which new baseball rule this year (Designated Hitters in the National League, seven-inning doubleheaders, placing a runner on second base at the beginning of each extra inning) has the best odds of enduring after the COVID crisis concludes? I’m guessing it’s the DH in the NL, but who knows?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Getting Blood From a Stoning: Shoftim 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you react when you hear negative talk about someone you know? Under what circumstances would you spread that talk to others?

The Torah tells us that idolatry is a serious enough accusation to inform the authorities — but punishment is not automatic:

The Pitch: “[If] you have been informed or have learned of [someone worshipping another god], then you shall make a thorough inquiry. If it is true, the fact is established, that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in Israel, you shall take the man or the woman who did that wicked thing out to the public place, and you shall stone them, man or woman, to death.” – Deuteronomy 17:4-5

Swing #1: “Deuteronomy’s rhetoric demonstrates a confidence in the ability of courts to ascertain the truth in criminal cases and identify the guilty party. … Deuteronomy does not provide a legal standard of evidence, such as ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Instead, one must investigate until the truth is uncovered.” – Chaya T. Halberstam, Law & Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature

Swing #2: “Most passages in the Torah do not make a point of saying ‘a man or a woman,’ but use either adam (‘human being’) or ish (which can mean ‘person’ as well as ‘man’). In the penalty for idol worship, however, both sexes are specifically stated, as if to emphasize women. Why was this done? ‘Because of light-mindedness, the woman can be enticed to witchcraft by signs and wonders done before her,’ Nachmanides asserts.” – Judith S. Antonelli, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah

Swing #3: “[If he is a man, they stone just] him, without his clothes, but [if the condemned party is a woman, they stone] her with her clothing.” – BT Sanhedrin 45a

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators describe both fairness and unfairness in ancient Israelite justice? Has our society progressed in terms of judicial fairness, or have we only changed our judicial methods? Why is it so difficult for justice to be achieved?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Pursuant to the recommendation of the TBT reopening task force, we are, on a trial basis, augmenting our Livestream Shabbat services with an in-person minyan for Friday night, August 28th; Saturday morning September 5th; and Friday/Saturday, September 11th-12th, by reservation only, for up to a maximum of fifteen family units (no more than 20-25 people) wearing masks and maintaining a distance of twelve feet. Please see the Temple website for further details.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of justice, we’re now a dozen years into the new rules punishing players for using performance-enhancing drugs. Do you get the sense that these rules have deterred steroid use, or are players simply better at getting away with using?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Location, Location, Location: Re’eh 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you feel when a place which holds nostalgic value for you is altered? Do you think of it as a natural part of the march of time, or are you frustrated that a place looks nothing like it did when your cherished memories were made?

The Torah text from this week seems to address this by preferring to keep important ritual moments in one place, rather than multiple locations:

The Pitch: “Take care not to sacrifice your burnt offerings in any place you like, but only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribal territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all that I enjoin upon you.” – Deuteronomy 12:13-14

Swing #1: “Deuteronomy, in contrast to Exodus [20:24], commands a centralization of the cult, one consequence of which would have been a regularization of religious practices in the service of a consistent monolatry propagated by the center.” – Steven Grosby, Biblical Ideas of Nationality: Ancient & Modern

Swing #2: “The idea of centralization, which is expressed here, means a concentration of political and religious power in the capital. The concentration of religious power in Jerusalem required the cultic unification of the national deity Yahweh.” – Thomas Römer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical, and Literary Introduction

Swing #3: “The Torah speaks in general terms without specifying in whose tribal territory this place will be located. It turned out to be the territory of Benjamin.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Late-Inning Questions: How might it be significant that the location of sacrifices is located in the territory of Benjamin? Might this be because Benjamin is Jacob’s favorite son (other than Joseph, whose descendants’ territories are split between his two sons)? Or might this be consolation for Benjamin being the youngest of Jacob’s sons? How do we choose the places that mean the most to us?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: Pursuant to the recommendation of the TBT reopening task force, we are, on a trial basis, augmenting our Livestream Shabbat services with an in-person minyan for Friday night, August 28th; Saturday morning September 5th; and Friday/Saturday, September 11th-12th, by reservation only, for up to a maximum of fifteen family units (no more than 20-25 people) wearing masks and maintaining a distance of twelve feet. Please see the Temple website for further details.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of choosing significant places, is it bothersome that the National Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, New York – the hometown of Abner Doubleday – when it’s all but certain that Doubleday had nothing to do with the invention of baseball? Or is it more fun to maintain the myth?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!

Don’t Stand Idol-ly By: Ekev 2020

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever burned or broken a relic of a time in your life you came to regret? To what extent was such an action cathartic? To what extent was it counterproductive?

Our Torah portion encourages the Israelites to delete any sign of past idolatry:

The Pitch: “You shall consign the images of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared thereby; for that is abhorrent to the Lord your God. You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be proscribed like it; you must reject it as abominable and abhorrent, for it is proscribed.” – Deuteronomy 7:25-26

Swing #1: “It may come to pass that silver and gold which you have taken from an idol will bring you great profit in commerce. This may lead you to wonder whether your good fortune is not due to the power of the idol from whom you have taken them. And thus the gold and silver which you took from the idol may lead you into idol-worship.” – Sforno

Swing #2: “Abhorrence and detestation are emotions. They belong to another tradition, where argument depends on appeal to feeling. In the Hellenistic period the dominant reading could easily have been on these lines.” – Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature

Swing #3: “Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: ‘Whoever possesses a presumptuous nature is like one who serves idols; for it is said, “An abomination of the Lord is everyone that is proud of heart [Leviticus 16:5],” and the following passage reads, “You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house.”’” – Ein Yaakov

Late-Inning Questions: To our commentators, what are the dangers of maintaining the memory of past idolatrous practices? Why is the idea of idolatry so much more loathsome to the biblical writers than most (if not all) other wrongdoings? What kinds of idols do we construct today? Are we doing enough to tear them down?

On-Deck at Temple Beth Tzedek: We have updated links to our Adult Education offerings, which begin next week — click here for the details.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of idols, have the professional athletes attempting to compete during the time of COVID-19 earned even more of your admiration? Or are these endeavors only making these athletes seem more human?

Shabbat Shalom, and stay safe!