Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Numbers 4:21−7:89

By Rabbi Howard Cohen for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Holy Isolation

In this week's Torah portion, Naso, we learn about the Nazir, the person whose chooses a life style even more disciplined than that of the Kohanim (high priests). "God to spoke to Moshe: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When anyone, man or woman, makes the express resolve to take the vow of Nazir ...[so that] all the days of his nazirship he is holy to God" (Numbers 6:1-2, 8). What is the Nazir and what relevance does this have to us today?

In short, a Nazir is a person who voluntarily takes an oath to enter into a life of discipline and "aspirations above and beyond his contemporaries in whose midst he lives and sets him the task of being completely "holy to his God". (S.R. Hirsch, Torah Commentary, p.534) A Nazir is one who totally commits him or herself to being completely holy. The Torah describes the Nazir as a person who more than abstains from such things as wine and grapes, hair cutting and a corpse (even of a close relative!) but also a person from whom others must keep away! Indeed, the things which indicate a person is a Nazir are mainly a fact of advertising the person's status as a person who should be avoided.

Paradoxically, to be a Nazir, or as Hirsch summaries it, "to go into isolation with and for God" does not mean physical isolation. It is this very paradox that makes the idea of being a Nazir relevant today. Choosing the vow of the Nazir is not permanent. In the Mishnah it states that such avow without fixed duration is binding for thirty days (Nazir 1.3). From this we can infer that people committed themselves to the disciplined life of a Nazir for short periods of time. This is the point that makes the idea of total dedication to God relevant: we can choose to "go into isolation with and for God" for short periods of time.

Most of us, for one set of reasons or another, find ourselves almost always available to someone else. Whether it is for our young children, aging parents, patients, colleagues or employees, we are constantly available by phone, fax, email, pager or even face-to-face chats. To be unavailable once in awhile, however, is not a bad thing. Indeed, we learn from the Torah that it is OK to say "I'm not available". This is what it means to be a Nazir, to be in isolation with and for God.


Monday, May 19, 2014


Numbers 1:1−4:20

By Mel Scult for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

Kaplan on Creation: An Explanation of Jewish Mission

The account in Genesis is perplexing to the modern person. We inevitably get bogged down with the first chapter of the Bible because it seems to conflict with our knowledge that comes from the scientific study of the natural world. Mordecai Kaplan being the modern man par-excellence accepted the scientific view of the universe but realized, of course, that the Torah has a different perspective in telling us about the origin of things. In this selection he focuses on the connection between the creation of the world and God's attention to Israel. Though Kaplan did not believe in the concept of the chosen people, he did see a special task and destiny for the Jewish people.

While only a few may be chosen, every person and every group may have a special destiny depending on their ability and their character and their history. Kaplan explains here that insofar as the rabbis are concerned, God created the world that it might be perfect and turned to the Jewish people as the special agents in that perfecting process.

In Kaplan's Own Words [ From his notes]

"To the average person, the opening chapter of the Bible is an obstruction to an appreciation of the Bible as a whole. Finding that the account of creation is at variance with the scientific view of the origin of the world, he concludes that it can hold out to him very little of spiritual value. The various interpretations whereby apologists attempt to reconcile the Biblical account of creation with science are far fetched. To explain seven days as denoting seven aeons, ... does not add to an actual understanding of what the story of creation is intended to convey.

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Monday, May 12, 2014


Leviticus 26:3-27:34

By Rabbi Howard Cohen for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities

What is 'Herem" (Proscribed)?

During our Shabbat morning Torah discussions we have often struggled over the meaning of certain words. Four, in particular, that have attracted our attention are "tamei" (ritually unclean), "tahor" (ritually clean), "kadosh"(holy) and "herem" (proscribed). A verse from this week's Torah portion provides an enigmatic clue to the true meaning of these key concepts.

The second half of Leviticus 27:28 states that "...every proscribed thing is totally consecrated (alternatively, is considered to be super holy) to the Lord". Since something that is "tamei" (ritually unclean) must be set aside, that is put into a kind of temporary "herem", for varying lengths of time and must not come into contact with things or people who are deemed "tahor" (ritually clean) or "kadosh" (holy) it is hard to understand why the Torah describes something proscribed as also super holy ("kodesh-kodeshim"). Moreover, both "herem" and "kodosh" have essentially the same meaning: something set aside for specific purposes associated with the temple, property (so to speak) of God. How is it that something which is "herem"- proscribed can also be "kodesh-kodeshim - holiest of holies?

Rabbi David Kraemer offers a brilliant insight into understanding this problem. Both "herem" and "kadosh" mean set aside for God. The difference, Kraemer argues, is that things which are proscribed are completely cut off from human access while things which are 'kodesh' have limited access. In other words, "herem" is like "kodosh" only more so, hence the reason why Leviticus 27:28 conflates "herem" with "kodosh-kodeshim".

Why then do we conceptualize "herem" as a kind of super state of "tamei" (ritual uncleanliness), and both in a negative sense? The solution to understanding this in part explains why this verse is set within the context of a larger discussion about property rights. When something is either "tamei" or in "herem" it is in effect unavailable to us. According to Mishnah (Nedarim 4.3) the difference between a 'tahor' [ritually clean] animal and one that is "tamei", according to Rabbi Eliezer, is that the the soul of the "tahor" animal belongs to heaven, i.e., God and the body belongs to its owner, (either the living animal or its actual owner). A "tamei" animal, on the other hand, belongs body and soul to God. In other words, something which is seen as wholly in the possession of God is then off limits to humanity.

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Monday, May 5, 2014


Leviticus 25:1-26:2

By Rabbi Richard Hirsh for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities


Parashat Behar is primarily concerned with rules and regulations pertaining to the land of Israel. We read the description of the laws governing the sabbatical ("Shmitta") years in which the land was to lie fallow one out of every seven years. We learn of the idea of the Jubilee year, which occurred every fifty years, when property that had passed out of a family by reason of economic necessity reverted to the original owners.

The Torah also teaches that each Jubilee year was an opportunity for anyone who had been forced to self himself into servitude to redeem himself, even if his master was a resident alien, i.e., not a member of the Israelite community.

Leviticus concludes with a graphic vision of the desolation of the land of Israel and the dispersal of the Israelite people if, after entering the land, they fail to fulfill the Covenant obligations of the Torah. Exile and oppression, couched as a warning, are described in terrifying terms.

"For the Land is Mine [says God]; you are but strangers resident with Me" (Leviticus 25:23). With this brief but powerful verse, the Torah strives to dispel the perhaps inevitable tendency for the ancient Israelites -- and modern Jews -- to assume that ultimate authority over the land of Israel belongs to people, rather than to God.

There is an important connection between the idea that the land is ultimately God's, and the idea that every fifty years, at least, servants are given the opportunity to be set free. Both rules testify to the unique vision of God and of humanity that the Torah seeks to establish.

Despite the emotional exuberance of the song "Exodus" -- "This land is mine, God gave this land to me" -- Jewish tradition was concerned to communicate that this inheritance was contingent, not necessary; that it was potentially eternal, but also potentially transient.

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