Saturday, October 31, 2009

Milot HaYom — Marine Biology Edition

Today at lunch, we somehow digressed into a conversation about how to say certain sea animals in Hebrew. With one native Israeli, two olim at the table with perfect Hebrew and two others who can hold their weight, as well, we still had a good amount of trouble coming up with the animals below (me, Goldberg, Lev Tov, Yael Shoham and David Landau, if you're keeping track at home — and I know that many of you are).

Let's just say, these are not מילים יום–יומיים, daily words.

So a collection of words for your אוצר מילים (word bank).

פרת ים (parat yam, lit. sea cow): Manatee, aka. sea cow in English, as well.
When I was 13, my Aunt Reenee took my cousin Scott and me to Florida to swim with the Manatees. She is the biggest Manatee fan I know.

כלב ים (kelev yam, lit. sea dog): sea lion.

סוס ים/סוסיה (soos yam/soosiya, lit. sea horse): walrus

לוטרה (lutrah; there was also an opinion at the table that said this was a חתול ים, sea cat): otter.

You should also know that the otters at the Waco Zoo (yes, that Waco) were donated in memory of my grandparents because my grandma loved how otters were always happy, no matter when you saw them. At one point there was a billboard along the highway with a picture of a pair of otters, under which said, "Welcome Dorris and Jack." Got a number of laughs in our family.

בופלו (buffalo; none of us could figure out the Hebrew word for this. Turns out there isn't one): buffalo.

Yael asked if there were any buffalo in Israel. She had never seen one. This topic came up because Josh was talking about the various meats he most enjoys eating.

Water buffalo, coincidentally, play a big part in the history of my university. For more information on Penn's "water buffalo affair," which ended with the University president resigning, check out the DP (which includes an old-skool article by Yona Silverman).

An additional fun fact: the word "Buffalo" can be used five times in a row, just with that word, and form a coherent sentence.

Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Translation: Buffalo (plural noun for animal), who live in the city of Buffalo, buffalo (verb to intimidate) other buffalo from the city of Buffalo.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Polarities in Balance — The morning prayer experience

Last year, I wrote this dvar Torah for a class on Biblical theology. It centers around a theology of tensions, of looking for polarities in the course of every day life and a middle path that transcends them. It speaks of complicating the picture, of finding beauty in between. There will a series of posts on this, too.

For now, exploring the morning Shacharit service. For later, some stories and thoughts about living in Israel, which will include tales of laughter and joy, reflection of all kinds.

And away we go.

Bearing witness to wonder

Each morning, the liturgy takes us on a metaphysical journey to the origins of existence. As early as the very first prayer of the morning Shacharit service, we meditate on creation, taking us back to the Beginning, a world of polarities in balance and with God as the ultimate sovereign of the universe who literally creates everything. Every day, each individual is forced to contemplate the radical amazement of the world around her.

We are not allowed to become normalized to the wonder of creation, as it would be so easy to do — we must attempt to engage with the process each morning. Yet beyond celebrating a God of a singular Creation, the prayer extends in subsequent paragraphs to express that we are witness to radical amazement each day, that God perpetually bears a new creation, hamehadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid maaseh breisheit (God, in his goodness, renews creation day after day) — the miracle continues and we have an obligation to acknowledge it as such.

But is this impossible? Can we really take hold of the weight of creation each day? “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” British novelist George Eliot once wrote, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”1

We will never actually bear witness to the face of God, to the transcendent power of the Infinite. Doing so would give us a similar fate to the Nazis in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Last Ark, whose faces melt from the Awe of the Arc of the Covenant — the power of the squirrel’s heartbeat literally has the power to destroy us if we had the knowledge of how nature actually functions in a cosmic sense.

But pausing to reflect on moments of radical amazement, no matter how accustomed we may be to them, is a divine obligation.2 Particularly during the morning hours, when the sun tangibly alters and affects our lives, we vocalize God as the Creator.3 In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “He who has ever gone through a moment of radical insight cannot be a witness to God’s non-existence without laying perjury to the soul.”4 Will we bear witness to wonder each morning? Perhaps not. But we have to try.

With the clear underlying goal of sanctifying creation in the first bracha (prayer) during Shacharit, it is noteworthy that the liturgical codifiers choose to refer to the creation narrative as expressed in Isaiah 45:7, not Genesis. Additionally, the liturgist alters the original text of Isaiah from “Yotzer or u’vore choshech, oseh shalom u’voreh ra” (Who fashions light and creates darkness, ordaining peace and creating evil) to a more hygienic version of the text, where God is a creator of everything, “hakol,” not specifically of evil.5

The narrative of Genesis features a creation story of separation from the primordial “tohu vavohu” (translated as “unformed and void” by the Jewish Publication Society, as “welter and waste” by Robert Alter) into a sense of order and clarity. God creates light and separates the light from the darkness. But God does not create the darkness in this narrative. God separates the waters, creating a firmament (rakia) to separate the upper waters from the lower waters. But neither does God create the waters in this narrative. There was “something” in the “before,” and seemingly God separates a giant glob of primordial Play-do into the various colors which are recognizable by humans and other creations.

The Isaiah narrative involves God more intimately in the creation process than Genesis, as one who “creates” in the modern sense of the word. God creates sets of polarities, both light and darkness and good and evil, mutually complementary entities which cannot exist without the other.6 Commenting on the first half of this beracha, the Rabbis of the Talmud rhetorically ask, “Shall we not say, ‘Who forms light and creates brilliance (nogah)?’” Rav Ullah responds, saying that the original wording is retained “so as to mention the attribute of day at night and the attribute of night in day.”7

Arguably, the most spectacular moments of nature occur when night and day meet. We hike to the top of a mountain so that we can see a sunrise better and at the very rim of the earth. When I was on a ship at sea, each night I would head outside at sunset to watch the giant yellow ball of the sun dip to the horizon and meet the seemingly never-ending blue of the water. On rare occasions the synthesis of these refracted colors radiated green light across the sky in the brief moment in nature known as a “green flash.”8

The most remarkable moments in nature occur when two poles meet in mutual harmony. We must be conscious of both what we see and what we don’t see at any particular time — because the truest beauty and awe occur when opposites paradoxically meet.9 In the same way that we sanctify the night during the day, our first beracha during Maariv recognizes the mutual process of recreation at both ends of the day: “You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light.”10We take stock of what we can see and also its opposites, which mutually define the entity as what it is in the first place.

While we do not say “Who fashions light and creates evil” during Shacharit, but rather use the euphemism “and creates everything” (u’voreh et hakol), the Rabbinic mind could not help but think back to the original context in Isaiah. Notably, God remarks that each day’s creation is “tov” in Genesis 1, but there is no mention of “ra,” until the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.11 Like his inclusion of both or and hoshech, for the narrator of Isaiah, one element, either tov or ra, cannot exist in a vacuum. As twentieth century theologian, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects:

“Good and evil, tob and ra (sic.), here have a much wider meaning than good and evil in our terminology. The words tob and ra speak of an ultimate division in the world of man in general which goes beyond moral discord, so that tob would perhaps also mean “full of pleasure” and ra “full of pain.” Tob and ra are the categories for the deepest division of human life in every aspect. The essential thing about them is that they appear as a pair and that, in their state of division, they belong inseparably together.”12

Engrained in our happiness and successes necessarily rests conflict and insecurity.13

We do not dwell on the problems of theodicy first thing in the morning, however, and therefore the redactors of the siddur replace ra with the “hakol” of the siddur. This creates the phrase oseh shalom u’voreh et hakol, which the Rabbis interpret to mean that “peace is equal in weight to everything.”14

We are living in a world of continual balancing acts and also a world where peace is at the core of our existence, which renews itself on a daily basis. It’s quite comforting to read peace as a part of the original creation narrative, even more so to repeat daily in echo of His renewal that God is recreating peace each day.

Above all else, the text of this prayer tells us that we must be aware of both light and darkness, of moments when we are engrained in the rational human world and when we “abandon the pretense of being acquainted with the world.”15 We must devote our attention both to halakha and aggadah, to keva and kavanah, the Rabbinic schools of Ishmael and Akiva,16 to science and religion.17 In these terms, reading one item to the exclusion of another perhaps is more than ignorance, but a modern formula for heresy of the highest order! Reading one pole as the sole element in any part of life limits God’s power and the human being’s capacity to encounter her own potentials.18

As we go through our lives, we encounter opposites at every turn. We cannot preach that people should pray exclusively from the words of the page, nor can we say that people should exclusively meditate from the words of the heart. Modern Jews need both a thriving diaspora and the uniqueness of the Jewish state.

As we say each day, God is a creator of light and darkness, of peace and of all things. We read creation and recreation of life itself on a daily basis as continually reinforcing actions.

The true beauty occurs in a synthesis of two positions. It is a theological green flash across our lives.


1. I saw this quote in a New York subway advertisement for Barnes and Noble. It originates in Eliot’s book, Middlemarch. See George Eliot, Middlemarch, (New York: Modern Library, 1984 edition)

2. For commentary on appreciating individual moments, see Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 131

3. Dr. Ben Sommer noted that the laws of saying Qeriat Shema are in place so that the individual will take note of the sun during its rising. Our obligations in prayer are uniquely tied to the patterns of nature and thus change as the sun rises earlier throughout the course of the year.

4. Heschel, 132-133

5. Rabbi Reuven Hammer explains that this prayer serves to respond to the Persian outlook of there being a god of darkness and god of light; this prayer illustrates God as a creator of both light and darkness. See Or Hadash, ed. Reuven Hammer, (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2008), 30

6. While I acknowledge the important issues of theodicy in claiming that God is a creator of evil, I do not wish to dwell on them in this context. Rather, I note the synthesis of the dialectics.

7. Babylonian Talmud, 11a. I learned several of the sources in this paper with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer at the 5768 Hadar Shavuot Retreat.

8. For more information of the “green flash,” see

9. Rabbi Gordon Tucker reflected once in a talk about Torah Min HaShamayim that perhaps we should use the term “paralaxical” in similar contexts to the current one. This invented word reflects the idea that paradoxes often run in parallel harmony and somehow complement each other, rather than the assumption that they are irreconcilable, as the definition of the word “paradox” suggests.

10. Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom, ed. Jules Harlow, (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2005 edition)

11. It should be noted that God does not dub the second day’s creation as “good.”

12. Krista Tippet, Speaking of Faith, (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 66. It should be noted that Bonhoeffer is specifically referencing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in this passage. The message relates to my thesis in Isaiah, as well.

13. Ibid., 67

14. See Sifra Behukotai 1:8, Sifrei Bemidbar 42 and Rashi’s synthesis of Rabbinic commentary in his comment to Leviticus 26:6

15. Heschel, God in Search of Man, 131

16. Rabbi Heschel notes the beauty of the tension between these giants as follows: “The diversions and dissensions between the two ‘fathers of the world’ continued on their way throughout the generations. It is just that sometimes we find discrete methodologies, each internally consistent, and sometimes we find the two intellectual subsets included side by side, or intertwined, within a single method. Sometimes one approach appears to have been subsumed by the other, and sometimes they have been synthesized, so that it seems that two rival ways of grasping the world can somehow coexist within the same mind.” See Heschel, Heavenly Torah as refracted through the generations, ed. Gordon Tucker and Leonard Levin, (New York: Continuum, 2005), 33

17. My thoughts on this subject ultimately always go back to Rabbi Heschel’s chapter on “The Problem of Polarity” in God in Search of Man.

18. To expand on this issue, I think much more broadly about the notion of “hyphenated identities” in the modern world, perhaps particularly in America. At all times, we have different elements of our identity tugging at us for attention. While practically tough to articulate in concrete terms, perhaps we should not be thinking from the outset in terms of “sacrificing one item for the sake of the other.” We will arrive to transcending the dialectic by charging forward full-steam with each of our convictions and engaging the clash of ideals only when we reach this juncture (though we clearly know it is inevitable from the outset). With this approach, there is inherently more risk, of course.

I think to the Hebrew word mahloket, meaning argument, but which has the root ch.l.q, meaning both to separate and to smoothen — by charging forward and meeting at the intersection, we smoothen each of the positions.

Dr. Arnold Eisen’s article “Jews, Judaism and the Problem of Hyphenated Identity in America” provides an overview for twentieth century philosophical exploration of the topic. I also draw from Mordecai Kaplan’s characterization of Jews living in two parallel civilizations (though not his conclusions) as a springboard to the discussion on “cultural hyphenates.”

See Eisen, “Jews Judaism and the Problem of Hyphenated Identity in America,” in Ambivalent Jew: Charles Liebman in America, eds. Stuart Cohen and Bernard Susser, (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America Press, 2007) and Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, (New York: McMillan, 1934), 250.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Milot HaYom

Friday night dinner with the Kahns quite literally was a bundle of joy. Laughs rolled in by the bundles.

Some highlights:

Elle (fifth grade) wanted to know how good the guests' Hebrew was, particularly our accents. She asked for the best speaker among the group.

The lot fell to Ari, and he subsequently dared Elle to quiz him. So she asked him to say, "I peed in my pants."

And timing is everything, of course.

She then said she didn't hear him and asked him to say it again, but louder. Well played.

Dalya came up with an Arabic phrase of the day which resembled an old-man's Yiddishism. Camille was there to help her with that, as well.

Dinner brought with it a few milot hayom, too. There were more, but this will do for now:

מסננת (misnenet): Strainer
לעכל (l'akel): to digest

Friday, October 23, 2009

Coercion and the mitzvah of לא תחמד (do not covet)

Some people have commented that my blog posting has dropped off in recent days. That's because I am now a student again. One week of school done, week two starting up tomorrow.

Posts will continue about any and all subjects — don't you worry. Top 5 fans of the blog, and otherwise, should know that I have a West Wing post in the wings, but am waiting for Sarit to watch Season 4 Episode 1, as not to ruin it for her.

I know. What a friend, indeed.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Ari pointed out that a recent podcast of Rabbi Eli Mansour — who is worth listening to for his combo Syrian-New York accent alone, let alone depth and breadth of knowledge — focused on our recent topic of choice.

When does a person cross the boundary of לא תחמד (Do not covet, found in the Decalogue of both Ex. 20 and Deut. 5)? In a case where someone manipulates another person to give him property? Is the line that one cannot transgress even thinking about manipulation, or perhaps when one begins the verbal coercion, when the individual actually gives over the property that he did not want to give?

Additionally, what are some of the practical differences between the two adjacent phrases of the tenth commandment of the Decalogue in Deut. 5, "לא תחמד" and "לא תתאוה" (do not covet and do not desire are rough translations)?

R. Mansour brings a teshuva (legal responsum) from the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim, 19th c. Baghdad), who brings both the position of the Rambam and the Ra"avad (Rabbi Abraham Ben David of Posquieres, 1120-1198), ultimately ruling according to the Rambam.

As you will see from R. Monsour's elucidation of the text, the issues are immediately applicable to our discussion about mandating thought, the place of transfering thought to words and then tangible action.

Immediately below is the transcript from the podcast, below that the teshuva of the Ben Ish Hai and then the sources from the Rambam and Ra"avad, which he cites.

The Transcript

The Ben Ish Hai, in Parashat Ki Tavo (17), discusses the prohibition of “Lo Tahmod” – “You shall not covet” (listen to audio recording for precise citation). He writes that one violates this prohibition by applying pressure upon his fellow to sell him his possession, such as his home or utensils. If a person desires his friend’s property, which the friend does not wish to sell, and he pressures the individual or sends people to pressure him to sell it, and the friend ultimately relents, then the buyer has violated the prohibition of “Lo Tahmod.” Even though the friend ultimately agrees to the transaction, and the buyer pays a fair price, he has violated this transgression because he applied pressure to coerce his friend to sell something he had not intended to sell. The Ben Ish Hai notes that one violates this prohibition only when the owner finally relents and proceeds with the sale.

There is a separate prohibition, the Ben Ish Hai writes, of “Lo Titaveh” (literally, “You shall not desire”), which refers to the feeling in one’s heart. A person violates “Lo Titaveh” when he begins devising a scheme to persuade his fellow to sell him the item in question. Already at that moment, one transgresses this prohibition because he begins thinking in his mind of ways to obtain the coveted object. The Ben Ish Hai emphasizes that one does not violate this prohibition if he simply wishes in his heart that the owner would agree to sell the object. The transgression is committed only when one begins devising practical strategies for convincing the owner to sell.

The Ben Ish Hai’s ruling follows the view of the Rambam, who held that one transgresses “Lo Tahmod” once the owner acquiesces and agrees, under duress, to sell. The Ra’abad, in his critique of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, disagrees. He maintains that to the contrary, if the owner consents to the transaction, then the buyer cannot be said to have done anything wrong. Even if the owner agrees due to pressure, the Ra’abad argues, a buyer who purchases an item with the owner’s consent does not commit any offense. Halacha, however, follows the Rambam’s position, that one indeed transgresses this prohibition by pressuring the owner to the point where he relents and agrees to sell the item which he had initially not intended to sell.

Summary: The Torah forbids pressuring somebody to sell a possession which he had not intended to sell. A person violates one prohibition the moment he begins devising a scheme to pressure the owner, and he violates another prohibition if the owner ultimately relents and agrees to sell the possession.

Text of the Ben Ish Chai, Parshat Ki Tavo, 17
בן איש חי, פרשת כי תבוא, אות י''ז

כל החומד ביתו של חבירו או כליו שאין בדעתו למכרם, והפציר בו בדברים או הרבה עליו רעים עד שמכרם לו הרי זה עובר בלאו דלא תחמוד, ואינו עובר בלאו זה אלא עד שיקח החפץ שחמד, ומשעה שנפתה לבו וחשב איך יקנה החפץ עובר בלאו דלא תתאוה כי אין תאוה אלא בלב, מיהו אם רק נתאוה בלבו שאמר הלואי שיתרצה זה למכור ואקנה ממנו אינו עובר בלאו, אבל אם חשב בלבבו לעשות המצאות של השתדלות והפצרות ה"ז עובר משעה שחשב אופני ההשתדלות וההפצרות, וכל זה להרמב"ם, אבל להראב"ד גם בכה"ג אינו עובר אא"כ חשב ליקח החפץ בעל כרחם של בעלים, אבל אם חושב איך יעשה לרצות הבעלים אינו עובר בלאו וקי"ל כרמב"ם ז"ל

Anyone that covets the house of his friend or his property (lit. utensils), and they do not have any intention of selling them, and he pleads incessantly for them or increases berating the person until he sells them, this person transgresses the negative commandment of "Do not covet" (לא תחמד) — Ex. 20:13, Deut. 5:17.

But he does not transgress this negative commandment until he takes the object that he coveted. And from the time that he gave into the temptation and thought how he would buy the object, he transgresses the negative commandment of "do not desire" (לא תתאוה) — Deut. 5:17. Because desiring only occurs in the heart (one's thoughts). However, if the individual does not have thoughts of desire (lit. desire in his heart) to do the acts of the desires, he transgresses at the very moment of the efforts and breach — and all of this is according to the Rambam.

But the Raavad (R. Abraham ben David, Provence, 12th c.) said also in any case that he does not transgress except if he thought to take the object by force from the owner (as opposed through shrewd talk). But if he thought how he would manipulate the owners, he does not transgress the negative commandment — and our law follows that of the Rambam.

The laws of the Rambam and Raavad in context

I note that the Rambam says that it is a violation of "Lo tahmod" to coerce a store owner into selling an object, but he does not say that the buyer should get the punishment of lashes, because he actually pays for the object. Yes, this is a sin, and one that is by definition illegal, but it is certainly not on the same level as outright stealing. It is not on the same level as other manifestations of transgressing "Lo Tahmod," either — though I certainly need to look further into other examples of what might constitute transgressing the commandment.

The Ra"avad finds this argument preposterous, saying that if the Rambam were serious with this declaration, which the Ra"avad find absurd in the first place, then the punishment would be lashes. He thus claims that there is no violation of Lo Tahmod if the buyer paid the worth of the object, even if the seller did not want to sell it in the first place. After all, the seller could have said no — there is no physical coercion involved. Therefore, why should the buyer be punished?

(Note, too, that thinking about coercion is not an issue for this manifestation of "lo tahmod." This is different than previous manifestations of the law that we have seen)

רמב"ם הלכות גזלה ואבדה פרק א
הלכה ט

כל החומד עבדו או אמתו או ביתו וכליו של חבירו או כל דבר שאפשר לו שיקנהו ממנו והכביד עליו ברעים והפציר בו עד שלקחו ממנו אף על פי שנתן לו דמים רבים הרי זה עובר בלא תעשה שנ' +שמות כ' ט"ז+ לא תחמד, ואין לוקין על לאו זה מפני שאין בו מעשה, ואינו עובר בלאו זה עד שיקח החפץ שחמד, כענין שנ' +דברים ז' כ"ה+ לא תחמד כסף וזהב עליהם ולקחת לך חימוד שיש בו מעשה. +/השגת הראב"ד/ כל החומד עבדו או אמתו וכו' אע"פ שנתן לו דמים יקרים. א"א ולא אמר רוצה אני. /השגת הראב"ד/ ואין לוקין על לאו זה שאין בו מעשה. א"א לא ראיתי דבר תמה גדול מזה והיכן מעשה גדול מנטילת החפץ אבל היה לו לומר מפני שהוא חייב בתשלומין שהרי הוא כגזלן שחייב להשיב את הגזלה ולפיכך אינו לוקה וגם זה חייב להשיב את החפץ לבעליו

Rambam Laws of Theft and Lost Objects, 1:9

Anyone that covets the slave, house, utensils, or anything else that it is possible to purchase from him (the seller) and he (the buyer) aggravates the individual, pleading incessantly for the object until he gives it to him — even though the buyer gives a great sum of money for the object, this person transgresses the negative commandment of "Lo Tahmod".

(Yet) we do not give him (the court-sanctioned) lashes as a punishment because there is no specific action involved (ie. it is a violation, even though the "coerced seller" could have said no, and there was money in the transaction). The buyer does not transgress the commandment until he takes the object that he coveted.

Such is the case (where lashes would be sanctioned, however,) in Deut. 7:25, "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 YHVH your God."

Gloss of Ra"avad: Any person that covets the slave, etc...(from above).

Despite that he gave him valuable money.

Gloss: And the person does not receive lashes for a negative commandment because there is no direct action.

I have never seen such an absurd case, and why is it such a big deal to give up the object? (my translation accentuated here). The Rambam should have said (if he were truly serious about this being a case of "lo tahmod") that the buyer is required to to return the object's value, for he is like a thief who is required to return the object itself. Therefore, he does not receive the punishment of lashes, because he is required to return the object to its owner.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Josiah Bartlett — The Historical Figure

A message I received from JJC this evening:

i'm currently reading Pox Americana during Friday night davening, a book I bought at Penn because it looked so cool and I never actually got to until this year. It chronicles an historical phenomenon that, seemingly, had been totally ignored before Duke historian Elizabeth Fenn chose to write a book about it: the impact of smallpox on the Revolutionary War. the impact, to say the least, was kind of ginormous.

on page 85, I encountered the following gem Friday night:

Many susceptible delegates [to the Continental Congress] sought inoculation upon their arrival in the pox-plagued metropolis [that would be Philadelphia]. "The Small Pox [sic] is in the City," wrote New Hampshire's Josiah Bartlett to his wife in September 1775.

The Bartlett discussion goes on for two paragraphs.

Ethan tells me that the show references this fact at one point. I don't recall it. Another nugget of wisdom from Aaron Sorkin, in any case.

In quasi-related news, in ninth grade in Mr. Holt's class, we put on a mock Continental Congress. I was James Oglethorpe of Georgia. Good times.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Religion as a moral force in the world?

I had a good amount of free time this summer.

So in addition to eating Vegetarian Chinese food with friends, watching a Netflix movie per day and reading a good amount of 20th century Christian philosophy, I worked on an academic project. My dad said that basically I was writing a Senior Thesis for fun. I prefer to think of it as a super-senior thesis. No blue sweatshirts this time, though.

The project revolves around the central thesis that American rabbis during World War II framed the moral anarchy of the world occurring due to a lack of religion in the world. All of this has an underlying assumption that religion is a moral force in the world which has lasting consequences.

But what does that mean for us? I relate this idea both in terms of mitzvot ben adam l'haveiro and mitzvot ben adam l'makom — interpersonal commandments of action and religious ritual between humans and God. Does observing the laws of Shabbat, not grinding pepper for example, contribute to a worldview of religious discourse which makes the world a better place?

Do prayers affect the world? This could be framed either in a theurgic sense, if prayers literally affect God and the course of history; alternatively it could be framed to say that prayers affect an individual's outlook on the world and therefore how she interacts with others and the world writ-large (these idea are by no means mutually exclusive).

Over the course of several posts I will explore this notion — the ethical imperative in Judaism — and religion more broadly, as well. How does a religious worldview affect the individual, and the community in turn, toward mandating living in an ethical world? Does it? In what way?

Certainly the variety of non-profits, synagogues, Hillels and beyond that are doing innovative work in the field of social action are a part of this narrative. But as you'll see in this post, I think this idea extends beyond that, as well.

What is the language that is used in their work? In the work that you do?

Below is a devar torah that I wrote for Parshat Ki Teze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19). There will be more on this topic to come.

וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ
You shall make a parapet for your roof

During World War II, American rabbis overwhelmingly framed the evils of the war as a response to a certain moral vacuum in the world. Essentially, as the religious leadership itself framed it, rabbis were not doing their jobs. Specifically because there was a lack of engagement in religious life during the twenties and thirties, many religious leaders argued, moral chaos was allowed to reign. Religion thus served as a moral safeguard for civilization writ-large. To protect the peace to come, and indeed actively to fight fundamentalism, people needed to be religious, to evoke religious values — and rabbis and ministers had an obligation to advocate for this on the ground.

A few examples of such rhetoric, firstly from Rabbi Milton Steinberg:

A confident hope, an assurance of final victory over evil are the last consequences of God faith, to those who hold it fast. On the heart of the agnostic and atheist there lurks forever a haunting grisly fear: Since all is chance, our ideals too are chance…Behind him, in him, beside him and before works that Power that drives the universe which is also a Power that makes for righteousness. So much then can religious faith achieve against the experience of evil. It can open our eyes, until, like Elisha’s lad, we see the “chariots of fire” which hitherto were invisible to us.; it can cause us to hear the cheering emboldening words: “Fear not, for they that are with us are more than they that are with them.”1

Another, from Rabbi Leon Lang, chairman of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly from 1941-1943:

Wherever the sovereignty of God is acknowledged, the preservation and enhancement of human life as a supreme value becomes the central motif of the entire pattern of religious and moral ideas and ideals by which human relationships are to be governed. Surely this is the very core of religious teaching and religious practice in Judaism. Neo-paganism of our day, fascism, totalitarianism or whatever else it may be labeled, is the direct challenge and negation of this supreme value. Judaism, in the contemporary scene, must gird itself to combat these falsehoods and their modern social implications with no less zeal than did Israel’s prophets and sages when they faced the more primitive forms of paganism.2

My point here is not to suggest a theology for evil, and certainly not of the Holocaust (historically speaking, it must also be noted these rabbis were responding to the Nazi war machine and not the genocide). But I relate here that religion is framed as a moral force in the universe; religious leaders state explicitly that without a dynamic and engaging religious life in communities around the world, there would be a certain moral anarchy.

I note this because in all of my time in the Jewish community, I don’t know that I have ever heard Judaism framed explicitly as a moral force in either a community’s or an individual’s life. Quite frankly, in the contemporary age, when I do hear religion spoken about in such terms, I often cringe because of the certain political bent and fundamentalist principles the words evoke.

Objectively speaking, ideologically Judaism issues moral imperatives. But in 2009, what is the language that the ideological center should use? Is this an emphasis that we should make?

This week’s parsha, Ki Teze, presents nearly one-eighth of the Torah’s 613 commandments (72 according to Rambam and 74 according to Sefer HaHinukh). Among them is the commandment to build a parapet for one’s roof. Situated, between the commandments of “Shiluakh haken” (sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs) and the prohibition against sowing the field with two types of seeds (kilayim), the commandment of building a parapet on the top of one’s house reads: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you bring no blood upon your house, lest anyone fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8).

The world’s first building codes; you are responsible for potential accidental harm of the other. By building a fence around the roof of a building, you are saving lives. Even long after construction, the builder is responsible for negligence if he/she did not live up to her/his responsibilities for responding to the safety code during the project. As Don Isaac Abravanal notes (15th c. Spain), this is a practical application of Leviticus 19’s declaration of “lo ta'amod al dam reecha” (You shall not stand by the blood of your fellow human).

The Rambam, in turn provides a unique codification of the law:

“Both the roof and any other object of potential danger, by which it is likely that a person could be fatally injured, require that the owner take action... just as the Torah commands us to make a fence on the roof... and so, too, regarding any obstacle which could cause mortal danger, one, not just the owner, has a positive commandment to remove it... if one does not remove it but leaves those obstacles constituting potential danger, one transgresses a positive commandment and negates a negative commandment 'Thou shall not spill blood' (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer and Protecting Life, 11:4)."3

I first studied this text in depth with participants on an American Jewish World Service trip to Uganda. As Aaron Dorfman of AJWS notes, it is not such a big step to suggest that this law does not apply only to buildings, but to any place in our lives where there can be potential danger.4

In American Civil law, this applies to everything from covering unused swimming pools to Seinfeld’s parody of why every coffee cup in the United States now reads “Caution, Hot Contents.” The Rambam extends the responsibility, though, beyond one’s own property to any impediment with which one comes into contact. If one even knows about potential harm, from any source, it seems, she has the obligation to prevent it from happening. In a world of 24-hour media, this is quite a responsibility.

The Hassidic master, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk (18th c. Poland), in turn, interprets the verse on the level of remez and sod. Rebbe Elimelech, in his collection Noam Elimelech, posits that the Torah represents the roof of the house, for just as the roof protects and shades the house, so too does the Torah protect and shade the individual. And thus, one must study subserviently, lest the study lead one to be haughty and prideful. The Torah’s power, in essence, has the potential to be a protection for one’s life, and the very life of society, it seems, but only if people are wary of the power it wields, and in turn, one's own temptations. Thus, by establishing a maakah, a parapet, the individual is able to engage fully in the powers of Torah and engage them in her life and the life of society.5

Rebbe Elimelech continues the explication of the verse, noting the plurality of the word “damim,” an oddity in the Torah (it occurs four times). He suggests that one should not have two types of “damim” in her house, just one power, that of God. In a complete reversal of the original pasuk, blood in this case is deemed a positive force. Thus, one must have one dam in the house, but not damim, as the verse warns.

For even if there are two paths which ultimately lead to the same outcome — one the path of God and Torah, a religious one, and the other a secular path, let us say that of politics, for example — Rebbe Elimelech states that one will surely fall and be thrown from the roof if the path were not entrenched in Torah.6

Reformulated, Rebbe Elimelech suggests that only a religious worldview is sustainable in crafting and maintaining an existential peace. The Torah does not guarantee, this mind you — as we see all too well and often in the contemporary world. But should we assemble ma'akot in our lives, Judaism, as a religion and an all encompassing civilization — at least for Jews — is the only path toward a world of human vitality. Through the engaging in the particular, we reach toward the universal.

Indeed as the aforementioned rabbis of the forties would suggest, ensuring a vital religious life in America was a positive commandment, and only through this religious engagement would a sustainable peace thrive. Not to do so would violate a negative commandment, where a certain chaos would reign. Democratic ideals would not be enough to ensure moral grandeur; in fact they necessarily were not sustainable on their own.

I end with a series of questions: In 2009, does the religious center have a message that Judaism is a vital moral force in the world? Should we? If so, what is some language to contextualize the discussion and bring it to a more tachlis level (or perhaps we want to leave it lofty?) Have you heard this message at any time in your life? None of these questions are rhetorical — I would like to hear your opinion.

1 Steinberg, “Toward a rehabilitation of the word ‘faith,’” The Reconstructionist, Volume VIII, April 1, 1942, 16

2 R.A., Proceedings, 1942, 58-59

3 אחד הגג ואחד כל דבר שיש בו סכנה וראוי שיכשל בו אדם וימות כגון שהיתה לו באר או בור בחצירו בין שיש בהן מים בין שאין בהן מים חייב לעשות להן חוליה גבוהה עשרה טפחים או לעשות לה כסוי כדי שלא יפול בה אדם וימות. וכן כל מכשול שיש בו סכנת נפשות מצות עשה להסירו ולהשמר ממנו ולהזהר בדבר יפה יפה שנ' +דברים ד' ט'+ השמר לך ושמור נפשך, ואם לא הסיר, והניח המכשולות המביאין לידי סכנה, ביטל מצות עשה ועבר על לא תשים דמים. (משנה תורה, הלכות רוצח ושמירת הנפש י''א:ד')

4 It happens that Aaron Dorfman of AJWS discusses this same verse on My Jewish Learning this week. I would recommend looking at it.

5 I would like to note the parallels between this interpretation and the religious messages in Lord of the Rings.

6 Here is the full text of Rebbe Elimelech's interpretation, found in Noam Elimelech, on Devarim 22:8:
וקמת ועלית אל המקום, רצה לומר אל הצדיק השופט אמת שבימיך ועשית על פי הדבר אשר יגידו לך כפשוטו וזהו (דברים כב, ח) ועשית מעקה לגגך ולא תשים דמים בביתך דהתורה הקדושה נקראת בשם גג: דהגג הוא המגין על הבית והתורה מגינה ומצלה האדם וצריך לזה שיהיה בהכנעה שלא יהא לימודו להתפאר ולהתגאות בפני בני אדם וזהו מעקה לשון עומק והשפלה, דהיינו הכנעה. תשים לגגך, היא התורה. ולא תשים דמים בביתך, פירוש כנ"ל שלא יהא בך שני מיני דמים וכחות רק הכל כח אחד כולו לה' כי יפול הנופל ממנו פירוש כי אף המעשה הטוב אשר תעשה תפול ממך ולא תתקיים ולא תפעול כלל הנופל ממנו, פירוש אשר מן הראוי' היה שעל ידי הדבר הזה יפלו ויושלכו אחרים, דהיינו הדינים והקליפות וחלילה אם יהיה כח אחר מעורב בו תפיל גם אותו הדבר שלא תפעול כלל ולכן צריך האדם לתקן כל אבר ואבר עד אשר יבין בשכלו בעצמו שהוא מחסר בעבודתו וכל מעשיו אינם מתוקנים על מכונם

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Some videos my family finds funny

At this point, it is unclear who reads this blog. But for those who do, here are a couple of opportunities to laugh — I do, at least.

Here are some of the funnier Youtube videos that don't involve anyone getting hurt. The Silver family enjoys them, at least.

This animal is called a Loris (I forgot its name for awhile — a point of shame).

Charlie, YOU'VE WON! Nothing spells fun quite like a mashup-up of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Well, some things do. This certainly does, as well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Milot HaYom — First graders teach me Hebrew

First graders are among those we have to thank for today's Milot HaYom.

The day began with a trip to the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem to visit a "Tali" school, an elementary liberal Jewish religious school. We spent the morning in a first grade class room, in tefillah and the corresponding class about the prayer Modeh Ani. It will amuse some that Israeli children sing along to the Craig Taubman version of Mah Tovu.

When the teacher asked the class what they are thankful for, one girl said she was thankful for the trees for giving oxygen.

First grade knowledge of photosynthesis (on a base-level or not) impresses me. Well done, dude.

And thus, we begin today's milot hayom with oxygen and carbon dioxide.

חמצן (hamzan): Oxygen
דו–תחמוצת הפחמן (du-tahmozet hapahman): CO2
פסיפס (pseifes): Mosaic

A few fun phrases, as well...

הכדור בידינו (hakadur b'yadeinu): Literally, the ball is in our hands. But kadur is also the word for the world. The phrase sounds a lot like "the ball is in our court" — I love basketball metaphors. But give it an environmentalist flare and it means "the future of the world is under our control"

רגע לדעת, רגע לגעת (rega lada'at, rega laga'at): "A moment to think, a moment to touch"; this is the theme of the zoological curriculum in the school. The students learn about various animals and then head down to the basement to the ג'ונגל ("jungle") to interact with various animals.

Below is the set of principles by which the school runs. Attached to each guideline is a corresponding quote from the Jewish canon.

Such a sign, in my mind, illustrates an ideal vision of what it might mean to structure a society according to religious principles. In future posts, I'll explore the moral imperatives, or lack of them, for religion in the modern world. This is certainly a point along that path.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Milot HaYom

And we are officially back in action — school 2009-2010 is go for launch. Orientation today and tomorrow and then the real kickoff on Sunday.

Particular highlight today was seeing a presentation from artist David Moss (if you are not familiar with his work, become familiar).

We then created our own art using the paradigm of mapping that he illustrated. I'll say that it is likely that I will return home with a Moss Haggadah at the end of the year.

A few words from today:

דיקן (dikan) – dean. Seems to come from the same root as deacon.
My dad recently reported that both the Dutch and German call their deans "dekan." All three languages (and many other western languages, for that matter) additionally each use the same word for pineapple — ananas. And that's what we call a non-sequitur.

עמותה (amutah) — non-profit.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Good times with Israeli music

In case you are curious just how awesome (on a scale of one to awesome, of course) the concert/s were on Wed. night/Thursday morning, here are a few videos that our friends from Youtube decided to share with the world.

If videos had been invented when the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" was coined, how many words would a video be worth?

Perhaps you are familiar with Eretz Tropit Yafah?

A much better video job with HaIsh HaHu.

Well done Steve Jobs...

Along Rahel Imeinu Street, there is huge graffiti of the following:

"Israel also deserves an Apple Store!!!"

Having an entire generation named after the iPod is one way to gauge success. This is another.

Apple, Inc. — Jerusalem requests your presence.

Milot HaYom (words of the day)

Sorry for the lack of yomiyut (daily-ness) of said Milat HaYom. Back in action.

צפונבון (tzfonbon) — a rich person, usually a teenager, who was given all of his/her money without working for it. Think Israeli Paris Hilton (or perhaps/definitely on a lower scale). This crowd often lives on the north side of Tel Aviv. Hence "tzfon" (north) and bon, which means nothing in itself, but rhymes well.

The Israeli equivalent of "like, totally" is כאילו, כזה, דה (keilu, kazeh, duh).

And a more practical word...

להתקפל (lehitkapel) — to pack up, to head out. From the root of "to fold," and in the reflexive form. Essentially means "to fold oneself up." To get all of your things together in order to head out the door.
אנחנו מתקפלים בעוד 5 דקות. We're heading out (with all of our stuff) in 5 minutes.

Another shoutout to Guy for said milot hayom.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

I love chocolate and cheesecake...

...and Israeli rock concerts.

Across Jerusalem there are postings with concert announcements. Ari recently said, "There's going to be one time when you don't stop at one of those signs."

Not sure it has happened yet.

A trip to Yam HaMelach (Dead Sea) was number on my list for the Sukkot break. So we made it happen.

Yesterday Guy, Kupps (Guy calls her Poochy), Hannah and I headed down Kevish (Route) 1 to the Dead Sea. Directions were a little fuzzy from the get-go, but there's only one road along said Dead Sea. So we headed that way.

We were pretty sure we were on the right path, but just to make sure, we pulled to the side of the highway alongside another car which had also pulled over. Turns out this van had pulled over to let a sephardi family of three males pee off the side of the highway.

So we waited for a bit.

And then asked:
Do you know if Yam HaMelach is this way?
First guy: No (shaking head)

(second guy comes to the window) Us: Do you know if Yam HaMelach is this way?
Second: Em... (No).

(third comes to the window) Us: Do you know if Yam HaMelach is this way?
Third (I'm guessing the father): (shaking head) Lo Makir (not familiar with it)
Us: B'emet. Lo makir et Yam HaMelach? (Really, you don't know of the Dead Sea?)
Third: Lo

Good times. Lo makir...

We were on our way to Nahal Zohar, the Zohar Wadi — next to the Sea, in a valley with walls stretching toward the sky.

The concert was by Yehudit Ravitz and Gidi Gov, two of the premier and classic Israeli rock stars. Chances are if you know some of the classic Israeli songs, one of them sings it.
They sang most of them. שוקולד, ארבע לפנת בוקר, הילדה הכי יפה בגן, באה מאהבה, ארץ טרופית יפה to name a select few of the 3 hour concert.

But when Gidi Gov broke out in Inyan Shel Zman, the 2003 Nivo Zimriyah song, among other things, let's just say that Hannah and Kuppy went nuts. I mean, it's a good song in its own right.

Add some emotional attachment to it and — booyakasha.

Both artists captured the audience. Talk about stage presence. Everyone around us knew the words and you better believe I sung along. I'm quite certain we were the only Americans in the audience.

None of us stood still for the whole concert.

And as we were waiting for the encore to come back on (Yehudit singing בא מאהבה, for those keeping track at home), Guy said, "So nu, we going to see if there are tickets to the other one, too?"

We had been shut out of buying tickets online to the sunrise show on Massada that night. But Kuppy and Hannah had just purchased tickets for this one at the box office.

So we headed over there, too. And what do you know — TICKETS.

We headed up on the cable car and sat on the makeshift sets of cushions set up on the southeast side of the fortress. A short nap for each of us.

And then Meir Banai and Arakadai Duchin. It was a more subdued concert for the most part.

No hopping up and down, for example.

But again, beautiful music, a clear sky, with the sun rising to our left over the Dead Sea.

I try to avoid hyperbole. But on a scale of "1 to best night of concert/s ever," this was a 102.
For pictures...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A full engagement with Shabbat — "Mind control," Shabbat edition

Kiddush on Shabbat morning is much more than Pop-ems and gossip. It's a veritable sociological phenomenon. Different groups in their different corners. Some individuals weaving their ways through all of them. People talking about their parents, talking about their children. About the D'var Torah. About the spread of lox on the table.

And of course, amidst all of that there are inevitably conversations about plans for that evening, about the coming week at work or otherwise, which according to halakha, runs people into certain problems (read "people" as me).

Described most famously, and poignantly, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Sabbath stands as a palace in time. Judaism, as a religion of time, sanctifies that time throughout the course of both regular and Holy moments.

With this understanding and framework (which deserves a much fuller and explicated treatment), it is logical that one should live in the palace of time for that allotment and engage fully with this particular Holy moment.

But does that mean that one cannot engage at all with the rest of the week while sanctifying Shabbat? Even with words? Again, must we abstain even from said thoughts about the week?

The original discussion appears in Masechet Shabbat (150a).

משנה. לא ישכור אדם פועלים בשבת, ולא יאמר אדם לחבירו לשכור לו פועלים.

גמרא. (פשיטא) מאי שנא הוא ומאי שנא חבירו? - אמר רב פפא: חבר נכרי. מתקיף לה רב אשי: אמירה לנכרי שבות! - אלא אמר רב אשי: אפילו תימא חבירו ישראל, הא קא משמע לן: לא יאמר אדם לחבירו שכור לי פועלים, אבל אומר אדם לחבירו הנראה שתעמוד עמי לערב? ומתניתין מני - כרבי יהושע בן קרחה. דתניא: לא יאמר אדם לחבירו הנראה שתעמוד עמי לערב? רבי יהושע בן קרחה אומר: אומר אדם לחבירו הנראה שתעמוד עמי לערב? אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן: הלכה כרבי יהושע בן קרחה. ואמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן: מאי טעמא דרבי יהושע בן קרחה? - דכתיב +ישעיהו נח+ ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר; דיבור - אסור, הרהור - מותר.

MISHNAH. A man must not hire laborers on the Sabbath, nor instruct his neighbor to hire laborers on his behalf.

GEMARA: Wherein does he differ from his neighbour? — Said R. Papa: A Gentile neighbour [is meant]. R. Ashi demurred: [Surely] an order to a Gentile is [forbidden as] a shevut? Rather said R. Ashi: One may even say [that] an Israelite neighbour [is meant]. [Yet] he [the Tanna] informs us this: One may not say to his neighbour, ‘Hire labourers for me,’ but one may say to his neighbour, ‘Well, we shall see whether you join me in the evening!’

And with whom does our Mishnah agree? With R. Joshua b. Karhah. For it was taught: One must not say to his neighbor, ‘Well, we shall see whether you join me in the evening’! R. Joshua b. Karhah said: One may say to his neighbour, ‘Well, we shall see whether you join me in the evening’! Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in R. Johanan's name: The halachah is as R. Joshua b. Karhah. Rabbah b. Bar Hanah also said in R. Johanan s name: What is R. Judah b. Karhah's reason? Because it is written, "nor finding your own pleasure nor speaking your own words" (Isaiah 58): [explicit] speech is forbidden, but thought is permitted (Soncino Translation, my emphasis).

The give and take of the gemara is quite clear in this case — the law follows R. Yehoshua b. Karha, that speech about melacha is forbidden, but thoughts are permitted. The Mishnah's statement that one may not instruct her neighbors to hire laborers logically expands to all cases where a person speaks about doing an activity that would transgress Shabbat.

The Rif (11th c. Morroco), in codifying the halachic components of the Gemara, sides with R. Yehoshua b. Karha, that one may not speak about "melachic" activities on Shabbat but one may think about them.

רי"ף מסכת שבת דף סד עמוד א
אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן הלכה כר' יהושע בן קרחה. דאמר קרא "ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר" דבור אסור מחשבה מותרת. והני מילי דבר הרשות הוא דאסור, אבל דבור דמצוה מותר, דאמר קרא "ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר" חפציך אסורין חפצי שמים מותרין

Regarding controlling one's thoughts on Shabbat, Maimonides (hereafter referred to as the Rambam, 1135-1204, Spain, Egypt) also says that one may not speak about mundane actions of the week, such as business matters that one will undergo the next day or how he will build his house, plans for what people will do on Saturday night, and so on (Hilchot Shabbat 24:1). However, thinking about these actions is permitted.

רמב''ם הלכות שבת כד:א
יש דברים שהן אסורין בשבת אף על פי שאינם דומין למלאכה ואינם מביאין לידי מלאכה, ומפני מה נאסרו משום שנאמר +ישעיהו נ"ח+ "אם תשיב משבת רגלך עשות חפציך ביום קדשי ונאמר וכבדתו מעשות דרכיך ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר", לפיכך אסור לאדם להלך בחפציו בשבת ואפילו לדבר בהן כגון שידבר עם שותפו מה ימכור למחר או מה יקנה או היאך יבנה בית זה ובאי זה סחורה ילך למקום פלוני, כל זה וכיוצא בו אסור שנאמר ודבר דבר דבור אסור הרהור מותר

Rambam, Laws of Shabbat 24:1
There are things that are forbidden on Shabbat despite the fact that they are not melacha (forbidden work on Shabbat) and they also do not bring one to do melacha. And why was this forbidden? Because it says, "If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, From pursuing your affairs on My holy day; If you call the sabbath 'delight,' The Lord’s holy day 'honored'; And if you honor it and go not your ways Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains, nor speaking thereof..." (Isaiah 58:13). Therefore it is forbidden for a person to go through with these business actions on Shabbat, and even to speak about them, such as speaking with his roommate what he will sell or buy tomorrow, or how he will build this and go about with this business, go to a particular location — all of this and things like it are forbidden, as it says, "Speaking thereof" (Isaiah 58:13).

Such a mandate is extremely hard to follow. People talk about their week, about the week to come. That's the sociological realities of our time, and quite frankly of all eras in history. Jews kibbitz.

Reflecting on the law, though, can we find an underlying flavor to the mitzvah?

The world was created with words — God spoke and the world came into being. So on a fundamental level, words are as important as the very actions which constitute our modern understanding of work, and our more nuanced understanding of melacha ("work"). On the very day where we sanctify creation, it is essential we should be aware of our speech.

The great medieval law code, the Shulchan Arukh (edited by Joseph Caro, Spain/Tzfat, 15th c.), takes a more stringent approach to this topic. While thinking about mundane (i.e. non-Shabbat) matters is permitted, it is discouraged (OH 306:8).

שולחן ערוך, אורח חיים שו:ח
הרהור בעסקיו, מותר; ומ"מ משום עונג שבת, (לח) מצוה שלא יחשוב בהם כלל (לט) ויהא בעיניו כאילו כל מלאכתו

Shulchan Arukh, OH 306:8.
Thinking about business matters is permitted; despite this fact, because of oneg shabbat (roughly translated as Shabbat joy — Entemann's brings joy, after all. Is this thing on?) it is a mitzvah not to think about them (business matters) at all, and to envision for herself as if the actions have been completed.

Citing Rabbeinu Yonah's (13th c. Spain) Iggeret HaTeshuva, Caro explains this more nuanced, and perhaps stringent view, in the Beit Yosef, his commentary to the Tur:

בית יוסף שו
והרהור בעסקיו מותר. בפרק שואל (קנ.) ודבר דבר דבור אסור הרהור מותר:
ומה שכתב ומכל מקום משום עונג שבת מצוה שלא יחשב בהם. כן כתב ה"ר יונה באגרת התשובה (דרש ב אות לה [יום ה]) אסור לאדם שיהא לבו טרוד בעסקיו בשבת אף על פי שאמרו חכמים הרהור מותר. אם יש לו מתוך ההרהור טרדת לב או נדנוד דאגה אסור שנאמר ועשית כל מלאכתך ואמרו במכילתא (יתרו, בחדש פ"ז אות ט) שתהא כל מלאכתך בעיניך כאלו היא עשויה שלא תהרהר עליה וכן אנו אומרים בתפילה מנוחת שלום השקט ובטח מנוחה שלימה שאתה רוצה בה ובברכת מזון אנו אומרים שלא תהא צרה ויגון ביום מנוחתנו עכ"ל

Beit Yosef 306:8
Despite this, it is a mitzvah, because of the concept of oneg shabbat, not to think about them (non-Shabbat topics). Thus wrote Rabbeinu Yonah in Iggeret HaTshuva:
"It is forbidden for a person's heart to be worried with business activities on Shabbat, even though the Rabbis wrote that 'thoughts are permitted' (see above, Massechet Shabbat 150). If these thoughts include worrying/pain of the heart or back-and-forth worrying, they are forbidden because it says "And you shall complete all of your melacha" (Exodus 20, "Fifth commandment"). And it says in the Mechilta that all of your melacha will appear in your eyes as if it is complete, so that you don't think about it. And we also say in the Amidah on Shabbat, 'The rest of peace, the quite and assurance, a complete rest that you want during the day.' And in Birkat HaMazon (Blessing over eating food) we say 'that there will be no distress or sadness on our day of rest.'"

Rabbeinu Yonah's position emphasizes that thoughts really can cause stress for a person, that stress in itself is real work and occupies the entirety of a person. During our prayers on Shabbat we pray for a day of complete rest, of body and mind. During a day which emphasizes a such serenity, of residing in a palace of time, rest should and must include respite from thoughts about the week. Moreover, it is impossible to have a day of rest without freeing ourselves from thoughts of the week.

Stress is real, it is consuming — for a day, one per week, one should leave these thoughts behind, view the world completely in the moment.

In explaining the strict ruling, the Mishnah Berurah gives a more technical answer, that one must particularly be aware of her "worries of the heart/mind," lest they lead to prohibited action. There is no assurance that these thoughts will lead to action, but there is certainly a worry that this will be the case.

הרהור בעסקיו מותר - דכתיב ודבר דבר דבור אסור הרהור מותר:
מצוה שלא יחשוב וכו' - ומכ"ש אם יש לו ע"י ההרהור טרדת הלב ודאגה דיזהר בזה עיין בב"י

Is there a general takeaway from all of this? I'd like to say that it is to live in the moment, a legal codification for Shabbat and Festivals, and a general policy for all of life. Thoughts consume all of us. Often they keep us up at night. Sometimes they prevent us from performing to our highest capacities.

When we are in a "good mood" we are more pleasant to be around. Our moods, our thoughts, are real entities. There is a real place in our life for being consumed in stress about the daily goings-on of life — it shows that the individual cares about the task at hand, about the people she interacts with, about the particular melacha, and beyond.

But on Shabbat, with the understanding outlined largely by the Beit Yosef, we should assure that the entirety of our humanity is focused on living in a cathedral of time, honoring creation and ourselves.

A time to love and a time to hate? Another investigation of controlling thoughts

At Seudah Shelishit (the third meal, i.e. dinner on Shabbat) on Shabbat/Sukkot, a group of friends were sitting in the Sukkah and singing the well-known third chapter of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) — "There is a time for everything under the sun." Codified in 20th century pop-culture by the Byrds, this chapter outlines a series of polarities which humanity encounters during life.

As I was sitting there, the eighth verse of the chapter grabbed my attention: עֵת לֶאֱהֹב וְעֵת לִשְׂנֹא, עֵת מִלְחָמָה וְעֵת שָׁלוֹם (A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace).

Out loud, I wondered, is there really a time for hatred? What does that mean? We should allot particular time in our lives for hatred? Hateful thoughts are okay under specific situations?

The person across from me said absolutely. The Nazis killed his ancestors. He hates them and there is nothing wrong with that. More than that, he should hate them. He clearly should not act on these thoughts, but they are completely justified in themselves. There is a time to hate under the sun.

I am less confident with such a declaration. I, thankfully, do not have an interaction with such atrocities which give me the intangible and irrational emotions which lead individuals to emote and think as such.

Again, my thoughts go to West Wing. When President Bartlet asks Charlie if he would like for the man who murdered his mother executed, he responds: "I wouldn't want to see him executed, Mr. President. I'd want to do it myself" (Season 1, "Take this Sabbath day").

Such a vocalization is cathartic and healthy. To suggest that one should push aside thoughts of hatred after an incomprehensible tragedy such as murder is both callous and dangerous to the victim's family. Such thoughts need to be expressed openly, not held back. 

But the question is if after such catharthis, there is something dangerous in festering hatred.

In line with this whole line conversation, I'm led to believe that thoughts do not exist in isolation, and are in dynamic tension with words and actions. Such is the reason that the vidui tells us we must be so conscious of הרהור/י הלב, our reverberations, our "uncontrolled" thoughts. They are the keystone to all of our interactions with the outside world.

Yet at the same time, are there times in our lives when hatred truly is not only a merited response, but the correct and only one for the moment? Ecclesiastes decidedly says yes.

During the Shabbat before Purim, we read "Parashat Zachor," specifically mandating us to remember what the Amelekite nation did to the Hebrews when we/they left Egypt (Deut. 25:17-19):

יז זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. יח אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ--וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים. יט וְהָיָה בְּהָנִיחַ יְקוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה-אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way as you left Egypt; 18 how he met you by the way, and killed your most vulnerable, all that were languishing in the back, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God 19 Therefore it shall be, when Adonai your God gave you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which Adonai your God gave you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

This passage does not specifically say "you shall hate Amalek." But it mandates that you should Remember how Amalek picked off the very weakest of your people and killed them with complete and utter disregard to humanity writ-large. That's a pretty explicit remembrance.

I'm not sure how you could remember this without hating. After all, the verse outlines exactly what you are to remember and gives you "a show but don't tell" edict of "You shall hate Amalek."

Perhaps this is Ecclesiastes' time under the sun?

Throughout all of this, my mind immediately goes to the verse in Leviticus 19:17 — לֹא-תִשְׂנָא .אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ You shall note hate your brother in your heart.

But who is this אחיך, your "brother"? It certainly doesn't seem to be Amalek. They aren't my family.

But could they be? Are there inherently evil people? Is this verse referring to the brotherhood of humanity? 

In Hannah Arendt's terms, what is the banality of evil? Are all humans capable of indescribable horror and thus we truly are all brothers?

Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th c. Spain) says that verse 17 is a negative recitation of the so-called "Golden Rule," which is immediately following. And thus, it would necessarily include all of humanity — I don't know of any religious tradition that suggests "Love your neighbor as yourself" only applies to a particular ethnic group or religion. Yet in the very same comment, he says that the Second Temple was destroyed for such "senseless hatred," שנאת חינם, which gives the commandment a decidedly particularistic mandate — this was Jewish senseless hatred, not that of others. And thus the dialectic remains in the air.

More than this, the Spanish scholar says that one must protect these thoughts from entering here heart, as the commandment completely emphasizes thought-based activities.

אבן עזרא ויקרא י''ז
יז) לא תשנא את אחיך הפך ואהבת לרעך (יח). והנה אלה המצות כולם נטועות בלב, ובהשמרם ישבו בארץ, כי על שנאת חנם חרב בית שני. הוכח תוכיח שמא תחשדהו בדבר ולא היה כן, וזה טעם ולא תשא עליו חטא, כי עונש יהיה לך בעבורו:

20th century Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom notes that Nachmanides (hereafter referred to as Ramban, 13th c. Spain) suggests that verses 17 and 18 are written in a chiastic structure, the first half of each verse being general commands and the end of each, the details of how to accomplish them (Anchor Bible Commentary, Leviticus 17-22, 1646).

פירוש הרמב''ן, פסוק יז
לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך - בעבור שדרך השונאים לכסות את שנאתם בלבם כמו שאמר (משלי כו כד) בשפתיו ינכר שונא, הזכיר הכתוב בהווה:

ואמר הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך - מצוה אחרת, ללמדו תוכחת מוסר, "ולא תשא עליו חטא" שיהיה עליך אשם כאשר יחטא ולא הוכחת אותו. ולזה יטה לשון אונקלוס שאמר, ולא תקבל על דיליה חובא, שלא תקבל אתה עונש בחטא שלו. ואחרי כן צוה שתאהוב אותו. והנה השונא את רעהו עובר בלאו, והאוהב לו מקיים עשה:

והנכון בעיני, כי "הוכח תוכיח", כמו והוכיח אברהם את אבימלך (בראשית כא כה). ויאמר הכתוב, אל תשנא את אחיך בלבבך בעשותו לך שלא כרצונך, אבל תוכיחנו מדוע ככה עשית עמדי, ולא תשא עליו חטא לכסות שנאתו בלבך ולא תגיד לו, כי בהוכיחך אותו יתנצל לך, או ישוב ויתודה על חטאו ותכפר לו. ואחרי כן יזהיר שלא תנקום ממנו ולא תטור בלבבך מה שעשה לך, כי יתכן שלא ישנא אותו אבל יזכור החטא בלבו, ולפיכך יזהירנו שימחה פשע אחיו וחטאתו מלבו. ואחרי כן יצוה שיאהב לו כמוהו:

But Milgram says that the Joseph Bekhor Shor's (12th c. France) analysis is more precise, that the two verses form literary parallels:

17 Do not hate your brother in your heart לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ
18 Do not bear any grudge against the children of your people לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ

17 You shall surely rebuke your neighbor הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
18 You shall love your fellow as yourself ואהבת לרעך כמוך

17 So that you will not bear sin because of him וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא
18 I Adonai (have spoken) אני יקוק

Such an analysis understands thought to be directly related to actions, and that only through restraining thought will society function. Or voiced in the negative, only through controlling thoughts will society avoid destroying itself from the inside.

Again, this understanding particularly relates to the Rabbis' (of the Rabbinic age) understanding of the destruction of the Second Temple occurring because of sinat hinam, senseless hatred (Milgram, 1646). Milgrom also points to Proverbs 26:24-25, which Ramban had as well, to illustrate that thoughts are often masked by inward cunning and plotting:

כד. בִּשְׂפָתָו, יִנָּכֵר שׂוֹנֵא; וּבְקִרְבּוֹ, יָשִׁית מִרְמָה. כה. כִּי-יְחַנֵּן קוֹלוֹ, אַל-תַּאֲמֶן-בּוֹ: כִּי שֶׁבַע תּוֹעֵבוֹת בְּלִבּוֹ.

24. An enemy dissembles with his speech, Inwardly he harbors deceit. 25. Though he be fair-spoken do not trust him, For seven abominations are in his mind.

Are hateful thoughts preventable? In an immediate way, perhaps not. But psychologically, over time, I would like to think that such hatred diminishes — but only with active work. Again, Milgram suggests that Avsalom's hatred of his half-brother Amnon and his plot to kill him is directly related to the fact that Avshalom did not "utter a word to Amnon good or bad" (2 Sam 13:22).

Had he conversed, engaged with this hatred, would the result have differed?

Can we keep such thoughts out of heads on a permanent basis? No.

After engaging with these texts, I am more inclined to say that perhaps there are times under the sun for hatred. VERY specific times.

But who gets to decide this? The ramifications of this decision are dangerous to the utmost. These thoughts produce very real and tangible results in our world. In many cases, these thoughts mark tangible sins. But these momentary sins are blips on the radar compared to the long-term danger of festering hatred, the reason that CJ was quite so emphatic about the Hate Crimes legislation.

So is there a time for hatred under the sun?

Your turn.