Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Divrei Torah

The way to give a good Devar Torah is to "connect" it to our lives. How does the Chumash speak to me? What lesson can we learn from this pasuk? How do God's words apply to us?

Often I've prepared a good, sound Devar Torah and have needed to consult with someone to come up with a good ending. An ending which makes people feel like this isn't some abstract scholarly discussion (which would be more than enough for me) but is a moral and edifying lesson.  Sometimes I just bullshit an ending that has only the most tenuous connection to the actual Torah. (And therefore we should all be good!) But hey, it's all about pleasing the crowd I guess...

What bothers me is people taking the text and treating it anachronistically. Which is almost inevitable  seeing as the lessons of the text are intended primarily to teach pastoral nomads how to behave when they've plundered a city and the correct way to rape captives. The text's original intent has very little to offer us.

But hey I'm a pretty post-modern guy. I can live with a Death of an Author mentality. I actually like taking a text and imbuing it with new meaning. The text becomes fluid and eternal. The words rise up from their humble beginnings and become something so much more.

So why does it bother me when other people do it?

Because other people don't understand that they're not discussing original intent. They think that the text originally intended to portray Moshe as tzitzit wearing tzadik with a black hat. There is no difference to them between the Torah as it was written and the Torah as it was interpreted. To them there is THE TORAH. And THE TORAH has some great lessons to discuss around the table over some cholent.

And that just bothers me. That people are too ignorant to tell the difference.

My ideal is someone like James Kugel who is cognizant of both the original intent of the text and also appreciates its interpretation and the new meaning it is given as something religiously meaningful..

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


It's interesting that modern Jews, at least in my experience, seem so adverse to thinking of God as a corporeal being.

Obviously Maimonides had a huge influence on Jewish conceptions of God to the point where it is considered heresy nowadays by most Orthodox Jews to talk about God's hand or face...

But I think it's more than that. People feel, or at least I used to feel, that a corporeal God was a ridiculous idea. God as a man on a mountain with a big white beard was an absurd notion... Of course God has no body! How could one even think otherwise?

But if you think about it. The notion of a big man with a flowing white beard and a huge golden throne perched on Russel's teapot and directing the events of the world - has just as much evidence supporting it as an incorporeal God.

And I can understand what a big man is, I can imagine it... I can't understand what "incorporeal" means or even explain it. "It's there but it's not physical" What the hell does that mean?

So as far as I'm concerned - if you believe in God - God should be described corporeally - for the simple reason that you can imagine a big skyfather. Jews shouldn't fancy themselves sophisticated just because they avoid describing God with a body. Truth is it's just as silly.

Evidence is evidence and if it's lacking it doesn't matter whether God is an invisible force or a glowing Olympian God.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Judaism Believes...

It really bothers me a lot when people say "Judaism says: ...." or "Judaism believes..." As soon as one has let those two words slip s/he has already said a lie. Judaism is not a monolithic philosophical system. Saying "Judaism believes" is roughly equivalent to saying "philosophers say" or "Americans believe"

When it comes to what "Judaism" thinks about life the universe and everything - pretty much anything which could be thought has been thought. So at least philosophically speaking you cannot say the following things:

Judaism believes in free will and denies determinism

Judaism believes in Heaven and Hell

Judaism believes God is incorporeal

Judaism believes in a Messiah

Judaism believes in creation ex nihilo

All these statements which I've heard way too many times are false. Although one can say that historically Jewish thinkers tend to believe in free will, creation ex nihilo and the Messiah, one cannot state categorically that Judaism believes in these things - unless of course you don't want to include Chasdai Crescas, the Ralbag and some forms of Chassidut in the category of "Judaism".

People don't like uncertainty. They don't want a choice between thinkers. They don't want someone to tell them "Some people think this, and some people think that." No! People want their religion served on a plate. They want sturdy foundations and unquestionable tenets. They cannot accept heterogeneity.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Texts Meaning What They Say

As far as I can tell until the advent of Modern Literary Scholarship, people made a very interesting assumption about any text that they were presented to interpret.

They assumed that the text did not mean what it says.

When it says God raised his hand he didn't really raise his hand.

When the Mishna says one thing it actually means another.

When Reuven slept with Bilha he did not actually sleep with her.

When the Gemara mentions a giant bird it doesn't actually refer to a giant bird. 

The concept of taking a text at face value, of actually taking the words in a text seriously, and assuming that people write what they mean is a very modern concept. It is I believe THE fundamental difference between approaching a text in a modern way and approaching a text in a traditional way.

It's interesting that this does not seem to be intuitive at all. I cannot say at any point in my life before I was introduced to the modern approach, that it ever occurred to me to read a text as it was. I think this has to do with cultivating a sense of objectivity. Our natural inclination is to interpret any text by our standards and sensibilities. Due to almost unbridgeable cultural gap between me and a person living a thousand years ago it is almost inevitable that I will interpret a text differently than the original intent if I try to impose my own sensibilities on it.

Setting objectivity as a goal actually one of the most counter-intuitive things a person can we tend to interpret a text in light of ourselves and put ourselves into the text....