Torah Thursday

This weekend, Jews around the world celebrate Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the holiest day of the calendar. In the afternoon prayer’s haftarah, widely considered the holiest reading from the latter books of the Bible, we read the Book of Jonah.

Now we all know the story of Jonah and the whale, right? Take it away Veggietales:

Well, that is sort of the story. If you only read half of the book. And miss the point of the half you read. Let’s start at the beginning to see how the story of Jonah is today more important than ever for our community.

At the beginning of the story, as we all know, God instructs Jonah to head to Ninveh “to proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before me” (JPS translation, Jonah 1:2). Lost on most readers is the fact that Ninveh is the capital of Assyria, the Kingdom which was at near constant war with Jonah’s own northern Kingdom of Israel. In fact, just 50 years after the events of Jonah, Assyria would defeat the northern Kingdom and exile its inhabitants to Assyria (see, 2 Kings 17).

Naturally, Jonah does not want to save his political enemies. Knowing what we now know, we can easily sympathize: if Jonah had not saved the Assyrian capital from divine destruction, then his Kingdom would likely not have lost the war and his people may not have been exiled.

So Jonah makes a run for it. Things don’t go so well, he gets cast in the sea, and swallowed by a whale (actually, a “huge fish” but that’s neither here nor there). Jonah repents declaring “What I have vowed I will perform” (2:10).

That is where the Disney version of Jonah ends.  But the Bible version has two more chapters (out of 4 total) which is almost always ignored in popular retellings of the story.

The Bible tells us that, as we might expect for the capital city of a large Kingdom: “Nineveh was an enormously large city, a three days’ walk across” (3:3). Jonah, however, takes the easy way out, merely going “one day’s walk and proclaimed: ‘Forty days more, and Ninveh shall be destroyed'” (3:4). Remarkably, despite Jonah’s half-assed effort, the people of Nineveh believe this crazy man form an enemy state who was just regurgitated by a large whale. From the peasant to the King they repent, fast, and beg the Lord for forgiveness, “And God renounced their punishment He had planned to bring upon them and did not carry it out” (3:10).

God just saved Jonah’s enemies. The Bible tells us that “This displeased Jonah greatly” (4:1). He even admits: “That is why I fled beforehand.” Jonah realized that, despite his best efforts, he has just given aid to the enemy, saving their lives, and committing an act of treason in the process. He begs God: “Please, Lord, take my life for I would rather die than live” (4:3).

Distressed, Jonah wanders out east of the enemy’s capital and sits down in the shade. This is when God decides to prove a point.

God makes a plant grow above Jonah to provide shade for him (4:6). He then sends a worm to eat the plant: “the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he became faint” (4:8). Jonah has just seen his enemies saved, is now out in the wilderness, possibly afraid to head home to the country he just betrayed, and is now suffering heat stroke on top of it all. In his despair, Jonah once again begs God to take his life. God replies “‘Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?’ ‘Yes,’ he [Jonah] replied, ‘so deeply that I want to die.”

And this is where God makes his big point and the real moral of the story: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…and many beasts as well!” (4:10-11).

On the holiest haftarah read on the holiest day of the year, we read about the importance of placing human life above all else. The story of Jonah is not simply a story of bowing to God’s will. It is also a story about how there are things in this world that are more important than political loyalty for its own sake. It is about how we must value human life above all else.

Contrast this to the increasing tendency in recent years for synagogues to incorporate the State of Israel into the services. Mondoweiss reported that last year, synagogues in my home town of Chicago even sang Hatikva – Israel’s national anthem – at the culmination of their Yom Kippur service. I cannot think of a more stark contrast with the reading they must have just completed from the book of Jonah.

This year, let us commit once again to placing human life above all else. Let us not fall into the trap of talking about who is a “loyal Jew” and who is the “traitor son.” Let’s stop justifying atrocities against people simply because we call them “our enemies.” Let us drop the self-destructive talk about how to preserve Israel as a Jewish homeland. And instead, let us have a conversation about the importance of human life. Let us talk about how we can stop the violence being perpetrated by the State of Israel in our name against Palestinians, African migrants, and other non-Jews. And let us build a more just world together so that next year we can read the Book of Jonah knowing that we have learned its lessons, rather than repeated its protagonist’s follies.


This past week, Jews all over the world commemorated the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day which marks the destruction of Temple of Solomon in 586 BCE, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and a host of other tragedies that the Jewish people have experienced.

In the Babylonian Talmud (the Oral Torah), Tractate Yoma 9b, the Rabbis tried to make sense of the destruction of the Holy Temples. They start with the first one:

Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of three [evil] things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed.

The explanation for the destruction of the Second Temple is probably the most well-known part of this passage, but I want to start by focusing in on the third of these cardinal sins that led to the destruction of the First Temple, bloodshed. The Rabbis explain:

Bloodshed [prevailed] as it is written: Moreover Manaseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another. They were wicked, but they placed their trust in the Holy One, blessed be He.

When the Rabbis wish to explain how bloodshed led to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, they specify that the bloodshed in question was done by those who had faith in God.

Here, we see a theme that is all too familiar amongst modern-day supporters of the State of Israel: defenders often conflate the religious connection of the Jews to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) with the modern State of Israel in order to justify their violent acts. Yet here in the Oral Torah we see that this sort of thinking is precisely what led to the destruction of the First Temple.

Their explanation for the destruction of the Second Temple is much better known:

But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.

Traditionally, this passage has been taken as a reference to the intense rivalry between the various Jewish sects that existed at the time of the Second Temple. And most of the commentary I saw this year seemed to follow this line of thinking, whether it be in the tensions over the Women of the Wall or over the campaigns for Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Notably absent from these op-eds is the intense hatred that anti-Zionist Jews experience from our fellow co-religionists on a regular basis. Personally, I have never experienced more anti-semitism than this past year, when I have been living under Israeli sovereignty. Whether being spit on for acknowledging the Nakba, being called a bigot for advocating for equal rights for Palestinians, or being called a “kike” for saying that African refugees ought not to be beaten up by a racist mob, there seems to be a special hatred reserved in the hearts of many Zionists for Jews willing to stand up against their racism.

This zealous Zionist-nationalism that predominates the mainstream Jewish community creates exactly the sorts of divisions that led to the destruction of the Second Temple. Rather than allow for a politically diverse religious communities, our synagogues and major NGOs seemingly prefer to rally around one specific political agenda. (A move that is disturbingly similar to the logic of the Jewish Question).

Reading this passage, however, there is no indication that “hatred without cause” is limited to hatred within the Jewish community. And, of course, what is racism if not baseless hatred?

This year, thinking about Tisha B’av, I am reminded of just how much hatred without cause is perpetrated by members and so-called leaders of our community. I am reminded of the physical attacks and government repression against African refugees, the most vulnerable members of society. I am reminded of a depressingly long and consistent pattern of violence by settler-colonists in the West Bank against their neighbors, and of the Israeli military authorities that do nothing to prevent such violence. I am reminded of Israel’s plans to continue the ethnic cleansing that it began in the Nakba in 1948, with the Prawer Plan, which will forcibly displace some 70,000 Bedouin citizens. And, of course, I am reminded of the constant stories of racism that mark both the Israeli state policy and the actions of too many of its citizens.

I am reminded of all of this and more and it is difficult not to feel that we are further than ever from healing the pains of Tisha B’av.

Thankfully, the struggle goes on. Ilana Prusher at Haaretz covers some of the efforts within Israel to mark Tisha Ba’av by highlighting and fighting the racism and apartheid perpetrated by the state. And Jews in the United States are organizing to renew our religious institutions, purging them of their corrupt politics, and fighting – in the name of our Judaism – against the bloodshed and hatred that mark the State of Israel.

God willing, next year these efforts will work their way into the mainstream and we can provoke the sorts of difficult conversations that need to happen within our community.

I’m always impressed by just how good the haftarot are for special occasions (Just wait for the Yom Kippur Torah Thursday). This Saturday is also the first day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz. As such, we drop the normal haftarah reading from the book of Samuel in favor of the new month reading from the book of Isaiah.

Increasingly, it seems to me, mainstream Judaism in the United States is centered around one value: promoting political suport for the State of Israel. I’ll argue this point in a bit more detail in the future, but to be clear, i’m not saying that Jews in the United States don’t live rich and multifaceted spiritual lives. Rather, it seems to me that mainstream Jewish organizations – and worrisomely, more and more Jews – define their identity primarily by their relationship with the State of Israel.

God, though, does not share these concerns over physical territory. In the opening of the haftarah that we read at the beginning of the new month:

Thus said the Lord:
The heaven is My throne
And the earth is My footstool:
Where could you build a house for Me,
What place could serve as My abode?

God’s domain is heaven and earth, not any one particular location or territory. So if God is not invested in geography, then what does God value? Fortunately for us, we get that in the next verses:

 As for those who slaughter oxen and slay humans,
Who sacrifice sheep and immolate dogs,
Who present as oblation the blood of swine,
Who offer incense and worship false gods —
Just as they have chosen their ways
And take pleasure in their abominations,
So I will choose to mock them,
To bring on them the very thing they dread.

One may make all the oxen and sheep sacrifices (two particularly high-level sacrifices) in the world. But no pious ritual can cleanse you from the sin of killing humans or practicing cruelty. Once again, God is telling us not to use His name or His words as an excuse to be cruel to other humans in our midsts.

Of course, not everyone is prepared to receive this message. But God has a message for them as well:

Your kinsmen who hate you,
Who spurn you because of Me, are saying,
“Let the Lord manifest His Presence,
So that we may look upon your joy.”
But theirs shall be the shame.

Those who choose to justify the actions of the State of Israel in the name of God often declare that Israel’s successes – be they in war, technology, or economy – are proof of its divine providence. You can practically hear them say: “Well, if God is on your side, then why doesn’t He show himself? Throw down the lightning, open up the earth (as He does in this week’s Torah reading), and swallow us whole?”

Isaiah here warns us not judge things as they are, but as they will be in the world to come. In the meantime, he pushes us to work towards realizing that world in our own lives through kindness and justice.

This week we have one of the most beautiful and straightforward Haftarot of the year from the book of Zachariah. The portion offers one of the clearest condemnation of the particular blend  of militarism, nationalism, and state-driven religion that dominates the government of Israel today.

The prophet Zachariah falls asleep and receives a vision from God of Joshua standing in between Satan (lit: the adversary) and the angel of God. After telling off Satan, God tells Joshua that he shall get to rule over the people of Israel:

So said the Lord of Hosts: If you walk in My ways, and if you keep My charge, you, too, shall judge My house, and you, too, shall guard My courtyards, and I will give you free access among these who stand by.

God proceeds to place a special seven-sided stone in front of Joshua, which in the next chapter (a few verses after the conclusion of the haftarah) it is explained is the cornerstone for the new Temple.

All of the modern elements of religious nationalism are here: political power and religious power stand together, united in the person of Zachariah. However, the Bible specifically warns us against this interpretation, with one of the most famous verses to emerge from the Prophets:

And he answered and spoke to me, saying, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel, saying: ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.

Or, as I learned this verse back when I was doing labor organizing and (ironically) USY: Not by might, and not by power. But by Spirit alone. Shall we all live in peace!

Though to be honest, I actually like the Chabad translation I am quoting from here better as the biblical word for might – חיל – is the same root that the modern Hebrew word for soldier is derived from.

The Bible recognizes that mixing religion and military power in the way that the modern State of Israel has done is a particularly dangerous combination. In this week’s haftarah we are explicitly warned against thinking that a strong military force has any connection whatsoever to Judaism as God wants it practiced.

It’s been a while since I did a Torah Thursday. A big part of that is that lately the Wednesday Racism Roundup has had to document so damned much, that I have little blog-time left. But another part is that we are currently deep in the heart fo Leviticus, where the weekly readings mostly contain long lists of commandments without much exposition or story. And, since I’m not a rabbi I can say this: it’s boring!

This week we get another long and drawn listing of laws, this time relating mostly to the major holidays. Towards the end of the Torah portion, however, we get one of the more challenging stories from the Bible. In the midsts of a heated quarrel, a man pronounces God’s holy name while cursing.

As a frequent curser and person who gets frustrated fairly easily, I sympathize. The Israelites, however, do not. They place the man in prison and ask God what to do with him. In Leviticus 24:13-14, we get the answer:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him.

God goes on to list off a series of punishable offenses, ending his judgement with the infamous “eye for an eye” rule.

To us moderns with our strong commitment to free speech, the sentence seems unfairly harsh. Yet what I find particularly interesting in this passage is not the judgement itself, but the way it is to be carried out.

If God directly commands the death of the blasphemer, then why must the entire community stone him? Surely if God wished, He could have struck down the blasphemer where he stood.

To me, passage cuts to the very heart fo the meaning of political community. If the blasphemer is to be put to death, it is not simply because of God’s will, but also because of the will of the political community. Here, we do not get the single zealot carrying out doctrinal law with the certainty and righteousness and certainty of God on their side (ahem, settler-colonists). Notably, had a single individual decided to mette out punishment on their own, they would have been in the wrong. For what is crucial here is not that the man be put to death, but that the community should act together to do so.

Here, it seems to me, those of us who are uncomfortable with the judgement have an obligation to convince our communities to act according to other standards.  After all, it is the community which determines that the man has blasphemed, the community which imprisons him, and the community which executes him.

Unfortunately, as we know all too well, we will not always win such debates. And when we do, we must recognize our collective responsibility for the group’s actions, even if we may disagree with them. It is somewhat difficult to believe that each and every man, woman, and child in the dessert threw a rock at the prisoner – we’re talking thousands of people! And, in fact, Rashi, the most well-known Jewish commentator on the Torah, maintains that only the direct witnesses actually carried out the physical actions of the execution. However, they do so in the name of the entire community.

It is very easy to try to purge our own guilt for actions that our polities take by noting that we, personally, disagree with those acts. It is very easy to say that I disagree with my government’s funding of the Israeli army and pretend that this puts me above the fray. And yet my tax dollars still go to fund those policies. More so, my government funds and defends those policies in my name and in the name of every other citizen. In these verses, we see that for God, there is quite literally no difference between a representative of the people carrying out the act and the people themselves. If the witnesses carry out the execution, the people themselves carry it out as well.

Recognizing our complicity in government policies that we disagree with should not be a recipe for endless self-inflicted guilt. Rather, it must be a call to action to change the communities in which we live. After all, their action is ours and ours is their’s.

Every Thursday, Jeremiah’s Laments engages in some anti-Zionist bible study in an effort to think about what a different kind of Judaism might look like.

Today until sundown is the tenth yahrtzeit (Hebrew calendar anniversary) of Gary E. Rubin‘s z”l passing. My father was a life-long supporter of a liberal-Zionist vision of Israel and Palestine. As such, I’m not sure he’d agree with much of what I write here. In fact, given that I’ve inherited his love of argumentation, I’m sure we would have had many long and intense arguments. But I do feel that my analysis flows directly out of the principles he instilled in me. And the idea of Torah Thursday certainly owes quite a bit to my father’s dedication and critical engagement with his faith.

So in his honor, I present one of his favorite editorials, “The Dispossessed” (click it for larger version). My father had us read this at the Seder table every Passover. Why did we read an op-ed about Purim on Passover? I’m not entirely sure. It has its problems but it is still a nice interpretation and well worth a read.The Dispossesed

Computer problems and time constraints are responsible for this post is coming out a bit behind schedule. My apologies.

This past week, formerly extreme right-wing cum mainstream Knesset member Moshe Feiglin was prevented from entering Haram al-Sharif, current home of the Dome of the Rock and former site of both Holy Temples. Feiglin has tried and occasionally succeeded entering and praying there several times before. His stated goal is the exertion of Jewish sovereignty over the site, with the ultimate goal of bringing about the Third Temple.

This week, both the Torah and the Haftorah portions give us strong reasons to doubt the religious reasoning behind Feiglin’s actions. In this week’s Torah reading (Shemini), we get the tragic story of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. On the day of the  inauguration of the Mishkan (the traveling temple used by the Israelites prior to the construction of the First Temple), the two attempt a sacrifice to God. Despite following the same procedures as their father, it doesn’t go too well:

And Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

The Rabbis offer a host of reasons for why their sacrifice was rejected: everything from disobeying Moses, to being drunk, to getting minor details of the sacrificial procedure wrong. Personally, though, I like the explanation offered by Rav Solovechik, mostly for its simplicity and fidelity to the original text. Seizing on the line “which He did not command of them,” Solovechik notes that the transgression of Nadav and Avihu is their attempt to fulfill the sacrifices when God has not commanded it. And so, God punishes the pair for their arrogance.

Attempts like those by Moshe Feiglin and the Temple Institute to bring about the Third Temple without the explicit command of God would seem to be remarkably similar to the sin committed by Nadav and Avihu. It represents incredible hubris on the part of those who would misuse God’s name to pursue their narrow political agendas. And in this week’s Torah portion, we see how God reacts to this sort of thing.

One reason that the Third Temple cannot yet be built can be found in this week’s Haftorah. In II Samuel 7, David seeks permission to build the First Temple in Jerusalem:

And it came to pass, when the king dwelt in his house, and the Lord had given him rest round about from all his enemies.That the king said unto Nathan the prophet; “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within the curtains.”

Initially, the prophet Nathan agrees, telling David to go forth and build God a permanent Temple. That night, however, God instructs Nathan to reconsider:

When your days are finished and you shall lie with your forefathers, then I will raise up your seed that shall proceed from your body after you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

David’s son, Solomon, will build the Temple after his father’s death. The reasons for this decision comes in I Chronicles 28:

And King David rose to his feet and said, “Hearken to me, my brethren and my people; as for me, it is with my heart to build a house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God, and I prepared to build.But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house in My name, because you are a man of war, and you have shed blood.’

King David, a man of war, is not worthy to build a Temple to God. Only Solomon the Wise, a man of peace is capable of building the Temple. We cannot know when the Messiah will come nor how the Messianic era will play out. But the indication from the Haftorah portion this week is that the building of the Third Temple will first require the achievement of a peace and just world.

Moshe Feiglin is certainly not a man of peace (nor is he a King David, but that is a subject for another time) ; quite the contrary. His attempts to claim Jewish sovereignty over Haram al Sharif are designed to incite violence and racism. As such, they are not the sorts of actions that could ever lead to the building of the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of the Third Temple. Much like Nadav and Avihu’s, Feiglin’s actions represents the worst sort of hubris. As such, he and his ilk take the Jewish people further away from God.

Working towards the Messianic era means working for peace and justice. And today, that means working against Moshe Feglin.

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