יום ראשון, אוקטובר 29, 2006


The Noahide Laws on killing and retribution

During discussion time at the Torah service on 28 October, one congregant suggested that Genesis 9:5-6 was more consistent with a blanket "thou shall not kill" interpretation than with the more specific "thou shall not murder" in the Noahide laws. There was a lively discussion of the point, and several members noted some apparent contradictions within the weekly portion. The version of the Bible that we use at these discussions is the Modern Commentary of the Reform movement, or "Plaut I." I don't have immediate access to a copy of Plaut I, but I was struck by the difference in the translation of the same passage in Plaut II (the revised edition, published in 2005). I will compare it here with the other version I have at my fingertips, which is the Everett Fox translation. (From memory, the Plaut I is closer to Fox in the word choice, albeit not in the meter and structure, which is very distinctive in Fox--a topic for another day.)

First, Fox:
(5) However, too: for your blood, of your own lives, I will demand satisfaction--
from wild-animals I will demand it,
and from humankind, from every man regarding his brother,
demand-satisfaction for human life.
(6) Whoever now sheds human blood,
shall his blood be shed,
for in God's image he made mankind.

(Note: I am replicating the punctuation and hyphenation used by Fox, but the indentation is a bit different from how it appears in the source.)

Now that I have looked at this more closely, it seems pretty clear that it refers to killing being OK in retribution for another killing. However, some additions to the text in Plaut II seem to have been made to really drive this point home, as we'll see.

Plaut II:

(5) Moreover, for your own bloodguilt I will require your lives; I will require it by means of beasts or by means of human beings--by means of a fellow human being will I require a [guilty] person's life.
(6) The shedder of human blood, /that person's blood shall be shed by [another] human;/ for human beings were made in the image of God.

(Note that the bracketed text and the slashes are in the source that I am quoted; I am not sure what the slashes are supposed to convey.)

This translation, with the addition of the clarification regarding guilt, appears more consistent with an interpretation that any killing is to be sanctioned as retribution for guilt, but certainly not with an interpretation that killing, per se, is prohibited. A commentary in a footnote to this passage says that an important principle of the postdiluvian world is to establish "a legal framework for social compliance" as distinct from the previous era "that perished because of its violence and lawlessness."

Does this mean that killing is OK, but only within a legal framework, in which the one to be killed is guilty? If so, it supports capital punishment (as retribution for murder), but it does not ban killing, per se. Nonetheless, the Plaut II essay on this passage, at p. 75, continues to refer to one of the Noahide laws as "People... shall not kill."

A bit confusing, for sure. But I take away from this the notion that humans are required from this point of the flood onward to figure things out for themselves. That is, there will not be divine intervention every time there is rampant corruption and violence. Rather, we have to learn how to establish the rule of law. Maybe I am looking at this from too much of a political scientist's perspective, but that's clearly an occupational hazard. The idea is: Here are some general, transcendent laws (the Noahide Laws), now go and work it out.

It hardly bears noting that we are still working on it.

יום שישי, אוקטובר 27, 2006


Transforming Heshvan

From the JPost:

Leaders of a host of Jewish organizations, mostly from the Diaspora, called in the Knesset Tuesday for a revision of the traditional Hebrew calendar that would reflect a grassroots push for more worldwide Jewish social action.

These organizations want to transform the Hebrew month of Heshvan, traditionally called Mar [bitter] Heshvan because it is devoid of holidays, into "Social Action Heshvan."

יום שישי, אוקטובר 20, 2006


Interfaith and 'call and response'

Nice post by Rabbi Bachman: "Bring it Back Home." He notes that when he was growing up in Milwaukee his synagogue (Reform) would have annual exchanges with a local African American church, with the pastor and rabbi giving sermons to the other's congregation. He recently participated at his shul in Brooklyn in an ecumenical anti-war religious rally with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim representation in the pulpit. He says we need more of this sort of exchange, to which I can only say amein.*

Rabbi Bachman:

...if I may share a word about my own experience of speaking from the pulpit in a context in which there is every expectation of “call and response,” allow that word to be EXCELLENT.

Jews: you are put on warning. I want more responses, more amens, more “that’s right, Rabbi,” from you all on Shabbos because I’m liking the feel of that. It enlivens the inspirational moments of preaching and brings Sinai down to earth in a way I had never quite experienced before. [my emphasis]

I have not had experience in enough different shuls (yet) to know, but I suppose there is some variance in the extent to which Jewish services have elements of the call and response. There are certainly parts of our services where the "regulars" join in with the cantor even though there is no such indication in the prayer book. But I have noticed an occasional visitor (one Sephardic Jew orignally from Egypt stands out) who will intersperse an amein somewhere where no one else in our congregation does. And I love the sound of that.

On the interfaith theme more generally, I am encouraged by the trial run we gave the new Reform prayer book over the summer. Its authors have incorporated some elements from other traditions as options. I noticed specifically, in the footnotes, that some additions have come from Sufi prayers. Like the African American Christians, but in their own way, the Sufis really know how to get the whole congregation involved! I remember one notable scene in a 'Lonely Planet' TV series when the travellers were at Sufi prayer circle in Syria. I mean a real, moving circle, as in men--only men, alas--locked arm-in-arm and rocking, jumping, praying. It looked like quite a workout, physically as well as spiritually!

One regret I have this month is that, with Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah having coincided this year for the first time in 33 years, the month is about to close and it looks like I will not attend an interfaith iftar (the festive meal that breaks the daily fast).

* Rabbi Bachman meant more ecumenical/interfaith events, not more antiwar events, though we could use more of those, too, no matter whose war it might be. And yes my words just spoken here in this footnote constitue a reference to the Israeli-Hezbollah war of this past summer, of which I hope to have some personal "Jew in Process" thoughts in another post someday.


Havdalah beer?

Two weeks ago on the first day of Sukkot, we decided to use something special mark the passing of Shabbat. So, I took out the bottle of Vigneronne Cantillon that I had been keeping in the fridge for several months.


Cantillon is one of the world's premier lambic brewers, which we had the pleasure of touring (tasting included!) when we were in Brussels in 2003. (Lambic is really neither lager nor ale, but a distinct and relatively rare category of beer that can be made only in certain parts of the Brussels region--mainly the Senne valley--as it is open-fermented and relies on local bacteria in the atmosphere only there.)

Of course, I know the blessing over the wine. But if there is a blessing over beer, I have not had the pleasure of learning it yet. The early Israelites' contact with beer might have been rather minimal, and the beer that they might have known would hardly be recognizable to us (no hops, for example). And they certainly would not have known anything like lambic. But beverages that meet the basic definition of beer are know to have existed in Babylonia and other ancient civilizations, including Egypt.

But the Vigneronne Cantillon is practically a wine, anyway. As the Cantillon website explains:

The lambic brewers weren't only established in the Senne valley, but also in the valley of the Yssche . This small river has its spring in the Forêt de Soignes and flows through villages like Hoeilaart, Overijse and Huldenberg. In this valley there used to live many brewers who made delicious lambic.

They didn't add cherries or raspberries [common flavorings for lambic] to their beer, but grapes which had been cultivated in greenhouses. By blending muscat grapes and lambic, the brewers and beer merchants produced the "druivenlambik" (grapes lambic). [...]

The name Vigneronne Cantillon was given in 1987. This name reminds us that, while it belongs to the beer patrimony, the spontaneous fermentation, the ageing in the barrels for several years and the addition of grapes make it a distant cousin of certain white wines.

I did not even notice till after we had finished the bottle what was on the label. It sure does look like a Star of David. Perfect, it is a Jewish lambic after all!

Well, no:

The six-pointed star on our label is an alchemist's symbol. It contains four elements, represented by triangles, of the brewing process. The fire is the symbol of the mashing tun, the earth of the cereals, the air of the yeasts, and the water is the fourth element. At this moment, only a brewer of traditional lambic may use this symbol.

Oh, and no, we did not extinguish a candle in the lambic.

יום שישי, אוקטובר 13, 2006


Rain on Hoshanah Rabbah

Among my better recent investments was that Jewish Calendar 2006. Not only have I learned a lot about artwork and ritual items in the collection of the Jewish Museum of London (which, for some reason, I have never visited), but it also indicates all of the minor (as well as major) holidays and festival dates.

The calendar hangs above my computer, so it's easy to go to the 'net and find out what the meaning of those Hebrew words on a given day is.

13 October is Hoshana Rabba, the seventh day of Sukkot. Given my own interest in agriculture (with many varieties of fruit trees that I tend whenever I can), Sukkot is an especially significant festival to me. Sitting in the sukka for the service last Shabbat, taking in the smells of the (California native) palm fronds that covered the wood frame and that let in filtered sunlight, was a beautiful experience.

But what is Hoshana Rabba? From My Jewish Learning,

According to the Mishnah (Sukkah 4: 5), in Temple times, on the festival of Tabernacles, huge willow branches were placed around the altar and a circuit was made around the altar while the worshippers recited: 'Hoshanah' ('O Lord, deliver us') (Psalms 118: 25). On the basis of this Temple practice, it became the custom on Tabernacles for the worshippers to hold the four species (the palm ­branch, the etrog [citron], the willows, and the myrtles), and make a circuit around the Bimah [pulpit], while reciting Hoshanah hymns in which God is entreated to deliver His people, especially from famine and drought, since Tabernacles is the festival on which the divine judgment for rain is made.

And guess what? Today or tonight we should be getting our first measurable rainfall of the season. We've had only a few sprinkles so far, and the bulk of the rain may come after sundown. (Our climate is 'Mediterranean' like Israel's, though today's weather in Israel is more like the 'Santa Anas' that we sometimes get around now: It was in the 90s in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but barely 70 here at its peak.)

The Velveteen Rabbi adds:

Another [ritual] involves greenery: after the reading of a set of piyyutim (liturgical poems), willow branches are beaten against the ground until their leaves come off. I like to read this as a kind of embodied prayer for rain -- the leaves fall like raindrops, symbolizing the sustenance we hope for in the year to come.

At a deeper level,

Some see Hoshanah Rabbah as the culmination of the holiday season that began with Rosh Hashanah, and regard today as the day when judgement is finally passed on who we are and who we aim to be.

The Velveteen Rabbi concludes with what she calls an extemporaneous holiday prayer:

Source of all that is! Help us tap into Your sustenance in the coming year. Shower us with mayimei chayyim, living waters, in all four worlds. In the world of actions and physicality, give us real water to irrigate with and to drink. In the world of emotions, let our hearts move us as mighty currents move the seas. In the world of thought, let our minds be as clean and clear as the purest waters. And in the world of essence, let us truly know ourselves as beings mostly made of water, sustained by Your ineffable wellspring in all that we do.

And let us say, amein.

(Her references in the prayer to "four worlds" and "made of water" contain links to explanatory pages. I highly recommend her blog, and she has another terrific post on Sukkot that is well worth a read: "Me'or Eynayim on the hidden meaning of Sukkot")

This has been an especially interesting year in which to experience my first High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah began this year on Shabbat, which was also the precise day of the autumnal equinox. That meant that the first day of Sukkot was also on Shabbat. We had a very light brief rain shower the Friday afternoon before Sukkot (not enough to measure in the rain gauge) and then it was perfectly clear and cool for the Erev Sukkot service, allowing our full appreciation of the full moon. And now rain is coming as Sukkot, and Hoshanah Rabbah, come to a close.

יום שבת, אוקטובר 07, 2006


Welcome to Ararat Scrolls

This post serves as the introduction to a new blog, Ararat Scrolls. It is a semi-anonymous blog maintained by a professor taking the Introduction to Judaism course. It will serve a public journal, and anyone interested in Judaism who happens to come by (including, I hope, others in the course) is welcome to comment.

At some point I promise to explain the name I gave this blog (and also the name I am posting under, zed).

But right now, I am distracted by another "religion": postseason baseball. (Congratulations, Tigers!!)

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