The Talmud manages to do what few legal systems even attempt: it integrates psychological and moral issues seamlessly with normative legal guidelines. But to appreciate the full extent of this integration, it’s important to pay attention to something that is too often left out of today’s Gemara classes: the aggadah.
After an adventurous and unattributable career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar divides her time between researching trends in terrorism and learning Talmud, often with the dubious assistance of a one-eyed cat. She is an entertaining and sought-after public speaker, and lectures both in Israel and abroad.
Recent articles by Yael Shahar
This week’s Torah reading, parashat Mattot-Masai, rounds off Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers). Among the narratives of battles, conquests, and politics, we can also discern a subtle shift in divine-human relations: only in the last few parshiot do human beings begin bringing questions and requests to change the law. What brought about this change?
The Torah calls attention to two dangers facing the Israelites in their encounter with Moav. The first is the danger of cultural assimilation. A clash of cultures need not involve active enmity; it is possible for a culture to succumb to too much love just as surely as of repression. But there is a second danger as well: that of moral degradation. Israel’s encounter with Moav involved both of these pitfalls and resulted in a rift between the two nations that would not be healed for generations.
For some reason, I find it much more enjoyable to promote other people’s books than my own. So it’s my pleasure to announce that By Light of Hidden Candles, by Daniella Levy will be officially released by Kasva Press in trade paperback and Kindle ebook formats on October 16, 2017. My part in this book was mostly the book design, although I helped with book coaching early on in the process. It’s a great read, which I think many readers of this blog will enjoy!
One of the lessons of Parashat Balak is that things aren’t always what they seem, that human intentions don’t always pan out the way we imagine, and that there is an overall scheme of things invisible to the limited sight of a single generation.
The current uproar in Israel over a proposed academic “code of conduct” recalls a Talmudic debate on when freedom of speech endangers the rule of law. And this, in turn raises the question: What do false prophets, rebellious sages, and kidnappers all have in common? The answer has everything to do with freedom of speech in the public sphere.
Among the books I’ll be using for the discussions in Havrutah with a One-Eyed Cat is Martin Buber’s The Prophetic Faith. Buber speaks of the relationship between prophecy and free choice. As he makes clear, individuals, civilizations, and species all hang by the thread of a decision by one person. And that one person is all of us.
The mitzvot of Shmittah and Yovel set out a complete program of social and religious life that encompasses respect for others, for the the land, and for God. Israel’s right to live in peace and prosperity in its own land is conditional on its building a model society, which provides a safety blanket for its weakest members. We aren’t just told to have compassion on those who are down on their luck; we are legally mandated to act toward them as we would toward our closest family.
What makes one decide to leave behind the comfort of familiar surroundings, one’s mother tongue, childhood friends and extended family… all to set up home in a faraway land? Each of us has our own story and our own reasons, but there are some things that we share. We’ve have built a thriving society out of the ashes of the worst that they could do to us, and whatever may come, we’re home.
What better time than Springtime to get out into nature with a good book? Go ahead and add a plate of matzah and a glass of wine! Meanwhile, to get you started, here are some recommendations from around the Jewish blogosphere.
Throughout most of Jewish history since rabbinic times, the vast majority of Jews have lived in foreign lands, barely a step from slavery or annihilation. The focus of the Haggadah reflected that reality. It is only in our day that we can retake the narrative and change its emphasis to living free in our own land. A new Haggadah does exactly that, by adding back into the text a crucial part that was left out during the Babylonian Exile.
One of the more perplexing aspects of the Exodus story is the repeated “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart. This phrase—together with another that is equally mysterious—is the key to understanding the true miracle of the Exodus.
What does extending credit have to do with the evolution of sentient life? And what does either concept have to do with karma and conservation laws? The answer depends on whether your interlocutor is a cat.
How could Moshe, who, more than any other figure, stands for Torah…how could he destroy the precious written record of the Covenant, inscribed by God’s own hand? Moreover, how is it that the sages of the Talmud praised Moshe’s actions and hailed him as a hero for breaking the tablets? The answer lies in the difference between the first set of tablets and the second.
While the Book of Esther bears all the literary marks of a fairy tale, the underlying themes are far from trivial. At what point does a ruler become unfit to rule? When is civil disobedience not only allowed, but imperative? Why continue to believe in social justice in a seemingly unjust universe?
The Babylonian Talmud was originally meant to be a resource for all Jews. But, although written in the vernacular of the day, the lack of universal literacy confined the Talmud to the realm of scholars. The commandment that the Jewish People become “A kingdom of priests” was left unfulfilled. But that is about to change!
A sonderkommando questions the absence of God, and finds an unexpected answer.
When does survival become a crime? What is the nature of Evil? Where was God during the Holocaust? What are the limits of human responsibility in the face of overwhelming coercion? These are just some of the question faced by Jews—particularly religious Jews—during the Shoah. This guide explores these questions and more through a series of dialogues between Ovadya ben Malka, a former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando and the rabbi to whom he turned for judgment.
It may seem ironic that International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place on the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, is not marked in Israel. And yet, considering the timing and character of the commemoration, Israel’s choice to pay tribute to the Shoah on a different anniversary is somehow appropriate.
We, in our age, are living through a miracle spelled out long ago. But, like most such miracles, those living through them very often don’t see them. Some of us have no choice but to see them; the miracle is bound up with our lives by an unremembered past.