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.
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.