The gates of the ancient rabbis

This essay appeared in the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in 2014.

I’m guessing that many of us have given a d’var at some point that cited the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 32b, that reads, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed . . . but even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed.”

I’ve always been struck by what this, and some of the surrounding passages in the Talmud, appear to reveal about the attitudes of the early rabbis towards God. For instance, right after this sha’aray dimah [gates of tears] passage, we also read, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” (I left the male God imagery unaltered because it offers the poignant metaphor of a child unable to access his or her parent.)

Llagrimes_(tears),_pastel_portrait_by_Robert_Perez_Palou
       Llagrimes (tears), pastel portrait by Robert Perez Palou.      By Rpp1948 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

As one studies the whole of this page of Talmud, one also finds passages that nevertheless offer reassurance that, with great effort and sincerity, we can still reach God and move God to compassion. For instance, “Every person who lengthens their prayer – their prayer will not be returned empty  (ayn tefilato chozeret ray-kam).” And, “If a person sees that s/he has prayed but it is unanswered, s/he should pray again, as it says in Scripture, ‘Wait for the Eternal, be strong and let your heart take courage,’ etc.” Continue reading “The gates of the ancient rabbis”

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D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

This was a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2009.

In this week’s parashah we find high drama as Moses comes down from his 40 day stay atop Mount Sinai carrying shnai loochot ha-aydoot – two tablets of the covenant – loochot even – tablets of stone – k’tooveem b’etzba eloheem – inscribed with writing from the finger of Almighty.  You know what happens next.  As it says in the text, “The ETERNAL spoke to Moses: ‘Hurry down, for your people — note that now it’s your people, not my people — whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.  They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves an egel masecha — a molten calf, and they have bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” 

And then comes one of my favorite phrases of divine exasperation. God tells Moses, “Am k’shay oref hu. I see that this is a stiff-necked people.” God tells Moses that God is considering destroying the Israelites, and Moses quickly pleads on their behalf, ultimately succeeding in persuading God to give them another chance. And then Moses turned and journeyed down that mountain, carrying the shnai loochot, the two stone tablets which were, according to the text, inscribed on both sides with the direct writing of God. 

When Moses finally arrived near the camp and saw the people reveling in idol worship and other lewd behaviors, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands and shattered them – v’yeeshbor otam – at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the golden calf made out of their jewelry and coins and burned it. Then he had it ground into powder, mixed into water, and he made the Israelites drink it. 

By the time we get towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are reading about Moses and the Jewish people’s second chance at the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Chapter 34 of Exodus begins with the words p’sal lecha shnai loochot avanim ka-reeshonim — God says to Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones.”  P’sal the verb that means “carve” and “lecha” means for yourself. This is the beginning of Moses’ second journey up the mountain. This time he will bring stone tablets that he has carved himself (God had created the first set), and he will return with the text of the commandments and the covenant, bringing these sacred words to a more sobered people.

Rabbis over the centuries have taken a close look at this second set of tablets – the tablets we actually received, and through midrashic lenses they found many possible deeper lessons in the Torah’s account of this cosmic do-over. Some of the sages looked at this phrase, “p’sal lecha,” and considered how the Hebrew verb p’sal — to carve — could be read in different ways and offer up different meanings. One tradition states that the phrase, “p’sal lecha,” “carve for yourself,” actually hints at a different meaning. Instead of God saying to Moses, “carve for yourself” these two new stone tablets, if you read instead of the Hebrew word p’sal the related word pesolet, which means “leftovers,” then what you end up with is God saying to Moses, “the leftovers are for you.” What leftovers is God talking about? This midrash teaches that God was referring to the leftover bits and pieces of the highly valuable stone material that the first set of tablets were made up of. As God carved the letters into that first holy set of tablets, little bits and pieces of the stone fell onto the ground, and, according to this midrash, God told Moses to scoop them up and keep them, and sell them. The midrash says that Moses did just that, and in fact became very wealthy in the process!  But then the sages add that Moses, being Moses, didn’t care for the wealth or need it.  Continue reading “D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35”

Korach and revolution

In a free society, all of us are rebels against something.  In a society where freedom of religion is part of the social contract, every adult chooses which ideas, which denomination, which philosophy, which tribe they want to align themselves with.  And in doing so, each of us rebels against somebody else’s self-proclaimed authority. For some in the Jewish community, I am a rabbi. For others, I am a “rabbi.” For still others I am a heretic.  

The same can be said for any clergy person of any faith tradition. Ask a passionately devout Sunni to describe the heresy of Shi’ism and the threat it poses to the true understanding of Islam. Then ask a devout Shia to describe how Shi’ite Islam represents the true revelation of the faith.  Each narrative rebels against the other.

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Judaism’s most famous rebel, Korach.  

Korach, along with two other tribal leaders, Datan and Abiram, challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority over the Israelites.  “You have too much power. The entire community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal one’s assembly?”  The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud depict Korach as having great skill in Jewish law. They describe him initiating a long, drawn out debate with Moses over detailed points of Jewish law, in which  Korach tries to entrap Moses using legislative slights of hand.

rebelyell3

Korach is a rebel who has come on the scene prepared for a coup d’etat.  He’s organized 250 leading figures to stand with him, and the first time he brings his grievances he does so in public, at a staged event designed to rally the people behind him and topple the regime.  He is seen by the tradition as the rebel with the gift of demagoguery. He claims to be standing up for a noble value – spiritual equality – as he tries to paint the established leaders as unfair and hypocritical.  Korach presents himself as a righteous whistle blower, and yet tradition holds him up as a fake.

Continue reading “Korach and revolution”

D’var Torah – Shelach Lecha & the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of 2010

This is a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2010. Though it is now almost a decade later, and we continue to lurch from Gaza-Israel crisis to crisis, as I just re-read it, it seems very applicable to this time.

In this week’s Torah portion, called Shelach Lecha, we find the Israelites at a critical crossroads in their early history as a free people.  A little over a year has passed since they escaped slavery in Egypt, and they’ve arrived close to the border of their destination – the Promised Land.  God commands Moses to select a team of 12 leaders – one from each of the tribes – and assign them the mission of scouting out the Promised Land. They are to take a full tour of the land, and then return and make a report to Moses and the Israelites.  

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Logo from an Israeli winery featuring the Israelite scouts carrying the ginormous grape cluster as told in the Torah story of this week’s parashah.

After spending 40 days scouting out the land, the team returned to the Israelite encampment in the wilderness of Paran.  They brought samples of the land’s produce, including a cluster of grapes so large it had to be attached to a large wooden pole and carried by two men.  

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Shelach Lecha & the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of 2010”

Judaism and the Death Penalty – “UNESCO Chair’s Prisons, Compassion, and Peace Initiative”

UNESCO CHAIR’s Prisons, Compassion, and Peace Initiative – University of Oregon – Eugene, Oregon

Lecture Series

Jan 31, 2013

Rabbi Maurice Harris – Judaism and the Death Penalty

I’ve been asked to give a talk this afternoon on Judaism and the death penalty, and it’s an honor to be here. Judaism is a religion that is over 3,000 years old, and it is built upon a foundation of literally thousands and thousands of pages of sacred texts developed over many centuries. So when someone asks me, as one solitary rabbi trained in one of the liberal denominations of Judaism, to give a succinct presentation on how Judaism views the death penalty (or any other issue), the first challenge I have to face is that the tradition I am representing to you today is one whose sacred literature is voluminous, non-systemmatic, and sometimes interpreted quite differently by the different contemporary denominations of Judaism (actually, we use the term movements instead of denominations).

Furthermore, much of Jewish sacred literature – especially the Talmud and the Medieval commentaries – is organized around vigorous debates over ethical, moral, spiritual, and legal questions. Much of this literature is presented as a series of sacred arguments, often involving half a dozen or more different rabbinic opinions on a single question. The Talmud in particular tends to present these debates in such a way that, usually, there’s an opinion that is ultimately acknowledged as the majority viewpoint, but even so the Talmud takes care to preserve all of the minority viewpoints. Dissenting views are included in the sacred literature itself. (Now you see why there really are so many Jewish lawyers.)   Continue reading “Judaism and the Death Penalty – “UNESCO Chair’s Prisons, Compassion, and Peace Initiative””

D’var Torah: Shelach Lecha (2011)

D’var Torah – Shelach Lecha 5771

Presented by Rabbi Maurice Harris at Temple Beth Israel in 2011

This Shabbat we read from the parashah called Shelach Lecha, in the book of Numbers. A little over a year has passed since the Hebrews have escaped Egypt, and they’ve arrived close to the border of the Promised Land.  God commands Moses to select a team of 12 leaders – one from each of the tribes – and assign them the mission of scouting out the Promised Land. They are to take a full tour of the land, and then return and make a report to Moses and the Israelites.  

After 40 days surveying and investigating the land and its inhabitants, the team returns to the Israelite encampment in the wilderness of Paran.  They’ve carried back samples of the land’s incredible produce, including figs, pomegranates, and a cluster of grapes so large it had to be attached to a large pole and carried by two men.  

The Israelites convene to hear the scouts give their report. That’s when things turn disastrous, especially for Moses and his hope to lead these former slaves into the land God had promised to them going all the way back to Abraham.

The majority of the scouts offer a terribly demoralizing report.  They start out on a positive note, describing the natural bounty of the land, but then they anxiously exclaim that the nations that live there are far too mighty and muscular to confront.  There is no hope, they announce, in making an attempt to enter the land. It’s a suicide mission. Continue reading “D’var Torah: Shelach Lecha (2011)”

D’var Torah – Tazria (2011)

D’var Torah – Tazria / Shabbat ha-Chodesh

Given by Rabbi Maurice Harris at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, Oregon) on April 1, 2011

Our Torah portion this week begins with the words eeshah kee taz-reeyah v’yaldah zachar…, which means, “In the case of a woman who has conceived seed and given birth to a male…”  The passage then goes on to describe the process this new mom will go through in terms of ritual purification following the act of giving birth.  After describing the procedure following the birth of a baby boy, it outlines the process after the birth of a girl. Regarding natural human experiences involving blood, bodily fluids, life or death, in the eyes of Leviticus people who have these experiences shifted from being ritually pure to impure, and then would follow specific rituals to re-purify.  

Our text says that after the birth of the baby, the mom becomes tamay, ritually impure, for a set number of days, and then it describes the ritual purification process she will go through to return to a state of taharah, ritual purity.  To reestablish her state of purity she goes to the central sanctuary and brings an offering.  As is often the case with these kinds of passages in the Torah, there is an economic sliding scale put into the law to make sure that poverty doesn’t prevent a new mom from being able to participate.

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Tazria (2011)”