Written in Stone? Writing and Rewriting the Bible

Written in Stone? Writing and Rewriting the Bible

Oct 24, 2022 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Public Event video

Examine the way biblical scribes updated texts, sometimes replaced (and thus in a way censored) the older text, but sometimes kept the older text intact even as they added to it. In several cases, a text was updated with the intention of replacing the older one, but then the canon of the Bible ended up including the older version as well as the newer one.

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Does God Speak?

Does God Speak?

Jun 10, 2022 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Naso

The final verse of Parashat Naso is easy to miss. It comes after a long passage that describes the gifts the leader of each tribe presented at the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting (both names are used for the structure) in the wilderness. Twelve times we read six verses listing the exact same set of items donated from each tribe. The substantial amount of repetition may lead readers to lose some focus as they move through the passage. But Numbers 7:89, the verse that comes right after those twelve sets of six verses, is highly significant. It provides crucial information about the nature of revelation as understood by the kohanim (Priests) who wrote this section of the Torah.

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The Gender of God in Ancient Israel

The Gender of God in Ancient Israel

May 2, 2022 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Public Event video

How did the biblical authors, and other Israelites, view the gender of God? Did they perceive God to be male? Did any of them perceive God as female? To answer this question, we examine both several biblical texts as well as archaeological evidence.

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Emotions and Reason, Experience and Intellect: Two Views of the Book of Psalms

Emotions and Reason, Experience and Intellect: Two Views of the Book of Psalms

Jan 31, 2022 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Public Event video

What sort of religious experience does the Book of Psalms reflect and encourage? Does the book primarily appeal to our emotions, or is it first and foremost a work to be studied on an intellectual level? Join Dr. Benjamin Sommer to see how the Book of Psalms provides its own answers to these questions. By addressing these questions, we will have an opportunity to think about the relative places in Judaism of emotion and reason, heart and mind, and to explore the relationship between prayer and text-study in the Bible and rabbinic Judaism.

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Home and Exile, Center and Periphery: Ambivalent Journeys in the Torah

Home and Exile, Center and Periphery: Ambivalent Journeys in the Torah

Jun 14, 2021 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Public Event video

The theme of the journey—to home, and from home—plays a prominent role in the Torah. But repeatedly, these stories force us to wonder what is home and what is exile. Join Dr. Benjamin Sommer to read narratives from Genesis and Exodus that present a tangled-up view of center and periphery. This persistent ambivalence about the nature of a journey carries weighty implications for biblical understandings of God as nearby but hard to grasp, and about authority and autonomy in religious Judaism. 

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Other Gods: What the Bible Thinks about Other Nations’ Deities

Other Gods: What the Bible Thinks about Other Nations’ Deities

Feb 1, 2021 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Public Event video

The Bible frequently instructs the nation Israel not to worship “other gods” (אלהים אחרים). But the Bible never actually states that these other gods do not exist. Praying to other gods would be an act of disloyalty for an Israelite, but not an absurdity—there are apparently other gods who would hear the prayers in question. In fact, the Bible regards it as perfectly appropriate for other nations to worship them, because the “other gods” are simply the gods of other nations. In this session, we will examine the biblical attitude toward these other gods and what their existence implies about other religions. We will see, paradoxically, that the Bible remains monotheistic, even though it acknowledges the existence of many deities. 

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From Self-Interest to Self-Surrender: Confronting the Challenges of Prayer

From Self-Interest to Self-Surrender: Confronting the Challenges of Prayer

Aug 31, 2020 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Public Event video | Rosh Hashanah | Yom Kippur

Why do many modern Jews find tefillah so difficult? We’ll grapple with this question by exploring attitudes toward prayer among thinkers including Rambam and Heschel, and we’ll contrast assumptions about what makes for a genuine and meaningful prayer in Jewish tradition and in American culture. In particular, we’ll discuss our expectations of what happens when we pray and the possibilities that emerge when we don’t put ourselves at the center of the prayer experience. Along the way, we will touch on Thomas Aquinas, Quakerism, Thomas Merton and yoga, and the light they shed on traditional Jewish conceptions of prayer. 

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A Moment That Is Always Present

A Moment That Is Always Present

Aug 7, 2020 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Eikev

Parashat Eikev is surrounded by matching bookends. The verse that ends the previous parashah, Va’et-ḥannan, and the verse that begins the subsequent parashah, Re’eh, both contain the word, hayyom, or “today.”

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The End of Days in Isaiah: Coming Soon (and Still Waiting)

The End of Days in Isaiah: Coming Soon (and Still Waiting)

Jul 20, 2020 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Public Event video

The prophet Isaiah is famous for his descriptions of the aftertimes, a period of world peace that will follow a cataclysmic crisis. Several of these passages are well-known, whether from haftarot, from Handel’s Messiah, or from the inscription across the street from the United Nations. The details and the fascinating synthesis of universalism and particularism in his vision of the future, however, are less widely understood. We explore a few of these sections to discover precisely what Isaiah had in mind, and why his vision, so long delayed, remains compelling and influential.

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Boundaries on the Move

Boundaries on the Move

Aug 2, 2019 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

Every week, we read a parashah from the Torah during our Shabbat morning service, and then the beginning of the next parashah during our Shabbat afternoon service. The result of reading from two parashiyot on a single day can be surprising. This week, as we read first from Masei, the last parashah of Numbers, and then from Devarim, the first from Deuteronomy, we can hear an ancient debate about an issue that remains deeply contested: where to draw the line.

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How to Approach God

How to Approach God

Apr 5, 2019 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Tazria

There are probably no Torah readings as widely misunderstood as the Torah readings for this week and next week, Parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora. These parshiyot are devoted entirely to the subject of ritual purity. They discuss what causes people to become ritually impure, how they can become ritually pure again, and what the effects of this state are. For many modern readers, this topic is off-putting. It seems primitive and far removed from the real concerns of an ethical and monotheistic religion.

And yet to the authors of the Bible, these laws were of paramount importance. They were seamlessly intertwined with the idea of monotheism.

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Would Our Mother Forget Us?

Would Our Mother Forget Us?

Aug 3, 2018 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Eikev

This Shabbat is the second of the seven Shabbatot of consolation that follow Tishah Be’av, and, as on all these Shabbatot, its haftarah comes from the last part of the book of Isaiah. These are highly appropriate passages to console us after we commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem, because they were written by a prophet who lived in exile roughly a generation after the Babylonian empire demolished the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed the Judean state, and exiled much of its population. 

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Upgrading the Torah—and the World

Upgrading the Torah—and the World

Jul 21, 2017 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

Is God’s law perfect? Most of us would assume that anything created by an omniscient and omnipotent being must have no flaws. But a story in today’s parashah suggests otherwise—in a manner that shows a surprising similarity to a key concept of Jewish mysticism.

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Where Is Authority Found?

Where Is Authority Found?

May 6, 2016 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Aharei Mot

People familiar with the dietary laws of Judaism know that meat from an animal that died a natural death or was torn apart by wild beasts is not kosher. This is stated explicitly in the Torah. Exodus 22:30 reads, “You shall be my holy people: you may not eat meat torn by beasts in the field; you should throw it to dogs.” (The Hebrew word for “torn by beasts”—terefah—refers specifically to torn flesh in biblical Hebrew.)

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Who Wrote The Ten Commandments?

Who Wrote The Ten Commandments?

Feb 26, 2016 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Ki Tissa

Where does our Torah come from? Did all the words of the Torah come from heaven, so that the Torah is a perfect divine work? If that is the case, then the tradition the Torah inaugurates is one that human beings should accept in its entirety without introducing any changes. Or is the Torah itself the result of human-divine collaboration? If that is the case, the tradition the Torah inaugurates may allow some change, at least by those Jews of each generation who accept the Torah and live by its commandments.

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An Anthology of Beginnings

An Anthology of Beginnings

Oct 9, 2015 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Bereishit

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” These opening words of the Torah in most translations are clear, straightforward, and well known. But they don’t render the Hebrew original correctly. As Rashi already pointed out, the first verse of the Torah is not, by itself, a grammatical sentence. Instead, it is part of a longer sentence that continues through the end of verse three. 

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Where Does Midrash Begin?

Where Does Midrash Begin?

Jan 23, 2015 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Bo

In this week’s parashah we find the first legal passage in the Torah, Exodus 12, which contains laws concerning Passover. Torah as a type of literature is best defined as a combination of law and narrative. In Torah we read not only some laws here and some narratives there, but laws that are authenticated and explained by the narrative, and narrative whose purpose is to motivate us to observe the laws. Since we first encounter law in this week’s parashah, in a significant way it is here that the Torah begins in earnest.

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Mortals and Immortals

Mortals and Immortals

Oct 17, 2014 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Bereishit

We human beings tend not to see something that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions, including when we read the Torah.

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Where Does Holiness Come From?

Where Does Holiness Come From?

Jun 5, 2013 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Korah

Parashat Korah can be challenging for a modern Jew. There is a good guy in this parashah—it’s Moses—and there is a bad guy—Korah. Modern readers, however, often find themselves sympathizing with the bad guy.

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The True Story of Hanukkah

The True Story of Hanukkah

Dec 4, 2010 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Hanukkah

What is Hanukkah really about? There are several answers to a question like this, since the meaning of a holiday or ritual develops and grows over time. I’d like to point out a fascinating tension between two understandings of Hanukkah that becomes clear from examining two popular songs many of us sing after lighting the candles.

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