Two Nations in Your Belly

Two Nations in Your Belly

Nov 25, 2022 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Toledot

In the world of the ancient Rabbis who gave us Judaism—the world of the Talmud and the Midrash, from the first century through the seventh century CE—our Rabbis identified Esau / Edom with the Roman Empire. In doing so, they took on both aspects of that Empire—the earlier pagan Roman Empire and the later Christian Roman Empire, and conflated them into one image of Esau, forever at odds with Jacob / Israel. For the Rabbis, Esau most often was depicted as the enemy, our oppressor, “The Man” who kept us beneath his boot.

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Count Your Blessings

Count Your Blessings

Sep 16, 2022 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo is a Torah portion with three parts of interest. First, there are the curses and imprecations with which God threatens the Jewish people if we do not do God’s will. As we do when we read the Torah in synagogue, we will quickly and quietly move past the scary stuff.

Second, we are commanded to bring our first fruits to the Jerusalem Temple once we have settled the land. And then we are commanded to offer them to the priest in acknowledgement of God’s beneficence. When we do so, we recite a fixed liturgy, reinforced, no doubt, by hearing the many Israelites ahead of us in the line reciting the exact same words as the priest prompts them. “Repeat after me . . .” he says.
Arami oved avi—My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5)

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Greater than Moses?

Greater than Moses?

Jun 25, 2021 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Balak

Although this week’s Torah reading is named for the Moabite king Balak, who sought to curse the Israelites, the real star of the show is the gentile prophet Balaam ben Be`or—with a special comedy cameo by his talking ass. Three whole chapters of the Torah (Num. 22–24) are given over to the efforts of Balak and Balaam to curse the Jews. In the end, of course, God prevails, and on Friday nights in Schul we still sing Balaam’s blessing, “Mah tovu ohalekhah Yaakov—How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

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A Song of Hope

A Song of Hope

Dec 25, 2020 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Vayiggash

In a curious foreshadowing of the book of Exodus, in this week’s Torah reading (Gen. 46:8) we read, “Ve’eleh shemot—These are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt . . .” This is verbatim the same report as the opening verse of the book of Exodus. But there, the names are limited only to Jacob’s actual sons, and the full enumeration of their own offspring is absent.

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Judaism (Religions of Humanity series)

Judaism (Religions of Humanity series)

Oct 26, 2020 By Burton L. Visotzky | Public Event video

How do you portray 2,000 years of Judaism in only three volumes? That’s what co-editors Dr. Burton L. Visotzky of JTS and Professor Dr. Michael Tilly of Tübingen University discuss at this celebration of Judaism. Their new three-volume compendium offers a global view of Jewish history, an overview of Jewish literature, and insight into Jewish culture and modernity.

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Isaac Unbound: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam read the Offering of Abraham’s Beloved Son

Isaac Unbound: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam read the Offering of Abraham’s Beloved Son

Aug 31, 2020 By Burton L. Visotzky | Public Event video | Video Lecture

By reading texts from the New Testament, Church Fathers, and Quran we can see how Christians and Muslims read this seminal story. A medieval midrash shows how Rabbis responded to the interpretations of the other “Abrahamic religions.” The class concludes with a discussion of the problem with the ideology of martyrdom that all three religions read in the harrowing tale of Genesis 22.

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Don’t Wait Until Next Week

Don’t Wait Until Next Week

Oct 25, 2019 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Bereishit

Authored together with Karenna Gore, Director, Center for Earth Ethics, Union Theological Seminary

The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all its inhabitants. God founded it upon the oceans and set it on the rivers. (Psalm 24:1-2)

As the Jewish community once more begins its annual reading of the Torah, and as we recount the grandeur of God’s creation, we focus on God’s charge to newly created humanity: “The Lord God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve and protect it.” (Gen. 2:15, authors’ translations).

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The Rabbis, the Romans, and Us

The Rabbis, the Romans, and Us

Nov 3, 2017 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary

In my most recent book I take up a quintessentially American Jewish subject: can we adopt the broader culture in which we live and still be Jewish? Is it possible to have a strong Jewish identity while living as Americans who are university educated and share our lives with our gentile neighbors? To answer this I turned to the centuries and texts which birthed Judaism as we know it.

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Two Nations in Your Belly

Two Nations in Your Belly

Dec 2, 2016 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Toledot

One of the most poignant and profound verses of the Bible appears early in this week’s Torah reading, Toledot. Our matriarch Rebecca, beset with a difficult pregnancy, asks God, “Why me?” (Gen. 25:22). And God replies to her with one of the most fateful verses of the Bible: “There are two nations in your belly” (Gen. 25:23). From that moment on, the die is cast: we are locked in a struggle with Esau / Edom. This week’s haftarah from the prophet Malachi teaches us the stakes: “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? asks the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2-3).

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Aphrodite and the Rabbis

Aphrodite and the Rabbis

Sep 27, 2016 By Burton L. Visotzky | Public Event audio

Judaism as we know it is a western Roman religion, argues Rabbi Burton Visotzky. Yes, the very empire that destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE served as the culture in which Judaism was nurtured and became the religion of the rabbis that we still celebrate today.

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Family

Family

Nov 18, 2015 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Vayetzei

This week’s Torah reading, Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:2), opens and closes with flights of angels accompanying our forefather Jacob (aka Israel, though, he won’t get named that until next week), as he flees from and returns to the Promised Land. When Jacob leaves, he is running in fear for his life. For our father Jacob has cheated his macho older brother Esau once too often, so much so that he has threatened to kill him. Of course, Esau isn’t that much older, for the two brothers are twins. But as any set of twins will tell you, the one who came first, even if by mere seconds—that one is the elder. We might assume, along with the Bible, that birth-order matters. But Genesis is all about the younger supplanting the older and we are on solid ground suggesting that this sibling rivalry stuff is at the very heart of this week’s Torah lesson.

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Why Is Yom Kippur Every Year?

Why Is Yom Kippur Every Year?

Aug 31, 2015 By Burton L. Visotzky | Short Video | Yom Kippur

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Hanukkah Amongst The Christmas Trees

Hanukkah Amongst The Christmas Trees

Dec 15, 2014 By Burton L. Visotzky | Short Video | Hanukkah

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The Difference a Day Can Make

The Difference a Day Can Make

Oct 3, 2014 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Yom Kippur

Wouldn’t it be grand to wipe the slate clean? What if there were a day in the calendar when the slate was simply wiped clean once again? No marks against you. No petty quarrels remembered, no grudges borne, no more grievances for trespasses petty or grievous. What if?

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Brothers: Isaac And Ishmael

Brothers: Isaac And Ishmael

Sep 9, 2014 By Burton L. Visotzky | Short Video | Rosh Hashanah

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Why Is This Historic Event Different From All Other Historic Events?

Why Is This Historic Event Different From All Other Historic Events?

Apr 8, 2014 By Burton L. Visotzky | Short Video | Pesah

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Vayikra—Lean Out

Vayikra—Lean Out

Feb 24, 2014 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Vayikra

This week we begin reading the middle book of the Five Books of Moses, Leviticus. Its position in the Torah scroll is not just coincidental; the laws of Leviticus are central to the earliest rabbis’ understanding of Judaism.

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Miketz—Hanukkah—Thanksgiving

Miketz—Hanukkah—Thanksgiving

Nov 27, 2013 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Miketz | Hanukkah

Hanukkah is the original Thanksgiving. While it is true that our ancestors did not eat turkey (a North American bird), they certainly were cooking with oil.

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Yom Yerushalayim—Inhabiting the Land

Yom Yerushalayim—Inhabiting the Land

May 1, 2013 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Behar | Behukkotai | Yom Yerushalayim

Our double Torah portion opens with God’s command to Moses to tell the Israelites, “When you come to the land that I am giving you, and you inhabit the land.” No sooner did I read this verse as I prepared to write these words of Torah, than my own counting of the days flashed back 46 years to my first time ever in Israel, when I was a teenager on Camp Ramah Israel Seminar.

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Jewish Responses to Tragedy

Jewish Responses to Tragedy

Oct 5, 2012 By Burton L. Visotzky | Public Event video

You or someone you know has suffered a tragedy; how would you proceed? Many people turn to their religion in these situations. Many religions have similar practices and beliefs when it comes to tragedies, and therefore, in commemoration of September 11th, 2001, this program will explore the Jewish view on tragedy.

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