When Push Comes to Shove: Protests in the Wilderness and in Our Cities

When Push Comes to Shove: Protests in the Wilderness and in Our Cities

Jun 26, 2020 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Korah

As I sit down to write this Torah commentary on Parashat Korah—the story of a protest against the political and religious authority of Moses and Aaron—tens of thousands of people are in the streets of our major cities protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the killings and harassment of other black men and women throughout our nation. Of course, the two protests—the Korah rebellion in the wilderness of Sinai and the street protests in our major cities—have virtually nothing in common. Korah and his followers sought personal aggrandizement while the protesters out my window seek racial justice. Nevertheless, we should ask: What does our Torah parashah teach us in this pregnant moment of anguish and unrest?

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Stumping Rashi: Humility and Modern Discourse

Stumping Rashi: Humility and Modern Discourse

Nov 30, 2019 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Toledot

One of the joys of working at The Jewish Theological Seminary is the ability to take courses from arguably the greatest Jewish studies faculty in the world. Last year, I audited a course on biblical grammar in the Book of Genesis taught by one of this generation’s greatest Bible scholars. While I did my best to keep up with the younger and better-educated members of the class—mostly rabbinical and graduate students—I was particularly impressed by the level of class discussion. During one class, a student offered an interpretation of the text which he argued was consistent with the grammar but different from the one offered by the professor. The professor paused for a moment and then smiled: “I never thought of that.”

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In the Face of Violence, a Covenant of Peace

In the Face of Violence, a Covenant of Peace

Jul 26, 2019 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Pinehas

Karen Armstrong, the scholar of religion and popular author of such works as The History of God, relates that wherever she travels, she is often confronted by someone—a taxi driver, an Oxford academic, an American psychiatrist—who confidently expresses the view that “religion has caused more violence and wars than anything else.” This is quite a remarkable statement given that in the last century alone, tens of millions of people have been killed in two world wars, the communist purges in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the Cambodian killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, none of which were caused by religious motivations.

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The Great Escape

The Great Escape

May 3, 2019 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Aharei Mot | Yom Kippur

Last year, the eminent Bible scholar Robert Alter completed a project that only a handful of people have ever even attempted: a brand-new translation of and commentary on the entire Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The work comprises more than 3,000 pages and took him almost 25 years to complete. Professor Alter is rightfully the subject of much admiration for this outstanding achievement, but one of his predecessors did not fare as well.

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The Seer Who Would Not See

The Seer Who Would Not See

Jun 29, 2018 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Balak

Anyone who is an aficionado of late night comedy shows with a strong dose of political and social satire such as Saturday Night Live or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver knows full well that comedy can be a very serious matter indeed. But can sacred narratives of the Torah be comedic? And if so, should we take that comedy seriously?

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An Edifice Complex for Our Time

An Edifice Complex for Our Time

Feb 16, 2018 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Terumah

Several years ago, while traveling far from home, I found myself in an affluent suburban community on Shabbat. I decided to attend the local Conservative synagogue in the morning and brought along a friend who I was visiting. The synagogue was newly constructed and architecturally magnificent with a ski-slope ceiling, beautiful stained glass windows, and much ornamentation in gold and silver. The ark was stunning, with a brightly colored tapestry parokhet above which hung a modernistic ner tamid (eternal light). The rabbi stood at a hand-carved lectern and delivered his sermon, which that week happened to be on Parashat Ki Tissa and the lessons of the Golden Calf. As the rabbi reached the climax of his sermon, his voice rose into a crescendo and he declared: “And the Golden Calf lives today!” At which point, my friend leaned over and whispered to me, “Yes, and I think we are sitting in it.”

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Striking Out or Stepping Up: A Leadership Model for Our Times

Striking Out or Stepping Up: A Leadership Model for Our Times

Jun 30, 2017 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Hukkat

“Moses entered the stage of Jewish history by striking (the Egyptian) and exited from the stage of Jewish history by striking (the rock).” This startling observation by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in his commentary on the Book of Numbers (Torah Lights: Bemidbar, 169) causes us to reflect deeply on the subject of Jewish leadership.

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The Unpardonable Sin

The Unpardonable Sin

Dec 30, 2016 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Miketz

Among baseball aficionados, the name of Ralph Branca is universally known. Branca, who died at the age of 90 at the end of November, was famous (or, for many, infamous) for being the pitcher who gave up the “Shot Heard Round the World.” In the final game of the 1951 National League championship, the Brooklyn Dodgers were leading 4-2 in the bottom of the 9th inning with two men on base when the New York Giants’ power hitter, Bobby Thomson, came to the plate to bat. The Dodgers called on Branca to save the game, but his second pitch flew off of Thomson’s bat and over the green wall in left center field for a home run.

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Knowing the Feelings of the Stranger

Knowing the Feelings of the Stranger

Feb 5, 2016 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Mishpatim

This week’s parashah comprises a multitude of ordinances, providing an embarrassment of riches upon which to comment. Capital punishment, abortion, workers’ rights—to name just a few of the issues suggested by the parashah—offer ample grist for the commentator’s mill. Yet in this political year, with all of its focus on immigration, refugees, and minority rights, it would seem almost churlish to avoid addressing one of the key themes of the Torah reading: the treatment of theger (stranger).

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Before the Deluge

Before the Deluge

Oct 16, 2015 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Noah

Parashat Noah raises difficult questions about the relationships between the natural world, humanity’s morality, and God’s justice.

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A Holy Tongue: Kedushah and the Ethics of Speech

A Holy Tongue: Kedushah and the Ethics of Speech

May 1, 2015 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Aharei Mot | Kedoshim

A few years ago, my wife and I attended a retreat at Camp Ramah Darom in northern Georgia. The scholar-in-residence for the Shabbat was Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a widely respected author of popular books on Jewish literacy and Jewish ethics. He suggested that all of us in attendance—approximately 100 adults—commit to one of the most difficult challenges we had ever faced: refrain from talking about other people for the duration of Shabbat. That is to say, for an entire day, we should speak not a word of gossip. I will not tell you whether we succeeded or failed in that challenge, but I will tell you that it was a very long 25 hours indeed.

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Reclaiming Our Dreams

Reclaiming Our Dreams

Nov 28, 2014 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Vayetzei

This week’s parashah, Vayetzei, covers a critical 20-year period in the life of our patriarch Jacob: the two decades that Jacob spends outside the Land of Israel, in Haran, in the house of his conniving uncle, Laban. They are years of treachery, deceit, exploitation, and fear. They are pivotal years in Jacob’s life—years in which Jacob confronts who he is and sees in Laban what he will become if he doesn’t pull back from the abyss. In the words of Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, this is “the night of [Jacob’s] soul.” And, as if to drive this point home, the parashah begins with the setting of the sun and the onset of night, and ends with sunrise and the beginning of a new day.

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Can the Center Hold?

Can the Center Hold?

May 30, 2014 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Naso

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Last week, The Jewish Theological Seminary presented an honorary degree to Philip Roth, one of the greatest American writers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The famous author must have received this recognition from an iconic Jewish institution with a certain measure of irony and satisfaction. After all, when his first book was published more than 50 years ago, an outraged American rabbi wrote to the Anti-Defamation League asking, “what is being done to silence that man?”

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What’s Jewish about Jewish Leadership?

What’s Jewish about Jewish Leadership?

Dec 16, 2013 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Shemot

A few years back, I was sitting in a class for prospective leaders of the Jewish community and yawning. Although the class was organized by a prestigious Jewish institution and gathered together an invitation-only group of accomplished men and women from business and the professions, I kept looking at my watch and planning my escape.

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We Have Met the Enemy, and the Enemy Is Us

We Have Met the Enemy, and the Enemy Is Us

Aug 14, 2013 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Ki Tetzei

How does war affect the human soul? Our Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, begins with a verse that raises these issues in a stark and discomfiting manner.

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