What Is a Sukkah, Really?

What Is a Sukkah, Really?

Sep 30, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Sukkot

During the festival of Sukkot in 1974, while on sabbatical in Israel, the Schorsch family took a trip to Sharm El Sheikh on the Straits of Tiran.

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A World Without Teshuvah

A World Without Teshuvah

Sep 18, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Ha'azinu | Rosh Hashanah | Yom Kippur

The Torah is largely a series of legal texts set in a narrative context. It is not replete with outbursts of poetry. Our poetic sensibility seeks satisfaction elsewhere in the Tanakh – in the passion of the prophets, or the poignancy of the psalmist, or the protest of Job, or in the sensuousness of the Song of Songs. The Torah touches only some of our senses. And yet, it closes in a great poetic flourish. As Moses nears his end, he switches from didactic prose to incandescent poetry.

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The Poetry and Theology of Tishah Be’av

The Poetry and Theology of Tishah Be’av

Jul 24, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Devarim | Tishah Be'av

On the Shabbat prior to the fast of Tishah b’Av, the synagogue reverberates to the opening chapters of Deuteronomy. The name of the book and of the parashah, Devarim – Words – emphasizes the key Jewish response to calamity. Historically, Jews rebuild their shattered worlds with words of high emotion and daring imagination. Like God at the dawn of creation, we bring order out of chaos through words. The instrument has nothing to do with the magic of incantations. It mirrors the fundamental human condition. The worlds we inhabit are a construct of our minds.

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The Sensitivity to Lead

The Sensitivity to Lead

Jul 10, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Pinehas

From the paean of Balaam, we plummet to the apostasy at Shittim. The inconstancy of the real world quickly obscures the glimpse of perfection. The daughters of Moab, a tribe born of incest (Genesis 19:30-38), literally seduces the men of Israel into an orgy of idolatry. Enraged, God orders Moses to slay all those who have worshipped at the shrine of Baal-peor. But before Moses can mobilize his leadership, an Israelite male comes out of nowhere to fuel the rebellion by publicly taking a Medianite consort into a marriage chamber. In a burst of zeal, Pinhas, a young priest and Aaron’s grandson, runs them both through with a single thrust of his spear. The vigilante execution ends the plague that had already taken some 24,000 victims.

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Making Our Way Through an Imperfect World

Making Our Way Through an Imperfect World

Jul 3, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Balak

The story of Balaam, the gentile prophet who came to curse the people of Israel, but stayed to shower them with blessings should not be wholly unfamiliar to us. It is alluded to twice in the liturgy of the daily morning service, once indirectly and once directly. 

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Korah: a Rebel with a Cause

Korah: a Rebel with a Cause

Jun 26, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Korah

In the Jewish imagination, Korah personifies the archrebel. Rapacious envy appears to drive him to assemble a force of 250 “men of repute” to repudiate the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Stunned by the confrontation, Moses is unable to muster any sympathy for Korah. Moses often intercedes with God on behalf of his adversaries. Not this time. 

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In Memory of Zvia Ben-Yosseph Ginor

In Memory of Zvia Ben-Yosseph Ginor

Jun 26, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Hukkat

Great art is often a triumph over great suffering. In 1999, The Jewish Theological Seminary faculty suffered the grievous loss of one of its own, Zvia Ben-Yosseph Ginor, to cancer at the height of her literary power. With her keen intellect and exuberant personality, she cut a figure larger than life. Zvia had come to JTS in mid-life with impressive credentials, to pursue a doctorate in Jewish literature. She was the daughter of the founder of Israel’s airplane industry, a published Hebrew poet and a sterling adult educator. For her dissertation, she wrote on the Hebrew poetry of Abba Kovner, the legendary Vilna partisan and creator of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. Shortly after completion, the work was published in Israel.

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Overcoming the Past

Overcoming the Past

Jun 12, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Shelah Lekha | Rosh Hashanah

This week’s parashah strikes a note that reverberates throughout the liturgy of our High Holy Day services: “I pardon (salahti), as you have asked (14:20).” Prayers for forgiveness (selihot-same word) punctuate the season of introspection from the week before Rosh Hashanah to the end of Yom Kippur. Not surprisingly, this verse from our parashah appears often in these prayers. The concept of atonement enables us to bridge the chasm between divine expectation and human reality. It prevents the perfect from becoming the enemy of the good. For humans, holiness is always a temporary state of being. Without forgiveness, we would find ourselves forever alienated from God.

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A Paradox of Greatness and Humility

A Paradox of Greatness and Humility

Jun 5, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Beha'alotekha

America does not like wimps. We want our leaders to exude certainty and resolve, vigor and self-confidence. We deem a leader wise when decisive. The image, though, hardly comports with that of scripture. In the portrait of Moses offered up by this week’s parashah, we are treated to a leader conscious of his own fallibility. The Torah does not stress, to the exclusion of all other traits, Moses’ special charisma. True, unlike other prophets, he is on such intimate terms with God that God addresses him at any time of day in unmediated fashion. No need for somnolence and dreams. In reprimanding Aaron and Miriam for their presumption of equality, God affirms Moses’ unique stature: “With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord” (12:8).

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Bialik’s Radical Subversion

Bialik’s Radical Subversion

May 22, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Bemidbar

The overture to the book of Numbers is decidedly upbeat. All appears in order for a quick journey through the wilderness. We are at the start of the fourteenth month since the exodus from Egypt. A month before Moses had erected the Tabernacle, commemorating the first anniversary of Israel’s freedom. Just three months after its redemption, Israel experienced God’s revelation at Mount Sinai. The opening chapters convey an aura of invincibility. With exactly 603,550 fighting men above the age of twenty, Israel is arrayed around the Tabernacle in military formation with four tribes on each side. The ultimate power of this force is spiritual, for the Tabernacle at its center protected by the Levites, is not only the repository of the tablets of the covenant, but also the abode of God on earth. As a shrine, it serves as an earthly microcosm of God’s cosmic dwelling.

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Proclaiming Freedom

Proclaiming Freedom

May 15, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Aharei Mot | Kedoshim

On our way to Shavuot from Pesach, we read three Torah portions that epitomize the deep structure of Judaism. The challenge of freedom is to make it a blessing. How can we avoid frittering it away in dissipation, keeping it from morphing into a curse? The Hebrew names of these parshiyot bear the message: mountain, laws and wilderness. The Torah forges a religion designed to get us through the chaos of an engulfing wilderness with a ramified system of legal prescriptions whose inspiration is rooted in the revelation at Mount Sinai. A faith-based community is the matrix of individual survival in a hostile environment.

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Passover in the Light of Yom Kippur

Passover in the Light of Yom Kippur

May 1, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Aharei Mot | Kedoshim | Pesah | Yom Kippur

If the first half of this week’s double parasha reminds you of Yom Kippur, despite our proximity to Passover, you are not in error. The two Torah readings for that solemn day are both drawn from Aharei Mot. Chapter 16, which we read at Shaharit on Yom Kippur morning, depicts the annual ceremony on the tenth day of the seventh month for cleansing the tabernacle of its impurities and the people of their sins. The English word “scapegoat” preserves a verbal relic of the day’s most memorable feature – the goat destined to carry off symbolically the collective guilt of the nation into the wilderness. Chapter 18, reserved for Minhah in the afternoon, defines the sexual practices which were to govern the domestic life of Israelite society.

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Miracles of All Kinds

Miracles of All Kinds

Apr 24, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Tazria | Yom Hazikaron-Yom Ha'atzma'ut

Conspicuous miracles move us more swiftly and deeply than inconspicuous miracles. The latter elude our detection because they are an everyday occurrence. The commonplace numbs our sense of wonder, even as the daily experience of grandeur strips us of awe and radical amazement. It is surely one of the functions of religion to keep our wellsprings of wonder from running dry.

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The Story of Pig As Taboo

The Story of Pig As Taboo

Apr 17, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Shemini

In 1922, Professor Mordecai Kaplan of the Seminary faculty confided in his diary, “There can be no question that sooner or later Judaism will have to get along without dietary laws.” Though he personally observed kashrut both inside and outside his home, the pressure of the melting pot was definitely not conducive to keeping kosher. How astonishingly different are the prospects today! In the fall of 1990, an observer of the kosher food industry in America wrote that about 18,000 kosher products were then on the market, with ever more companies switching to the certification of new items. By 2002 there were over 75,000. The industry has grown to a $6 billion market involving some 9 million customers who look for kosher products. We live in a country where, it would seem, kashrut has taken on a significance far beyond its role in the Jewish community!

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The Polarities of Judaism

The Polarities of Judaism

Apr 13, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Ki Tissa | Shabbat Parah

The instructions of God to Moses concerning the building of the Tabernacle culminate with the command to observe the Sabbath. Holiness in time follows holiness in space. As the Tabernacle constitutes a sacred space in which the nearness of God is a felt experience, so the Sabbath is a portion of the week set apart to admit God into our lives. Whereas the holiness of the Sanctuary is sharply delimited and restricted in access, that of Shabbat is universally accessible. The Tabernacle is a public space, the community’s link between heaven and earth, administered by a priestly hierarchy and subject to laws of purity.

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Bringing the Messianic Redeption

Bringing the Messianic Redeption

Apr 3, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Tzav | Pesah | Shabbat Hagadol

The most distinctive feature of Shabbat ha-Gadol, the Great Sabbath just before Passover, is that it called for a sermon. For in the pre-emancipation synagogue, the rabbi customarily spoke but twice a year: on the Shabbat prior to Passover and on the Shabbat between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shuvah. These sermons tended to be halakhic in character, reminding congregants of the elaborate and proper observance of the holy day to come.

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The End Never Justifies the Means

The End Never Justifies the Means

Mar 27, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayikra

Traditionally, young children were inducted into the text-based culture of Judaism through the study of Leviticus. The curriculum may be a vestige of the Temple-era when priests served as the official transmitters of Judaism. Long after the Temple was gone, homiletics reinforced ancient practice: “God said that since both sacrifices and children are in a state of purity (i.e., without blemish or sin,) let the pure occupy themselves with the pure” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3) Perhaps it was also felt that the specificity of the laws of Leviticus posed less of a risk to faith than the theology-laden narratives of Genesis.

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A Holy Inventory

A Holy Inventory

Mar 20, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Pekudei | Vayak-hel | Shabbat Rosh Hodesh

In the ever-fertile imagination of the Rabbis there are no arid texts. The most prosaic can readily become the occasion for an insight of great consequence. By way of example, I will focus on a narrative fragment tucked away in the middle of the lists that make up the bulk of the final two parashot of Exodus. The lesson derived from it is one that has lost none of its moral force.

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Your Torah and My Torah

Your Torah and My Torah

Feb 28, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Terumah

We tend to think of the Tabernacle as an intimidating space, a bastion of hierarchy and exclusivity. Governed by priests born for service and encumbered by a welter of regulations, it did not lend itself to easy access by rank and file Israelites. Its holiness militated against any spontaneity or departure from the norm. And yet its construction exhibited a profoundly populist impulse. Voluntary gifts from every quarter of the Israelite population formed the material out of which the institution was built. Conceivably, had the Israelites refused to give, the sanctuary, the symbol of God’s presence in the camp, would not have come into existence. I am struck by the total lack of coercion. God did not have Moses levy a special tax for the purpose, but merely asked for individual contributions: “Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Exodus 25:2).

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Justice and Capital Punishment

Justice and Capital Punishment

Feb 21, 2004 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Mishpatim

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the spiritual leader of Palestinian Jewry in the disordered decades after the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132-135 C.E.), firmly believed that, “The world rests on three things: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is written (Zechariah 8:16) ‘With truth, justice and peace shall you judge in your gates.'” (Pirkei Avot 1:18). His pronouncement was clearly a vision for reconstituting a society wrecked by the havoc of war. The precondition for a peaceful civil society was a system of administering justice on the basis of truth. A viable body politic needed a corpus of laws drafted equitably and applied fairly.

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