Tag Archives: torah

Creation, Animals, and Diet: A View from Torah and Soloveitchik

Between Heaven and Earth from Eden to the Flood and Beyond:

a Torah study by Rabbi Rick Brody

Genesis, theology, and the role of humanity in relation to other animalsin conversation with the wisdom of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and classical commentaries

[Some material adapted from Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Evonne Marzouk of Canfei Nesharim]

[Translations of Biblical Hebrew adapted by Rabbi Rick Brody]

Soloveitchik citations from: The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2005, pp. 31-38

I. The basis for the relationship between human and non-human creatures

בראשית א:כד–ל

כד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים תּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה לְמִינָהּ בְּהֵמָה וָרֶמֶשׂ וְחַיְתוֹ־אֶרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וַיְהִי־כֵן: כה וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹקים אֶת־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה לְמִינָהּ וְאֵת כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה לְמִינֵהוּ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב: כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל־הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים ׀ אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם: כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹקים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹקים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כָּל־עֵשֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ פְרִי־עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה: ל וּלְכָל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל ׀ רוֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה אֶת־כָּל־יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב לְאָכְלָה וַיְהִי־כֵן:

Genesis 1:24-30

And God said, Let the earth bring forth animated life, [each] according to its species, beast and creeper, and earth-life, [each] according to its species; and it was so. 25 And God made the earth-life, [each] according to its species, and the beast(s) according to its species, and every ground-creeper according to its species; and God saw that it was good. 26 And God said, Let us make a grounds-keeper (humanity) with our imprint, like our character; and let them have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with the beast(s), and with all the earth, and with the entire [range of] creeper that creeps upon the earth. 27 So God created the grounds-keeper with God’s imprint, with the Divine imprint God created it; male and female God created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with all life that creeps upon the earth.” 29 And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing herb, which is upon the face of all the earth, and the entire [range of] tree that has a seed-bearing tree-fruit on it: to you it shall be for food. 30 And to all earth-life, and to all fowl of the sky, and to every creeper upon the earth that has animated life in it, [I have given] every green herb for food;” and it was so.


Let us be clear that this rule [regarding diet] was not given to man as an ethical norm but as a natural tendency; it is absurd to speak of a law imposed upon ʻevery beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps upon the earth.ʼ …. [T]his injunction was a physiological pattern that dominated manʼs sensory drive. Primordial man neither desired nor was tempted by any food other than of the vegetative realm. The verse concludes ʻand it was soʼ: the ethical norm became a behavior pattern, an expression of the ontic order. Man and animal were not driven toward killing or devouring other living creatures.”


  1. Soloveitchik points to a similarity between human beings and other animals, a shared place in the cosmic order and a shared reception of a natural tendency. Is the word “species”) / min used in reference to the creation of humanity? Is humanity / adam a “species” in the same way the other creatures are categorized? What might our answer teach us?

    1. God says “Let the earth bring forth…” in regard to animal life, but then the text says “God made.” Then, God says, “Let us make…” in regard to the grounds-keeper, but then the text says, “God created.” What is going on here?

    2. Was God talking to the animals when God said “Let us make adam…”? Do (or did) the animals possess the Divine imprint and character (since God says “our”)? Did the appointing of a grounds-keeper take some of that quality away from the other creatures? If so, is that Divine quality ever available to them again? Can any creature be adam? (See question 3.)

    3. What is the difference between the dietary rules for adam and for the other creatures? Why might this distinction exist and what might it teach us about our relationship to food today?

  1. We know that this (mythic) natural order did not persist, either for human beings or for many other animal species. How might the Torah want us to understand that divergence in real life (i.e. not simply through the flood narrative)? Should we understand that divergence to have occurred similarly for humanity and the other species?

  1. What, then, distinguishes humanity? Is this distinction guaranteed or might it be conditional? Is it fully realized from the start or is it a potential state within an evolving humanity? Is it a distinction that is necessarily limited to the biological species homo sapiens?

בראשית רבה ח:יב

:יב וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם: אמר רבי חנינא: אם זכה, רדו ואם לאו ירדו. אמר רבי יעקב דכפר חנין

את שהוא בצלמנו כדמותנו ורדו, את שאינו בצלמנו כדמותנו ירדו

רבי יעקב דמן כפר חנן אמר: יבא צלמנו ודמותנו, וירדה לשאינו דומה לצלמנו כדמותנו

Bereishit Rabbah 8:12


Rabbi Chanina said: If [humanity] has merit, [God says,] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); while if they do not have merit, [God says,] ‘yerdu’ (let them descend) [or ‘yeradu’(they shall be dominated) / they will be taken down / let other [creatures] rule over them)].

רשי בראשית א:כו

זכה רודה בחיות ובבהמות. לא זכה נעשה ירוד לפניהם והחיה מושלת בו

Rashi: If he merits, he rules over the living things and over the beasts. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the living things rule over him.

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanin said: Of one who is with our imprint and like our character [I say] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); but of one who is not with our imprint and like our character, [I say] ‘yerdu’ [or ‘yeradu’].

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanan said: Let [the one who possesses] ‘our [Divine] imprint and character’ come and have dominion over the one who is not characteristic of ‘our [Divine] imprint and character.’


  1. What does dominion here suggest?

  2. What does merit refer to?

  3. What might it mean for other creatures to have dominion over humanity? Is this the same dominion that humanity would have over them?

II. The shift in the relationship

בראשית ט:א–ד

א וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקים אֶת־נֹחַ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ: ב וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם יִהְיֶה עַל כָּל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וְעַל כָּל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל־דְּגֵי הַיָּם בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ: ג כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא־חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כֹּל: ד אַךְ־בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ:

Genesis 9:1-4

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon all earth-life, and upon all fowl of the sky, with all that shall creep on the ground, and with all the fishes of the sea; in your hand are they delivered. 3 Every creeper thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. 4 But flesh with its animation—its blood—you shall not eat.’


“Man-animal became a life-killer, an animal-eater. He became blood-thirsty and flesh-hungry.
“Is the Torah very happy about this change? Somehow we intuitively feel the silent, tragic note that pervades the whole chapter. The Torah was compelled to concede defeat to human nature that was corrupted by man himself and willy-nilly approved the radical change in him. ….
“Animal-hunters and flesh-eaters are people that lust. Of course it is legalized, approved. Yet it is classified as taavah [Num. 11:4, 34], lust, repulsive and brutish.
“The real motif that prompts such unquestionable antagonism toward slaying of animals is the aboriginal Jewish thought [that]….man and animal are almost identical in their organic dynamics that is equated with life, and there is no justifiable reason why one life should fall prey to another. Why should a cunning intelligence that granted man dominion over his fellow animals also give him license to kill?”


  1. According to Soloveitchik, what fundamental distinction exists between human beings and their “fellow animals”?

  2. How far does he believe that distinction should extend?

  3. What other fundamental value does that distinction come up against?

Ramban, Commentary on Torah, Bereishit 1:29 Flesh was not permitted for human consumption until the children of Noach, as our Sages have explained. And this goes according to the plain meaning of the Torah’s text. The reason for it is that mobile creatures have a certain spiritual attribute which in this respect makes them similar to those who possess intellect (i.e. people); they are capable of looking after their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death. And the verse says, “Who knows that the human’s spirit is that which ascends on high and the beast’s spirit is that which descends below to the earth?” (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 3:21) …

רמב׳ן, בראשית א:כט

הבשר לא הורשו בו עד בני נח כדעת רבותינו. והוא פשוטו של מקרא: והיה זה, מפני שבעלי נפש התנועה יש להם קצת מעלה בנפשם, נדמו בה לבעלי הנפש המשכלת, ויש להם בחירה בטובתם ומזוניהם, ויברחו מן הצער והמיתה. והכתוב אומר ׳מי יודע רוח בני האדם העולה היא למעלה ורוח הבהמה היורדת היא

… (למטה לארץ׳ )קהלת ג כא

Nevertheless, humanity was not given reign over the [animals’] life-force, for it was still forbidden to eat a limb off of a live animal. At this point it also became forbidden to consume blood, for it is blood that maintains life, as the verse states, “the blood of every living creature is associated with its life-force; tell the Israelites not to eat any blood, since the life-force of all flesh is in its blood.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 17:14). All that was permitted was the body of the non-speaking (i.e. non-human) animal after it has died, but not the life-force itself. This is the reason for shechitah (ritual slaughter); even though it is otherwise prohibited by the Torah to cause pain to animals (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metziah 32b), we nevertheless make a blessing “who has sanctified us with Divine commandments and commanded us regarding the shechitah.

ועם כל זה לא נתן להם הרשות בנפש ואסר להם אבר מן החי. והוסיף לנו במצות לאסור כל דם, מפני שהוא מעמד לנפש, כדכתיב )ויקרא יז יד( ‘כי נפש כל בשר דמו בנפשו הוא ואמר לבני ישראל דם כל בשר לא תאכלו כי נפש כל בשר דמו הוא,’ כי התיר הגוף בחי שאינו מדבר אחר המיתה, לא הנפש עצמה. וזה טעם השחיטה, ומה שאמרו )ב“מ לב ב( ‘צער בעלי חיים דאורייתאוזו ברכתנו שמברך אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על השחיטה

Question: Why would God forbid the consuming of a creature’s life-force? What would such an act do or represent?

  1. After Noah: Continued limitations in the relationship to non-human animals

ויקרא יז:ג–ד

ג אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט שׁוֹר אוֹ־כֶשֶׂב אוֹ־עֵז בַּמַּחֲנֶה אוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחָט מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה: ד וְאֶל־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא הֱבִיאוֹ לְהַקְרִיב קָרְבָּן לַהלִפְנֵי מִשְׁכַּן הדָּם יֵחָשֵׁב לָאִישׁ הַהוּא דָּם

שָׁפָךְ וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ:

Leviticus 17:3-4

3 Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or who slaughters it out of the camp, 4 and does not bring it to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to offer an offering to the Eternal before the tabernacle of the Eternal: blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people;


The implication is clear. Whoever kills an animal for non-sacramental purposes is guilty of bloodshed, of murder; the term shefikhut damim applies equally to the slaughter of man and animal. Under a certain aspect, the life of the animal has been placed on equal plane with that of man.”

The Torah has not yet explicitly allowed for the non-ritual consumption of animal flesh (let alone a completely gratuitous taking of animal life).

דברים יב:כ–כא

כ כִּי־יַרְחִיב האֱלֹקיךָ אֶת־גְּבֻלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר כִּי־תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר בְּכָל־אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר: כא כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר האֱלֹקיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּכֹל אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ:

Deuteronomy 12:20-21

20 When the Eternal your God shall enlarge your border, as God has promised you, and you shall say, I will eat flesh, because your life-force lusts to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, with all the lust of your life-force. 21 If the place which the Eternal your God has chosen to put the Divine name there is too far from you, then you shall slay from your herd and from your flock, which the Eternal has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, with all the lust of your life-force.


Nevertheless, the Torah again calls a desire for meat ta’avah, lust; while the Torah tolerates it, it is far from fully approving it.”


  1. What have we learned about life-force / nefesh?

  2. Could we interpret the permission to consume flesh as contingent upon the continued existence of the Divine name in the place God has chosen (the Temple)?

  3. What might be the relationship between the expanding of borders and the lust of the life-force?

  4. How could we read “expand your borders” metaphorically and creatively—and potentially in a way that differs from or can prevent the lustful results that Deuteronomy anticipates?


In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, and the Quest for Wholeness

In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, & the Quest for Wholeness

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The National Pastime and the start of our Torah both capture our imaginations with their celebration of the idea of return to our primordial home.

The 2012 Major League Baseball postseason has, so far, been nothing short of spectacular in terms of drama, heroics, and very balanced competition. Today is the eve of the second pair of “final games” in the best-of-five, first-round, “division series.” In the 18 years since the start of the division series format, never before have all four match-ups gone to five full chapters. These games are reminding baseball fans why they love this sport and are injecting great spirit, excitement, and joy (and disappointment) into fan bases in cities across the country. Indeed, as I am finishing this post, the Yankees lead the Orioles in a tight 2-0 score a little more than halfway through the game.

Today is also the eve of Shabbat B’reishit, the Sabbath on which Jews throughout the world celebrate the sacred narrative that contemplates the origins of the universe, of humanity, and of meaning–and their relationship to the Divine. We read from the very beginning of the Torah, the parashah known as B’reishit, also the name (“Genesis,” in English) for the first of the 5 Books that comprise the foundational text of our people.

Baseball fans who appreciate the majesty of the Biblical tradition and its influence on world culture are likely to delight in the pun that appears in the title of this post: We can say that the Torah (in its most common English translation) asserts itself right off the bat (another pun, intended) as a treatise on the holiness of baseball. Its initial words are “In the big inning.”

So, as baseball teams march closer towards the end of their pursuit of a championship and our global Jewish “team” begins its annual journey through our sacred writings, I’d like to reflect on the majesty of this sport and relate it to Torah. How can some of baseball’s qualities inform our quest for meaning and inspire us in exploring our own big innings–and beginnings?

First, I should make clear that I have no intention to attempt to prove that there is anything inherently religious, divine, or magical about a sport. It is a game and it is rooted in competition, a feature of reality that often stands in contrast to cooperation, the latter usually and rightly considered the more proper feature in manifesting holiness . But I do believe that the basic structure of baseball and the way it has evolved, especially in the American imagination, lend itself very well–not unlike Torah–to analogies that we can apply to life more broadly, with uplifting results.

The primary poetic feature of baseball that makes it fit for religious interpretation is the manner in which a team scores. Unlike the two other main approaches to competition–the linear, battlefield approach (one team or player attempts to invade or conquer another’s territory), or the acquisitional approach (opponents are both attempting to reach a goal simultaneously and the victor is the one who gets there first, thus claiming that ground exclusively for herself or her team)–baseball’s approach is restorative: It’s about return, about coming home. Literally, every score in the game is completely the result of a player starting out in a given spot, journeying outwards, and completing a successful circuit (usually with the help of teammates), returning safely to the place of origin. Yet, the safe return bestows upon the team a new status–the accomplishment earns the reward of a run, a unit of transformation that becomes the building block of victory. The only trick is that this team also must play the foil–it must attempt to prevent its opponent from achieving a higher number of successful returns home.

Note that there is no conquest of “foreign territory” and no stealing of something that the other party in the journey has any access to. A runner ventures away from home but for the purpose of making it back. The journey is driven by the idea that the return will elevate the runner and his companions, that–to borrow basic language from this seemingly universal literary device–it will signal some growth or maturity to a new level of being, a greater understanding of self, and a greater fulfillment of purpose that benefits the collective.

These elements lead us to some of the critical features we find at the very beginning of the Torah. The most prominent theme of homecoming is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from their idyllic starting point, the garden of earth and vegetation that exists outside of time (note that baseball, inside its pastoral boundaries, has no clock!). The real challenges to the heroes begin after their acquisition of knowledge, which sends them into a life of toil and hardship and a hope of a future return to the Garden. Our sages teach that our experiences of true joy and connection, most notably under the chuppah at Jewish weddings and in the shelter of Shabbat, are the glimpses of eternity that the Garden symbolizes. They are our homecomings.

Our story has an earlier hero, the Creator (God). We learn nothing from the Torah text of a starting point or home for God. Some theologies might speak of God’s home “in the heavens,” but the Torah tells us that the Creation story is one of the formation of shamayim va’aretz (heaven and earth). God created it All, we are led to believe. The mystics suggest that at the real “beginning,” God was The All, existing before (outside of) time–in absolute, undifferentiated unity. Somehow (here is where mystery reigns), God developed an identity that was separate from something else. The Singular became Plural. And it was from this differentiated plurality that God, still fundamentally singular in Godself, began relating to that which was “not God” and shaping everything that remains “not God.” Yet, for many, the goal on our spiritual journeys is to reunite with that which is fully God, to come home to the Place of wholeness. In fact, the Rabbis of antiquity refer to the Eternal as HaMakom (“The Place”), suggesting that Divinity is the destination of our journeys.

We come upon the Divine journey amidst that which is not Divine in the cryptic and often overlooked second verse of the Torah (i.e. Genesis 1:2), which tells us of the “stuff” that God starts with. We don’t know if these materials existed eternally–either alongside or potentially even preceding the Creator who is the subject of our story. But we do learn that the problem God needs to “conquer” is one of Chaos (tohu vavohu), the unformed nature of this proto-creation. It is all potential, with no defined identity of its own other than being “not God.” God’s own pursuit of home, the Place (“within” God) of Divine wholeness, is challenged by these forces which, like the defenders in baseball, have no coherent goal of their own other than to foil the pursuit of the “other” (in this case, God). God the Creator (somewhat different than God, the Absolute Timeless Unity) has taken on a distinct identity, like a player who separates from her team to begin her journey to “create a run.” The journey takes stages–three bases or six days. The final base and the final day of the process is one of culmination, of return to the whole. We call it home. Or we call it Shabbat. It is a place of transformation and elevation, of complete safety, of the flourishing of our entire being, the emergence of soul.

We, in our journeys, imitate the Divine Creator by making our way through the elements that in their very nature conspire to thwart us. We exercise ingenuity and creativity to find ways to thrive in spite of our obstacles, and our passage through dangerous territory makes our homecoming all the sweeter. Each little return, especially each Shabbat, is an opportunity to feel more connected to a greater collective. It gets us not only a little closer back to the Garden of our human beginnings (big innings), but also engages us in the Divine homecoming, the cosmic repair to the original unity that existed before time.

Beginning my 40th Year: Drinking or Pouring?

March 22, 2012

How do we “number our days? How old am I?

If we focus on looking behind us, I am 39 years old today (i.e. I have completed 39 years) — according to the Gregorian (solar) calendar. My Hebrew (luni-solar) birthday was 10 days ago, the 18th of Adar. I didn’t remember to mark it!

If we focus on where we’re headed, I am “beginning my 40th year” today. The Chinese do it that way, don’t they? While not for personal age, Jewish counting often works this way, too. The sabbatical year and jubilee (in the Torah) are for the 7th and 50th year (respectively), and a baby boy is brought into the covenant through circumcision once he has begun his 8th day, i.e. 7 days after he was born (not after the completion of 8 days). So, too, our counting of years for our calendar (whether it’s 2,012 years or 5,772 years) is predicated on assigning the first number (Year 1) to the very beginning of the entire counting, not at the completion of the first year — which is why new decades, centuries, and millennia begin after completing the year with the zero in it. Remember all those “naysayers” who insisted that the millennial celebration should be at the end of the Year 2000 in anticipation of January 1, 2001? Well, their logic only works if the celebration is about the completion of a unit, as opposed to entering the final year of a unit — as is done with the sabbatical and jubilee (entering the 7th or 50th year).

Is one way more western and the other more eastern? Is one approach more concerned with completed results, conservatively or pragmatically choosing to “cash in” on what’s already been stored away — while the other is more concerned with a dynamic process, ambitiously and daringly looking ahead to that which is not yet completed? Is one the result of a Greco-Roman, closed, left-brain, scientific approach while the other is a result of an eastern, right-brain, open-ended approach that emphasizes looser integration into porous clusters of meaning?

Some Jewish customs work in what we might call the “western” way. The age of “adulthood” comes at the completion of 13 years (and a day) for boys (12 and a day traditionally for girls) and there are plenty of Torah-based laws that involve the age of fruits, livestock, and people. Are those ages always based on the number of years already completed? If so, it seems our tradition has elements of both approaches, even before being influenced by the Greco-Roman West.

So, is it more Jewish (or more sacred) to look at what part of the journey we’re embarking on rather than what part of it we’ve completed? Is one way more positive or optimistic and the other more negative or pessimistic? Or is it about pragmatic versus hopeful? Or some other polarity of approaches to encountering reality?

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Bill Cosby is attributed with answering,

It depends on whether you’re pouring or drinking.”

As we “number our days to attain a heart of wisdom” we have the opportunity to ask ourselves what we are doing. Are we pouring or drinking? Some of both, surely — but which are we doing more? Giving and serving or taking and consuming? Stripping away the already guaranteed portion from the cup of our lives, clenching what’s already there out of fear of it falling out of our grasp? Or adding more possibility to a mysterious cup of potentially overflowing bounty, not knowing — or even worrying about — when we will stop pouring, when (or if) the cup will run over? To borrow images from Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Sages) 2:11, are we like “a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop” or like “an ever-flowing spring,” ma’ayan mitgabeir, a porous vessel that is open continually to the entry of new water, new contributions to an ever-changing flow of possibility?

Obviously, one approach sounds more poetic, romantic, adventurous. Surely we need both. A holistic mind (and therefore soul) is the result of a well-balanced cooperation between our left-brain and right-brain functioning. But in my writing, my imagining, and my yearning, I aspire to the poetic.

Am I 39, focusing on the years I have already counted, or am I 40, entering — pouring and being poured — into the next, uncharted gradation in the unfinished vessel of my life journey? I’ll let the left-brain authorities like the Social Security Administration be the cistern and focus on the years I have already accumulated. I — in my “right mind” (pun intended), even though I am not left-handed — will be the ever-flowing spring and pour into Year 40.

So may I now start studying Kabbalah?!

Responding to Cherry-Picked Derision of the Mitzvot

It is quite the fad among those who oppose fundamentalism — especially those who advocate for a more humane approach to the reality of same-sex romantic relationships in our contemporary world — to respond to “Bible-thumpers” by pointing out their hypocrisy: “What about all the other Scriptural prohibitions that you don’t spend any time preaching about, or might even violate yourself?!” This basic approach is important and has its place. We observant Jews, I think, find it especially laughable that non-Jews would be so adamant about the absolute authority of certain mitzvot while completely ignoring others.

However, this tactic of alerting the fundamentalist to his or her fallacies often moves in a different direction, especially when employed by those who seem to hate religion in general. Such people tend to equate all religiosity with fundamentalism and seem to find ridiculous, backward, and indeed threatening to modern life any practice that doesn’t have an immediately discernible rational explanation. Their inability to see that such practices might still have meaning for others leads them to dismiss the entire idea of adhering to a code of behavior that dates further back than last week, especially if any concept of a relationship to Divinity is expressed as part of the motivation for the practices or the system itself.

The Huffington Post has just published a typical sortie in this ongoing “battle” between atheists and fundamentalists. After reading it, I decided I’ve had enough and that it was time for me to weigh in with some advocacy for nuance and moderation in such discussions. I’m sure the haters on either extreme are yelling too loudly to hear me, but perhaps those in the middle who might be interested in a more intelligent conversation will find something worthwhile in my response.


As an observant Jew, I agree with many other comments here that it makes little sense for Christians to cite some commandments from the Hebrew Bible as authoritative and to ignore others. And, like all Jews, I see all the commandments within the context of a much larger interpretive tradition that maintains that “anyone who translates a verse literally is a liar” (Babyl. Talmud, Kiddushin 49a), that essentially legislated out of any practical application many of the “archaic” laws of the Torah such as the stoning of disobedient children and capital punishment in general, that ultimately saw slavery (permitted in the Torah) as abhorrent, that transformed the basic Biblical practices of marriage through the banning of polygyny, etc. So, I agree that one — whether or not he or she plans on adhering to the commandments of the Hebrew Bible — ought to view them skeptically at first reading (skepticism is very Jewish; fundamentalism is not).

However, I am offended by the approach of this post in its attempt to casually suggest that the whole corpus of laws from the Hebrew Bible is ridiculous, and I’m probably even more offended by many of the specific prohibitions cited as efforts to prove the author’s point. As for the approach: It seems that the author deliberately chose the most archaic English translations of the material (lots of “thee”s and “thou”s), a technique that seems similar to a litigator’s act of “leading the witness.” Yes, these commandments were delivered in an ancient language, but to their original readers (and the original readers of various translations in historical context), they likely sounded much more felicitous than the words here do to readers of English in 2012. Other translations exist today with language that is much less “off-putting” than the language used here.

More importantly, this approach ignores the social and literary context of many of these laws. I believe that we need to be closer readers of the texts that have played such a significant role in shaping the values and laws that define our society. I believe that the proper correction for the myopic, “cherry-picking” use of Leviticus 18:22 by bigots, autocrats, and demagogues is not the same kind of cherry-picking in our rebuttal but rather a different kind of conversation about the Bible, its history of interpretation, and ethics — not more of the same decontextualized readings of other verses.

More egregious is the dismissal of many of the values (and practices) underlying the laws cited as examples here. At the very least, the problem with this current post is that in many cases, it focused on the “wrong” commandments to ridicule (i.e. practices not deserving of ridicule). The author seems to suggest that since most people gossip, it must be okay. What a terrible approach! I would prefer that people who have any ethical moorings argue with a little more nuance for intelligent adults to try navigating through the array of behavioral choices available to them by working to discern which ones have serious implications for those around them and which ones do not. In other words, we have much to learn about the Biblical abhorrence of inappropriate speech; not simply because the Bible says so, but because the Bible happens to be right on this issue — the abuse we commit with our words is much more destructive to another human being and to society as a whole than are the sexual acts of two consenting adults.

As for the other laws derided in this post, several have been “legislated out” of relevance even within normative Judaism in the manner mentioned above. In these cases, the author betrays ignorance about context. Others, however, remain at the foundation of a contemporary Jewish life in the pursuit of holiness and meaning and are anything but archaic, irrelevant, or inoperative to serious, observant contemporary Jews. Many Jews continue to take dietary prohibitions and Sabbath observance seriously for a variety of reasons. Such practices have had significant positive impact on the connectedness that Jews feel towards a tradition that forges a unique identity, that instills in us a sense of discipline, that emphasizes that we be conscientious about what we consume in our mastery of the world around us, that celebrates taking time away from a daily grind that depletes our energy and that blinds us from what really matters in the world, and that sensitizes us to living humbly in our quest for sanctity.

If more people were strict about adhering to some of these other “13 laws” than they were about preaching about other people’s apparent disobedience of other Biblical commandments, I believe the world would be a much more civilized and sanctified place. We don’t accomplish much by “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and ridiculing the entirety of ancient religion. Narrow readings of any text are generally not helpful. If we read more openly — including in a manner that pays attention to the world around us rather than just the actual words on the page — we can discover not only which ancient texts are truly problematic as we move forward but we can also discover deep possibilities for meaning and goodness within many texts and practices, both ancient and modern.

Constructing/Discovering Life’s Meaning Through Encounter With the Other

Welcome to my very first post. Since I intend for my writing here to engender — and to be part of — a larger conversation, it seemed that the best place to start was with a response.

The blog post below —

— and the cited journal article that is its focus (http://www.wheaton.edu/CACE/resources/onlinearticles/faithandtheater.pdf) — pick up some of the major themes I wish to be at the core of my own exploration and reflection for this new blog of mine, “kidmoot.”

The main argument under consideration (which might seem obvious to any artist or lover or art) — and that has fascinated me for much of my life, especially given my own history as an actor and a rabbi — is this: The work an actor undertakes to bring a scripted character to life on the stage involves a process of self-discovery that not only can yield compelling, beautiful, and transformative art — ideally, holding “the mirror up to nature” and exploring and expressing truths about humanity and the world; the process can also transform the actor himself, elevating his own spirit and his encounter with holiness. Specifically, as the Stauffer article seeks to express, the actor can cultivate his own virtue, his own “character” — in the moral use of the term.

As Chad seeks to do in the post linked above and in other entries on his blog, I would also like both to unpack the various assumptions and understandings about the theatrical process that are involved in this idea and also to push the idea into a more explicitly theological direction.

For starters, I am intrigued by the essential caveat that actors remember that they do not and cannot completely “become” the characters they are portraying. An element of detached self-consciousness must remain for the actor as he juggles a duality of identities: one, while “real,” he seeks to largely negate in his effort to embody the “other,” which is ultimately not his “reality” — that he is going to (mostly) leave behind at the end of the performance. Stauffer argues for the actor bringing as much as possible from the character portrayal into his true self, while Chad is more cautious about such an approach. I believe we all agree, though, that the actor has a golden opportunity to learn something new about himself that can indeed endure and that has value beyond simply the performance.

As I continue to explore this and many related ideas, I will return regularly to the theology of relationship developed by Martin Buber in his concept of “I-You.” It seems that one key philosophical component to the actor’s work is to enter into an I-You relationship with his character. Such a process will, if we apply Buber’s perspective, preserve the distinctiveness of the actor’s and character’s identities. But the actor most certainly will grow as a real human being, while the identity of his artistic creation/discovery/interpretation will as well. Of course, the actor then has the chance to facilitate an I-You relationship between his character and the empathic audience-member — and so the chain of relational influence continues.

I have barely scratched the surface of my ideas on this topic — in response to the two pieces I’ve cited and certainly in terms of the larger set of concepts I will continue to address here. This entry is just the beginning. I will return soon to continue.