Monday, August 27, 2007

Written On Stone

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

There’s a movie out now, called ‘THE TEN’, written and directed by David Wain, a Jewish funny guy. The movie is a modern midrash of sorts on the ten commandments, taking wild spins off of each commandment in relation to modern life. Or something like that. In between each segment, Paul Rudd narrates, clumsily, standing inside a studio with two GIANT replicas of the two tablets of the law. This is not a film review but lets just say that we walked out disappointed. All these big stats (Wynona doing ‘Do not Steal” was a good casting choice…) but so little of actual substance to say about the bible beyond gags.

What, we wondered, what be a modern day adaptation of the Ten Commandments that would really compel us to think about the place of that ancient text in our modern lives? How would those two slabs of stone be represented today besides the classic old THOU SHALL on fake rocks?

In this week’s Torah episode, KI TAVO, an ancient monument to the words written in stone is erected, serving as a reminder for the people of the covenant with the divine at Sinai. The monument is to be built as they enter the Promised Land – the first permanent installation of a people no longer on the move. What’s odd about this art piece is the instruction to inscribe the words of the law on stone – but it isn’t clear which words, how many, and what size stone.

The Book of Words, chapter 27:8, describes the instruction ‘And on those stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly. (JPS) The King James translation offers: ‘And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly. ‘Others translate as ‘inscribe clearly’ or ‘explain well’.

Our favorite translation is the Aramaic Pseudo-Jonathan: And you shall write upon the stones all the glorious words of this law in writing deep and plain, to be well read, and to be interpreted in seventy tongues.

Wow – not just the Hebrew words but also the translations! Does this text mean this literally?

Aside from the simple preposterousness of this task— that’s a lot of stones and a lot of writing—there seems to be some kind of Sinai recap going on here. Stone tablets, broken tablets and scattered stones, stones now reassembled to compose the peoples’ version of Mosaic tablets – on their own terms.

SO maybe you are on a beach these last days of summer, or somewhere in nature where you can pick up a rock, or a pebble. We invite you to re-enact this biblical verse and use the stone to remember one word, or image, or memory from the Bible that sticks with you, that inspires you, that, like the Ten Commandments were meant to be – serves as a moral moment of memory for your path. Make your own monument, in any of the seventy languages and more that your heart may speak…

Shabbat shalom

The Wedding Dress

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

A man hates his wife. It starts as a private domestic dispute, but quickly becomes a big problem and a public court case. In this week’s Torah Episode, “Ki Tetze” – a collection of laws and regulations in no particular order, this is but one of many sad scenarios that the biblical law makers described, proscribing the appropriate judicial steps to resolve the dispute. Quite often we are faced with a reading of Torah text that is deeply against our modern sensibilities and social values, though it may have represented the norms of our ancestors thousands of years ago. This particular case described a woman who is accused by her husband of not being a virgin at the time of their wedding. If she is found guilty by the court, she will be executed for this crime. This is one of those biblical passages that makes us clearly aware of the historical gap and moral difficulty that the Torah offers us today. But at the same time, it is important to note that in many cultures in the world, the sanctity of maidenhood is still a big deal and in some cases still punishable by death, or at least by ostracism.

This harsh torah text reads as dry legalistic data, but one word pops up at us, a word that can be translated differently and shed a painfully human light on this scenario.

The Book of Words describes the procedure in court, when, following the husband’s accusations, the father of the bride speaks up, and presents his evidence:

22: 17 This man has made false charges, saying: I did not find any signs of virginity in your daughter; and yet here are the signs of my daughter's virginity.' And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city.

What is this garment that is dramatically spread before the elders?

The Hebrew for ‘garment’ is ‘simla’ – translated elsewhere as ‘cloth’, ‘fabric’, ‘clothing’, or ‘material’. But the word is most often used to describe a very specific garment – a dress, and in this case, a wedding dress.

We have not found another English translation that uses the term ‘dress’ in this gruesome context, as most prefer to keep this image vague and perhaps not as disturbing. But it does appear to be a fairly accurate description of what the father of the bride is showing to the judge: bloodied evidence, kept for just an emergency.

As the book of words comes towards its end and the entry into the Promised Land (and the new year) seems closer, we take stock of all that our ancient law and lore has to offer, including this soiled wedding gown and all of its promises of a happy future gone wrong. What do we do with this information? Perhaps commit to making sure that such brutal behavior remains clearly the stuff of the past, and not the guidelines for modern policy making, as some in our society would like to see. And perhaps this dress shows up this week to remind us of how much we have yet to do for justice in the world - clearly marking our journeys of evolution thus far and the desired progress forwards, to a reality where sexual maturity and intimate domestic difficulties are dealt with more love than fear, and with more creativity, not just procreativity, in mind.

Well, meanwhile, Shabbat shalom..

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

This week’s Torah episode is entitled ‘Shoftim’ – ‘Judges’ and indeed the focus is the establishment of the basic bureaucracy - authorized leadership, judicial matters, and the establishment of the Jewish Monarchy. The official Biblical party line in regards to Royalty is one of ambivalence – on the one hand the recognition of this symbolic importance, and on the other – fear of too much control in the hands of the few. From the get go, the future kings are warned - not too many horses, or wives, please, Your Majesty, and oh, also – Judaic literacy is highly recommended. In the Book of Words, chapter 17:18 the following instruction appears, and with it, the premiere of the first Torah Scroll in history, linking power to religion and absolutely ignoring any future possibilities for the separation of Synagogue and State:

‘When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the priests of the tribe of Levy.’ (JPS translation)

This is the first mention of the Holy Book being used by a human in a ritualized form. But what exactly is the king holding in his royal lap? The Hebrew for ‘copy of this teaching’ is Mishne Torah – translated as ‘copy of the teaching’, or ‘Duplicate of the Law’, or ‘repetition of the instruction.’ Some use ‘book’ and some use ‘scroll’, but all translators agree that we have no idea what the is the actual content of this ‘data bearing device’. Further complicating the story is the fact that this is regarded as a copy of the original, and the big question is – what and where is the original version of the Torah???

When it comes to official representations, translations, and usage of the sacred teachings by appointed leaders – these questions are both historical – and very current. A recent Gallop poll claims that over 1/3 of Americans believe that the Bible is the Word of God, to be taken literally, preferably as the Authorized Version – the 17th century King James Bible ( to be found in a bedside table drawer in a hotel near you)

The King James translation actually adds a curious twist to our verse, very much in line with the original Hebrew, clarifying this theological challenge:

‘And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites. ‘

Just to make sure, the king does indeed have access to the Holy Word – but the Religious Authorities are in control and have custody of the original…William Tynedale, the original translator of the King James version, was executed for his ’subversive’ contribution to the first ever English Language version of the Bible, and it is not difficult to discern some subtext in his translation of this potent verse. The tension in the 17th century between Church and State seems to have only gotten more complicated as the centuries advance and more and more copies, repetitions, and doubles of the Word are quoted or misquoted by world leaders who clutch gospels to their bosoms.

Imagine for a moment that you are the king (or queen) in this passage. What is it like for you to hold this sacred text and touch it? What is your connection to it and which of the biblical stories is the right one for you to read or have read for this occasion? Given a choice – what ONE word from Scripture would you cherish above all others and share with us, your loyal subjects today?

Thursday, August 09, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

Onwards towards the Promised Land trudge Moses and the people, and the closer the land gets, the louder and longer are the anti assimilation speeches. 'Beware', the old leader warns the eager tribes – 'do not be seduced by the ways of the land, by native gods, local flavors and paths off the highway'. The fear of assimilation, then and now, is not unique to the Jewish people, who, like other nations, strive to celebrate their uniqueness in a salad bar reality of options. But when is this fear of the other way too much? In this week's Torah episode, Re'eh, the fear of seduction by other religious models is extreme enough to remind us, uncomfortably, of historical witch hunts and the more recent McCarthy hearings. Instructed to prevent idolatrous propaganda the people are ordered by Moses to suspect and report anyone and everyone - including closest family members and friends.

One such list of potential suspects caught our eye, especially one item on the list – an expression that denotes deep intimacy and is translated differently in various contexts, offering us a glimpse into the definition of friendship – and its potential perils.

The Book of Words, Chapter 13, verse 7 lists those who should be reported and killed for heresy - 'If your brother, your own mother's son, or you son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entice you in secret, saying "come, let us worship other gods who neither you nor your fathers have experienced" (NJPS translation)

Forget for the moment how upsetting this list is and what betrayal of kinship it required here, fundamentalism style. We want to only focus on the expression 'closest friend'. The Hebrew is more complex – using the word NEFESH – SOUL and the word RE'A – most often translated as 'friend', 'ally', 'colleague' or 'neighbor'. A footnote in the NJPS Bible adds – 'Literally - your friend who is as yourself.'

Similarly, Richard Friedman translates 'Your friend who is as your own self' and Everett Fox chooses 'Your neighbor who is (one) like your (very) own self.'

The emphasis here is on the mirror image – focusing on the word 'soul' - suggesting that your friends' soul is as your own, and the shared is greater than the separate. Even then, especially then, we are warned of being influenced or led astray by other. Whether it is your neighbor, best friend, partner or lover – the emphasis here (more than on the list of flesh and blood relatives) is on the soul linkage between two people, and the challenge of distancing self from the influence of cherished other.

Reading this biblical text verbatim in 2007 is ethically unacceptable. And so, we choose to read this narrative as a psychological allegory - an invitation to deeply examine our private path of spiritual progress, where, guided by our own soul, even the closest people and even our 'soul mate' may be kindly asked to leave, if only for a while. Sometimes – you simply have to close your eyes and go inside, into our private innermost soul, into the state of living we call 'the promised land'.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This week in the Book of Words, secrets are hidden in plain view, covering up the Pagan history of the Hebrew Bible and the presence of the Goddess of Fertility Herself. It somehow feels appropriate to frame this weekly Storah on the portion known as “Ekev” with a nod to a modern incarnation of that divine being – Auntie Mame:

‘I have a little secret I'd like to impart.
That I hope doesn't give you too much of a start;
Tho' it's shocking, it's completely true.
I know it isn't gossip, or rumor, of course,
For I've had it from quite a reliable source
And I'd like to pass it on to you.

The man in the moon is a lady,
A lady in lipstick and curls;
The cow that jumped ovah cried,
"Jumpin' Jehovah,
I think it's just one of the girls.’

Sometimes, indeed, secrets are revealed in the most surprising places. In this week’s Torah Episode, for instance, a lengthy list of God-given fortunes is promised to the people Israel, provided they obey the laws. But there is more to this vision of prosperity than meets the eye – the man in the moon is indeed a lady:

The Book of Words 7:13 ‘He will favor you, and bless you, and multiply you: He will bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calving of your herd, and the lambing of your flock, in the land which he swore to your fathers to assign to you.’ (NJPS translation)

The Hebrew word for CALVING is the big hidden secret here, although the original Hebrew words for ‘grain’, ‘wine’, and ‘oil’ are also worthy of mention. ‘calving’ is a funny word, most English translation use the word ‘increase’ denoting the fertility of the animals. But the word used in the Torah is ASHTAROT – the name of the ancient Goddess of the Near East – known also as Ishtar or Astarte. At a later mythic twist she will also become known as Esther. So, how and did the Canaanite Goddess become ‘calving’ or ‘increase’? Classic interpreters avoid this word, but modern scholars such as Robert Alter wax poetic in their footnotes. Even the favorite current translation among Conservative Jews, the Etz Chayim, comments: ‘Grain – Dagan, Wine – Tirosh, and Yitzhar- Oil…each of these words is connected to a pagan deity - especially Calving – Ashtoret - the Canaanite fertility goddess.’
It would appear that for the ancient Hebrews, familiar with the religious vocabulary of the land, the allusion to the ancient blessing of the Mother Goddess is both repressed AND represented in those promises of the Hebrew male God. But, there inside the man in the moon – is the ancient moon goddess herself, named but forgotten as Jumpin’ Jehovah successfully controls the new religious paradigm that will be known as Monotheism.

If the Torah would have wanted us to forget the ancient ways in which both Masculine AND Feminine symbols guided our ancient spiritual lives – Ashtarot would not have still been waiting for us inside the words. But here she is – a reminder that for all of us, guided by god or goddess, none or more, there is the promise of profound protection, nurturing, and abundance – the products of a deep commitment to a life of truth.

Or, as Auntie Mame would chant it: ‘LIVE, LIVE, LIVE!’

Shababt shalom, from Lauviticus