Monday, August 24, 2009

Rebellious Children and Re-Reading Text

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother and though they chasten him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall lay hold of him and bring him out unto the elders of his city…

They shall say unto the elders “Our son is stubborn and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” And all the men of his city shall stone him that he die… (Deut. 21:18–21).

I always smile when we read the section on the rebellious son.

I know it’s a tad geeky to have a favourite Torah portion.

But I just can’t help it.

It’s not that I dig infanticide, or support the murder of teenage delinquents as a means to maintain public order.

It’s what the Rabbis did with (or to) the story, rather than the story itself that enthrals me.
First, they limited the case to that of a 12½ year old boy (“son not daughter; son not mature man”)

Next, they insisted the law only applied when a specific type of meat and wine was consumed – excluding the beer festival or any over-indulging at KFC from the prohibition.

Finally, in a pilpulistic twist of grandiose proportions, the Rabbis announced that the command only applied when the child’s mother was similar in appearance, height and voice to his father. (“He does not hearken to our voice – this shows that their voices must be alike”).

[As an aside, I always wondered how any child whose mum looked exactly like their dad could become anything other than rebellious – but maybe that’s because my father has had a thick beard for the last 30 years…]

In short, the Rabbis took a Torah text with a specific command and completely changed its meaning.

They didn’t argue that God knew best, or that human morality was inherently subjective (or Christian).

They didn’t answer those starry eyed liberals that we don’t have a choice – that ‘that’s was the Torah says and who are we to argue?’

When faced with a conflict between text and moral intuition, the Talmudic Rabbis went with the latter.

They understood that an authentic religiosity engages with text rather than unquestioningly subjugating itself to it in the name of serving God;

They realised that leaving our morals at the entrance of the Bet Midrash is not what learning Torah is about, that – to paraphrase the Kotzker – serving the Shulchan Arukh (or dry text) is not always the same as serving God.

But with my smile often comes a frown.

Because surely there is no midrashic re-reading of homosexuality or divorce laws which could possibly stray from the text more palpably than that of the rebellious son.

So why is our generation still stuck with the Shulchan Arukh worshippers?

Original from

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Moving to Lech Lecha

After four years of blogging solo, I am transferring the majority of my writing energy to a new blog shared with some friends at

I will probably continue to post in the Land of Milk and Honey from time to time.

However its probably best to find me on the Lech Lecha blog here.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Overflowing Streams & the Festival of Love

Strategically speaking, the best way to have spent Tu Be’Av would probably have been pursuing beautiful white-robed bachelorettes through the moonlit fields of Jerusalem rather than barbequing with a bunch of couples at Maayan and Enav’s Sheva Brachot in Yafo.

But life isn’t always about strategy. And those hand-made burgers were really good.

The truth is that it’s always special to celebrate with friends on joyous occasions. Having first met Maayan in the context of the Tel Aviv bi-weekly Shiur (in which several friends get together to discuss texts, sip wine, and raise heretical thoughts in a safe environment) her and I have become good friends.

And having been asked to say a few words to the happy couple, my mind turned to the connection between her name, the concept of marriage, and the Jewish festival of love we’re currently celebrating.

‘Ethics of the Fathers’ mentions two rising rabbinical stars who couldn’t be more different from each other.

In the red corner stood Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus (let’s call him EBH), referred to as a plastered cistern which didn’t lose a drop.

In the blue corner meanwhile was Elazar Ben Arakh (EBA), described as an overflowing stream (Maayan Hamitgaber in Hebrew).

One source says that if all the sages were on one scale and EBH was on the other, he would outweigh them all.

Another remembers the text slightly differently - that if all the sages including EBH were on one side and EBA on the other, he would outweigh them all.

What seems to be at stake in the discussion is who is the ideal type of student – the arch traditionalist or free thinking intellectual?

Yet regardless of who was better, what is striking is how the ‘Maayan Hamitgaber’ of EBA simply overflows with creative and intellectual energy and enriches everyone he meets.

His advice is constantly sought.

He wows his seniors with his wisdom.

He explains complex texts in ways never before heard.

Yet ultimately, the text tells us, he separates from his friends and forgets his learning.

And the story suggests that while an overflowing stream has many advantages over a plastered cistern, it dissapears unless funneled or collected somewhere.

Without a context of support, or what psychologist Donald Winnicott terms a holding environment, all EBA’s genius goes to waste.

And I began to wonder whether the same is true in relationships.

That we all have so much creative energy; dreams and ambitions; hopes and fears; future ideas and plans.

Yet without someone to share them with, to give us direction, we can’t fulfill ourselves or actualize those dreams.

And that what we need is someone who provides us a framework, who which helps us become the best person we can possibly be.

It’s what EBA was lacking.

It’s what Maayan and Enav have found in each other.

And as we celebrate the Jewish festival of love, it’s a reminder of what we should all be seeking.