Nov 24, 2011

Making a Collage of Learning

Sometimes when we study together our texts from Samuel, I forget what it's like to be a student coming into a class.  One of the things I have learned, but have not conveyed to everyone, is how "aha" moments come when we make a collage of our learning.    When I studied Hasidism with Natan Margalit, I learned that the Hasids would bring together passages and comments from various sources and interpret them harmoniously, engaging “in a calculated creative misreading or reinterpretation of the entire received and accepted body of previous Jewish traditions." (Art Green in Teachings of the Hasidic Masters in Back to the Sources: Readings in Classic Jewish Texts, pg. 371.) 

Well, I'm not talking now about pulling together the entire body of Jewish learning, but I do want to talk about keeping your ears open for unexpected connections.  The Talmud tells us to make our "ear like the hopper and get...a perceptive heart to understand."  (bT Hagigah 3b) 

Look (listen) for unexpected connections between different learning opportunities and collage them together in your perceptive heart.   Here is an example, and what made me think of writing this blog post.   I recently attended a weekend retreat sponsored by Nehirim.  You might do the same, attend a retreat, go to a Shabbaton, or take classes - the point is to make connections between classes or workshops on seemingly unrelated topics.   My friend Zvi Bellin gave a workshop on "Embracing Freedom and Responsibility" in which he introduced a text from Viktor Frankl.  

“The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back."  (Quoted by   -- Viktor E. Frankl, "Logotherapy in a Nutshell", Man's Search for Meaning.)

Wow! I thought.  Such a clear description - some days I do see the calendar getting thinner, but I don't live there.  However, I know someone whose outlook on life is always glass half empty, who faces life with the sure knowledge that all past sufferings weigh upon this moment, and are a guarantor of nothing but future suffering.  No exit, no way out.

Then I went over to another workshop, a discussion of parashat Vayerah (Gen 18:1-22.24), led by Irwin Keller.  We focused on the Akeda, the story of Abraham and the almost-sacrifice of Isaac his son.  Amidst discussing the thorny issues of whether Abraham passed or failed his test, where Sarah was, and whether Isaac was traumatized for the rest of his (nearly invisible) life,  we pondered what it meant, that at the critical moment, when the knife was raised, Abraham looked up and found the ram to sacrifice in place of his son. 

10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11Then an angel of YHVH called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” 12And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” 13When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.  (Gen 22:10-13)  

What if Abraham had been a pessimist?   He might have said to the angel:  "I looked up before and nothing happened.   You destroyed Sodom despite my best efforts." (Gen 18:16-19:29)  Or he might have said: "You forced me to send my first born, Ishmael, out into the wilderness.  I loved that boy." (Gen 21:9-23)   Indeed,  Abraham might have said, "Why should I listen to you now when you just put this knife in my hand?"  The point is, Abraham was not a pessimist; he had faith that there was going to be a better path to follow.

So connecting the two texts, Frankl with Vayerah, the teaching of Zvi with the teaching of Irwin, I learned that a pessimist, a dyed in the wool pessimist if you will, never looks up!  The pessimist, whether spoken to by an angel of YHVH or by a friend, is incapable of looking up.  The pessimist never finds the ram in the thicket, but is constrained to continually (metaphorically we hope) slay the person or thing she loves.  And why is this so enlightening?  Because there is a pessimist who is near and dear to me, whom I have been unable to help, who will not look up when I try to show her the ram, and who sometimes points the knife in my direction.   By having an ear like a hopper (taking in everything), and a perceptive heart (to learn), I was suddenly freed from a huge weight of misery.  She can't help who she is.   I can listen, I can be sympathetic, but I no longer have to feel burdened with the impossible job of changing her outlook on life.

Thank you Zvi and Irwin for bringing me this teaching.

Oct 29, 2011

Study with Penina 1 Samuel 7-8, November 2, 7:30pm RSVP

Study with Penina Announcement


1 Samuel Chapters 7-8

Wednesday, November 2, 7:30pm to 9pm.  Eitz Chayim library. 
Bring your Tanakh, snacks, wine.
RSVPs appreciated

No prior study or knowledge of text study or Hebrew is required
Books provided if you don't have your own.

Review and study material can be found on Penina's blog
See New York Times article in links:  "The Scrolls as a Start, Not an End"
We meet each 1st and 3rd Wednesday evening to study the book of Samuel.

Oct 17, 2011

Study with Penina 1 Samuel 5-7 October 19, 7:30pm

Study with Penina Announcement


1 Samuel Chapters 5-7
Wednesday, October 19, 7:30pm to 9pm.  Eitz Chayim library. 
Bring your tanach, snacks, wine.
RSVPs appreciated

No prior study or knowledge of text study or Hebrew is required
Books provided if you don't have your own.

Review and study material can be found on Penina's blog

Throughout the year we will meet each 1st and 3rd Wednesday evening to study the book of Samuel.

And they placed the Coffer of YHWH on the wagon,
along with the chest and the gold mice and the images of their tumors.
And the cows went-straight on the road, on the road to Bet Shemesh:
on one path they went, going-along (and) lowing,
but they did not turn right or left.

---1 Sam 6:11-12 (Fox translation)

"Against the spareness and swift efficiency of normal Hebrew narrative style, the writer here lavishes synonyms and repetitions in order to highlight the perfect geometry of the miracle: against all conceivable distractions of biology or sheer animal unknowingness, the cows pursue an arrow-straight...trajectory... [T]he milch cows...are going strenuously against nature: their udders full of milk for the calves they have been forced to leave behind."
---Robert Alter, The David Story

Oct 2, 2011

October 5, 2011 Study Session

Study with Penina Announcement


1 Samuel Chapters 3-5
Wednesday, October 5, 7:30pm to 9pm.  Eitz Chayim library. 
Bring your tanach, snacks, wine.

No prior study or knowledge of text study or Hebrew is required
Books provided if you don't have your own.

Throughout the year we will meet each 1st and 3rd Wednesday evening to study the book of Samuel.

YHWH said to Shemu'el:
Here, I am about to do a thing in Israel
such that all who hear of it - their two ears will ring!
---1 Sam 3:11 (Fox translation)

I will do such things,--
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
---King Lear

Leaders fail in Samuel, "and it is in confronting their failures that the reader is empowered to ponder the meaning of responsibility and leadership for our own time.  The narratives...unfold in a way that cautions human beings about the exercise of power and takes offenders to task."
---Everett Fox

"Women play a larger role in the books of Samuel than in most of the rest of the Bible... It has, in fact, been suggested that one of the major themes of the stories of David and his family is precisely the unavoidable link between public and private life within a ruling family."
---Jo Ann Hacket

Sep 8, 2011

Notes from Class 9/7/11 - Deeper look at Nefesh and "After she/they ate"

Nefesh – Beth related Hannah's bitter nefesh to Creation –
The actual language in Gen 1:7 is that God breathes into the nostrils of the adam the breath of life: nishmat chayyim. This life force that comes from God is not so different from nefesh perhaps, so the idea that Beth expressed, that Hannah’s bitter nefesh comes from feeling she is without God’s lifegiving force is still an informative connection.

1 Samuel 1:9: 
וַתָּקָם חַנָּה, אַחֲרֵי אָכְלָה בְשִׁלֹה וְאַחֲרֵי שָׁתֹה

This verse is translated in several ways:
Robert Alter The David Story
And Hannah arose after the eating in Shiloh and after the drinking.
Alter says (The Art of Biblical Narrative, note on page 83): “I vocalize ‘eating’ differently than does the Masoretic text, which seems to make Hannah the subject, something contraindicated by the indication that she is breaking a fast in verse 18.”
Everett Fox Give us a King (no annotation)

Sep 7, 2011

The Rabbis on Hannah as an example of prayer

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth 

(31a) R. Hamnuna said: How many most important laws can be learnt from these verses relating to Hannah! [I Sam. I, 10ff]   Now Hannah, she spoke in her heart:(עַל-לִבָּהּ) from this we learn that one who prays must direct his heart. Only her lips moved: from this we learn that he who prays must frame the words distinctly with his lips. But her voice could not be heard: from this, it is forbidden to raise one's voice in the Tefillah. Therefore Eli thought she had been drunken: from this, that a drunken person is forbidden to say the Tefillah.

Hannah - Marat Nefesh (bitter soul) and Ani (affliction)

I Samuel 1:10-11 says of Hannah (my translation and emphasis)
10 With a bitter soul she prayed to [against, upon] the Lord and wept copiously.
11She vowed a vow, saying: Lord of Hosts, if seeing, You will see the affliction of Your handmaid, and remember my request and not forget Your handmaid, and You will grant to your handmaid male seed, I will give him to YHVH all the days of this life, and a razor will not go on his head.

Bitter soul in the Hebrew is marat nafeshMarat  is a form of the word mar, meaning bitter, and nafesh  is translated sometimes as soul, spirit, or life-source.

The word translated as affliction is ani

In “Reading Ruth” Aviva Zornberg discusses the uses of the word mar (bitterness) and ana ( a form of ani - affliction) in relationship to Naomi.  Zornberg’s interpretations can help us to understand Hannah. 
We start by listening to Naomi say Hashem ana vi, which may be translated as “God afflicted me.”  Zornberg discusses what this means. 
What exactly does “afflict” mean?  Rashi says, “He testified against me, that I had been guilty in his presence.”  I had been guilty of something.  He testified against me, that I am incriminated of some unknown crime.  Then Rashi quotes another reading.  Ana vi: midat hadin, God’s faculty of judgment has afflicted me.  God in his role as judge, as punisher, has come out and afflicted me.  So ana vi can mean to afflict, to impose pain on me, or it can mean to testify against me. (pg 68).
Naomi’s bitterness comes both from suffering the losses of her husband and the sons she has borne and raised, and from feeling humiliated that God is afflicting her.  Zornberg goes on to say
Naomi assumes that all who witness her suffering know she must be guilty.  In interpreting Hashem ana vi- God has born witness against me – Ibn Ezra supports this translation by reference to a verse in Job.  [He] refers us to Job 10:17: techadesh edekha negdi – you are constantly sending new witnesses against me.  The chapter of bitter complaint in which Job says this begins by his saying, adabra bemar nafshi, let me speak in the bitterness (mar) of my spirit. 
[JPS translation of Job 10:1 is I am disgusted with my life;  I will give rein to my complain, t Speak in the bitterness of my soul]
The word mar, of course, echoes one of the words Naomi uses regarding herself several times.  What does Job say in the bitterness of his spirit?  “I say to my God, don’t condemn me.  Let me know why you quarrel with me” (Job 10:2).  Let me know why You have it in for me.  I feel there is a mystery in the destiny You have imposed upon me.  I must be guilty – I assume I must be guilty – but I am not clear why.  At least tell me exactly what it is that justifies this terrible suffering.  “If I am wicked, woe to me.  But if I am righteous, yet I still can’t lift up my head: (Job 10:15).  In the next phrase, listen carefully to the Hebrew: Seva kalon u-reeh onyi – because I am filled with shame, and look upon my affliction.  Onyi – from the same root as ana in Naomi’s ana vi.  I’m filled with shame as I look on my affliction knowing that the affliction must mean guilt.  (pg 69-70)
How does this help us to understand Hanna’s bitter sprit and her affliction?

Jul 16, 2011

Ruth Chapters 2.16 to 3.18

Supplement to discussion in class July 6, 2011

Chapter 2
  • As a reminder, in verse one of  chapter 2, we are introduced to Boaz, who is identified in as kin to Naomi and as ish gibor chayil, a mighty man of valor.   When he finds that Ruth is gleaning in his field, he offers her extra gleanings and food, and protection from the young men who might otherwise humiliate her.   He offers this paltry help, even though he states that he has heard about how she has followed Naomi to this land and taken care of her.  We should ponder what is wrong with this picture?
  • Ruth gleans in Boaz’s field and takes food to Naomi.  Because of Ruth’s generous loving-kindness towards her mother-in-law, Naomi’s spirit is revived.  She blesses the man who took notice of Ruth.  How did she know it was a man?  Ruth did not say so.
  • The key to Chapter 2 is the revitalization of Naomi.  Naomi is brought out of her bitterness and despair through Ruth’s acts of loving-kindness, although she does not yet take action.  
  • 2:20 - Naomi offers up a blessing when she discovers that it is Boaz who owns the field where Ruth was gleaning.     “Blessed be he of the Lord, who has not failed in his kindness to the living or to the dead!”  The text is a bit ambiguous (is Naomi blessing Boaz or God?), but certainly Naomi understands that Ruth has been fortunate to light upon the field of her kinsman, Boaz.  While Boaz has not offered much help, he has at least protected Ruth in the field and provided her with extra gleanings.
o   Tikva Frymer-Kensky has pointed out that this may be a formulaic blessing of God, as it is very similar to the words of Abraham’s steward (Reading the Women of the Bible, p 246), who said in Gen 24:27: “Blessed be YHWH the God of my lord Abraham who has not left off his acting benevolently (hesed) and faithfully with my master.”   Note that this episode begins with the steward asking for a micreh – Gen 24.12.  See blog commentary on Ruth 2.3.
Chapter 3
  • 3:2-4 Naomi takes action because Ruth’s hesed has redeemed her. She instructs Naomi how to attract Boaz.  The scheme is not without risk.

Jul 4, 2011

Ruth Chapters 1.1 to 2.16

Supplement to discussion in class June 13, 2011

Overview of Chapters 1.1 to 2.16

For those who want to go in depth,  following  the overview is a detailed verse by verse exegesis, with many helpful quotes from other sources. 
Chapter 1
  • Naomi is bereft of husband and children and feels the hand of God has been lifted against her.    Much like Job, she does not understand why her misfortunes have befallen her, but she is clear that God has emptied her out and made her lot a bitter one.  When she returns to her village of origin, her (presumably decrepit) appearance sets the village women in a panic.  The question to be pondered is why does Naomi appear to be abandoned, even afflicted , by God?
  • Ruth clings to Naomi and will follow her through thick and thin.  The chapter does not state why, but as the book progresses, we will see the importance of Ruth’s hesed (loving-kindness) in restoring her mother-in-law’s spirit and in obtaining the help from Boaz which he should have offered immediately.
Chapter 2.1 – 2.16
  • We are introduced to Boaz, who is identified in verse 1 as kin to Naomi and as a gibor chayil, a mighty man of valor.   When he finds that Ruth is gleaning in his field, he offers her extra gleanings and food, and protection from the young men who might otherwise humiliate her.   He offers this paltry help, even though he states that he has heard about how she has followed Naomi to this land and taken care of her.  We should ponder what is wrong with this picture?
  • We are reminded more than once that Ruth is a Moabite, a foreigner.

Detailed Commentary

Jun 9, 2011

Uncovering Biblical Myths

Join us during the summer at Congregation Eitz Chayim, 136 Magazine Street in Cambridge,  for evening Torah classes, every 1st and 3rd Wednesday from 7:30pm to 9:00pm.
Penina Weinberg, biblical scholor with a Master of Jewish Liberal Studies from Hebrew College and 6 years teaching Torah to adult Jewish learners,  will lead us on an exploration of the truth behind many commonly held biblical notions. Through a close reading of selected biblical texts, we will study, discuss, argue – in short, learn to interpret for ourselves.
The first class on June 15, will study the Book of Ruth.  A common view is that the Book is an enchanting, sweet pastoral idyll (The Five Megilloth, Soncino Press).  While the Book does not contain the bloodshed and violence depicted in the Book of Judges, (it takes place in the time that “the judges judged”), it nevertheless poses hard questions about the relationship between humanity and God, and between one human and another.  Like Job, Naomi agonizes over being abandoned by God, even afflicted by God.  How can this be?  What does it mean that God can afflict human beings?  Why should it be so? 
Subsequent classes (exact order of study TBD) will explore other commonly held assumptions about the biblical text, including:
  • What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19)?  The common answer is homosexuality.  But how do you know that?  Did someone interpret that for you, or did you study the text yourself?  Along with Genesis 19, we will study texts from Joshua and Judges (the stories of Rahav and the Levite’s concubine) to help get to the root of the sin of Sodom.
  • If humanity is made in the image of God, what can we learn from the story of Creation (Genesis 1-3) about the gender of God and the gender of the first human?   Is God a He, a She, an androgyne?  Is the question relevant?  The concept of a gendered God is integral to many interpretations of the bible, and the concept of God as a He has troubled many modern religious people, but what does the text actually say? 
Bring your tanachs, a snack, a bottle of wine, your independent thinking.   All study will be in English.  No prior bible study is required, but our study will challenge even the knowledgeable.    Our close reading will include getting to the root of the meaning of key Hebrew words (pun intended).  Texts will be available for those who cannot bring their own.

Apr 9, 2011

Judges Chapter 11, Jephthah’s daughter, April 4, 2011

There are many interesting modern commentaries on Jephthah and his daughter.   I am including the notes from my research here.

Chapter 11
·         11:1-3 -  Jephthah the Gileadite – son of zonah – run out by his half-brothers
o   How did Jephthah end up in his father’s house?
o   What Jephthah lacks to be a good judge is a father, a heritage. (AFC1-J Klein p. 25-5)
o   Jephthah has no patronymic – not a son of Gilead the man, but of the tribe (BOL)
o   In the Jewish-Aramaic of the Targum of the Prophets, the two women who come to Solomon, Samson’s woman in Gaza, and Jephthah’s mother are designated as “innkeeper.”  Called zonot in bible.  Of course innkeepers and prostitutes are not mutually exclusive. Zonah may also designate a low-status, social-legal class comprised of women who live outside of patriarchal social mores and control.  The independent women may become sex professionals, which is not penalized as a crime.  Gen 34.31 – Dinah is a zonah.  (VHH)
·         11:5-8 -  Elders of Gilead ask Jephthah to lead in battle and be their head
o   Are the elders of Gilead and the sons of Jephthah’s father the same people?
o   There is a difference between 11:6 kazir (military leader?) and 11:8 rosh (head?).  In 9:11, the elders ask Jephthah to be both.   Note that Jephthah bargains hard to be offered a higher post.
o   Note that God is relegated to confirming the choice of the elders (BOL)
·         11:9-11 -  Jephthah agrees to

Judges Chapter 11, Jephthah’s daughter, A picture

This is a wonderful illustration by Joanna Drucker.
This is a daughter who does not go to the hills with her companions and who does not submit to being sacrificed.