28 June 2012

What are we reading, when we read the Torah?

What are we reading, when we read the Torah?

Of course this question has thorny historical and theological dimensions to it. Yet, I will ignore those, since I am not qualified to try to address them. Actually, qualifications have never stopped me before. What really stops me is that I just don’t feel like it.

Instead I will address some of the pragmatic dimensions of this question. I feel qualified to address them, since the only qualification required is a little bit of motivation, which, surprisingly, I have. After answering these questions for myself, I figured I would try to write them up. My assumption being, if I was confused about them, maybe someone else still is, or will be.

So, I’m assuming the “we” of the question is someone like me. So, that leads me to the first, most superficial answer to the question. Like many Reform Jews, what I read when I’m reading the Torah is what I will call “MCRE”:

  • The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition)
  • General Editor: W. Gunther Plaut z’’l
  • General Editor, Revised Edition: David E. S. Stein
  • Copyright 2005, 2006 by URJ Press

Here's a picture of the cover.

The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition)

But, as I said, that is only a superficial answer to the question.

One reason that it is only a superficial answer is that The Torah is in some sense five books not one. Plus haftarot are included. Each of these six sections (Pentateuch plus haftarot) may have different translators, commentators, and consulting editors.

Mainly, MCRE's translation is the so-called “New JPS” or “NJPS.” This translation by the Jewish Publication Society traces its roots back through 1999 and 1985 editions to a “new” translation of 1962. This may not seem very new, but it is in contrast to the completely different 1917 JPS translation. Some of the covers of the more common books which feature the NJPS are below.

Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary
Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures
The Torah: The Five Books of Moses

But the MCRE translation is only “mainly” NJPS. It is not fully NJPS in two respects. One is that it does not literally use NJPS; rather, it uses a gender-accurate revision of the NJPS done by David E. S. Stein (2006; 2005). The other is that it does not use any form of NJPS for Genesis and the haftarot. The translation of Genesis is by Chaim Stern z’’l (1999) and the translation of the haftarot is by Chaim Stern z’’l with Philip D. Stern (1996).

For most sections of the MCRE, the commentator is W. Gunther Plaut z’’l. Indeed it is Plaut's name that is most associated with the MCRE and its "unrevised" (original 1981) edition. The exception is Leviticus, whose commentator is Bernard J. Bamberger z’’l.

The following color-coded table may help summarize the different translators and commentators.
MCRE translators and commentators

This can all be gleaned from a look at the first few pages of the book, but I thought it might be helpful to re-present it here. Also I recommend reading some of the prefaces, introductions and forwards contained in pages xxi-li (21-51 in lowercase Roman numerals). As an aside, I have never liked the convention of numbering preface pages with Roman numerals. It is a terrible system of notation. Particularly for a book like MCRE, I can't think of any reason to continue to make Jews suffer from the bad policies of Ancient Rome.

Now onto the question of what are we reading, at a detailed, mechanical level. Like much of Jewish literature throughout the ages, MCRE has a complex layout needed to capture what one might call "extreme intertextuality." I still find it a bit confusing. Here is a schematic representation of an example spread (two facing pages) consisting of pages 708 and 709.

Items in yellow represent actual text on the page or placeholders for actual text on the page. E.g. the actual text "Leviticus 9:11-23" and the placeholder "English text". Items in orange are just expanding upon the Hebrew text above them, for the Hebrew-impaired like me. The first line is just the letter names, transliterated. The second line are the full words and/or numbers, transliterated.

Sorry to say it, but you can safely ignore all the Hebrew and avoid yourself some confusion. Nonetheless, I've included it and explained it for reference. Note that a spread spans neither book nor parashat. So, the book identified on the right page (e.g. Leviticus) is always just the English name of the book identified on the left page (e.g. ויקרא (Vayikra)). Similarly, the parashat identified on the right page (e.g. Sh'mini) is always just the transliteration into the Latin alphabet of the parashat identified on the left page (e.g. שמיני (Sh'mini)). But, the chapter range covered may differ between the right and left pages, of course!

Okay, but I said you could safely ignore the Hebrew. What, then, is tricky? Well, the main thing that I still find a little tricky is that though pages read from right to left, the columns of commentary within a page read from left to right!

And, though it seems obvious, remember that the two columns of commentary don't belong to their respective columns above. Conceptually, it is easiest to think of them as "belonging" only to the English column, although I'm sure they are of great help in understanding the Hebrew as well, if, unlike me, you can read it.

Finally, another note that seems obvious but tripped me up for a while: the commentary is numbered by verse. In particular, these are not footnotes, so don't expect to find superscripts in the English text.

Okay, this seems like a good place to stop. In a future post, I hope to cover more about the content of what we are reading in the MCRE. In particular, I hope to cover what sources are used for the Hebrew text, what sources are used for the translation of the Hebrew text into English, and the relationship between the MCRE and David Stein's other recent translations.

26 June 2012

Spinning, Round Things

In nature, it seems like only really big things spin and/or are round. Like planets and stars.

Is this true?

If it is true, is it meaningful, or just coincidental? E.g. is there any insight about physics to be gained from this? Is there any insight about biology to be gained from this? Like, how come I can’t just spin my wrist again and again, like I could my BMX bike’s handle bars (with a special invention so that the brake cables wouldn’t be limiting)?

This brings me to my next question: how come so many things we build spin and/or are round? Like, the most prototypical human invention (after fire): the wheel. And its more recent, but pervasive partner: the ball bearing.

Does this mean we’re doing something wrong? Are we “fighting against nature”? Is it wrong to “fight against nature,” or is it in some sense the definition of invention?

Or, a more balanced point of view: though nature is a good source of inspiration (e.g. airplane wings), perhaps it need not be slavishly followed (e.g., non-flapping of airplane wings).

Finally, here are a few notes/qualifications. Above I’ve used “round” to include “spherical.” Also, I’ve ignored the “spin” of electrons, since, as my quotes suggest, my understanding is that their “spin” is an analogy to the spin of classical mechanics, not an example of it.

Update: Bubbles. I didn't think of bubbles until just now. 'Nuf said.

The Jewish Fool in the Rain

Lately I’ve been reading Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s song, “The Fool in the Rain.”

This led me to ask myself, can we bring religious meaning to this song?

I think we can. As to whether it is advisable, desirable, or productive to do so, let’s just say, I cannot defend myself.

The usual way of bringing religious meaning to a romantic song or poem is to interpret the object of affection as God rather than a person. As such, the story of “The Fool in the Rain” becomes a story of seeking, doubting, and in the end finding God rather than a romantic partner.

I take the message (moral?) to be that God should be sought carefully, so that we are not misled or even blinded by our keen anticipation and questing fervor. Or perhaps the message is that all we can do is remain open to God rather than seek God directly.

The song begins, you could say, with a keen anticipation of Shabbat (recall that Shabbat is traditionally defined as starting when three stars can be seen in the sky):

Well there's a light in Your eye that keeps shining
Like a star that can't wait for the night
I hate to think I've been blinded, baby:
Why can't I see you tonight?

Admittedly, this verse, like others, poses various problems to religious interpretation. For one thing, the God of Judaism does not take human form and therefore has no literal eye. Yet, we are told that humans are created humans in God’s image. So presumably human eyes reflect (however distantly) some aspect of God. Or, more simply, God created all creatures, including humans, and therefore all eyes are in some sense God’s eyes, i.e. they belong to (or at least originate from) God.

As to the religious interpretation of “baby,” I have none. This is simply not an acceptable or plausible way to refer to God. Possibly Christianity would be of some help here since baby Jesus is important in it. But I will not resort to that. I do have to give mad props to the movie Talladega Nights for hilariously featuring a main character who, when he says grace, specifically directs his thanks to the baby Jesus.

Perhaps the reason I initially thought of this crazy idea of a religious interpretation of this song is its evocative, repeated phrase “light of the love that I found.” I am reminded of the mysterious light that God created before anything was created that could radiate light, like the sun. You could resolve this by saying that God at first created only the concept of light. Or, more mysteriously, it is suggested that this first light was different in nature from later light. This first light is either gone now, or, more tantalizingly, can only be glimpsed occasionally. Mad props to G-dcast and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner for this animated teaching on that subject: http://www.g-dcast.com/bereshit.

After several stanzas of desire, doubt, and even desolation, the song concludes with the revelation that the narrator has, more or less, been looking for love in all the wrong places. Though fervent, his search has been careless: he has been on the wrong block!

I'll run in the rain till I'm breathless
When I'm breathless I'll run till I drop,
The thought of a fool's kind of careless
I'm just a fool waiting on the wrong block

Reminds me of Kohelet’s admonition,

Watch your step when you go to the house of God. Understanding is better than giving sacrifices as fools do, […]
Kohelet 4:17 (Kravitz and Olitzky)

I think of being on the wrong block as an error in the way he has framed the search. I picture him running up and down the same block, trying to find a certain building, but not bothering to consider, until late in the game, that he might be on the wrong block entirely.

Along those lines, I’d like to think that what he was looking for was in fact all around him, “impeding” his search: it was the life-giving rain itself. Again Kohelet comes to mind:

All rivers flow into the sea. Yet the sea is never full.
Kohelet 1:7 (Kravitz and Olitzky)

Like Kravitz and Olitzky, I don’t think Kohelet understood the water cycle as we do today, consisting of evaporation, precipitation, etc. But he understood that there was something cyclical going on. He cites the cyclical nature of things as examples of (or metaphors for) the general futility of things. But I wonder if it is possible to stretch the translation of Kohelet’s repeated phrase “everything is useless” to “all is without end.” This allows us to still see “without end” as “without purpose” but also as “infinite.” It allows us to see the water cycle as a wondrous, perfectly balanced cycle as well as an emblem of repeated drudgery or even misery.

By the way, “everything is useless” is often translated as “all is vanity.” Though this has intriguing connotations of narcissism, I think it comes directly from the Vulgate’s vanitas, which had no such connotation. I don’t mean to say that the English word “vanity” is wrong. For one thing, I’m not sure it is an issue of right vs. wrong. Rather, I’m just trying to help peel back layers of meaning accumulated over the millennia.

But, I’d like to return to the song, and the idea that, weirdly, it is the rain that is the light of the love that the narrator finds. Just as the whole water cycle can be seen as depressing or wondrous, rain can be seen (and indeed can be) a positive or negative force. At one of the narrator’s desolate moments, he views the clouds and the rain as impeding his search for light and love:

And the storm that I thought would blow over
Clouds the light of the love that I found

But really in the end we find out that it is his own frenetic carelessness that impeded him. Don’t blame the storm, dude.

As disconnected as many of us are from nature and agriculture, it is easy to think of rain only as an impediment, annoyance, or even a threat, in the case of floods. The desert religion of Judaism reminds us to keep things in perspective. (It also helps if you live in a climate like Los Angeles or Jerusalem, where rain goes away entirely during the summer. This helps remind you of what it would be like if rain went away entirely.) What comes to mind here is my favorite part of Exodus, where God shelters the Israelite camp with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night: another mysterious combination of water and light (of love?).

Here I must digress for a moment and give mad props to Sammy Spider’s First Haggadah, since it, unlike many haggadahs, not only mentions this part of Exodus but devotes a kickin’ full-page collage to it. Below is a scan.

Pillars of fire and cloud from Sammy Spider's Exodus

So far I’ve mentioned only the lyrics and nothing about the music of the song. It is of course hard, and perhaps even inadvisable, to impute meaning to music, at least the kind of meaning that language can have or describe.

Still, I feel compelled to note that the song’s “A-B-A” structure, though perfectly common, includes what is to me an uncommonly satisfying return to “A”. As the rhythm suddenly resumes its original, non-frenetic pace, I for one feel a profound sense of return, as if what I have sought has been found. Is this the light of the love that the narrator has found? Note that the Hebrew word for return, “teshuva,” also means repentance.

To end this silly, rambling, hopefully-not-offensive post on a despairing note:

Many words multiply futility. What gain can there be for anyone?
Kohelet 6:11 (Kravitz and Olitzky)

Well, I take it back, I can’t end there. Instead I’ll end with something written by a teacher of mine, Ivan Tcherepnin. He adds one very important line to a famous old French couplet:

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment.
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
And music remains after all else is forgotten.