Magic in the Air in Parshat Va’eira

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

In Parshat Va’eira, the Egyptian plagues begin after Pharaoh refuses to allow the Jews to leave Egypt.  Egyptian magicians are largely able to keep up with water turning into blood and the spontaneous generation of frogs, but they are eventually out magic-ed and tell Pharaoh that the plagues are “the finger of God.” Exodus 8:15.

Magic is real in the world of the Torah – God is stronger and better, but there are other supernatural powers to contend with, like the Egyptian magicians. According to the Torah, witchcraft is an “abomination” (Deuteronomy 18:11) to be punished by public stoning (Leviticus 20:27).

Perhaps the most famous moment of witchcraft in the Tanakh is the tragic story of the Witch of Endor.  Saul, the first king of Ancient Israel, in classic politician fashion decides that he will put his foot down and enforce the biblical prohibition against witchcraft; however, when he is uncertain as to his war strategy he turns to the Witch of Endor who tells him that he will die in battle the next day. The power of the text lies fundamentally in the assumption that witches do real magic – otherwise why would Saul violate the laws he worked so hard to enforce?

According to the Talmud, the practice of witchcraft amongst Jewish women was incredibly common during the Talmudic period, despite the prohibition against it. In Pesahim 111a, the Talmud writes, “If two women sit at a crossroads, one on this side and the other on the other side, and they face one another – they are certainly engaged in witchcraft.”

Much has been said about what distinguishes magic (Pharaoh’s magician) from miracle (Moshe and God) and the ways in which it is a purely hierarchal distinction, where the winners and the powerful claim miracles for their side and the losers are magicians. Regardless of how you parse this question, the fact of magic remains.  The spirituality of the people who wrote and lived the texts of our tradition is open to the existence of the magical and miraculous; the unknown and the unknowable.  A religious practice devoid of magic feels viscerally diminished, it has no sense of humor – we are left with nothing but the cold brutality of the law. We are left with this unfortunate attempt to legislate Pasahim 111a, where men are prohibited from walking between two women who are no longer witches – but permitted if carrying an umbrella.

Gather the News – Jewish News of the Week – 12/31

Get it?  “News” rhymes with “Jews.”  Let’s Gather…

  • If the U.S. was the Breakfast Club, and its members were religious groups, we’d totally be Molly Ringwald, and surprisingly not Ally Sheedy.
  • GTJ’s own Stephen Richer may have forsaken Newsweek, but it writes one hell of an article about how the Chinese love us Jews and our Talmud.
  • “Tackles were missed more often than they were successful, 11 fumbles were committed and referees had to stop the game for minutes at a time to argue a ruling among themselves more than once.”  Yup, everything you would expect from an Israeli tackle football league.
  • Natalie Portman manages to break the collective hearts of both rabbis and nerdy Jewish boys everywhere.
  • “Oldest Human Remains found in Israel; Homo Sapiens Demand a Right of Return.”  I can’t top that.  Hat tip to Jewlicious for the headline.
  • An aluminum pole, the airing of grievances, the feats of strength, and…kosher food?  It’s a Festivus miracle for one California inmate.
  • A Christian writing to’s Ask the Rabbi has the great misfortune of being answered by Rabbi Aron Moss.
  • Israel could use Mylanta.
  • Former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, becomes an Israeli prisoner.  Naturally, Hamas demands his release in exchange for Gilad Shalit (H/T to Erik S.)

All complaints can be sent directly to me.  Shabbat Shalom and Happy secular New Year!

Study without Action is Not Study at All

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and is currently studying at a yeshiva in Israel.  The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to Will.

At the end of last week’s Parsha, Moshe demanded of Hashem “Why have You done evil to this people?” (Shemos 5:22). This week Hashem turns the tables and reprimands Moshe: “I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov as Kel Shaddai (G-d as He works within nature and his Creation), but with My Name Havayah (yud, hei, vav, hei) I did not make Myself know to them (Va’eira 6:2).”  Rashi explains that Hashem was enjoining Moshe to follow the example of the Forefathers. But what virtues of the Fathers was Hashem telling Moshe to follow, why did Moshe ask his question, and what can we learn from this?

The difference between Moshe and the Forefathers was that Moshe embodied the attribute of Knowledge – hence why the Torah, which is the Divine Knowledge, was given through him[1] – and the Forefathers served Hashem primarily through the Emotions (Avraham through kindness, Yitzchak through fear, and Yaakov through mercy). Thus, Moshe brought a question against G-d because Knowledge or Intellect wishes to comprehend everything. When one who serves G-d through intellect comes across something he cannot understand it blocks him from continuing further in his service of G-d. Moshe wanted an explanation so that he could continue pursuing his path to G-d through knowledge.[2]

By contrast, the Fathers were all about action. Avraham never even questioned G-d when asked to sacrifice his son. A lack of comprehension of G-d or His actions and commands never prevented the Forefathers from carrying out their missions. And so Hashem revealed Himself only as KelShaddai or Elokim, i.e., how He appears in the world of plurality. But after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Hashem revealed Himself by his four-letter name – as infinite, transcending all divisions, and as a perfect Unity.[3] There was no longer a barrier between Knowledge and Emotion. In doing so, Hashem was telling Moshe to transcend the division and bridge the gap between Knowledge and Emotion. Sometimes one must serve Hashem even when one does not understand.

Serving G-d through emotion allows one to have a strong faith that goes beyond questions and leads to action. Love leads a person to perform the positive commandments (dos) and fear prevents a person from transgressing the negative commandments (don’ts).  Knowledge on its own can lead to a cold detachment. One can learn what to do, but the learner can lose his inclination to apply his knowledge. The lesson for us is that we cannot learn about Judaism solely in a cool, intellectual way. If something doesn’t make sense to us, that is no reason to dismiss, discard, or abandon it. We must serve Hashem with our faculties of emotion as well as intellect. The Divine intellect is infinite. Rejecting Torah and mitzvos because our finite minds cannot always grasp something – kosher for example – is an arrogant and poor excuse for defecting from our mission. Also, those who are wise and learned in Torah cannot simply learn without transforming their knowledge into action. Freedom came to the Jewish people when they united knowledge and practice. In the same way, when we draw down the Divine Knowledge into the world through our actions, we pave the way for the final redemption or Moshiach (Messianic era). May it come speedily and in our days.

[1] LK adapted by Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Torah Studies. Page 86

[2]LK adapted by Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Torah Studies. Page 87

[3]LK adapted by Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Torah Studies. Page 88

Putting the nail in Newsweek’s coffin, Palestinian style.

Stephen Richer is a co-founder of Gather the Jews.  The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to Stephen.

I recently decided to make this my last year with Newsweek. It’s been a good run; I’ve spent 15 years worth of Tuesday afternoons with Conventional Wisdom (the up and down arrows section), Perspectives (the political cartoons), and The Last Word with George Will or Anna Quindlen. But after 2008, the political bias became too much, Fareed Zakaria became an expert on too many topics, their absurd world ranking system put the United States as #11, and their attitudes toward the free market and Israel became too similar to the European view. In short, I found Newsweek’s world view less and less compatible with mine, and I didn’t feel the need to pay for such frustration when I can easily find it online.

Whatever second thoughts I had were put to rest when I opened this week’s issue and read Dan Ephron’s column titled “Palestine Goes It Alone.

Ephron suggests that the Palestinians try creating their own state without the cooperation of Israel because Israel has proven too slow and reluctant. Instead, he argues, the Palestinian government of the West Bank should use the political capital it has created as a result of its economic growth, rally the Palestinian people, and call on the U.N. for help.

This didn’t really sit right with me.

1) The Israelis have been too slow and reluctant? Israel has offered the Palestinians land and statehood numerous times, but the Palestinians have rejected it, casting doubt on whether statehood is really the ultimate goal of the Palestinian leadership. Here’s Charles Krauthammer’s on the subject:

“The root of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that Arabs have not accepted the presence of a Jewish state. That’s why every time they have been offered a compromise, they have turned it down: ’47, ’67, ’78, ’93. And although people don’t even talk about it, as if it never happened, there was also Camp David in 2000, an unbelievably generous self-sacrificial offer by Israel, which included the division of Jerusalem,” – Moment magazine.

2) Why would the U.N. be able to impose an agreement now? In 1948 the U.N. divided the territory and created the state of Israel, but nobody paid attention to that; it didn’t prevent all the surrounding nations from attacking Israel then. Fast forward to today: if Israel gave significant credence to the U.N. it would have already turned on itself for its supposedly evil nature as a world leader in human rights violations.

3) The West Bank government as an engine of economic growth? Slightly more than 30% of the GDP of the Palestinian territories comes from foreign aid. A good portion of this comes from Israel. Congratulations on not squandering it all and pouring it into terrorist weapons.

4) Most Palestinians want one government to rule over the West Bank and Gaza.  That being the case, shouldn’t the issue of Hamas also be addressed when discussing obstacles to a Palestinian state?

Frustrating. But not surprising. Simply another straw on the camel’s back. Good riddance, Newsweek.

Jewish Girl/Guy of the Year competition.

Each week, Gather the Jews features an outstanding Jewish Girl and Guy.  These community members are distinguished by their accomplishments in the secular world and their commitment to improving Jewish life in Washington, DC.   The feature is one of our most popular, often drawing more than 2,000 visitors to our website in one week.

But now it’s time to select the best of the best; it’s time to select the Jewish Girl and Guy of the Year.

All non-staff members who have earned the title Jewish Girl/Guy of the Week in the calendar year 2010 will be automatically entered into a World Cup-like competition.  Although we cannot yet reveal the exact details of this competition, it will involve Jewish trivia and a popular vote from our users.

At the end of the competition, we will crown 1 guy and 1 girl as Jews of the Year, presenting them with eternal glory and a great prize.

The competition will start in the middle of January, so get ready to vote.

Jewish Guy – Gaby

GabbyYou are the last Jewish Guy of the Week for 2010, Mazel Tov!  We know why we picked you, but tell us in your own words why you are receiving this momentous honor.
The rumors I’ve heard are that Tila and Abby are plotting a last-ditch effort to make me Jew Guy of the Year so that way the devious and conniving Stephen Richer doesn’t self-impose that glorious title onto himself. But if that’s not the case… maybe you were just desperate? Ha, well I did just get back after spending a year working in Jerusalem, so I have at least some Jew street cred.

As the (secular) year comes to a close, tell us your top 5 favorite moments about 2010.
Okay here goes:

5) Drinking entire bottles of Arak and “orange drink” (a.k.a NOT orange juice) at night on the beaches of Tel Aviv with my Israel roommate (this was a perennial event….wash, rinse, repeat).

4) Finally convincing my parents to stop feeding my now 20-pound chihuahua fatty slabs of pork, buckets of shellfish, and other not-so-kosher-friendly food products.

3) Smoking more hookah than normal people breath air in the Old City of Jerusalem.

2) Learning to be a gourmet chef extraordinaire – I’m talking curries, stuffed peppers, shakshuka, risottos, and a really mean matzah pizza. This aint yo average matzah ball, son.

1) Booz cruise to Cyrpus. ‘Nuff said.

If you could make a toast to the Jews of DC, what would you say?

Word on the street is that you have a blog. What’s it about and who are your biggest fans?
Wellllll…. not to get political, but I write about Middle Eastern affairs when time allows. Check it out and follow my blog:

Where is your favorite place in the world that you have traveled to?
Hmm… that’s a good one. I’ve been to Israel, Egypt, Argentina, and some parts of Eastern Europe… but I guess when it comes down to it there’s no place that serves crisp golden-brown falafel like Yerushalayim. Not even at Falafel Frenzy (where, to my dismay, had no falafel).

Everyone has a theme song–that song that gets them really pumped up. What’s yours?
Timbaland’s The Way I Are. Oh yeah.

Heading home to North Hollywood to escape the cold this Winter?
Good question. In fact, I’m not. I’m actually going to Vegas for New Years….with my mom. Yeup. Just me and my mom. In Vegas. Woot.

We know your lifelong goal is to be Jewish Guy of the Year for Gather the Jews. Finish this sentence: “As Jewish Guy of The Year, I solemnly swear to….”
I will solemnly decree in the land of GTJ that all us GTJ peasants shall receive an infinite amount of matzah balls, vats of hummus, and Jew gold. No one, really NO ONE, can top that.

Jewish Girl – Nikki

Nikki(Jewish Girl of the Year Voting Page)

Nikki on why she should you be Jewish Girl of the Year:
As one of the Chosen People, being chosen as GTJJGOTY would be an honor. After living in DC for ten years, GTJ brought new life to our J-Community, reinvigorating and inspiring me to get involved. I love GTJ and would proudly represent you. And…I really do want world peace.

You manage an apartment building in Dupont Circle. Tell us about the craziest thing that’s happened.
I have an incredibly interesting job that I love.  I’ve seen almost everything, and my residents tell me pretty insane stories, no details though (best to respect their privacy).  I can say that I am able to handle almost any “crazy” situation.  I have been present for many lifecycle events including births, britot milah, baby namings, engagements, bachelor(ette) parties (gone bad), and sadly, deaths.  I have played detective with the FBI, but most of all, I feel lucky to meet the fabulously wonderful residents and puppies living in my building.

Tell us about your hometown.
Altoona, PA
Population: 47,176

It was obviously easy to “Gather the Jews” in Altoona with a Jewish population of 536 (number quoted from my dad).  Following in my big sister’s footsteps (with my little sister soon to continue the tradition), I spent a few summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos before attending GW.  Coming from a city where my grade of 700 had three Jews, I was shocked that three of the four people randomly placed in my freshman dorm room were Jewish.  I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my place in such a large and diverse Jewish community like DC, but I soon learned that DC Jews are welcoming with a small town feel…”Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere…?”

I loved growing up in Altoona, and John Mellencamp had it right in that “…I’ve seen it all in a small town, had myself a ball in a small town…”  I’m not afraid to drive in the snow, and I miss the smell of campfire in my hair after a night in the woods with friends.  Altoona is also the home to the world’s oldest operating wooden roller coaster, a chocolate and a pretzel factory, as well as The Horseshoe Curve (please feel free to research later).

GTJ slap bracelets were your idea. Tell us about it.
Slap bracelets were always cool, and ever since my school banned them in 6th grade I have been waiting for the next opportunity to prove how stylish they are.  When I realized that GTJ needed a more physical way to gather and tag the Jews of DC, it seemed like a perfect match.

How can we see you dance?
I guess stalking me in my apartment would offer the most intimate performance opportunities, but if you tend to be less creepy, you can come to my next performance with Unevenlane in February at Dance Place  If you missed our performance at the Kennedy Center in October, don’t worry I won’t hold it against you. After many years of not dancing in any formal setting, it is really wonderful to be performing again.

For the past 6 years, I have also been involved with Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co, another fabulous local dance company, and I currently sit on their Board.

Word on the street is that there’s going to be a poetry showdown between you and Stephen Richer. True?

I was unaware of this proposed Stephen-Nikki showdown,
But surely you all know that I will wear the poet’s crown.

One Hanukkah poem from Stephen does not a true poet make,
But my lifetime of rhymes for all occasions ensures that I am not a fake.

While I know Stephen is a master of another trade,
For writing poems this boy will never get paid.

If you need a little ditty for your next birthday invitation or wedding speech,
Ask me next week ’cause right now I’m with my family in Palm Beach.

I’m thrilled to be the last Jewish Girl of the year,
I’ll see you at the next GTJ Happy Hour-you can buy me a beer.

Mitzvah Maker – David

DavidJews live by a common book, what other books do you recommend?
I’m a HUGE reader. Here are a few of my many favorites for the entrepreneur inside of us:

  • Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
  • The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss
  • Crush It by Gary Vaynerchuk
  • Linchpin by Seth Godin

…and hey I will throw mine in for good measure! Smarter, Faster, Cheaper by, umm, me.

How did you Rise to the Top?
I’m definitely not at the top, but I’m proud that my web show RISE now gets over 100,000 viewers a month. Folks tune in to learn the stories of the world’s most creative and passionate entrepreneurs. For me, the key was creating a show, interviewing interesting people and spreading the word.

Where can we find you on a Friday night?
Usually hanging out with my fiancee. I’m a big sports fan and also enjoy musical theatre. How about that for a contrast?

What does being a successful professional Jew mean to you?
My hope is always to inspire others. Young and young-at-heart. Jewish and non-Jewish. It is a special feeling when someone tells me I inspired them to do something.

How can we get our book sold at Barnes and Nobles?
Be awesome 🙂

Which biblical character best portrays the qualities of Smarter, Faster, Cheaper?
Definitely David in David vs. Goliath. It is one of the best metaphors for out-hustling the dumber, slower, expensive competition.

What is the best part about being a Jewish author?
Probably being invited to speak at the Jewish Book Festival this year. I would say the average age was about 85 years old…however, it was awesome and an honor.

What’s next?
If I had that answer, I’d already be bored.

What’s your favorite Jewish food and why?
Latkes for sure. Reminds me of childhood and presents. And who doesn’t love presents?

Friends with Non Jews

Allison is a guest blogger who runs the site

Dear Jew in the City,

I live across the street from an Orthodox Jewish for family for 32 years.  We have always gotten along and helped one another out.  Can they be friends to anyone other than their religion?

We also are getting a lot of Syrian Jewish in our town (by the Jersey Shore) and they seem different. They seem not to look or acknowledge any of us. There seems to be a lack of respect and rudeness about them. Can you explain.


PS – I love the U tube videos

Hi Hellen-

That’s nice to hear that you have a friendly relationship with your Orthodox neighbors. There’s no problem with an observant Jew being friends with people of other religions, but for practical reasons, because Jewish life is centered around kosher food, Sabbath and holiday observance, it might make it a bit more difficult for friendships between observant Jews and non-Jews to happen as often.

Since I grew up as a non-observant Jew and there were very few Jews in my town, most of my friends growing up were not Jewish and we were very close. As I got older and started becoming more observant, my social events started revolving around the synagogue and Sabbath meals. Now that I have a family, we spend most Sabbaths hanging out with our Orthodox friends who have kids for our kids to play with. My kids go to Jewish schools also, so if I become friends with the parents of their classmates, they also end up being observant Jews.

The whole kosher thing also makes friendships harder to form as an Orthodox Jew can never eat in a non-kosher home and can only go to kosher restaurants.

My non-Jewish friends from my childhood are still dear to my heart even though our lives have moved in different directions. But honestly, people usually end up moving away from childhood friends as they grow up even if they haven’t made such a drastic changes in lifestyles. Whenever I see these friends either at class reunions or on Facebook I still feel that I can relate to them.

And honestly, at the end of high school, as I was starting to take my religion more seriously, I found myself having more in common with my Christian friends who were spiritual people that believed in God than some of my Jewish friends, who although culturally similar to me, had no interest in such concepts. We also have a babysitter for our girls who is a sweet Catholic girl and has similar values, and I can talk on and on with her about ideas that we both believe in that a secular Jew might totally disagree with.

So in short – there’s no prohibition against friendship with non-Jews and Judaism teaches that Jews should be good to all people as everyone, Jew and gentile alike, is made in the image of God. However due to practical observances, it is a bit harder for these friendships to develop.

Also, another important thing to understand is that observant Jews, although we feel very American, still remain different than our non-Jewish neighbors. When a group of people is a minority in a larger culture, it’s very, very easy to assimilate, blend in and just be like everyone else. (That’s what has happened to most Jews in the world today.) So some of these laws of kosher and the Sabbath are there in part to help keep a certain separateness so that the Jewishness can be maintained. Not because there is any ill will towards other people but rather because it’s a matter of survival when a small group is living amongst a larger group.

In terms of the Syrian thing – I’m sorry that they’ve seemed rude and disrespectful. I think this actually comes down to more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. The Syrian Jewish community is extremely closed off, even to other Jews, sometimes even to other Orthodox Jews who are not Syrian!

Now, in their defense, I think we have to look at where they come from. They were poor Jews living in a Muslim country where their non-Jewish neighbors did not treat them very well and I think this rough exterior that they’ve developed is somewhat of a protection mechanism as the people they used to live amongst made their lives very difficult. (If you keep beating and beating a dog, even the sweetest, friendliest dog will get vicious – not that these people are vicious, but I think the analogy is clear.)

Because I’ve experienced very little anti-semitism in my life, I have a much more open, positive view of people who are different than me. I still know that there are people in the world who wish I were dead just because I’m Jewish, which is a disturbing thought, but also a very intangible one.

I’ll leave you with a story that is told about a great rabbi (one of the greatest in his generation) named Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky who lived in New York and died around 20 years ago. After his funeral, when his family was sitting shiva (the Jewish week of mourning), a prominent nun from the community came to the house of mourning to pay her respects. She said that this rabbi would pass her by on the street every day with a big smile and a friendly “hello” and it really meant so much to her. So although these rough exteriors unfortunately get created, this story about the rabbi and the nun is repeated because being a kind, decent person is how Jews should actually be conducting themselves.

I hope I’ve cleared some things up. Thanks for watching!

Sincerely Yours,
Allison (aka Jew in the City)

For more posts, please visit Allison’s site and watch her videos. For the original post, click here.

Gather the News — Jewish News of the Week (3rd)

Nittel Nacht is fast approaching, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still Gather the News…

  • Fox News mistakenly calls the Holocaust for Elie Wiesel.  Stupid hanging chads.
  • Another flotilla makes it way towards Gaza, passing through the human rights bastions of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon along the way.
  • A senior Greek priest gives us way too much credit.
  • A former Guantanamo Bay detainee REALLY gives us too much credit.
  • According to WikiLeaks, the Arab League’s Central Boycott Office (yes, a whole office) once blacklisted Steven Spielberg, among others.  The Justice League, however, has no problem sending Wonder Woman to a Tel Aviv beach.
  • The Atlantic features what is surely a pressing and potentially far-reaching problem: the use of e-readers on Shabbat.
  • Either the last National Jewish Population Survey was seriously flawed, or the US gained 1 million Jews in 10 years.  You can decide which one is more plausible.

A very merry Nittel Nacht to all!