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!

Contested Parsing the Parsha: Identity, the Midwives, and the Burning Bush

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

A short meditation on identity in Parshat Shemot.

First, there are the midwives. The text tells us their names – Shifra and Puah, but the problem is that we do not know what to make of those names. They never appear again – their lineage is unknown. Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill Jewish boys as they are born. Heroically, they resist Pharaoh, protect their clients, and lie to the ruler. There is a debate as to their identity – the text refers to them as hameyaldot ha’ivriyot – a phrase that can be translated as either Jewish midwives or midwives to the Jews. According to Rashi, Shifra and Puah are Yochebad and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moshe – Jewish midwives. According to the Abarbenel, a contemporary of Rashi, Shifra and Puah are righteous Egyptian women – midwives to the Jews. Shamot 1:15

The subject of identity is also addressed when Moshe asks God at the burning bush, “And they [Jews] say to me what is his name, what shall I say to them?” God famously answers “I shall be what I shall be.” Ehyeh asher ehyeh. Exodus 3:14.

There are two main schools of thought on how this can be interpreted.

1) The Septuagint and Philo, influenced by Greek thought, interpreted this Hebrew phrase to mean “I am the BEING” or more simply “I am” God is existence.

2) Medieval Scholars, Rashi among them, understand this phrase not as a statement of God’s essential “being-ness” – but of God’s essential “doing-ness.” “I shall be with them during their troubles.” Buber captures a sense of doing-ness when he translates the phrase to mean “As the one who will always be there, so shall I be present in every-time.”

Moshe, as evidenced in his question to God, is constantly concerned with identity. On his first encounter with the outside world, he immediately places all his allegiances with the Jews and kills an Egyptian overseer. He divides the world into who is his brother and who is not his brother – even though he has a foot in both cultures. One would expect him to have a more complicated view of Egyptians and Jews. Moshe wants to place God in that same paradigm – he wants to learn God’s name. God resists.

In contrast, the narrative gives the midwives specific names, but their names stand alone. They are ordinary women – it is their heroic actions that form their identity. They exceed their subject positions, moving beyond their names, to their actions, risking personal and national safety for justices.

I cannot help but wonder how the exodus story would have been different, if instead of Moshe, it was Shifra and Pauh who lead the Jews out of Egypt.

Twas the night before Hanukkah

Twas the night before Hanukkah, when in GTJ’s house.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The menorah was placed on the mantel with care.
In the hopes that Mr. Dreidelman would soon be there.

The Gatherers were nestled all snug in their beds.
While many a Jew danced the hora in their heads.
And Aaron with his kippah, and Scott with his cap,
Had just settled down for a much-needed nap.

When out on 17th street there arose such a clatter,
The Gatherers sprang from their beds to inquire the matter.
So down the stairs they flew in a dash,
Kissing the mezuzah, they did in a flash.

The moon shone brightly on the quarter-inch snow,
Giving candle-like light to the objects below.
When what to their wondering eyes should it be
But a rather large Dreidel, and team Maccabe(ats).

With a spin and a twist as quick as you can
I knew him to be the esteemed Dreidelman.
And more rapid than eagles, his handlers they came,
The singers of Candlelight and much recent fame.

“Now Michael (Greenberg)! Now Ari (Lewis)! Now Asher (Morris) and Julian (Horowitz)!!
On Yona (Saperstein)! On Meir (Shapiro)! On Dani (Landman) and Yonatan (Shefa)!
To the top of the porch! To the Top of the wall!
Now dash to the Jew house ahead must we all!

And so they did go, yes, “on and on”
And still they did push, so the Greeks could be gone.
Latkes they did flip, way high in the air,
Dispelling the myth (that they were LDS missionaries) born from their wear.

And so in a twinkling, the Gatherers heard on the roof,
The singing and laughing of the chorus aloof.
But as they drew in together, and looked right around
Inward came Mr. Dreidelman with a leap and a bound.

He was dressed all in blue, from his toe to his top
And odd though it looked, his spin never did stop.
A bundle of gelt, watches, and textbooks he had in sack.
And a large white gimmel was painted on back.

His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
And from the gleam of the light of the chai round his head
The Gatherers, as Jews, had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
Teaching Torah, history, and culture often forsook.
But out of his eye, he then did glean
A completely awed and shocked GTJ team

“Ho ho my Gatherers,” he said them to all.
“You’ve made quite an improvement since I saw in the fall.
A new website and blog makes you more complete
But your calendar remains just as replete.”

He sprang to his taxi, and the Maccabeats whistled
And away flem them all, like the down of a thistle
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Hanukkah to all, and to all a good-night!”

Written by GTJ co-founder Stephen Richer. Apologies to Clement Clarke Moore, author of the original “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Gather the News — Jewish News of the Week (2nd)

Do people still care about the Maccabeats?  I certainly don’t.  Let’s Gather the News…

  • Ok, maybe just a little.
  • Time Magazine names a Jewish 20-something its Person of the Year.  Meanwhile, I’m writing Gather the News.
  • A mysterious Stuxnet virus has apparently set back Iran’s nuclear program two years.  Israel is assumed to be responsible, but we can never rule out Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith.
  • Don’t know what “phylacteries” are?  Apparently, neither do New Zealander ferry passengers.
  • According to Winona Ryder Mel Gibson is not a fan of the Jews.  In other news, pigs remain grounded and Hell is enjoying a hot season.
  • Richard Nixon too.  Seriously though, Hell is still sweltering.
  • The House of Representatives unanimously opposes recognizing a “state” with two central governments and undefined borders.  Lame duck session?  Please.
  • Lauren Pierce Bush, granddaughter of George H.W, will wed the son of Jewish designer Ralph Lauren.  Now comes the choice of whether to be Lauren Lauren, or Lauren Lifshitz.  Lucky her.
  • The IDF shoots down a freakin’ UFO!  It was likely just a party balloon, but that’s not nearly as interesting.

Rochel’s Self-Sacrifice and the Woman’s Role in Judaism

Editor’s Note:  This article is the first in a series of commentaries that GTJ will publish on this week’s Torah portion.  Stay tuned for the others.  Will Gotkin is a recent graduate graduated of The George Washington University and now studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will.

If you travel to Israel and visit Machpela (the gravesite of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Judaism) in Hebron, you would notice that Rochel’s grave is conspicuously missing.  Her gravesite is actually located in BeisLechem.  It might trouble you that she is not buried alongside Avraham, Sarah, Rivkah, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, but Rochel wanted it this way.

Early in Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov asks his son, Yosef to take his body back to the land of Canaan to be buried alongside his forefathers in Machpela.  But Rochel was buried where she was so that she could help her descendants who in later times would pass by her grave on their way into Babylonian imposed exile.  She would then emerge from her grave, pray, and shed tears for the Jewish nation.   The Jewish people would experience redemption in the merit of her actions.[1]

By choosing to be there for her troubled descendants over the spiritual contentment and blissful reward of being buried alongside the founders of Judaism, she demonstrated an extremely high level of self-sacrifice.  The Babylonian exile was Divine punishment to the Jewish nation for going away from the path of Torah and yet she still gave up her own reward to give them comfort in their time of need.[2] Rochel embodies the qualities the Torah ascribes to the ideal Jewish woman and her exemplary conduct enables her to serve as a role model for all Jewish women in their service of Hashem.

Men and women have different roles to play in how they each serve the Creator. Yaakov’s burial in Machpela is symbolic of the very external and public way by which men serve G-d.  Men are expected to daven three times a day, study Torah, and do many other mitzvahs from which women are exempt.  Women on the other hand serve Hashem by not only giving physical life to the Jewish nation and being in charge of the house (often in addition to having a career outside the home), but by being the spiritual bedrock of the home and instilling a faith in Hashem and Torah in children.  It is for this reason that the Jewish soul and Judaism passes through the mother, while tribal affiliation i.e. Levi, Yehuda etc. (a more publicly recognizable quality) passes through the man.  While her role may not seem on the outside to be as glamorous or worthwhile, the woman’s service is in many ways higher than that of the man, because her actions do not usually get the praise they deserve.  Rochel eschewed the kavod (honor) of being buried at Machpela so that she could be there for her children. In the same way, a good mother sacrifices much there for her children. Rochel’s ability to sacrifice some of her own spiritual reward is a lesson for all of us that we must take some time out from our own divine service in order to bring others closer to Hashem.


[1]Rashi on Bereishis 48:7

[2]LikkuteiSichos: Lamed

Gather the News — Jewish News of the Week (1st)

Chanukah wraps up (get it!), and I didn’t flip my latkes in the air once, much less sometimes.  Let’s Gather the News…

  • Everyone’s favorite modern orthodox college a capella group inspires a cute parody of its parody of the parody of the real thing.  And I don’t even know what to call this, except absolutely adorable.
  • Meanwhile, Matisyahu’s stellar new single gets only a fraction of the love.
  • An Egyptian official speculates that Israel is behind recent shark attacks in Sharm e-Sheikh.  This is ridiculous; everyone knows that Israeli sharks would at least have frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.
  • A, um, friend, told me that Israel got a shout out on Glee.
  • Note to self: always carpool with Chabad yeshiva guys.
  • Leo may possibly become the best looking Jewish guy not on the GTJ staff.  Sadly, however, Bar Rafaeli may soon be off the market for good.
  • The only time you will ever see the following words together: kippah giveaway fail.
  • In what was surely a well-thought out and researched decision, three Latin American countries recognized a “state” with two central governments and undefined borders.
  • Peace talks breakdown.  The EU and UN blame Israel.  The sun also rose today.

Gather the News is a weekly feature by Scott Weinberg that showcases some of the best stories pertaining to Judaism and Israel.

There are multiple Chanukah stories. What would a feminist Chanukah Midrash look like?

There are multiple Chanukah stories.  There is the Hebrew School Chanukah, where the Macabees are guerrilla fighters who lead an uprising in the name of liberty (kind of like George Washington), and there is the other Chanukah, the civil war Chanukah, where Jews killed other Jews for religious and political reasons.  There is also the Rabbi’s Chanukah, where the oil  lasted for eight days.

Against the background of Chanukah-as-civil-war, there are stories of two women – Judith and Hannah.  Both women are extreme models of virtuous womanhood under the patriarchy.  Judith manages to get an important general to trust her; she gets him drunk, cuts of his head, and puts it on a stake at the city gates.  She is a harlot who uses her sexuality to save her people.  Hannah is far sadder.  She encourages her seven children, even the little ones, to die rather than violate Jewish law.  I continue to be terrified by her story – Hannah is the silent, suffering Martyr, she allows her sons to die for the ideas of powerful men.  She is the ancient narrative equivalent of a mother who encourages her sons to become a suicide bomber.

Talmudic Rabbis transformed Chanukah from a story of civil war into a miraculous re-dedication of the temple, where the oil for one day lasted for eight.  The very first Chanukah occurred on Sukkot that is why the holiday is eight days, not the “oil miracle.”

Tradition has allowed for the movement of this story from one of in-fighting to a temple miracle for people who wanted to experience a miraculous God, and now to the Hebrew school version of Chanukah as a story about the fight for religious freedom, a foundational belief we wish to teach our children.

Chanukah  can also be read as a holiday about the religious capacity for transformation – an ongoing re-dedication, where just as the Rabbi’s oil stretched the boundaries of physical law, our stories can stretch the boundaries of religious law and tradition.

When they tell the Chanukah story at some point in the future, there will likely be other women in it, women besides Judith and Hannah, women who are neither martyrs nor harlots.

Author’s Note:  Check out this Chanukah Dvar torah at Slate, which inspired my own.

Editor’s Note:  Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

Which Is Better: Doing Something You Have To? Or Doing Something You Don’t Have To?

?Ayin Tove
September 29, 2010
Which Is Better: Doing Something You Have To? Or Doing Something You Don’t Have To?

I have a feeling that the modern answer to this question is that doing something you don’t have to do is better than doing something you have to do. You’re going above and beyond. But I also have a feeling that the rabbinic answer to this question is that it is better to do something you are already obligated to do. In other words, it is inherently good to fulfill an obligation.

You might object: If I’m obligated to do something, then aren’t I already doing it? The answer is not so simple. Forgetting about keeping kosher, religious obligations like “Honor Your Father and Mother” or “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” can be difficult to interpret and to follow.

And now the contradiction: It’s a “mitzvah” to love your neighbor as yourself. “Mitzvah” has two meanings: to do a good deed and a commandment. To love your neighbor is both commanded and is a good deed.

So the things that we might think of as good deeds that you don’t have to do, may already be commanded. You have to do the things that you don’t have to do. How can this be?

We are commanded to do good deeds, mitzvahs, of various kinds, but the amount of them is left up to us. The Talmud teaches us that there is no prescribed measure for deeds of lovingkindness. Mishnah Peah 1:1.

Another word that covers these good deeds, especially the ones we are not obligated to do, is “tzedakah” which we think of as charity. And at the same time we are commanded to do “tzedek” or righteousness: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (“Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue.”) (Deut. 16:20).

We may not be obligated to do particular acts of lovingkindness, but we may be obligated to do some.

Ayin Tove is a contributing writer for Gather The Jews.

Proud Lion

Joshua Kaller
Proud Lion
June 15, 2010

Maimed Angel-Lion, whose ascension has ended.
Your roar settled and succumb, resting in the gilded tomb of your heart.
There the messiah quake sleeps ready to wake, and when it does you shall burst
And circle the sky, undulating your heavy wing of justice,
Creating a tornado of peace that shall carry us all.

Joshua Kaller is a co-founder of Gather The Jews and is currently living in Israel.