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August 12th, 2014 by jtaubes

Hannah Hess was a Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program 2013

The Covenant of Circumcision: Heart and Flesh

Much like its neighboring parshiot, Eikev rebukes the Israelites and reminds them to remain true to the covenant of their forefathers. But amidst this repeating narrative of national scolding and molding lies a new and perplexing instruction pertaining to Arlat Lev, the foreskin of the heart. Moses declares, “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, therefore, and be no more stiff-necked” (Deuteronomy, 10:16).

​What is the nature of this procedure? Why should a generation, who has yet to officially join Abraham’s covenant through circumcision of the genitalia (carried out only later in Joshua, after crossing the Jordan River), be prompted to perform an abstract metaphorical circumcision?

To better understand this injunction we might re-examine the initial commandment of circumcision in the Torah, Arlat Bassar, circumcision of the flesh. This procedure is commonly known as Brit Milah. In Parshat Lech Lecha, God directs Abraham, “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and this shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (17:11).

The most obvious difference between this command and the one in Deuteronomy lies in the object of circumcision: bassar, flesh, the crux of our physical existence. In Genesis, bassar appears as the foundation for our relationship with others. Eve, the consummate partner, emerges from Adam’s flesh. She is “basar m’bsari” (2.23) Flesh unites and is thus a vehicle for joining with our fellow. In cutting the flesh, we cut what is common to all mankind. In the most public yet intimate of ways, we sanctify the temporal and demonstrate the covenant endures.

​Then what might be the purpose of Arlat Lev? Returning to Genesis, we understand the heart to be the primary instrument in our relation to God and his law. At the time of the flood, God observes the “wickedness of man was great on earth. . . every imagination of his heart was only evil” (Genesis 6:5). It is the human heart which made the decision to stray. Our lev determines our behavior in relation to the will of the Divine and thus we are commanded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) It is logical then that we operate on the heart to improve our relationship with God. Ramban writes that removing Arlat Lev opens the heart’s will to the Truth and ends the stubborn and obstinate behavior persistent in the generation redeemed from Egypt. The incision to the heart is subtle yet keen, inviting critical human growth and self-reflection.

​ Yet the original question remains. Beautiful as it may be, Arlat Lev does not testify to the covenant. Why then is it introduced to the desert generation before they perform Arlat Bassar, the quintessential sign of covenant? If it is so fundamental, why not introduce it to the Abrahamic tradition much, much earlier?

​The Kli Yakar’s commentary helps to answer these questions and bridge the chronological and conceptual gap between the two rites of circumcision. The Kli Yakar suggests that indeed, Arlat Lev was woven into the initial circumcision rite in Genesis. At the time of circumcision during the conclusion of Parshat LechLecha, Abraham had already given his heart to his Creator, having left his father’s house, changed his name and conducted the Brit Bein Habitarim (covenant of the pieces). For Father Abraham, removing Arlat Bassar is simply as an external sign of his having removed his internal Arlat Lev.

​In contrast, Keli Yakar explains that Abraham’s descendants are tasked with a reverse order of Milah. They first will be stamped as public bearers of the covenantal mission and later will have opportunity to forge a heartfelt connection to God.  For generations, the external Brit Milah will serve to catalyze internal growth.  This is the path for Isaac and Jacob and this is the path for the generation redeemed from Egypt who receives circumcision of the flesh upon their liberation. However, their covenantal marks do little to mold righteous actions of the heart during their years in the desert.   God becomes increasingly frustrated with the sins of the liberated generation and feels the need to raise a new generation from the desert sands.

​The generation we meet in Eikev is a new generation. Their pattern of instruction differs from that of their fathers. Like Abraham, they are pioneers of a new stage in the journey of the Jewish people. Like Abraham, they have the opportunity to embrace the moral and ethical teachings of monotheism before accepting the official yoke of covenant. They must remove Arlat Lev before Arlat Bassar. This progression speaks to the import of their task. They are designated leaders. God thus sets before them an Abrahamic test to settle the land of Canaan and uphold the covenant in a new era of political sovereignty and nation-faith.



August 8th, 2014 by jtaubes

Dovid Schwartz was a Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program Participant in 2013

Names of God: Meaning and Relevance

            אד-ני יה-וה — These two Names of God open the second verse in our Parsha, one of the few times in the Torah that they are juxtaposed. Two questions arise: First, what is the connotation of each (both the way they are written and pronounced[1]); and secondly, what is the significance of their juxtaposition? Rashi[2] explains, based on the Sifri[3], that the Tetragrammaton usually has a connotation of רחום, mercy[4], though due to its juxtaposition with the Name אד-ני, it is actually pronounced אלקים, which has a connotation of דין, justice. The combination of these two imply that God is actually רחום בדין, merciful in his judgment.

I would like to offer a different perspective, based on sources with more Kabbalistic influence, that will not only provide different definitions, but will provide a paradigm for man’s relationship to God.

The Vilna Ga’on in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch[5] explains the distinction between the name אלו”ק and אלקים: The singular form of the word connotes providence relating to the particular, whereas the plural form of the word connotes providence relating to the group[6]. Presupposed in the Gaon’s explanation is that both of these names signify God’s interaction with this world — His השגחה והנהגה, oversight and management. This is not at all the definition that Rashi provided[7].

The Ramban in his commentary to the Torah[8] elaborates, and says that the name אלקים is actually a contraction of the words אל, power or strength, and הם, them, meaning that God’s is, literally Almighty — בעל כוחות כולם. This description of God is only appropriate if it is understood that God has some interaction with this world in which He has opportunity to exercise his Powers (the context in which the Ramban is talking about is the creation of the world, and so very apt).

The final source we will examine is Abarbanel’s commentary on Genesis[9]. Abarbanel offers the same interpretation of the word אלקים as did Ramban and the Ga’on, but also addresses the Tetragrammaton. Abarbanel writes that the Tetragrammaton represents God’s existential uniqueness and the consequent distance from this world. The way Abarbanel describes this is by referring to God as the אין סוף, He who has no end. One who is endless and infinite cannot possibly relate to this world in any manner, and is thusly removed and distant.

Thus, there are two names which display different characteristics of God. The Tetragrammaton connotes God’s existential distance, whereas אלקים connotes God’s influence and control in this world. Abarbanel adds, somewhat tangentially, that these two descriptions of God actually have two corresponding perspectives vis-à-vis man’s relationship to him. Man, when contemplating the אין סוף, feels alone, knowing that God’s endlessness makes Him unreachable and unrelatable. Yet, at the same time, man can, sometimes frighteningly easily, experiences God’s presence and be acutely aware of how God interacts with man on both the individual and special plane.

However, these two perspectives and relations to God are fraught with tension. The cannot both exist simultaneously. It is simply impossible to feel both the distance and coldness of God’s existence, while at the same time basking in His radiance. But that is not to say that both of these experiences occur disparately either, on different days and at different moments. Man is existentially caught between these two modes of experience, each one tugging at man’s soul, both seeking to occupy man’s attention at once.

Man, of course, cannot realize both of these relationships with God at once, and is caught in an existential limbo, constantly reversing and switching between both experiences. Indeed, Dovid was aware of this phenomenon, and described it with chilling precision[10]:


(9) And God moved the Heavens and descended,

and there was a cloud beneath His feet.

(10) And He rode an angel and flew,

and was seen on the wings of wind.

(11) And He surrounded himself with plumes of darkness, thick clouds of water tying the heavens.

(12) The light before Him had flaming coals burn.


Here Dovid poetically describes two modes of God’s manifestation in this world. First, Dovid describes God’s immanence: “And God moved the Heavens and descended,” and then immediately transitions to God’s distance: “and there was a cloud beneath His feet,” thus shielding Him from human perception. Back again to immanence: “And He rode an angel and flew, and was seen on the wings of wind,” thus perceived (“seen”) by man in divine splendor. And yet, instantly switching to distance: “And he surrounded himself with plumes of darkness, thick clouds of water trying the heavens,” shielding it from view. But yet, “the light before Him and had flaming coals burn,” God’s light is so perceptible, we can even see its effects!

The constant switching between the themes in this passage serves to demonstrate man’s inability to settle on one mode of relating to God. Man is constantly in between relating to God as an immanent being, and as a distant transcendent deity. There is no rest, only torment. But, as the Rav points out in a well-worn footnote in Halakhic Man, it is the pain that religion and truth bring that make man strong.



[1] The Tetragrammaton is pronounced as אלקים.

[2] ad loc.

[3] Deut. 27. See also Ramban ad loc for a critique of Rashi’s interpretation, specifically his failure to account for the meaning of the first Name of God, אד-ני.

[4] It is strange then, that in Megillat Eicha this Name almost exclusively appears, even though the Megillah is a lamentation of the destruction of Jerusalem. It is this author’s theory that Yirmiyahu used the Tetragrammaton for an ironic effect, one that makes the reading of Eicha particularly painful.

[5] Y.D. 276;19.

[6] See Guide for the Perplexed III, 16-18 for an elaboration of what providence might consist of and what the terms כלל ופרט may mean.

[7] It is clear that the Gaon could not reject Rashi in toto given that Rashi is based on Chazal. The Goan should be understood as expanding on, rather than rejecting, Rashi’s interpretation.

[8] Gen. 1,1 s.v. ויאמר.

[9] Into. to Gen. (pp. 16-17). Now while it is indisputable that Abarbanel was heavily influenced by Kabbalah — indeed, he wrote many Kabbalistic works — it is not immediately clear that he wrote his commentary to Genesis during the period in which he was influenced by Kabbalah, his later life in Naples and Sicily. However, a term which Abarbanel uses in his commentary is taken from Kabbalistic thought (אין סוף), which leads this author to believe that indeed Abarbanel wrote this commentary after having studied Kabbalah.

[10] II Samuel XXII, 9-12.


June 26th, 2014 by jtaubes

Amiya Tor was a participant in the Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program in 2012- 2013

The Stave that Binds the Well

Parshat Chukat includes one of Torah’s odder passages: Shirat Habe’er, the Song of the Well. Brief and rather cryptic, the song consists of four verses awkwardly placed in the midst of a recounting of Israel’s travels in the desert; the verses list Israel’s camps, and mention that they traveled to “Be’er, that is the well that God said to Moses ‘Gather the people and I shall give them water.’”[i] The story of the well continues as we are told:

“Then sang Israel this song: spring up, o well- sing ye unto it! The well, which the princes digged, which the nobles of the people delved, with the sceptre, and with their staves. And from the wilderness to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth; and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, by the top of Pisgah, which looketh down upon the desert.”[ii] Read the rest of this entry »


June 20th, 2014 by jtaubes

Josh Fitterman was a Straus Center Student in 2013-2014

The Politics of a Religious Rebellion

            The rebellion of Korach is probably the most infamous of all religious rebellions Tanach, having taken place within two years of the Exodus from Egypt. However, what else distinguishes this incident from others, and what can we learn from this case of religious rebellion in Chumash?

R. Soloveitchik[1] argues that Korach argues for theological egalitarianism, which seems to be the correct reading of the objections of the assembly (e.g. “are not the whole people holy”). However, we may be able to compare this to another story, that of the daughters of Tzelafchad.  In this story, the daughters complain about the injustice that they are suffering through the patriarchal distribution of land. Are not the daughters of Tzelafchad asking for a degree of egalitarianism? What is the difference between the two claims? Read the rest of this entry »


June 10th, 2014 by jtaubes
Rabbi Dov Lerner was a participant in the Straus Semikha Seminar in 2011-2012 and a counselor on the Straus Center – Tikvah Summer Institute for High School Students in 2013.

On Giants’ Shoulders

Imagine the scene—a bright blue sky and a band of six hundred thousand slaves, newly freed by God’s degree, fed by manna and sustained by miracles. In this almost celestial oasis stands a very real people, the Children of Israel, and they are on the cusp of a new life; a world of political and religious autonomy, a world with a place to call home.

With God’s approval they have sent an envoi of scouts to inspect their prospects. The camp is abuzz with expectancy and eager to embark on the final stage of emancipation. We can imagine the anticipation, the electricity pulsing through the camp—the hopeful confidence that bristles in every soul.

Then the scouts return with the following report:


“בָּאנוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ…אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד…וְכָל־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת”[1]

“We came to the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey… However, the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are heavily fortified… and all the people that we saw are people of great stature.”

Read the rest of this entry »


June 6th, 2014 by jtaubes

Yael Lilienthal was a participant in the Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program in 2013

Modern Menorah

Parashat Behaalotcha begins with the commandment of lighting the Menorah. The simple understanding of the term Behaalotcha—when you go up—refers to the Kohen’s physical ascent to light the Menorah, however later commentaries indicate that lighting the Menorah was a spiritually uplifting process.

In his Midbar Shur1, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes of the symbolism behind the Menorah in reference to wisdom and intellectual elevation. Rav Kook explains that the seven branches represent different intellectual paths unique to each individual. As support, he quotes Bava Batra2 which illustrates the Menorah as a symbol of intellectual advancement. R’ Yitzchak says, “he who desires to become wise should turn to the south…The symbol is that the Menorah was in the south”. It is thus no surprise that many universities have in their logos an image or words relating to light or fire.3 Read the rest of this entry »


May 26th, 2014 by jtaubes

Temima Kanarfogel was a Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program Participant in 2013.+

The Torah’s acceptance of Aestheticism

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the Heavens.”[1] A doctrinal belief in Judaism is that all actions and objects, spanning from the mundane to the sacred, can play integral roles in a person’s life at the appropriate times.

Parshat Naso introduces the framework of laws that pertain to a Nazir, a person who earns a holy status by abstaining from cutting hair and consuming any grape products for an avowed period of time. Nezirut poses as the Jewish asceticism, an undertaking that requires somewhat abstemious measures. The mitzvah of the Nazir demonstrates the Torah’s obvious approval for those who lead such an ascetic lifestyle. However, the Torah seems to portray the Nazir in two contradictory lights. In its original description of nezirut, the Torah comments that a Nazir attains a kedushah that marks his designation to HaShem[2], imparting the positivity of the Nazir’s status. Contrarily, at the completion of the Nazir’s avowed duration of nezirut, he offers an obligatory Karban Chatat[3], implying a committing of sin and need for atonement. The end of Nazir’s set time of his nezirut, coupled with a Karban that implies an act of sin seems to illustrate

Read the rest of this entry »

Straus Center to host half-day conference on Menachem Begin’s Zionism

May 16th, 2014 by jtaubes

Begin Event


May 7th, 2014 by jtaubes
Rabbi Dov Lerner was a participant in the Straus Semikha Seminar in 2011-2012 and a counselor on the Straus Center – Tikvah Summer Institute for High School Students in 2013.

Sacred Relief

 The locative intention behind this week’s fifth word can be usefully refined when appropriated for symbolic purpose, something our sage’s clearly intend to infer in titling this Parsha simply בהר. Segregating the word from its contextual and conjunctive form—בהר סיני, the name neatly translates as “On a mountain.” Not the Mountain, or Mount Sinai, but merely any summit appears significant in the eyes of the artistic titling of this Torah portion. If we turn to the end of Mishpatim the word הר appears six times in four verses, including the report that “the appearance of God’s glory was like a consuming fire on top of a mountain.” Why?

England is a land of limited relief and boasts too few peaks to be mountainous, yet over time it produced thinkers that touched on this very subject. Thomas Burnet, born in 1635, attended the University of Cambridge and later became the Clerk of the Closet to William III of England; he was a theologian. Among his written achievements lies an exemplary work called “The Sacred Theory of the Earth,” in which he offers a partial cosmogony. Writing in an age when theory far superseded technology, he tackled one of science’s burning questions: the question of origins.

He argued that the Earth’s original form was far smoother than it seems today. God fashioned it as a perfect orb, a flawless sphere. But with time, the human capacity for failure sullied creation and provoked a celestial response—Noah began to build an ark, he received instructions to preserve life amid a dark drowning of all that deserved death. But according to Burnet, the physical structure of rainfall could never produce enough water to cover the planet, so some water must have come from elsewhere. Perhaps unknowingly echoing a Midrash, Burnet suggest that God punctured the Earth’s then perfect surface, allowing its internal waters to ooze over humanity, to burst out and submerge those who had made themselves subhuman. The lasting perforations left scars in the Earth, and these scars are what we see as topographic variance; Burnet calls the mountain tops the “ruins of a broken world.” Read the rest of this entry »


April 25th, 2014 by jtaubes

Dovid Schwartz was a Straus Center and Tikvah High School Program Participant in 2013

Are there Ethics Outside of Halacha?

            The issue of the relationship between ethics and Halacha is a large one, and there are many issues to be addressed. The questions of whether Halacha is inherently ethical or can ever be unethical spring to mind. I, however, would like to briefly address whether there are ethics valued by the Torah that exist outside of the Halachik framework. It is my opinion that there are such values, and I will group them into four different categories: (1) Ethics derived from logic; (2) Ethics derived from objective morality; (3) Ethics derived from God’s role in history and His creations; (4) Ethics derived from the Torah which govern Halachik[1] and non-Halachik behavior.

While the fourth category is undoubtedly toeing the line regarding the “outside of Halacha” aspect of this topic, it is only by including it that I can use this week’s parsha, Parshat Kedoshim, as a platform for discussing this topic. Read the rest of this entry »