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Scribal Scribblings #4 - the Holiness Code - Are Christians Supposed to be COMMUNISTS?

11/15/2017 06:42:56 AM


Linda Coppleson, Soferet

One of my most favorite portions in the Torah is Kedoshim, part of which is known as the Holiness Code. (Chapter 19 of the Book of
Leviticus) It shines through the repetitive minutiae of the sacrifices, drawing a glorious image of the society that was to be built in the Land. What I love about it is, of course, the compassion and the fairness that is dictated by law, but it also combines practical and enforceable law with a framework for an ideal society that the
community, together and individually, needs to strive to attain.

Last week, an editorial appeared in the NYTimes (November 5, 2017) called “Are Christians supposed to be Communists?” It was written by David Bentley Hart, a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study and the author of The New Testament: A Translation. The article discusses the early Church’s focus on communally shared living and on its condemnation of the accumulation of personal wealth and property. He contends, with abundant proof from the Gospels and early Christian writers, that local Christian churches of the Roman
world were essentially small communes in which resources were shared according to the needs of believers. These communities
(koinonia - perhaps kehillot?)not only based their structure on the recommendation that its adherents give up their possessions to
the community and to be generous and supportive of others, but on an imperative to lead “a very specific form of communal life
(which) encompassed a radically different understanding of society and property.” They  believed they were living in a kind of “counter-empire within the (Roman) empire, one founded upon charity rather than force - or, …, a kingdom not of this world but present within the world nonetheless” The author posits that remnants of that early,
almost radical, militancy about the evils of wealth and privately owned property are still seen in the simple, spiritual, and materially
impoverished lives lived by monks and nuns. But as time passed, Christian communities became less isolated from general society

and became more assimilated to the common social and economic practices of the established order.

So why did this editorial strike a chore with me? It is because parashat Kedoshim was on my mind. As I wrote it, it became clear to me that the values that dictated the life style of the early Christians are some of the
very same communal and societal values that are commanded in the Torah. This, of course, comes as no big surprise, given the identity and background of the early Christians, but the plan for Israelite society
outlined in Torah and the accounts of the life led in early Christian communities are close mirrors of each other. True, Israelite law did
not reflect a total rejection of the notion of individual accumulation of wealth, but Torah law does demand that everyone recognize and act upon their responsibility to the less fortunate. The law makes clear that excess wealth and the corruption that it breeds is wrong and it legislates the imperative to “spread the wealth”, but we are not enjoined
to reject the material world.

The differences between the society described in Kedoshim and the more ascetic society of the early Christians are perhaps a function of their different times, but their similarities illustrate the same lofty ideals and values. They combine the pragmatic with the aspirational, the real with the ideal, and reflect a desire to create a good, fair and just

09/05/2017 09:59:46 PM


Linda Coppleson

Serah not Sarah?  Who is Serah?

08/03/2017 07:00:05 AM


SCRIBAL SCRIBBLINGS #4 by Linda Coppleson

Now is a good time to introduce you to one of my favorite unknown characters in the Torah - Serah bat Asher. That’s Serah, not Sarah.

So this Serah was the daughter of Asher, one of the sons of Jacob. What is noteworthy is that she is one of the very few women
mentioned in any of the biblical genealogies or censuses. Oddly, nothing more than her name appears in the text, but it appears
twice, once as part of the 70 people who went down to Egypt with Jacob and his family and then again, in Bamidbar (Numbers), where she is mentioned in the census of those who entered Canaan after
the Exodus. What is remarkable about these two references to Serah is that they occur more than 400 years apart! Although other
biblical characters are purported to have lived for centuries, Serah, alone among her peers, outlived her generation.

Serah’s longevity became the inspiration for much rabbinical commentary and midrash. (The rabbis never needed much of an excuse to embark on flights of midrashic fancy!) One such midrash attributes Serah's long life to her gentle kindness when she told her
grandfather, Jacob, that his son Joseph, was still alive and was a powerful man in Egypt.  As the story goes, Serah’s help is enlisted by
her father and uncles to sing, rather than tell the news about Joseph to Jacob so as to soften the shock of the news. When Jacob realizes that his beloved son was still alive, he bestows immortality on Serah by declaring that “death shall never touch her”.

Her involvement in the unfolding of the Israelite family history continues, according to subsequent legends, when she recognizes
Moses as the one who would redeem the Israelites from Egypt and reassures them that the time of their liberation by Moses had
come. Furthermore, as the Israelites ready themselves for the Exodus, Moses endeavors to fulfill the oath that Joseph made his brothers swear, that when God “remembers” the Israelites and brings them
out of their bondage, they would brings his bones out of Egypt as well.

Serah, having been alive when Joseph died, is able to reveal to Moses that, according to yet another midrash, Joseph had been buried in
a metal casket and sunk in the Nile River.  (Joseph’s burial in the river was not a sign of disrespect or disdain, but rather, it is said to have been a nod to his greatness and goodness, that the river would be “sweetened” by the presence of his bones.)

According to the Midrash, did Serah ever die or is she still in existence? Many sources report that she entered Paradise alive, and thus transcended mortality. In medieval Jewish mysticism, Serah has a place of honor in Gan Eden. The Persian Jews of the city of Isfahan believed that Serah bat Asher actually lived among them until she died in a
great fire in their synagogue in the twelfth century CE. This synagogue was subsequently known as the Synagogue of Serah Bat Asher. In the Jewish cemetery of Isfahan, there was to be found, at least until
the end of the nineteenth century, Heder Sarah bat Asher, a mausoleum that was believed to have been her final resting place.

Serah was an inspirational figure, a bridge between the patriarchal period, the time of the Exodus, the early monarchical period and the rabbinic period. Her name, spelled with the letter “ שׁ” in the Torah, is, in the rabbinic literature, spelled with a “ ,”ס rendering the meaning of her name as “overlapping”, that is to say, she overlapped many historical periods and was the bearer of lost or hidden knowledge. She  epitomized the proverbial “wise, old woman” who would serve as an example of quiet, female resolve and endurance. Like Miriam,
Yocheved, the midwives in the beginning of Shmot, and even Pharaoh’s daughter, Sarah was a quiet mover of history.

 "There are no accidents in Torah."

06/01/2017 03:26:38 PM


SCRIBAL SCRIBBLINGS #3 by Linda Coppleson

There are no accidents in Torah. There is a deliberateness in the composition of Torah that has an uncanny and often subtle, nuanced way of drawing our attention to themes and motifs that occur and recur throughout the Torah. Colorful narratives that move us through the arc of our national history are woven into descriptions of the legal, cultic, and societal standards and benchmarks that laid the foundation of Judaism. How
this is achieved is nothing short of miraculous. Recurring words and phrases dance through the Torah, helping us to learn what the Torah is teaching us.

I am busy writing column 60, the end of the book of Bereishit, and anticipating the transition from the very complex and emotionally fraught narratives of the forefathers to the very complex and emotionally fraught Moses story! I joke, but it is a change from the intensely personal, familial focus of Genesis to the more public, national one in Exodus. How the text achieves this change in focus is not only by introducing a new story line, but by using already familiar vocabulary and expressions in a way that helps to draw parallels between the already told story and the new one

Here is an example: In the creation story in the first chapter of Bereishit, the insects, the birds and the animals are described as being fruitful and multiplying, swarming, creeping, flying and filling up the land. God sees his creations and on each day makes note that “it was good”. ( כי טוב ). We form an image in our minds of abundance and prosperity, of the goodness of the earth and everything that was in it. Words such as רמס (creeping),
שרץ (swarming) מלאו את הארץ (filling up the land), פרו ורבו (be fruitful and multiply) are repeated throughout the creation story to connote this joyful, beautiful image  that was full of promise and excitement.

Then we come to the beginning of Exodus, which starts with the enslavement of the Israelites. How does this come about? Having been saved from famine by Joseph, the Israelites have settled in Egypt in the land of Goshen. They have been fruitful, have multiplied, are swarming and filling up the land. But in this story, we find those same words, “sheretz”, “mil’u”, “p’ru u’revu”, etc., are no longer the vocabulary of promise of creation and the potential of the world.  Those same words take on a new, sinister meaning, opposite to the positive,,joyful meaning of those words in Genesis. 

Our image of what is happening is now dark and foreboding. The new Egyptian king, who “didn’t know Joseph” and all that Joseph had done for Egypt, fears the Israelites because they have become too numerous and are swarming the land. The more the Egyptians try to stymie their growth and strength, the more the Israelites increase and spread out. In the eyes of the Egyptians, the Israelites pose an existential threat, and they want to
UNDO them. In other words, they aim to undo Creation.

And in case we have missed the analogy to Genesis, even the “IT WAS GOOD” phrase appears in this narrative. When Moses is born, his mother “became pregnant, gave birth to a son, and saw him and It Was Good”! The “destruction” of God’s creation at the hand of the Pharaoh was to be
thwarted by the goodness of Moses.

Masterful use of language conveys insight into the messages of Torah. Bereishit is the beginning of mankind, followed by the emergence of the family of Israel/Jacob. But Exodus is a different kind of beginning. It is the beginning of Israel, the nation, whose existence emerges, not out of primordial chaos, but out of the chaos of destruction. The story of Moses would again turn those “creation words” into something good and wondrous.

Perhaps our nation’s leaders today could take a page from this lesson ...

02/01/2017 03:26:38 PM


Scribal Scribblings - #2 by Linda Coppleson

Last night, in Parashat Lech L’cha, I wrote about Abraham’s confrontation with God, as God is about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The interaction between them set me to thinking about accountability and shared responsibility - something that, considering the political environment in 2017, has been on my mind for the last few weeks.

Up until this point in the narrative, Abraham is a passive figure, hearing God’s commands and willingly obeying. He is commanded to leave his land, his home, the place his family knew, and he goes without question, uprooting his family to go to an unknown place. Later, he consults God about a number of issues - how to deal with his unhappy, barren wife, and how to relate to his first son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar. He unquestioningly follows the advice God gives him, without delving into the many moral or ethical questions that God’s commands present.  

But this time, as God is about to destroy two entire cities, Abraham steps up to challenge God’s decision. In Abraham’s mind (if I can presume to surmise what was in his mind), at issue is the moral tension between what is good for society and the needs of the individual. Should God carry out the justice that most of the people of the two cities deserve at the expense of the rightness of considering the possibility that there may be innocent lives at risk? Should the rights of the few who may be guiltless be subverted by the culpability of the many? It seems clear from the text that God is troubled by the question as well. That is why He calls upon Abraham, who is destined to be a bastion of not only justice, but righteousness as well, to challenge Him.

Genesis 18:17-19

וַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה
וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃
כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא
יְהוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃

Now the LORD had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?  For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” 

This is one of the essential questions that this and other formative stories of the Torah explore.  The answer may be elusive, but it is the way in which God reaches out to Abraham to get another point of view that is so instructive. God tells Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because He knew Abraham to be a trustworthy advisor. And before he carried out the plan, he took counsel with him to have a full picture of the consequences of what He was about to do. The story is as much about God’s leadership style as it is about Abraham’s courage in standing up to God.

Perhaps our nation’s leaders today could take a page from this lesson. By telling Abraham about his plan, God was holding Himself accountable in weighing the decision to destroy the cities and was taking responsibility for the results of the decision. And Abraham’s bravery in confronting God serves to demonstrate the necessity of telling truth to power. Maybe we can hope that our country’s leaders will take counsel from just and  righteous advisors and make decisions that take individual rights and the demands of the whole into account.

sitting at the sushi counter ...

01/09/2017 05:04:32 PM



All Beginnings are Hard כל התחלות קשות

A few days before New Year’s, I had dinner at a Japanese restaurant, sitting at the sushi counter. The owner, a skilled sushi chef (American),who learned his craft in Japan, was cutting and shaping and rolling and forming fish and vegetables into stunning arrangements that were soon to be delicately devoured by waiting diners. In his life outside the restaurant he is also a potter with his own kiln and an opera lover. As I watched him finish one dish and move quickly and seamlessly on to the next, I thought, doesn’t he get bored or tired of the life of a restauranteur? The pressure of consistently creating the beautiful and tasty morsels, not to mention the stress of managing staff, ordering supplies and dealing with clamoring customers must be wearing him down!

And then, in a moment of, “well, duh!” clarity, I realized that the answer is, probably, no. He must feel the way I do when I work. As he methodically and patiently creates sushi and sashimi and hand rolls, I, too, in my work, strive to create beauty. Beautiful letters, words, and columns that are pleasant to look at and easy to read, and that fulfill the laws of Halachah (Jewish law) - that’s the goal. But at the same time, I am doing the same thing, hour after hour, day after day. I am writing, now for the fourth time, all 804,805 letters, all 79,847 words, all 245 columns and all 62 pages of the Torah. It’s hard to begin again! To know that I will again be “living through” the stories of our ancestors, writing again the troubling narratives and the uplifting experiences of the Jewish people is daunting. But boredom isn’t part of it - perhaps frustration when dealing with a “bad quill day” or unwanted interruptions - but never boredom.

So I took a deep breath, washed my hands, said a “kavanah”, took up my quill and continued to write the words that I started with you last month - – “when God began to create” - בראשית ברא אלקים and today, I finished writing the first parsha (portion) of the Torah, Parashat Bereishit.  And as we see in Bereishit (Genesis), even God has a hard time with new beginnings! The joy and goodness of the first days of creation give way to manifestations of familiar problems - disobedience, jealousy, power, murder, corruption, deception (sound familiar?), that ultimately lead to the undoing of Creation in the second parashah of the Torah, Noah.

So now, I will deal with God’s disappointment and regret over having created Man in the first place. I’ll be a little sad that the truths of the story are still so blatantly true, but I certainly won’t be bored by them!

PS - I think I have it a little better than the sushi chef - at least my creations will last a little longer than his!

Tue, October 16 2018 7 Cheshvan 5779