Author Archives: Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held

About Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held, a noted lecturer and adult educator, is former Director of Education and Conservative Rabbinic Advisor at Harvard Hillel, and a graduate of the Wexner Fellowship program.

The Evil Within

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This article was written as a commentary on the Torah portion Ki Tetze(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19). Reprinted with permission from Beliefnet.com.

The Torah is obsessed with memory. Again and again, we are commanded to remember our experiences and to act in ways that honor those memories.

Most famously, the Torah enjoins us repeatedly to remember that we were slaves in the Land of Egypt and that God liberated us from slavery. Much of the Torah is an attempt to discern the implications of that experience: We were slaves and know the bitter taste of estrangement and degradation, therefore we set out to create a society in which no one is estranged or degraded. Jewish memory is thus the source of Jewish ethical passion. The culmination of Jewish ethics is the commandment to "love the stranger" (Leviticus 19:34) because we ourselves "know the feelings of the stranger" (Exodus 23:9).

Remembering Amalek

But the Exodus is not the only story we are enjoined to remember. At the end of this week’s portion, we read a passage also recited on the Shabbat before Purim. This time, we are called upon to remember the horrific behavior of the Amalekites:

"Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt–how, not fearing God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear" (Deuteronomy 25: 17-18).

Here, too, memory has a consequence, this one ostensibly much different in tone from the mandate to love the stranger:

"Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25: 19).

In the Jewish imagination, Amalek is the quintessence of evil, and if we read these verses carefully, we can begin to see why. Imagine a people dehumanized and enslaved for literally hundreds of years, a people who have all but abandoned hope of ever experiencing freedom and liberation. Finally, after generations of unmitigated suffering, God frees them, and they take their first very tentative steps toward freedom. And what happens? Another nation, utterly devoid of compassion, mercilessly attacks.

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Circumcision is a Difficult Rite

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This article, originally published on Beliefnet.com as a commentary on the Torah portion Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59), is reprinted with permission.

[The Torah portion Tazria] is seemingly obsessed with various bodily afflictions and their potential remedies. Swellings, rashes, discolorations, “scaly affections,” inflammations, burns, and more–each condition is analyzed and accompanied by detailed instructions on how to proceed. But if the bulk of the portion is concerned with changes that take place in the body (or on its surface), the beginning touches on another, very different bodily transformation–this one enacted by human hands: the covenantal rite of male circumcision.

As modern readers, circumcision often strikes us as strange at best and barbaric at worst. A flood of questions emerges: Why would a loving parent do such a thing to an innocent and defenseless child? Why would a loving God command it? Does it make sense that so many Jews, seemingly so far removed from tradition, still feel a deep visceral need to affirm their Judaism and Jewishness in precisely this of all ways? What does this ancient and ostensibly bizarre practice tell us about how Jews understand themselves and their role in the world?

At the heart of Jewish theology is the idea that God and Israel have entered into an eternal covenant of redemption. The Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, which on the surface would appear to be a relatively obscure event in the history of a small Near Eastern tribe, is understood by the Jewish people to represent a promise and a paradigm: Despite the fact that human history has been mired in oppression and degradation, there will come a time when all human beings will live in full dignity and freedom, when tzelem elohim, the notion that human beings are created in the image of God, will seem less a Pollyanna-ish fantasy than a tangible reality. God wants such a world, and the Jewish people agree to try and help build it. The covenant between God and Israel is most fundamentally about redemption–about believing that human reality can be other than it is, and about struggling to make that dream a reality, bit by bit, day by day.

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