Torah Talk With Joey & Monica

Here are some highlights from our Sept. 25 discussion of Torah portions Nitzavim and Vayeilich.

Watch the whole thing here.

Here’s a disjointed and partial transcript of the parts I found most interesting:

Luke: "Don’t get creeped out because Joey sweats a lot."

Joey Kurtzman: "It’s hot today and Monica’s here."

Luke: "The Torah seems to have a problem with people doing as their heart seems fit. Growing morally and thinking for yourself, qualities allegedly at Shalhevet according to a recent Jewish Journal column, don’t seem to be Torah values."

Joey: "Having the courage of your own convictions seems antithetical to what is being presented…. The entire purpose of other religious traditions, such as Sufiism, is to live your truth."

Joey is not impressed with the Torah’s "pre-packaged morality."

Monica: "As a literary person, I read this as a performance."

"Since when is Moses a prophet? That’s not the capacity of leadership to which he’s been called… Moshe’s not a prophet. He’s a somewhat failed leader."

According to the seventh of Rambam’s 13 Essential Principles, Moshe is the greatest of the prophets.

Joey doesn’t feel bound by the covenant made at Mount Sinai.

Joey: "My honest reaction is no. I’ve been brainwashed by ideas such as informed consent. I’m not interested in passing on the decisions I make in my own life to anyone else, certainly not to the guy who tells us that having the strength of your own convictions is the route to perdition. I’m not interested… No one has established a covenant on my behalf."

Monica: "I think it’s [thinking for yourself] such a Jewish thing."

Luke: "Based on what?"

Monica: "It’s here."

Luke: "Where?"

Monica: "The notion of covenant is evolving. The way Torah is constructed forces us to think for ourselves."

Joey: "Right."

Monica: "It is retelling of the same stories over and over and over again."

"Isn’t it true that the Torah is full of example of how not to behave, of how not to establish a covenant?"

Joey: "Yeah!"

Monica: "Turn it and turn it, there’s always another way. Since when are Jews literalists when it comes to reading the Bible?"

Luke: "But if you just take the text at face value…"

Monica: "What does that mean to take the text at face value?"

Luke: "Moses is telling the Israelites what to do. There’s nothing in there about thinking for youself. It’s a modern goyisha notion that you’ve been infected with that you’re reading back into the text."

Monica: "You’ve got to look at the text in context. Deuteronomy 30 is said to be a later edition and we’ve just spliced them together because we want to look at them in this way."

Luke: "So you don’t think the splicing is authoritative?"

Monica: "I do, but we have to aware of the context."

Joey: "I certainly agree with that! I have no objection to anything here because I am willing to look at it in context."

"If you are in an Orthodox shul, they are not interested in the context in which [chapters] 29 and 30 were put next to one another. This is the perfect word of the Big Boss."

Monica: "What does ‘perfect’ mean? I see this as full of contradictions. I think that’s what makes the Bible the greatest text in the world."

Joey: "But that’s a very sophisticated way of looking at it. I can appreciate that… People make decisions today not based on that. They make decisions on how to organize their communities…based on that there are very correct answers and very wrong answers."

Luke: "With your reading, Monica, how do you determine which things you’ll abide by?"

Monica laughs.

Joey: "She follows the will of her own heart."

Monica: "I am one of those who fancies herself immune [Deut. 29:18]."

Luke: "Stone her!"

"If it says Keep the Sabbath or Don’t worship idols or Don’t mix linen and wool, how do you know when to abide by it?"

Monica: "What do you want me to do? Tell you how I really feel?"

Luke: "Yes."

Monica: "I hate to say it is a matter of the heart, because that sounds really cliche… I’ve just been reading an old essay by Emmanuel Levinas, and he talks about when it comes to ritual, it’s the actual act of carrying it out. It’s that moment where it takes us away from the material world…"

Luke: "I don’t understand."

Monica: "He’s saying whether you’re lighting candles on Shabbat or you decide to not mixing your wool and linen, it’s the moment of carrying it out, not the act itself. It’s now what you do, it’s the moment of carrying it out… It’s not a personal thing. It’s not that it brings me closer to God."

Luke: "What is the significance of ritual to Levinas?"

Monica: "It’s an event that accomplishes something brand new."

Joey nods.

Monica: "It’s a moment out of this world."

Joey: "I feel like you did a good job of explaining it. I get it."

I talk about Michael Medved’s dictum that liberals says follow your bliss and conservatives say do your duty."

Monica: "Let’s stop thinking about what Moses says and let’s start thinking about what Moses says. He didn’t follow his bliss?"

Luke: "No. He didn’t want to lead the Israelites."

"Where would you say Moses is following his bliss?"

Monica: "He’s got a problem with impulse control."

Luke: "How so?"

Monica: "He strikes the rock. When he gets mad, he throws tablets down. He’s crazy."

Luke: "Is that because he’s following his bliss or because he’s stuck with a task he doesn’t want?"

Monica: "Probably both."

Joey: "I don’t know what he thought, if I am willing to pretend he existed."

Luke: "That was Joey who said that, rabbi."

Monica: "I think it’s all grey and murky. It’s hard for me to think in binary oppositional [categories]. Either/or thinking doesn’t work for me anymore."

Joey: "How long you been out of academia?"

Luke: "She’s still in academia. Nobody outside of academia would say what she’s just said. Anyone who had to run a business or raise kids."

Monica: "I got that from Judaism. My thinking has developed more from Judaism than it has from academia."

Luke: "Why do you say that about Judaism when this book, the Torah, is filled with Thou shalts and Thou shalt nots."

Monica: "What about midrash? What about talmud? What about these responses to the Biblical text that perform the admonition to turn it and turn it? This is so anti-either/or thinking that it’s not funny."

Luke: "It condemns idolatry. That seems binary to me."

Monica: "Not necessarily."

Luke: "When they’re putting people to death, that’s pretty binary."

Monica: "How do we know that that’s the right thing? How do we know that’s not another example of what not to do? How is this not another example of Moshe getting it wrong again? We see Abraham doing this. Every single time he gets it wrong."

"My language is influenced by academia but the ideals are in here. I started thinking this way when I was an undergrad and didn’t know what I was doing."

Joey: "You can’t base a computer on that level of meta."

Luke: "You can only create a community, you can only run a family with binary thinking."

Monica: "It is a problem when it comes to family. This level of…grey, I don’t know how I’m going to communicate this to my children. I don’t think the essence of Judaism is either/or thinking. I come from an evangelical Christian tradition where it is. I felt the differences profoundly when I found Judaism."

Luke: "What is the essence of Judaism then?"

Monica: "Love your neighbor."

Joey: "If you don’t believe in binaries, you can’t believe in essences either."

Monica: "Oh God."

Luke: "There’s no either/or, but there is love your neighbor."

Monica: "That’s it! The whole Torah is love your neighbor."

Luke: "Do you think that’s the essence of Torah, Joey?"

Joey: "I do not. Some of the things Monica is saying, I got a lot of that from my Jewish upbringing. I do not see that in any of the Jewish communities or Jewish scriptures I look at."

Joey doesn’t believe in externally imposed duty.

Luke: "Monica, it says in the Torah. You can go through all the midrash and all the rabbinic commentaries, and you’ll never find anything that says it is OK."

Monica: "We just haven’t gotten there yet."

Luke: "Is midrash still being generated?"

Monica: "In a way."

Luke: "When Anita Diamant writes ‘The Red Tent’?"

Monica: "It’s midrashic."

"Not every interpretation is OK."

Joey: "Luke is no longer welcome at his shul. When they try to create communities around this book, the dominant interpretations are binary. People who rely on those communities are stuck with the violent certainties that some jackass has decided this is the only way to look at it. There’s a lot of suffering in that. That’s why I don’t like communities."

Monica: "You can’t just interpret however you want."

Luke: "Where do you draw the line?"

Monica: "I don’t know where that line is. I hesitate to draw that line but I think there’s a point where an interpretation becomes transgressive, where it becomes questionable and it needs to be discussed."

"It’s only transgressive when it hurts somebody else."

Monica: "I once dated somebody who kept very strict kosher. I brought Sprinkles cupcakes to his house. He freaked out. I was mortified. I was ashamed. I felt terrible. So is that a point at which his observance, his interpretation, became transgressive because he made me feel like a big jerk?"

Luke: "But you were the one who was transgressing him?"

Monica: "But I didn’t know. I always try to be very conscious and very respectful but…I don’t always know all of the nuances."

Joey: "I think he’s a coward.

"Luke hurt the poor members of a particular shul because…the presence of someone who doesn’t sign on to everything they do rattles their sense of who they are. He hurt them because they are… easily hurt."

Luke: "Let’s say she trafed up $500 of his utensils. If she does $500 damage to your car… If she drops her non-kosher cupcakes…

"He shouldn’t have been dating a shiksa."

Joey: "He wasn’t up to it."

"He should’ve sat you down and said I am easily wounded and when somebody brings Sprinkles to my house, it bothers me."

Luke: "If Monica is in a relationship with someone she cares about…"

Monica: "I didn’t care about him."

Luke: "Shouldn’t she research the laws of kashrut?"

Monica: "You can’t eat them off a paper plate out of a paper box in the living room?"

Luke: "It’s like bringing pork."

"He doesn’t want stuff that is not kosher in his house."

Monica: "He’ll leave the cupcakes on the doorstep."

Luke: "He has standards."

Joey: "He’s going to date someone who is not from his background and doesn’t know all this arbitrary stuff, she’s not going to know. He needs to communicate that to her."

Luke: "I think he communicated it to her."

Monica: "There’s a way to do it with kindness and compassion and understanding."

Joey: "There’s no reason not to be compassionate. It was his fault in the first place…and then flipping out like a bitch over it."

Luke: "Guest31 write that Monica takes his breath away."

Joey: "Attend to yourself and then come back."

Monica: "Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!"

Joey: "After growing up in the Jewish community in Southern California, I ended up kinda Protestant. The whole thing with Jesus and the Pharisees…"

Monica: "It becomes holier than thou. I want to be seen as someone following all the rules in order to set myself aside from those who aren’t."

Luke: "Is that bad?"

Monica: "It’s exclusionary… I like humility."

Luke: "You don’t like exclusivity."

Monica: "I don’t like it when people act like they are better than other people because they’ve chosen a particular way to worship…or behave. That bothers me."

Luke: "That’s one of the reasons people hate Jews because we inherently believe we’re better."

Joey doesn’t think Jews are better than non-Jews.

Luke: "You don’t think we’re smarter, better educated, more charitable with one another, create better communities, more learned and more accomplished?"

Joey: "More learned. That’s statistical."

Luke: "All the things I just said are statistical."

Joey: "No. I don’t think the Jewish community is more intellectually compelling than others I’ve encountered."

Luke: "Who do you think is our equal?"

Joey: "In highschool, if the choice was between going to my Conservative synagogue or going to my Korean friends’ Oriental Baptist church, the Baptist church blew the synagogue out of the water… It was more intellectually ambitious."

Joey’s voice goes all funny. He says it is a result of smoking Camels. "Kids, it is not too late to start smoking."

Joey: "In a lot of Judaic contexts, I feel like it is not about an aggressive pursuit of truth. It’s more about navigating a social environment, which is a sterile experience for me."

Luke to Monica: "Do you think there is such a thing as sin?"

Monica: "Yes. When you do not love your neighbor. That’s the only sin. The Ten Commandments are about playing out the ways you can commit that one sin."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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