Being Jewish, Doing Jewish

A great question came up in class last night, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. A student asked:

You say that Judaism is about actions, not about belief. But how does that connect to whether a person is Jewish or not?

Being Jewish is a state of relationship between an individual and the Jewish People. A person cannot become Jewish by him- or herself: a person is Jewish because of a particular relationship, either a birth into a Jewish family or an adoption-like process later in life. A person either is or isn’t Jewish; there are no intermediate states. (Note: “Who’s a Jew?” is a major source of disagreement in the Jewish world. If you have questions about your status, talk with your rabbi.)

Being Jewish is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is an identity which makes me part of something larger than myself and gives me full membership in the Jewish People. On the other hand, it makes me a potential target for antisemitism which can materialize anywhere, anytime. And yes, as a Jew I am responsible for many sacred duties. Even if I do not observe them at a particular time in my life, I know they are there.

Jewish actions include those sacred duties (mitzvot) but they also carry the real rewards of Judaism. “Doing Jewish” includes:

  • the weekly miracle of Shabbat
  • saying the Shema “when I lie down and when I rise up:” daily prayer
  • a cycle of holidays and observances
  • life cycle traditions that enrich my passage through life
  • teaching Judaism to my children and/or to newer members of my community
  • mobilizing to assist other Jews both nearby and far away
  • participation in a Jewish community where I can develop relationships with people and grow from those relationships
  • a template for grief and mourning that will embrace me just as my life seems to spin out of control
  • access to the great treasury of Jewish thought, thousands of years of road-tested advice about how to handle life’s most challenging moments
  • and many, many more things

Many of those benefits are available not only to Jews but to others as well. Non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people are welcome at our Shabbat, seder and study tables. More and more synagogues are developing policies that make synagogue life available to non-Jewish spouses and relatives while preserving the boundaries that maintain authentic Jewish life.

Becoming Jewish, crossing that line between not-Jewish and Jewish, is a complex experience. Some things don’t change: I had been going to services and doing many other Jewish things for years. Some things were new after the mikveh: once I became a Jew, I was doing mitzvot not only because I wanted to, but because they had become part of my sacred duties as a Jew. And yes, there were things I could now do that I could not do before. My rabbi would perform a wedding for me. I could wear a tallit and be called to the Torah.

Being Jewish and doing Jewish are really two separate but related things. This is sometimes confusing to people from other traditions.

 

Ask the Rabbi: Should I Keep Kosher?

Ask the RabbiA reader asked: “I’m in the process of converting to Judaism. Should I keep kosher? How do I get started?”

First of all, thank you for asking. It’s always good to ask. I have some questions for you before I answer directly, though.

You say that you are in the process of conversion to Judaism. Are you studying with a rabbi? If you are, this is really a question for your rabbi, not for some random rabbi on the internet. Sit down with your rabbi and talk it through. If you don’t feel that you can ask your rabbi, then perhaps you haven’t found the right rabbi yet. Go meet some more rabbis! You need to work with someone with whom you can talk.

If you do not yet have a rabbi, you need to get one. Saying “I’m in the process of conversion” isn’t really accurate; the first step is to find your rabbi, one with whom you feel comfortable and who is willing to work with you. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read, how much you know, how many holidays you’ve celebrated: until you get yourself a rabbi, you have not yet gotten serious about conversion. A lot of the conversion process takes place within the relationship of rabbi and candidate. If you are not sure how to find your rabbi, I’ve written about it in Choosing a Rabbi.

I know that this answer may be annoying or a disappointment. But it is really the truth: you need to talk this over with your rabbi. Here’s why:

When you become a part of the Jewish people, you do so as part of a specific community of Jews. Different communities have differing customs. If you check out the kashrut (kosher) customs in several different Jewish communities, there will be differences. The sage Hillel teaches us “Do not separate yourself from the community.” You need to learn the customs of your community. So talk to your rabbi, and follow his or her guidance.

You will get different answers from different rabbis. Depending on the congregation and the movement – and depending on the rabbi! – he or she might do any of the following:

  • suggest some reading about kashrut, and discuss it with you before you disrupt your kitchen and your household.
  • caution you about taking on too much too quickly, and direct you to explore other mitzvot first.
  • match you up immediately with someone in the congregation who is knowledgable and who keeps a kosher kitchen, so that you can learn from them.
  • direct you to a class on kashrut and encourage you to get on with it.
  • talk with you about your reasons for interest in kashrut and explore with you what observance might be right for you and fit in with your community.

So there’s my answer for you: talk to your rabbi. If you don’t have one, get one. Conversion is a long complex process, involving growth and change in many areas, and you need more than an anonymous rabbi on the computer. You need someone with whom you are willing to be honest, and who can read body language as well as email.

Make the most of your exploration of Judaism, and of the sacred partnership with your sponsoring rabbi. Good luck!

Statistics and the News

Ask the RabbiWhen I began this blog, I hoped to make some of the “insider” things about Judaism more accessible. I think I’ve had some success. Certain posts are “hit” regularly from the search engines, posts like “Jewish Greetings 101” and “Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners.” I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that somewhere out there, someone is a bit less stressed and a bit more prepared to enjoy a happy occasion.

One thing I did not expect was that the list of “search engine terms” would give me a consistent readout on the news. One item in particular always spikes when there is sad news: “Baruch Dayan Emet‘ – Why Do We Bless God when Someone Dies?”  It means “Blessed is the True Judge,” the first response of a devout Jew to hearing about a death. Last summer, during the Gaza war, that post got so many hits that it was the most frequently used post on the blog. This week it has been a busy post again.

If you ever have questions about practices or terms, dear Reader, I hope you’ll ask me via the Ask the Rabbi page. While I try to keep my mind tuned to things that may puzzle newcomers, you are the real experts on what beginners want to know.

May we all go from strength to strength, as learners and teachers!

 

Why “G-d” instead of “God?”

Ask the RabbiA reader recently asked: “Why do some Jews type ‘G-d’ when they are writing about God? And why don’t you type it that way, Rabbi Adar?”

Jews traditionally hold the name of God, yud-hey-vav-hey in great reverence. We do not ever pronounce it (in fact, it’s been so long we don’t even remember how to pronounce it correctly) and if we write it, we treat the material it was written on with reverence. Here’s what it looks like in Hebrew letters:

יהוה

 

Part of our story is that God revealed this Name, God’s personal Name, to Moses at Sinai.

When I met the President of the United States, I did not say, “Hey, Barack!” I addressed him with his title: “Hello, Mr. President.” Had I met Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton when they were President, I would have addressed them the same way, with the same respect.

So it is our tradition as Jews to address God by way of titles, rather than to be too familiar. When we see the name above in Scripture, we say, “Adonai” (My Lord) or “Hashem” (the Name), or “the Eternal.” We are aware that other people might say “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (two attempts at pronouncing the name) but we don’t go there. God is too holy for us to presume to be on a first name basis. I do not ever use those words that attempt to pronounce the name except when I’m teaching about it.

In Hebrew, we often use an abbreviation to stand in for the Name:

יי

 

That’s two yuds: “yud, yud.”  Hebrew readers know that that stands in for the four letter Name, and so we substitute whatever title is appropriate instead of saying the Name.

Some English speakers and writers have extended the abbreviation to the word “God,” which then looks like “G-d.” It’s a form of reverence, and perhaps a way of remembering the holy four-letter Name without mentioning it.

I don’t choose that particular form for three reasons:

  • “God” is a title, not the Name. Only the Name is the Name.
  • “G-d” looks too much like the way people abbreviate profanity, and I don’t want to associate the Holy One (there’s another title) with profanity.
  • My grandmother, of blessed memory, did not like profanity, but when she had to quote someone else who had said, “God damn” she would abbreviate it “G-D.” So, again, profanity. Yikes.

Piety is individual. I am pretty fussy about saying and writing the Name. If it is meaningful to someone else to abbreviate the word “God,” it isn’t my business. It doesn’t work for me, so I don’t do it.

Is there a name or title of God that you particularly like? One you really don’t like to use, ever? Why?

“Will God Be Mad at Me if I Don’t Have Kids?”

fruitful palm
“Fruitful Palm Tree” by Sodaro,k

Sometimes the search terms on Google that bring people to this blog break my heart.  “Will God be mad at me if I don’t have kids?” – that question came from an anguished heart. It deserves a reply.

The very first commandment in Genesis has to do with offspring. God says to Adam and Eve:

And God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:28)

In traditional Jewish law this has been interpreted to mean that every Jewish male has a duty to father children, if he is able.

First: note that the obligation is on the male, not the female. I could speculate about the reasons for that, but I’ll just leave it there. Old-time Judaism was very patriarchal.

As a rabbi in the Reform tradition, I am inclined to look at the qualifier: “if he is able.” Ability, in a modern context, includes the ability to provide financially and emotionally for a child’s healthy development. If a person has serious doubts about their ability to do either of those things, then it seems legitimate for that person to question if parenthood is for them.

At the same time, I feel compelled to note that Jews are a tiny minority in the world. We comprise only 2% of the US population. Out of the world’s population, we are only 0.02% – a tiny, tiny fraction. Every Jewish child is an investment in the Jewish future, a continuation of thousands of years of tradition.

However, your original question, “Will God be mad?” is a little different. God knows what is in your heart, what your true situation is. If you are not able to have children, or to raise them properly, God knows that.

I believe there are many ways to meet the obligation to “be fruitful and multiply.” One is to be part of that famous village that it takes to raise a child:

  • Support the synagogues where those children will be educated.
  • Volunteer to teach, or to raise funds to support religious school.
  • Befriend families. Many are far from grandparents and other family support.
  • Nurture other “children” in the community: be welcoming to converts to Judaism.
  • Smile and welcome families in services. The noise a child might bring is the sound of the Jewish future.

I believe that this is a mitzvah that can best be addressed as a community. Supporting young parents and growing children is something all of us can do, no matter what our situation.

 

Ask the Rabbi: 613 Mitzvot? Where?

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asks: “I know we’re supposed to ‘do mitzvot’, but what are they? Where is the list?”

We often hear that there are 613 mitzvot [commandments, sacred duties] in the Torah. For many of us this inevitably brings up the question: can I see the list? Behind this question is the worry, “How am I doing?” or another worry, “Have I missed something?” After all, 613 is a LOT.

The first mention of “613 mitzvot” is in the Gemara, Makkot 23b, where it quickly becomes clear that like many numbers in Torah, 613 is as much or more a symbol than an enumeration. (If you are curious about the discussion, click the link.) 365 is the number of days in a solar year, and it also happens to be the number of negative (“Thou shalt not”) commandments. The rabbis believe 248 to be the number of parts of the human body. Add them together, (think: time + humanity) and voilá: 613 mitzvot. 

Having come up with a great number that both tells us that the mitzvot have to do with all human concerns, and that also says “a LOT,” various rabbis through history have provided us with lists of “The 613 Mitzvot.” Our clue that the number came before the lists is that the lists differ.

That said, it can be satisfying and comforting to see an actual list. Probably the most famous is that of Maimonides, in the Sefer HaMitzvot [The Book of the Mitzvot.] If you click the link and study the list, you will discover (likely to your relief) that the number of mitzvot that actually apply to you, a 21st century Jew, is much less than 613. 

One Orthodox scholar, the Chofetz Chaim, has written that there are 194 negative and 77 positive commandments that are available to us to observe without a functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and that of those commandments, 26 apply only if one is living in the Land of Israel. By that reckoning, a 21st century Diaspora Jewish male of the priestly line (Kohen) need worry only about 245 mitzvot. Within Orthodoxy, even fewer of those mitzvot apply to non-Kohanim and even fewer to women.

How can a liberal Jew make sense of Maimonides’ list? One way is to use it as a template for growth. Take each mitzvah, and look it over a bit. Ask:

1. Do I understand this mitzvah? (if not, study; if so, continue)

2. Is this a mitzvah I currently observe? 

3. If I do observe it, how’s that going? How does it mesh with my other observances? How could I improve, either with my observance or the choices I make about this mitzvah? Do I want to learn more?

4. If I don’t observe it, how’s that going? Why don’t I observe it? Do I feel guilty about not observing it? Have I ever tried observing it, or do I assume I’d feel persecuted/silly/deprived if I observed it? What do I really know about this mitzvah from a reliable source? Do I want to learn more?

5. In either case, how does my observance/non-observance affect my relationship with my Jewish community? Does it separate me from my community, or bring me more into tune with it?

6. Is this a mitzvah I might want to observe someday, but not yet? 

7. Do I want or need to talk to someone about this?

After looking over those questions, if you feel satisfied for now relative to that mitzvah, move on to another mitzvah on the list. (Nowhere is it written that you have to follow a particular order.)

Now, if you are reading this and feeling panicky, let me suggest something from the original passage in Mattot: “Isaiah [came] and reduced them [the commandments] to two, as it is said, “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Maintain justice and do what is right.'” (Is 56:1)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved

Moderation and Mitzvah

"Candles" by Lars Hammer (some rights reserved)
“Candles” by Lars Hammer (some rights reserved)

A reader asked:

Rabbi, do you think that it’s acceptable to use repurposed items for home ritual such as Shabbat? Right now, living on a shoestring budget, I don’t really have the money for $200 candlesticks or a Kiddush set for Shabbat, so I’m using items I already had in the house (for now, at least). Sometimes I worry that this isn’t really as acceptable as I want it to be. Any thoughts?

It’s fine to use ordinary candlesticks for Shabbat candlesticks, or to use a plain wine glass for kiddush. I often use tea lights for Shabbat “candlesticks” when I travel, because they are light, hard to break and easy to pack. In a hospital setting, where fire is out of the question, we might use electric lights that are shaped like candles. The mitzvah is lighting lights, not buying fancy candlesticks.

It sounds like you are dealing with two competing Jewish values. One is hiddur mitzvah, the beautifying of a mitzvah, which is a praiseworthy thing to do. Beautifying the mitzvah broadens its appeal to our five senses and the pleasure we take in the mitzvah.

The other Jewish value here is m’tinut [moderation.] The great 12th century scholar Maimonides argued that moderation in all things was one of the marks of a chacham [Torah scholar.] It is not good to be a miser nor it is good to be a big spender. Rather, we should seek the level he called the Sh’vil HaZahav, the Golden Mean. This is true for every aspect of life: what we eat, what we wear, our use of time and money, even our choices for study. The exact standards will vary depending on our means and situation.

If the only candlesticks you own have other religious symbols on them, then it might be better to get some from the hardware store, or use tea lights. But there is no requirement that you spend large sums of money to perform this mitzvah.

My first havdalah “set” consisted of some foil to hold the candle, a sprig from a rosemary bush for spices, and a shotglass for the wine. The only purchased item was the candle, which had to have multiple wicks. Even for that, there are inexpensive options.

There are some mitzvot that are very expensive: Torah education, keeping a kosher home, making aliyah (moving to Israel), having children, to name just a few. But that’s because of the intrinsic cost, not the extras. Hiddur mitzvah by its nature is an extra, something done to make things a bit nicer. It’s a good thing – in moderation!