Why Do Jews Circumcise?

“Intro” students ask terrific questions. They have what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” – that is, their minds are open to more possibilities than those of us who have been steeping in a subject for a long time.

Last week, when we were talking about Jewish death and mourning practices, I explained that we have great reverence for the body and try hard to maintain its integrity even after death (no embalming or unnecessary autopsies, etc.) One student asked me, “So then how do you account for circumcision?”

Brilliant question!

Brit milah, ritual circumcision, has been a key Jewish practice for millennia. The Biblical command appears in Genesis 17: 11-12:

Every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of a the covenant between Me and you. Whoever is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations.

In Biblical terms, we perform brit milah because it is commanded, as a “sign of the covenant.” And indeed, it is called brit milah, “covenant of circumcision.” Like Passover, this is an observance that even minimally-observant Jews worldwide keep. Even Jews who do not believe in God frequently insist on brit milah for their sons out of a feeling that this is simply what Jews do.

On a religious level, this is a consecration of the male body to the covenant and to the behavior connected with the covenant. The penis is the locus of male sexuality and a symbol of male power; removing the foreskin in the context of the brit milah ritual is a way of saying that this child or man is dedicated to the behaviors associated with Torah. He is dedicated to a life that looks beyond self-gratification to a manly holiness of purpose.

The Jewish reverence for the body underlines the seriousness of this act. We don’t modify the body lightly or thoughtlessly. This outward sign of the covenant is not easy, but it is an expression by Jewish parents of seriousness about Jewish identity for themselves and their son.


Meet An Expert on Islam

rabbi-reuven-firestone-phdRecently the Jewish Journal carried an article by one of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Firestone, Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College (HUC). It reminded me that he has written books and articles that are quite accessible and might interest some of you.


I first met Dr. Firestone in the context of a class in which he taught me how to read Mikraot Gedolot – the traditional commentaries on Torah, all neatly bound together in a few volumes. I enjoyed learning with him, and when I finally reached the point that I had the option of elective courses, I took every class on Islam that he offered.

I had many good teachers at HUC, and a few great ones. Dr. Firestone is among the greats. I admired the courage of his scholarship, because he did not just sit in Los Angeles reading about Islam. He spent a sabbatical in Cairo (this was before the revolution) He took his whole family with him. Even then, it was not a friendly place for Jews, and he has a realistic view of Jewish-Islamic relations.

Much of the information about Islam that we get from the news media and politicians is sadly ignorant. Talking heads quote the Quran and hadith literature without any understanding or context, much the way antisemites quote snippets of Talmud. These pundits don’t read Arabic, haven’t studied the literature, and don’t understand what they are quoting.

So if I have tantalized you, if you would like to learn more about Islam from a reliable source, let me suggest these articles and books by Dr. Firestone:

Heads of the Hydra” (Jewish Journal article)

No, Pamela Geller, the Quran is not Anti-Semitic” (The Forward)

An Introduction to Islam for Jews

JIhad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam

Lehrhaus 360 Lecture “War and Peace, Jewish Perspectives” (VIDEO)


How To Chanukah

Chanukah begins this year (2015) at sundown on December 6.

I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on MyJewishLearning.com.  So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:

How to Light the Chanukah Candles (VIDEO)

Chanukah 101 (The Basics!)

Traditional Chanukah Foods

Chanukah in the Synagogue

I hope these meet your needs for basic Chanukah materials! Now some goodies from past years:

Chanukah Videos! (Music, silliness, fun, laughter. It’s good for you.)

A More Meaningful Chanukah

The Evolution of Chanukah – How did it get to be such a big deal?

Why the Insistence that Chanukah is a Minor Holiday?

And yes, it’s early, but since I’m already getting questions, I thought it was time to start posting resources. Enjoy November, enjoy Thanksgiving, and when the time comes, enjoy Chanukah!


Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.

My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:

  • Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
  • Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
  • Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
  • Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
  • Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
  • Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
  • Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
  • Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
  • Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
  • Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
  • Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
  • Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.

The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.

Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.

What is the Talmud?

“Talmud” is one of those words that mystifies many non-Jews. Anyone with knowledge of Western Civilization has a frame of reference for “the Bible,” even though our Bible is slightly different from the Christian Bible, but “Talmud” – what is that?

Here’s the simplest answer I can give you: Talmud is a record of discussions that took place over roughly 500 years. The subject of those discussions was “How To Live a Life of Torah.” It includes not only majority opinions but minority opinions and lengthy digressions. 

These lengthy discussions were necessary because the Torah itself comes to us without operating instructions. For instance: the Torah says “Keep the Sabbath” and “Remember the Sabbath.” How do we keep the Sabbath? What does it mean to remember it? Something that seems straightforward (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) turns out to be complex: “What about the case of the one-eyed offender who puts out one eye of a person who has two good eyes?” The rabbis argued about these things, and the discussions come down to us in the collections known as the Talmud.

Torah includes both Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (the discussions that flesh out the sometimes enigmatic commandments in the Written Torah.)

To put it algebraically:

Torah = Written Torah + Oral Torah

The first batch of discussions took place between about 100 BCE and 200 CE. Initially these were oral discussions, and special memorizers learned every word of them and recited them on demand in the rabbinic academies in Israel. In 200 CE, Rabbi Judah the Prince produced a written, edited version of the discussions and called it the Mishnah, [“Repetition.”] Here is a photo of my copy of the Mishnah which includes the Mishnah itself, an English translation, and commentary:

Blackmun Mishnah (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)
Mishnah, Blackmun ed. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

As you can see, it isn’t very long, just six volumes. Each volume is a large general topic: Seeds, Festivals, Women, Damages, Holy Things, and Purity. If that seems an odd way to divide things up, welcome to the study of Talmud. While sometimes the rabbis say things that seem amazingly modern, they lived in a very different time, under different circumstances, and their world was organized differently than ours.

However, after the Mishnah was redacted (written down and edited) the discussions continued, now with questions about the Mishnah. They continued at rabbinic academies in Israel and in Mesopotamia (Babylon.) The continued discussion, the “new” stuff, would later grow into the Gemara [from the Aramaic gamar, “study.”]  The Gemara discussions were not redacted until centuries later. The Gemara by the academies in Israel were redacted about 500 CE.  The Gemara of the academies in Babylon were redacted about 600 CE.

I’ve never seen a volume of just Gemara. It’s always published with the verses of Mishnah related to it. A page will give you a “lead in” of lines from the Mishnah, then the Gemara associated with those lines, the discussion on the discussion. An oversimplified version of it would look like this:

Mishnah: When is the earliest we say the evening Shema?

Gemara: Voice 1: Why does this rabbi start with this question? Why not the morning Shema? Voice 2: He starts with this because of the commandment, “You will say them [the words of the Shema] when you lie down and when you rise up.” The time begins when the priests enter to eat their terumah [their slice of the Temple offerings]… and so on. They talk about terumah, and the priests, and what time the priests ate, and the grammar, and word meanings, and many other things.  

Here’s another equation for you:

Talmud = Mishnah + Gemara

Some of the Gemara becomes a very central item of the tradition, and some of it doesn’t. There are recipes for beer, and cures for snakebite, and interesting (!) ideas about anatomy. Some parts of it are clearly out of date (the anatomy, for instance) and some very sophisticated (insights about grief.) All of it comes in a context, and without that context it is meaningless. Rabbis study Talmud with a volume of Talmud containing multiple commentaries, one or two good dictionaries, a book of abbreviations, a Bible, and other references as well. If someone gives you a quote and says “It’s from the Talmud” be skeptical!

What is the Talmud? It’s a record of discussions that took place between 100 BCE and 600 CE in the Land of Israel and in Babylon. While the general thrust of it is “How is one to live a life of Torah?” it include a wealth of other material.

How can I study Talmud? To answer that, I will give you a quote from Pirkei Avot, which is in Volume “Damages” of the Mishnah:

“Find yourself a teacher, acquire yourself a friend.” – Pirkei Avot 1:6

  1. First, learn some Torah. The better you know your way around a Jewish Bible, the easier time you will have of it.
  2. Find a teacher. If there are no local classes available, use an online resource like 10 Minutes of Talmud.
  3. Acquire a friend. While a teacher can help you find your way, there’s no substitute for studying with and talking with a fellow student.
  4. Finally, don’t think you are going to master all of it. There is a program called Daf Yomi, where people learn a page a day of Talmud. When they get to the end, they begin again. They do this because as with every other aspect of Torah, there is no limit to the learning there.

OK, so this wasn’t a very simple answer. Talmud isn’t simple. However, it’s part of our rich heritage of Torah, and it belongs to every Jew.

Seven Tips for Torah Study Success

If you are a beginner at Torah study, mazal tov! If you are worried about “doing well,” here are seven tips to help you learn and enjoy:

  1. STUDY WITH OTHERS.  Reading Torah by yourself is good, of course, but Jews typically study with partners or groups.  We do this for a number of reasons, but most of it boils down to the obvious: two heads are better than one, and ten heads offer lots of resources for looking into a text.
  2. READ ALOUD. Read a verse, or a section aloud, then discuss. Hearing the text is different than reading it, and will spur different ideas. Even if you have read the text a hundred times before, read it aloud.
  3. LOOK AT THE TEXT. While someone is reading the text, keep your eyes on it. Look at each word as it is read. Even if your reading skills are poor, follow along. Hearing and seeing the text will help unlock it for you.
  4. NO SINGLE RIGHT ANSWERS. When Jews study, we are not looking for the “right answer.” Usually there are many right answers.
  5. BE SELF-AWARE. Our reading of stories in Jewish texts will be colored by our own experiences. It’s not bad to have those reactions, but it’s good to be aware of them, and to remember that others may have had other experiences. For instance, some students feel very identified with Joseph and angry with his brothers. Others have the opposite response: they find the young Joseph insufferable! There’s room at the table for all of us.
  6. LISTEN AND SPEAK.  Hillel said, “The shy person will not learn” – if we don’t ask questions and speak up, we don’t learn much.  However, the converse is also true: the person who is always talking will not learn much either. Listen to what your study partners have to say, and think it over. Don’t just react.
  7. BE REGULAR IN STUDY. Don’t drop into a group occasionally: become a regular. Regular attendance with your Torah study group will help you form relationships with both the text and with the others in the group.

Happy Learning!

What is Shabbat Shuvah?

You may have noticed the words “Shabbat Shuvah” written on the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It means “Shabbat of Returning” or “Shabbat of Repentance” because it falls in the midst of the days in the Jewish calendar dedicated to teshuvah.

Sometimes I find this Shabbat is especially good for reflection, because I have become accustomed to the High Holy Day tunes, but there is less pomp and circumstance in the service. I can gather my thoughts and feelings and let my process of teshuvah progress. Also, for those who are not members of congregations, these are services that don’t require tickets, so they are easily accessed.

Don’t think, “The rabbi will know I wasn’t at Rosh Hashanah, and will glare at me.” The Rosh Hashanah service was a crowd scene. No one will scold you for showing up at Shabbat Shuvah, I promise. Just the reverse!

There are several special Shabbatot [sha-bah-TOTE, plural of Shabbat) scattered throughout the Jewish year, and this year I’m going to identify them as we encounter them. Each points to something special that’s on our minds that Shabbat, often a nearby holiday.

L’Shanah Tovah! I hope that your holidays are sweet and full of blessing!