The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:
1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.
2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering. The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of tzedakah, no matter how small, will help sufferers and will also help the giver feel less helpless.
3. If you are just beginning to study about Judaism, let this be a time to learn, not a time to attempt to teach others. Some may approach you and ask you to explain the conflict, knowing that you are interested in Judaism. If you don’t want to engage on the topic, say so. All you need do is say, “The situation in Israel and Gaza breaks my heart. Can we talk about something else?”
4. Another things you can do is study. A popular recent book on the subject is My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit. Another excellent book is Israel is Real, by Rich Cohen. He is not a scholar, and I have some quibbles with details, but it’s readable and honest. Or ask your rabbi for a recommendation!
5. Do not believe everything you see on the Internet. Again, if something disturbs you, contact your teacher or rabbi. Also, be careful what words and images you spread. Unsubstantiated rumors do not help the situation, no matter whom they allegedly favor.
I wish you a Shabbat of peace and learning, of goodness and grace, of light and love. Shabbat shalom.
I woke up this morning feeling that something was missing from my last post. I realized that while last night I answered the question about the 613 mitzvot, I forgot to include something important: why keep mitzvot? Why bother with a long list of “do’s” and “don’t’s,” many of which don’t even apply in our century?
The answer to that question is imbedded in the words of blessing that we say before doing many mitzvot:
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot…
We keep mitzvot [observe the commandments] to make us holy, to continue the process of sanctifying our lives.
In the 21st century western world, there are no kosher cops to swoop down and arrest you for working on Shavuot. There are no mitzvah minders to report you to the Jewish Central Control if you choose not to say the bedtime Shema. Individual Jewish communities may employ peer pressure, or even (God forbid) violence to attempt to enforce their particular understanding of a mitzvah but even in the Jewish state of Israel, if you eat a bacon cheeseburger while wearing a bikini in public on Yom Kippur, it’s basically your own business.
There are some mitzvot, called Mishpatim [Laws,] that are self-evident rules for an orderly society. We may argue about the interpretation of “Do not commit murder” and “Do not steal” but most civil societies have incorporated them into their laws. If you rob banks and get caught at it, the kosher cops won’t get you but the regular city police will!
Other mitzvot, called Edot, [Testimonies], call to mind the Jewish worldview and story. We do them to remember narratives and to continue learning from those narratives. That’s the reason we eat matzah on Passover: we remember the Exodus from Egypt, and in doing so, continue to apply the lessons learned in our present day world.
The last group of mitzvot, Chukim [Decrees] appear to have no reason at all other than that it says in Torah that God commanded them. For instance, we can talk about possible reasons “why” the laws of kashrut, but really, that is speculation. God said, “Don’t eat pigs.” (Leviticus 11:7) Again, there are no mitzvah moderators to come get you if you chow down on pork BBQ. But Jews can argue (for hours!) about how exactly to interpret the mitzvot. (OK, the rule about pigs is pretty clear cut. But what if it comes into conflict with respect for a parent who insists on serving bacon and who feels hurt if you don’t eat it? There’s always room for a discussion.)
So why bother? Again, it’s for the pursuit of holiness, and the mitzvot are a framework within which we seek holiness. If you ask a Jew why he keeps a particular one of the chukim, he might say, “It’s the tradition” or “In solidarity with other Jews” or “it’s how I was raised” or “it’s a spiritual discipline.” Or she may say, “To heal the broken world.”
Keeping all the available mitzvot all the time is a huge, life-consuming task. Ask anyone who is shlepping children (“be fruitful and multiply”) to Hebrew school (“teach your children Torah”) while reading labels carefully to keep kosher (“Don’t eat stuff on this list”) and getting ready for Passover (Oy Vey!). Because not only must she (or he!) do all that, he (or she!) must do it while being honest it all dealings, kind to animals, respectful to parents, without embarrassing anyone, not giving scandal to outsiders… on and on. If you look at the whole list, it’s like juggling 613 (or even just 245) plates in the air.
That’s the tricky bit about a life of mitzvot: observant Jews are always on the brink of failure, if not sitting on our behinds in the middle of the broken plates. Perfection is not the point. The point is the pursuit of a better Jew, and a better world – holiness.
You will meet Jews who have completely given up on most of it. You will meet Jews who say, “I will keep this mitzvah, but I can’t possibly do that one at this time.” You will meet Jews who say, “I am only going to try to keep these mitzvot, and the rest of them just seem like overkill.” You will meet Jews who say, “I disagree with the traditional interpretation of that mitzvah, so I am going to follow a different interpretation.” You may be one of those Jews – actually, in a long Jewish life it would be very surprising if you weren’t one of them sometimes.
Don’t judge any of them. Nor take it to heart if someone says to you that you are a “bad Jew” if you don’t juggle all the plates, their way, all the time. But you may find, as you add one mitzvah after another to your life, slowly and carefully, that you like the changes you see, in yourself, in your home, and in the world.
A 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)
Observant Jews make a blessing before we eat, not just before meals, but before we eat a bite of anything. It is a way of acknowledging that the world is not ours, that we did not create the food, and that we notice the blessings around us.
My garden is a little late this year, but I finally have tomatoes reddening on the vine. Before I eat one, I’ll say the blessing for food that grows from the earth:
If you grew up in a Christian context, you may have learned that the Jewish Bible is “the same as the Old Testament.” That’s not quite accurate.
I want to be clear about one thing: when you are working with a scripture, anyone’s scripture, the safest thing is to use the version recognized for the community. So I recommend that Christians doing Christian study use the appropriate version of their Bible, and I recommend that someone doing Jewish study use a Jewish Bible.
The Jewish Bible differs from the Christian bibles in several important ways. To wit:
ARRANGEMENT: The Jewish Bible is arranged into three parts: TORAH, NEVI’IM, and KETUVIM, meaning “Torah,” “Prophets” and “Writings.” Torah is the five familiar books of Moses. Nevi’im is the books of the Prophets, starting with Joshua and ending with the post-exilic prophets. Some of the books are named after prophets, some have names like “Kings.” “Writings” is everything else, including Psalms, Wisdom Literature, the 5 Scrolls, and Chronicles. This is to some extent a ranking according to the honor the tradition gives to the books. Christian Bibles are arranged quite differently.
Because of this arrangement, one name for the Jewish Bible is Tanakh, a Hebrew acronym for Torah/Prophets/Writings.
CONTENT: Some Christian Bibles, notably the “Catholic” Bible, include some books that are not in the Jewish Bible. Those books are not in Protestant bibles like the King James Version, but may appear in a separate section labeled Apocrypha. These books didn’t make it into the Jewish canon: Judith, Baruch, Maccabees, Tobit, and others. However, since they were part of an earlier Jewish collection of sacred books, the Septuagint, they were included in some versions of the Christian canon. (“Canon” means those books accepted as scripture by a community.)
SOURCES: Jewish Bibles are based on the Masoretic Text of the Bible. Early Biblical texts lacked vowels and punctuation, just as the Torah scroll in a synagogue does today. The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who added versification and vowels to the text between 500 and 900 CE. They examined the multiple versions of texts floating around in their time and put together a standard version of the text for the community. This is still the standard Jewish text, which is mostly in Hebrew; a few of the Writings contain a bit of Aramaic.
Christian Bibles draw on a variety of sources: the Vulgate translation in Latin (405) by the Christian scholar Jerome, the Septuagint in Greek (200 BCE), as well as others. Notice that while these texts are older than the Masoretic text, they “pass through” a third language on their way to English. In the case of the Vulgate, that translation includes Jerome’s Christian interpretive filter.
TRANSLATION: Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote in his essay, “The Pharisees,” “All translation is commentary.” When a translator chooses one possible translation of a phrase over another, it limits the text in a way it was not limited in the original language. For instance, a famous example, Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Jewish Publication Society, 1917)
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (King James Version, 1611)
I’ve highlighted the biggest difference between the two: “HaAlmah” in the KJV is “a virgin” and in the JPS it is translated “the young woman.” Now, when I translate it, I go a little further, still a legitimate translation:
Therefore the Lord (God) will give to you a sign: Behold, the young woman will conceive and she will give birth to a son, and she will name him, “God is With Us.” (Adar, 2014)
Granted, these are not huge differences, but you can see that it might color one’s interpretation of the book. Consider the considerable difference between Jewish and Christian notions of prophecy. Add to that Christianity’s doctrine of the virgin birth, alongside Judaism’s belief that the baby mentioned here is King Hezekiah. Notice, too, that “Emanu-El” or “God is With Us” was not a name given to either Jesus of Nazareth or to little Hezekiah by their respective youthful mothers! And this is just a single example – the translations are full of them.
There are number of different Jewish Bibles on the market. The Jewish Publication Society’s 1985 translation is used in most American liberal congregations.
Now, having said all that, if you are serious about Jewish study, I recommend you learn a little Hebrew, because then you will no longer be at the mercy of translators. For more about that, check out “Why Study Hebrew.”
A few days ago I mentioned that friends who were getting married “had an aufruf.” I gave a link to definition, but thought this was a nice opportunity to say more about Jewish wedding customs.
Aufruf is Yiddish for “calling up.” Ashkenazic synagogues often call the groom up for an aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbat before the wedding. In liberal congregations, the couple is usually called up together. They have an aliyah, which means that they chant the blessings before and after a section of the Torah reading.
After the reading, the rabbi may offer a mishebeyrach (literally “May the One who blessed,” a prayer) for the couple. Usually then there’s singing and clapping. The YouTube video above is the usual song “Siman Tov uMazal Tov,” often sung at simchas (happy occasions).
There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)
Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.
The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.
What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.
Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”
The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.” In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.
There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder.
My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Some discover that their relatives have unpleasant ideas about Jews. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas – and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.
It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.
After a year of study, that process was well underway. I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.
The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.
It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wildnerness that we can become our truest selves.