What’s the Point of Ritual?

February 25, 2014

TorahRitualmod

I teach Introduction to Judaism classes for adults who want a basic education in Judaism.

One of the temptations in planning such a class is to focus primarily on the “how to” aspects: how to keep Shabbat and holidays, how to hang a mezuzah, how to have a proper Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, how to keep up in the service. Certainly it is important for people to feel comfortable and competent in doing those things, but if that’s all I teach, I’ve not done enough.

Before we perform a mitzvah, usually there’s a blessing, one that starts out:

Blessed are You, [The name of God] our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot…

And then we specify the mitzvah we are about to do. Often the words of the formula fly by as we focus on the mitzvah we are about to do, but there’s something important in there: the point, in fact. The point of mitzvot, the point of reading the scroll of Esther or sitting at the seder table or studying Torah is to sanctify us and to remind us of our role in this world. 

Some mitzvot are incomprehensible (Why avoid mixing linen and wool? Why wave the lulav?) but even the most mysterious of commandments encourage me to be aware of the world, to pay attention. They push me to stop and see, to wake up and notice. Combine them with Jewish study (another mitzvah!) and they direct that wakened awareness to the pursuit of Jewish virtues: towards lovingkindness, hospitality, humility, compassion, and justice.

If all I do is a bunch of quaint rituals, I’ve missed the point. The prophet Isaiah tells us that sacrifices and ritual are not enough by themselves to sanctify us in the first chapter of Isaiah:

“Why are all those sacrifices offered to me?” asks God. “I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals! I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats! Yes, you come to appear in my presence; but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards? Stop bringing worthless grain offerings! They are like disgusting incense to me! Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations — I can’t stand evil together with your assemblies! (Isaiah 1:11-14)

Isaiah then reminds us that true holiness lies not in picturesque ritual, but in hands and heads that alleviate suffering, act justly and spread goodness in the world:

Get your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing evil, learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

We are entering the spring season of ceremony: Purim, then Passover, then Shavuot. We are approaching an annual opportunity for transformation. If we enter this time with an open heart and mind, then we can indeed be “sanctified by mitzvot” and become the hands of goodness in this world, seeking justice, defending the defenseless, finding hope for the destitute.

Whether we are beginners, in our first “Intro” class, or old hands at the Jewish holidays, let’s open our hearts and our minds to the meaning of these festivals, and transform: first ourselves, and then the world.

Image: LicenseAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by rbarenblat


Upcoming Classes in Lafayette, CA

December 27, 2013
Classes meet in this building.

Classes meet in this building.

For Bay Area readers of this blog:

My Sunday morning classes at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA will begin on January 5.

Jewish History: Exploring Judaism begins a five week look at Jewish Texts and History. Yes, five weeks, five hours for thousands of years of history, also known as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through Jewish History. If you have wondered what the rabbi means by mishnah or how that’s different from midrash, this is a great short survey class.  Class starts at 9am sharp and runs to 10am. We have coffee, and if you want to bring your breakfast along, no one will mind. Members of the class include people in the adult b’nei mitzvah program at Temple Isaiah, folks considering conversion, and some friends-of-Jews who are interested in learning more about Judaism – a great class!  Join us!

Text Study: The same morning, January 5 at 10:15am we’ll begin a Jewish Ethics class which will take a look at Ethics of the Fathers, a first-century document of homespun advice from the sages. This is perhaps the most accessible book in rabbinic literature, and we’re going to read parts of it together. The class will have a read-and-discuss format, exactly the opposite of the Wild Ride in the previous class. Hebrew proficiency is not required.

Both classes meet in the Contra Costa Jewish Day School building, at the top of the Temple Isaiah parking lot. The building is completely accessible.

To register for these classes, and to see the other offerings in Isaiah’s great Sunday morning lineup, go to this page on the temple website.

 


Teaching and Learning and Joy, oh my!

September 29, 2013

I’m happy. I launched two classes this morning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. I think it’s going to be a very good year.

Even with classes I teach again and again (this is my third round with “Exploring Judaism”) the people in the class make the experience different. Jews don’t do a lot of solo learning; we learn in groups and in pairs, noisily. When I see a room full of people (19 of them!) and I think about all the Torah I’m going to learn, I get happy. Beginners are fantastic, because they ask questions I’m too routinized to ask for myself.  Beginners are a precious resource.

“Money & the Mensch: Jewish Ethics and Personal Finance” is especially exciting. We’re not sure whether it will happen as an official class yet, since we have low numbers, but they’re excited and I’m excited and I’m going to give them the class reader anyway next week. This was the topic of my rabbinic thesis, and I’m practically itching to teach it, because it is a wonderful, practical subject with some great stories in it.  We’re going to learn about the terrible Men of Sodom and Maimonides’ Torah Scholar and Munbaz II of Adiabene and some other interesting tales.  We’ll use those stories to figure out the questions we need to ask about money: how to give charity wisely and well, how to make choices about investing and consumption, how to decide when a boycott is a good idea.  We’ll have a blast.

I love to teach. It’s what I do.


What’s Simchat Torah?

September 25, 2013

Simchat Torah (seem-CHAT toe-RAH) or (SEEM-chas TOE-rah) is a joyful day on the Jewish calender.  It concludes the fall series of Jewish holidays. Some things to know about Simchat Torah:

Simhat Torah Flag

Children can’t dance with the Torah in their arms, so they carry flags to celebrate (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

MEANS – “Rejoicing of the Torah.” Many Jews literally dance with the Torah scrolls on this day.

WHEN - This holiday falls after Sukkot. For Diaspora Jews, it is the second day of Shemini Atzeret. For Israeli Jews and Reform Jews, it is the day after Shemini Atzeret. (Either way, it’s the 23rd of Tishrei, which in 2013, begins at sundown on Sept 26.)

WHAT DO WE DO? – We finish reading the end of the Torah Scroll, then quickly begin reading it again! In many congregations, this activity is accompanied by dancing, parades, and banners.

WHY? - We love Torah, and we want make sure we never stop reading it. Therefore we make a very big deal about beginning again. Also, since the Torah has to be rolled back to the beginning, and that’s a big deal anyway, why not make a party of it? This is an opportunity to express our love for Torah.

Details differ among Jewish communities, and your congregation may have special customs of its own. For instance, when I was a rabbinic intern at Congregation Etz Chaim in Merced, CA, we used to unroll the whole Torah scroll and take a “tour” of it before rolling it up again.

Does your congregation have a special Simchat Torah custom? Share it with us in the comments!


Gearing up to Learn and to Teach

August 22, 2013
Lathe operator machining parts for transport p...

Lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, USA (1942). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been rebuilding the website for my Intro and Beyond the Basics classes. My body has been sitting at the computer, but my spirit feels more like the photo of the real-life Rosie the Riveter, above: tired, grubby, but getting the job done.

By the way, the images I use on this blog are all either in the public domain, or they have a Creative Commons license. There’s a wordpress widget that finds them for me and keeps me from sinning against my fellow creative person (and out of copyright trouble.)

Back to blogging tomorrow.


#BlogElul – The Mark of Remembrance

August 20, 2013

 

 

English: Philtrum highlighted by light

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

Tractate Niddah (30b) of the Talmud records a folktale that I find comforting and infuriating: while we are in utero, an angel comes and teaches us the whole of the Torah. Then as soon as we are born, the angel slaps us on the mouth so that we will forget it all. The mark that is left is the philtrum, the vertical dent between the mouth and nose.

 

Thus when we study Torah, we are not learning for the first time; we are instead striving to remember the Torah that we already know.  As a teacher, my task is to help my students remember. 

 

I find that when I remember that, I am a much better teacher.

 

This post is part of #BlogElul 5773 / 2013, a month-long themed blogburst orchestrated by imabima. I can’t promise that I’ll post every day, but I hope to share at least a few posts on these themes over the month to come. For other people’s posts on these themes, search using the #BlogElul hashtag.

 

 

 


#BlogElul – Count: Mitzvot Beyond Measure

August 17, 2013
English: Martin Buber in Palestine/Israel עברי...

Martin Buber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mishnah Peah 1:1 - These are the things for which there is no measure: the corner of the field [which is left for the poor], the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning.

One might get the feeling, learning Torah, that Jews are always accounting for things: taking a census (three times in the book of Numbers alone, in Chapters 1, 2, and 26), counting days after Passover (the Omer), and counting years in the desert, tribes, wives, children, generations – you name it. If you press further and read into the Mishnah and Gemara, the rabbis worry a lot about measures, distances, and other numbers.

And yet we begin each day’s prayer with a passage from Mishnah Peah which lists the things we do not count or measure: the portion of the field left for the poor, the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning. According to the Tosefta (additional Mishna-era writings) that means that a Jew is obligated to do these things, but the amounts are up to the individual.  If a person left a tiny area of each corner unharvested, gave a pittance of his first fruits, merely showed up for the pilgrimage feasts, that was enough. It might not be meritorious, but he would be within the letter of the law. Nowhere does the Torah command  acts of lovingkindness: they are implied in other commandments, such as helping the orphan and widow, not standing by when a neighbor is bleeding, loving the stranger, but it is a vague implication, not a clear commandment. Torah learning is commanded (“Keep these words” and “teach them to your children”) but the extent of Torah learning is, again, up to the individual.

What might we learn from this? Perhaps one thing we can learn is that an acknowledgement of human individuality is built into Torah. While much of Torah lis concerned with the good of the community, our ancestors recognized that we are not all alike. Some people are naturally inclined to study; for others even a little study goes a long way. Some individuals can be generous: either they are wealthy and they can afford to give, or they are generous by nature, and inclined to give. Others may face restraints that make it impossible to give much, or to participate much in other mitzvot.

However, these things “without measure” also give us something precious: room to grow. At one stage of life, a person’s ability to give or to participate may be limited by any of a number of factors: their knowledge of the mitzvah, their inclinations, the facts of their life, their income, and so on. Later on, we may grow into mitzvot that we neglected or observed only minimally when we were younger.

It also suggests that while it is tempting to be compare to our neighbors (“How much are the Levys giving to the fund?” or “Most people don’t go to services every Shabbat.“) – this passage is a reminder that other people’s mitzvot do not matter when we are deciding about our own. “How much did the Levys give?” is not the way to determine what we will contribute to the communal good or a good cause. Nor should we be ashamed, if we are doing the best we can with one of these mitzvot.

Elul is about taking stock of our own lives, not about comparisons with others.  Martin Buber wrote about a famous rabbinical tale in which Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”

Let this month of reflection be a month for becoming our best selves, living lives of mitzvot beyond all accounting!

This post is part of #BlogElul 5773 / 2013, a month-long themed blogburst orchestrated by imabima. I can’t promise that I’ll post every day, but I hope to share at least a few posts on these themes over the month to come. For other people’s posts on these themes, search using the #BlogElul hashtag.


Coming Attractions: Classes for Fall

July 14, 2013
A Jewish group studying text together

A Jewish group studying text together

I’m in the final stages of work on my teaching schedule for the fall and winter.

Sunday morning I’ll be teaching at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA:  Exploring Judaism at 9 am, and a text study class (still undefined) at 10:10 am.

Sunday afternoon I will teach a class on the books of Joshua and Judges at Lehrhaus Judaica.  Time still TBD.

Wednesday evening I’ll be teaching at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA: Intro to the Jewish Experience at 7:30pm.

Thursday evening I’ll teach Beyond the Basics, a new class for those who wish to learn more about the Jewish Year, text study, and some concepts that hold Jews worldwide together. Time and location still pending.

And of course, I’ll still be meeting in coffee shops and other places with anyone who wants to learn!

Questions for my readers in the East Bay area of California:

  1. When are the best times for you to attend a class?
  2. What do you want to study?
  3. What are the barriers to study for you?

 


Jewish Bible Study, Part Two: Why Learners Need Community

June 7, 2013
A Jewish group studying text together

A Jewish group studying text together

In Part One of this series of posts, I talked about the traditional schedules upon which Jews read from the Bible.

If you are interested in reading the Bible as a Jew, then you need to find Jews with whom to study. Those Jews might be a real live study group, such as you can find in any synagogue, or they might be Jews in books, any of the many writers of commentaries on the Bible. We read the books of the Bible together in a Jewish framework. (Christians read in a Christian framework, atheists in an atheist framework, and so on.)

Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t want interpretation. I just want to know what it says.” My point is that who you are is going to be a factor in “what it says” to you.  To pick a very famous example, Isaiah 7:14:

לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא, לָכֶם–אוֹת:  הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה, הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ, עִמָּנוּ אֵל.

First, a Jewish translation:  “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.”

Then, from the King James Christian translation: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The obvious difference is that they translate the word almah differently, Jews as “young woman” and Christians as “virgin.” But there is a subtler difference, too, which colors the choice of words for translation. Jews understand the Prophets, like Isaiah, to be called to speak for God to the Jews about events at the time of the prophet, who also warns about consequences in the near future. A Jew would say that this line refers to a time when Isaiah the prophet was talking to Ahaz the king of Judah. It foretells the birth of Hezekiah, Ahaz’s heir, who will throw off the Assyrians who are oppressing the Jews under King Ahaz. Many of the things about which the prophets warned the ancient Jews are still very much with us: injustice, inequity, the plight of the poor, hypocrisy, and so on. So even though the events they refer to are long ago, the words of the prophets stay fresh as this morning’s newsfeed.

The Christian reading is quite different. Traditionally, Christians read the Jewish prophets as foretelling the life of Jesus, centuries later. They translated almah as “a virgin” because of a side-trip in translation.  In Matthew 1: 18-25 the origins of Jesus are thus:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

“Virgin” in the Greek New Testament is parthenos.  The quotation is from Isaiah, filtered through the translation used by many Hellenized Jews and early Christians.  Almah (young woman in Hebrew) became parthenos (virgin in Greek, as in the title Athena Parthenos.) So a “young woman shall conceive” – nothing remarkable, really – became “a virgin shall conceive” – something entirely different.*

One line, two completely different readings of it! The two readings aren’t about the same person (Hezekiah or Jesus?) and the understanding of “prophecy” is completely different. Each tradition has its own point of view on the “correct” reading. This is only one example, one of the simplest to explain in a short article.

If you want to read the Bible as a Jew, find yourself a Jewish teacher or some Jews to learn with.

If you want to read the Bible as a Christian, the same logic follows: find yourself a Christian teacher or study partners.

Reading alone is a good preparation, but to participate in a tradition, you need to take the second step and learn with others.

* My thanks to @DovBear, who reminded me of the Septuagint connection. An earlier form of this article was in error.


Jewish Bible Study, for Beginners: Part One

June 6, 2013
Rachel Preparing Bible Homework - Haifa Israel

(Photo credit: david55king)

“I keep trying to read the Bible, but I get bogged down…”

If you are trying to read the Bible cover to cover and it’s just too much, or not much fun, stop now!

The Jewish Bible is an anthology – a library, really – of books in the canon, the official list of scriptures recognized by the Jewish People. We don’t read it “cover to cover” – we read some parts of it daily, some weekly, some once a year, and a few parts, rarely. If you want to get to know your Bible better, there are a number of common approaches. These readings are done publicly in synagogue but you can also read them yourself at home or with a study group:

WEEKLY PORTION - Every week throughout the year Jews read a section of the Torah according to the calendar. We call that the parashah or portion. To find out about this week’s portion, go to http://hebcal.com. A the top of the page, there will be the words “Parashat —–” with a link. Click on the link. That link will give you the portion for the week, and if you click on the page it takes you to, you can read the portion, or even hear it chanted in Hebrew. Over the course of a year, the weekly portions will take you through the entire Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.)

HAFTARAH – The Haftarah is the reading from the Prophets for every week. You can find it on hebcal.com also. Unlike the Torah, where we read it all and we read it in order, the Haftarah readings skip around in the books. Usually those readings are related to the Torah reading for the week, although sometimes it is quite a puzzle to find the connection.

MEGILLOT – The five megillot, or five scrolls, are shorter books of the Bible read on particular holidays during the year. We read Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, Esther on Purim, Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Lamentations on Tisha B’Av. You can find the dates for all these holidays in the current year at hebcal.com.

Other parts of the Bible are embedded in our worship. The daily prayer cycle includes many readings from the Psalms, particularly. Psalms is also good for personal reading because it comes in relatively short chapters, each expressing an individual or communal set of emotions and needs.

Some books, like Job, Esther and Ruth, are short novels. Parts of some other books are very readable as units, also: the Joseph story from chapters 37 to 50 in Genesis is a good example, as are the stories in the book of Judges. Other books are tougher going: the long detailed instructions for sacrifices in Leviticus are not everyone’s cup of tea.

Reading, however, is only the beginning! Tomorrow I’ll write about the ways Jews approach these books to get the most out of them.


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