Got Photos? A Request to My Readers

July 19, 2014

This is the sort of photo I'm hoping to get: real people celebrating a Jewish moment.

This is the sort of photo I’m hoping to get: real people celebrating a Jewish moment.

I’m in the process of developing better visuals for my Introduction to Judaism classes. The first thing I need to do is collect good photos and graphics about lifecycle and holiday celebrations.

I will use photos from my own collection, but that would not represent the vast diversity of practice in the Jewish world. That’s why I’m coming to you to ask for this. If you have pictures of your holidays, or of your lifecycle events, that illustrate the holiday or event in some way, I would be most grateful if you would allow me to use them.

You will retain ownership of your photo. No one but me will be able to download it, and I promise to use it ONLY for the PowerPoint presentation I will use in my classes. 

The most useful photos will illustrate some aspect of the event: someone lighting a menorah, a 13 year old reading from the Torah, a family around the seder table, the wedding party dancing the hora. If you have a beautiful mezuzah on your door, send a photo of it! If you have a lovely ketubah and you have a picture of it, that would be great!

I’m using a website called DropEvent.com for this. The photos will be visible at that site, under the name IntroJudaismPhotos, with the tag “now33420.”

Emailed photos can be sent to now33420@dropevent.com 

To upload a photo from this screen, you can just click on THIS LINK.

Thank you very much! By doing this, you’ve made my classes better and my students better informed about the wonderful diversity of the Jewish world!

 


Joshua and His Trees

July 10, 2014

With Jim, at Joshua Tree National Park

I love this photo. It was taken in one of my favorite places, and it’s me and my kid. (OK, so he’s a 30 year old man now, he’s still my kid.)

The place is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The weird looking plants around us are Joshua Trees, yucca brevifolia. They are native to the southwestern deserts, especially the Mohave Desert.

Joshua trees live in a harsh environment to a very great age; some have lived almost a thousand years. In the springtime, if the winter has been wet enough and there has been a freeze, the tree blooms. Its flowers are heavy clusters of blossoms the size and appearance of quail’s eggs, and they have a pungent stink.

The trees are known as Joshua Trees because when Mormon travelers saw them in the 19th century, they thought the trees looked like Joshua, lifting his hands to the sky in prayer. Now I have looked and looked in Torah, and in the book of Joshua, and I have never been able to find an account of Joshua lifting his hands in prayer. Moses does so, most famously in Exodus 17, when Joshua is leading the battle against Amalek, and things go well only as long as Moses’ hands are lifted up. But never could I find the story to which the Mormons referred. (Readers, if you find it, please let me know in the comments!)

But when I look at the trees themselves, I can easily imagine naming them for Joshua. They thrive in the wilderness. They are prickly, and stinky, and yet still they command my attention, pulling at all my senses. I imagine Joshua was such a man, different from Moses, perhaps more charismatic. Moses led the people out of Egypt, fussing and challenging him all the way. Joshua led them into the Promised Land, and they did not challenge him.

Joshua was born in Egypt. He was true to the covenant to his dying day. He led his people into battles and lived to a great old age, as do his namesake trees.


Beginner’s Guide to the Jewish Bible

June 26, 2014
You'd be surprised how many of these books are Bibles.

You’d be surprised how many of these books are Bibles.

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:

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

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.”

Happy learning!

 


How to Write a D’var Torah

June 16, 2014
"Torah" by Ben Faulding (Some rights reserved)

“Torah” by Ben Faulding (Some rights reserved)

A d’var Torah [word of Torah] is a short talk or written piece about some passage of Torah, often taken from the weekly parashah [portion.]  Here are some basic steps to writing a d’var Torah:

1. Read the Torah portion. To find it, look at a Jewish calendar. Remember that Shabbat is Day 7 of the week – the last day for that Torah portion. So for Sunday through Friday, look to the Torah portion for the upcoming Shabbat.

2. As you read, make a list of the major events in the entire portion.

3. Take your list of events and turn it into a very short summary of the portion. Just hit the high points! This is just a quick summary, nothing more. That is Part One of your d’var Torah.

3. Now reread the portion. This time, watch for things that make you curious or that catch your eye. Make a list of those things, noting the verses in which they fall.

4, Read a commentary on the portion. You might read an ancient commentary, like Rashi, or a modern one, like the Women’s Torah Commentary, Etz Chaim, or Plaut. If you are ambitious, read a scholarly commentary like the JPS Torah Commentary. Again, make a list of a few things that you find particularly interesting.

5. Out of your list of “interesting things” from the portion and the commentary, choose ONE item that you find interesting.   This will be your “take away” item.  What ONE THING would you like people to remember from this portion?

6. Write a very short piece about your topic. You might mention:

  • WHAT IT IS – Name it.
  • CONTEXT – how it fits into the portion
  • MEANING – Explain what it means.  Translate if necessary.
  • SO WHAT? – What does this have to do with us?  OR- why did you find it interesting?
  • SOURCES – if you quote anyone, or repeat their ideas, be sure to give credit.  This is an important Jewish value, “speaking b’shemro.”

7. Remember, you are not here to teach Biblical Literature or World History.  This is a “Word-of-Torah.”  Focus on ONE THING, and it will be good.

8. Write the closing.  Divrei Torah should always end on an “up” note.  One strategy is to repeat your main point, with a wish that our lives be enriched by the insights of this portion.    

9. Put the paper away for at least 12 hours, then look at it again.  Does it follow the format (summary/topic/closing)?  Is it the right length?  What single thing will your listeners or readers carry away?

10. Read or publish the d’var Torah.

If you get stuck at any point, this is a time when it is good to have a rabbi or Jewish teacher to help you. If you contact them with enough lead time, they can be an excellent source of ideas and advice.

B’chatzlecha! – good luck with your first d’var Torah!


Special Effects in Scripture?

June 7, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zJonathan Lace wrote an excellent question in reply to Please God, Please Heal Her:” 

My wife and I were discussing this topic just the other day. We both recognize that there is a tradition of the miraculous healing in both Jewish and Christian tradition. But we live in a post-scientific age. So either (1) God does not intervene and miracles in the Bible are just misunderstood natural events, (2) God does intervene, with miracles, some of which could be described in the Bible. But doesn’t the knowledge that science gives us relativize what we can say about whether or not miracles have occurred? 

I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green speak about conflict between science and religion. He said that the forces of religion fought two great battles in the twentieth century, one against evolution and the other against Biblical criticism. Religion lost both battles. He went on to say that if both science and religion are a search for truth, then perhaps it is more useful to consider that they are concerned with different aspects of human experience, and therefore with different truths.  (If you are curious about Rabbi Green’s views, I recommend his book, Radical Judaism.)

Anyone who attempts to use the Torah as a physics or biology text will have to choose between disappointment and delusion. Even when we read the text literally, it hints that it is not talking about the kind of truth one can establish with scientific method. The fact that houses and clothing can “catch” a “disease” in Leviticus 14 points towards the possibility that tzara’at is not a physical disease, for example.

Similarly, all the interesting theories attempting to establish natural causation for the plagues in Exodus are beside the point. It may be that volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean gave rise to experiences for which we have traces in the descriptions of the plagues. But the narrative is about a battle between two powers, Pharaoh and the strangely named god of Israel. Pharaoh rules the kingdom Mitzrayim (Egypt, but it translates nicely as “narrow place” in Hebrew). He keeps slaves and he hates foreigners. And since he is Pharaoh, a god on earth, no one dares argue with him about it. The god of Israel has a name that is four vowels; the deity’s name is a breath, and it is a form of the verb “to be.” The god of Israel wants the people to be free of Mitzrayim, free of Pharaoh. The newcomer god doesn’t keep slaves. This god is a life-affirming deity, insistent that the people called B’nai Israel [the children of Israel] will go out into the midbar, the wilderness, which is the exact opposite of a narrow place. Wonders happen. Things get broken. In the end, people die. The champion of freedom wins in the end, and the people go out into the wilderness, which scares the dickens out of them.

[If I have upset some readers by lower-casing the word "god" understand that I've done so to make a point, that in the Exodus narrative as written, Pharaoh is one of the gods of Egypt. A newcomer god fights with him over a bunch of slaves. I'm talking narrative here, not contemporary theology.]

If you read this story as a description of the ultimate values of the Jews, as what theologian Rabbi Michael Goldberg has called their “master narrative,” then the details of the plague are interesting only in the way that the details of special effects are interesting in a 21st century movie blockbuster. If the movie is any good, the special effects are not the point of the film. The plagues are not the point of the Exodus story. The point of the story is that the Jewish People understand themselves to be a people united with a deity who has taken them as partners in a project to heal the world. The values undergirding this project are freedom, loving-kindness, wisdom, goodness, truth, and more.

Yes, it is a chutzpadik [outrageous] idea. Notice, though, that under this master narrative, no one is obligated to buy into the Hebrew/God-of-Israel worldview. No one is blasted for failing to leave Egypt. At Sinai, where the deal is sealed (in another scene with great special effects) everyone enters the covenant freely. There are some midrashim that say otherwise, but notice that they are in effect minority opinions, not in the Torah itself. And in later centuries, while there’s no applause for a Jew who assimilates and simply leaves the project, no one is saying she will “go to hell,” either. She’s free to go, even as it pains us to see her go, because freedom is a key value. (Yes, some families will refuse to have anything to do with an apostate Jew. And others will still love them and have them to dinner.) As any rabbi tells people who inquire about conversion, they don’t have to become Jewish to be acceptable to God in the Jewish narrative.

OK, back to miraculous healings: I prefer to look at all supernatural goings-on in the text as special effects in the narrative. Maybe they are based in an experience someone couldn’t describe in other terms, or maybe they are there to make a particular point via metaphor. But the truth in the text requires me to work. I have to study the text, ask questions about it, dig around in it to find the values that lie underneath. I’m still free to argue with some aspects of those stories, such as the passages that seem to set women as unequal to men. For instance, I find it easier to read the Daughters of Zelophechad narrative than from the Lot’s Daughters narrative. But notice that in the rabbinic literature and since then, Lot’s daughters have come in for more nuanced readings. Many scholars have taken the trouble to look for underlying values in their story, difficult as it is. When I’m struggling with a text, I look to see what others have found in it.

It’s a truism that Judaism is more about doing than about belief.  Science is good at describing and explaining our world in such a way that we are able to manipulate it. I can’t and won’t speak for all religions. Judaism is about making choices about our actions, including those actions made possible by science. Judaism often uses narrative and metaphor to talk about those choices, thus our texts require study.

But really, are the texts of science any different? If you don’t bother to learn, a smartphone is a miracle, is it not?


What’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

June 3, 2014
A New Jew receives the Torah

A New Jew receives the Torah

Tikkun Leil Shavuot is one of the ways to celebrate the festival of Shavuot. It is an all-nighter Torah study session on Erev Shavuot.

In Exodus 19, God tells Moses to tell the people to prepare themselves for something that will happen on the third day. They are to wash their clothes and purify themselves, and to abstain from sex. The third day, God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses atop Mt. Sinai with terrifying lightning and thunder.

There is a midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:57) that the Israelites went to bed early on the second night, in order to be well rested for the giving of the Torah. They were so tired (from all the bathing?) that they overslept and Moses was nearly late going up the mountain to receive the commandments. Tikkun Leil Shavuot  “repair of the night of Shavuot” is a way of expressing our hunger for Torah, that unlike our ancestors, not only will we not oversleep, we will stay up all night, studying Torah in order to be ready to receive it.

The first Tikkun Leil Shavuot took place in Salonika, in the Ottoman Empire (now in Greece) in the 16th Century. It was hosted by Rabbi Yosef Caro (author of the Shulkhan Arukh and a great Sephardic mystic.)  Today, in many Jewish communities, Jews gather to stay up late or even all night, to study together.

It may sound like a crazy thing to do, but I have some wonderful memories from Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which I’ve written about in another post, Why I Love Shavuot.

Whatever you do this Shavuot, I hope that you do something to celebrate this least-famous Jewish holiday. If your community has a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, go for a while (not everyone stays all night.) If you don’t have one available, invite a friend over to read from the Torah and ponder it together. If you don’t have a friend, get out a commentary or look at some of the great learning resources online. Or if nothing else, have some cheesecake!

Soon I’ll post more about online resources. Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!


Which Passage Speaks to You?

June 1, 2014

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Over on Wrestling With G-d, shocheradam asked for suggestions for blog post topics. On a whim, I asked him which passage of Torah is speaking to him lately, and he wrote a fascinating take on a passage from Numbers.

This leads me to ask readers: what about you? Is there a passage of Torah talking to you at the moment? Or perhaps one that speaks to you over the long term, a passage to which you feel kinship?

When I was getting ready to go to rabbinical school, my friend Barbara asked me if there was a passage to which I felt a special connection. At the time, selling all my goods and getting ready to move across the world to go to school, I felt drawn to Genesis 12:1:

And the Eternal said to Abram, “Take yourself from your land, and from the land of your birth, and from your father’s house, and [go] to the land which I will show you.”

So Abram loaded up the family and his herds, and hit the road without knowing exactly what was ahead.

I felt a lot of kinship to Abram, as I sold my furniture and broke up 25 years of housekeeping, reducing my belongings to four giant duffle bags before I moved to Israel. Unlike Abram, I didn’t take my family along: my children were adults, one in college and the other already in the work world. It was scary, but this passage made me feel less alone.

Six years later, when my class was getting ready for ordination, again it was time to list a passage of Torah that spoke to me. This time it was the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad, from Numbers 27: 1-11. They were five educated women who pointed out to Moses that a part of the Torah law, as given, was grossly unfair. Their father died without a son, and the daughters were to be left without a share in their tribe’s land as a result. Moses wasn’t sure what to do, so he took it to the Tent of Meeting and asked God what to do. God said they were quite right, and altered the law of inheritance. The story spins out further in Numbers 36 and Joshua 17, but the daughters’ challenge to the law was successful.

I felt a connection to this story because I had just spent six years studying to become a rabbi. I knew that not everyone in the Jewish world would be willing to see me as a rabbi, but I took comfort in this passage. The daughters of Zelophehad were role models for me, examining the law and even challenging it. They challenged me to continue studying and building my rabbinical skills to meet their high standard, an argument that could stand up before God.  Since then, I’ve also come to admire them for their willingness to speak up for themselves; the more I study them, the more I want to be like them.

So, readers, is there a passage that speaks to you? A character in Torah or Tanach (the Jewish Bible) or in rabbinical literature with whom you strongly identify? If there is, I invite you to tell us about it in the comments, or to do so in some other venue (your blog? on facebook?) and leave us a link here.

I look forward to seeing Torah through your eyes.

Photo: “Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue Torah” by Steve Garfield. Some Rights Reserved.


Hearing Voices in the Bible

May 30, 2014

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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… Ecclesiastes 1:2

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a class led by Rabbi Steve Chester at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley. He explored the resonances between the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and Tony Kushner‘s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

There is no direct connection between the two: Kushner’s play is not “about” Ecclesiastes. But the lecture set me to thinking about the many and varied voices in the Tanach (Jewish Bible).

There are very few pretty stories in the Bible, if you think about it.  Ruth is a sweet story, I admit. But most of the rest of our Bible stories involve carnage or trickery or dysfunctional families. Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister several times, with the result that she wound up in other men’s harems. Isaac, the gentlest of the patriarchs, was deceived by his son Jacob. Jacob cheerfully manipulates and steals from his brother. It goes on and on; the Book of Judges is one long nightmare.

Some people ask, quite reasonably, why all this stuff is there in a supposedly holy book. Ecclesiastes, in particular, is written in a bitter and cynical voice. What possible edification can anyone get from that?

The answer to that will depend on your orientation to scripture. I am a modern Reform rabbi, and I approach these books both as the product of divine inspiration as well as as the product of human hands. The books are holy because they have been recognized as holy for thousands of years, and because the faithful have continued to find something they need in them.

The genius of these books is that they are not a collection of nice easy stories in which everyone gets what they deserve. They are, instead, a collection of voices and experiences from the full range of the human experience. Some voices in Scripture insist that God is fair and wise and indeed, everyone gets their just desserts (that voice is named Deuteronomy.) Some voices in Scripture remind us that life is not fair, and even go so far as to question whether God is fair (Job.) Some voices are angry at God (parts of Lamentations) and some are young and not much concerned with God, reveling instead in physicality (Song of Songs). Kohelet, the voice in Ecclesiastes, is old and cynical. He’s seen it all, and it all disappoints.

When I am sitting with someone who is having a hard time, I do not usually have words to offer that are going to make everything “all better.” Face it, sometimes there is nothing on earth that will truly console those in deep suffering: the man who has lost his child to a senseless crime, the woman who has lost the love of her life, the person who has seen their life’s work go for nothing. What I can offer that person is evidence that they are not alone in their suffering. I don’t know “exactly how they feel” but there are voices in the Tanach that come pretty close. Those voices can help put words to feelings, and rebuild the connections between a suffering person and the rest of the world.

I think one can make a good case that Hannah was suffering from depression in the book of 1 Samuel , and that King Saul suffered from bipolar disorder. Ruth was a poor foreign woman in an unfriendly land. Jeremiah was persecuted by the authorities despite the fact that he was a messenger from God. David’s children were a terrible disappointment, except for Solomon, whose children were also a terrible disappointment. Families are mostly dysfunctional.

The people and the voices in the Bible are not goody-two-shoes. They make awful mistakes, they do dreadful things, and terrible things happen to them. And that is the point: they are us.

At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob dies, and Joseph’s brothers fear that he is finally going to take revenge on them for selling him into slavery many years before:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:15-21

That’s the message: we human beings are fallible and frail. We make tragic mistakes, we are selfish, we are vengeful, we are vulnerable to bad luck. However, we can also be agents of good in the world. We can make small differences. We can forgive and cherish and do good deeds. And sometimes things do work out well. Most of all, we are not alone in our experience. As Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

That is not always a bad thing.

Image by Sonny Abesamis, some rights reserved.


What is Midrash?

May 9, 2014
Midrash!

Midrash!

I went to see the film Noah. Seen it? What did you think?

For my comments about the film, check out its entry on the Jewish Film blog. The bottom line: I thought it was great midrash.

Midrash is often spoken of as literature that fills in the gaps in the Biblical story. For instance, what does the Bible tell us about Abraham’s childhood, or for that matter, what does it tell us about why God picked Abram for the covenant?

If you said, “nothing,” that was the right answer.

If you said, “What about the story about his father Terah’s workshop?” then you are referring to a midrash from the 5th century collection Genesis Rabbah.

If you are an eager beaver and want to find books of midrash, you can do so but you may find that they are somewhat daunting. The colorful stories are embedded in sermons, ethical debates, and legal discussions. Classic rabbinical midrash took very specific literary forms which are foreign to modern readers. For a little taste of this sort of midrash, you can find Genesis Rabbah (also called Bereshit Rabbah) online.

Midrash is also a modern process. A film can include midrashic elements (see Noah and The Prince of Egypt.) Novels like The Red Tent can be built completely of midrash.

You can also do midrash on your own. In fact, you probably already do. Have you read a passage from the Torah and thought to yourself, “But what about….?” or “Why did he…..?” If you began to speculate about possibilities that are not actually IN the text, you were engaging in midrash.

Here’s an interesting exercise: try to read a Biblical text and NOT add anything to the text. If you start filling in details, stop. If you start wondering about something, stop. Just deal with the words on the page. It’s tougher than you might think.

Midrash is a very human impulse. We want to understand the text, and when what’s there seems awfully skimpy, it’s natural to speculate. It’s just important to keep track of what is really IN the text and what isn’t.


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.

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