Ask the Rabbi: Is Jewish Law Based on the Bible?

August 25, 2014

Ask the RabbiVM asked: “Does the Rabbinical Courts based their decisions predominantly from the Torah/Tanach? Especially when it comes to Sin & Judgment?!”

This isn’t a simple question, although it might seem like one.  It’s especially pertinent at this season of the year, as we begin a six-week period of self-examination and teshuvah [repentance.]

The Nature of Scripture

Let’s look at the nature of scripture for a moment. Any sacred scripture, be it Tanakh, or the New Testament, or the Koran, is a body of work that is interpreted by the people who use it. An outsider reading it may have any number of impressions about it, but she is unlikely to automatically stumble upon its meaning as understood by insiders. Try this experiment:

Go to the Internet Sacred Text Archive. Choose a text completely unfamiliar to you. If you are not Hindu, you might choose the Rig-Veda. Read the First Hymn, Agni and see what you make of it.

My point is that scripture doesn’t make sense without interpretation, precisely because it is scripture. It is sacred text and that means that is not like the newspaper. For an insider to Hinduism, Agni is meaningful. It rests within a body of understanding and a body of interpretation that render it meaningful. Outside of those contexts, not so much.

Torah

The same is true for Torah. In fact, this is easier to see with Torah and Tanakh [the Jewish Bible, including Torah, Prophets, and Writings] because in fact many different faiths use them as scripture and read them quite differently. Rabbinic Judaism has its ways of looking at them. Roman Catholicism has its ways of looking at them. The Southern Baptist Convention has its ways of looking at them, and so on. Islam recognizes it as a significant text and also looks at Tanakh in its own ways. I’ve written about this in regard to the prophets in “Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy.

Yet the words are all the same, with a few small variations, depending on whether you’re working from the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the King James Bible… you see, it gets complicated quickly when we include translations. Christians tend to work with their scriptures via translation, which is why I included the Vulgate and KJV. Scholars might work primarily on Torah texts in Hebrew, but they’ll also consider the Leningrad Codex and other similar sources.

Rabbinic Judaism works primarily from the Masoretic Text. We’re aware of and refer to the Septuagint and the Targum Onkelos (1st c. Aramaic translation), etc, but we learn and work in the Hebrew handed down to us by the Masoretes.

Interpretation of Commandments

But then we get into the matter of interpretation. For instance:

 :זָכוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ

Remember the Day of the Sabbath, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:7)

The verse offers us a verb in command form, “remember” – OK, it’s a commandment, a mitzvah. It even offers us a goal, “to keep it holy.”

But what behavior is actually commanded here? How shall we “remember” and how do we know if our remembering is working to “keep it holy?” And that is where Rabbinic Judaism goes many different places at once. The Talmud records discussions on this and the myriad of other discussions about mitzvot, as do other bodies of work we call “Oral Torah.” Those discussions continue today in the form of responsa literature and informal discussions, not only among rabbis but in every Jewish household. There are orthodox interpretations of what it means to keep Shabbat, and there are many other legitimate Jewish interpretations of it. The phrase “Jewish Law,” in English refers to halakhah, a traditional orthodox set of choices about interpretation with roots in the medieval codes. Most Jews in the United States today are not halakhic in their approach to lived Judaism: they see those codes as important sources of tradition but not binding upon them.

Picking and Choosing?

Some will see this as “picking and choosing,” and in fact that is exactly what it is. I am choosing to read the text in a certain way. We always do that with sacred texts: we make choices as we read them. We live in a conversation with the text, whether we choose to abide by the choices of a particular group with whom we have affiliated, or whether we make our own individual choices as well.

Final point in answering your question: I’m a little curious as to whom you refer when you say “Rabbinical Courts.” As I pointed out in Is There a Jewish Vatican? there is no central office in Judaism. There are batei din, rabbinical courts, but they generally form for an occasion like a conversion – there isn’t much call for them in most of the Diaspora, where we are bound to follow the law of the land unless it creates a big oy vey situation calling for civil disobedience, etc. In Israel, there are rabbinical courts that run by orthodox, these days mostly haredi, understandings of the texts. Those are text-based, but filtered through the traditional understandings of Talmud and codes, with a considerable mis-use of those texts, if you ask me. (As the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.”)

Short Answer, at last

So my answer to you is: Yes, in that everything goes back to Torah. And No, in that everything is also considered within the web of understanding and interpretation of the texts.

And here’s another question for you: Why do you ask?


Bird Dog in the Stacks

August 21, 2014
Hunting Poodle

Bird dog in action.

I spent yesterday afternoon in the stacks of the library at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The official reason was that I’m assembling images for my Intro class.

As always, I went to the library with one project and found three projects begging for my time. Every book I pulled from the shelf had tantalizing neighbors. Every shelf I passed flirted with me. That library was the candy store when I was a student, and it remains one for me today.

I can lose an entire day bird-dogging after an idea. I get distracted by every interesting scent that comes my way, too. I’ll see an interesting book out of the corner of my eye and off I go on another side trip: Oooo, squirrel! 

Image by Diane, some rights reserved

 


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?


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