Part Jewish?

October 2, 2013
Black and White Cookie @ Martha's Vineyard Gou...

(Photo credit: David Berkowitz)

“When I told the rabbi I was half-Jewish, he was not very friendly.”

The young man who said that to me had recently discovered that his father was a Holocaust survivor. His dad had felt it was not safe to be a Jew, so after the war he hid his Jewish identity, and only revealed it on his deathbed. Joe (not his real name) had been raised without religion, had become a Christian in college, and now was trying to deal with this new information about his family. He was also still grieving for his father, and exploring Judaism was one way to feel connected to his dad. He went to a synagogue (I do not know what synagogue, or which movement it was) and when he approached the rabbi after services and introduced himself with, “I’m half Jewish” the rabbi said, “That’s not possible.”

Joe was baffled and hurt. “What did I do?” he said.

Sometimes I hear people say, “I’m half-Jewish” or “I’m one-quarter Jewish.” That reflects their self understanding. What they need to know, though, is that in the rabbinic Jewish universe, there are categories labeled “Jewish” and “not-Jewish,” but that there is no “part Jewish.” An analogy: it’s like sitting in a poker game and suddenly yelling “GIN!” You know that the hand you hold looks like “gin” (and it does!) but that’s not a hand in the game of poker. “Part Jewish” may be accurate genealogy but Judaism isn’t genealogy.

Why is this? Go back in time, not even very far. Jews were despised by Christians, and not very well-thought-of by most Muslims. Being “half-Jewish” meant having the worst of both worlds: membership in a despised group, and outsider status within that group. Jews decided, sometime about two thousand years ago, to define any person who had a Jewish mother as a Jew, no matter who the father was. That way a child would not be labeled “half-Gentile” and suffer for it. Children with Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers would not be living in the Jewish community. They would be in the Gentile community with their mothers, so they were beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world, hence, not Jewish.

So if you have described yourself to someone as “half-Jewish” or “part Jewish” and gotten a strange reaction or a lecture about Jewish law, that’s what was going on. If you want to bypass the semantics, try saying that you have a “Jewish heritage.” That may make for an easier conversation.

And Joe? We talked at length. It turned out that he was a devout Christian. Ultimately he decided to say he was a believing Christian with a Jewish heritage. I was able to put him in touch with a program for children of Holocaust survivors, because he certainly qualified as a member there.

To my Jewish readers: we need to be careful in speaking to people who identify as part-Jewish, remembering that unkindness is never OK. And if you are a person who has Jews in the family tree, I hope that you will find friendly people with whom to explore as much as you wish.

We are in a time of changes for the Jewish community in the United States. I have a feeling that while traditional categories are not going to change, the number of people who identify as “part Jewish” will grow. It’s going to be an interesting millennium.

 


Beginner’s Guide to the Shofar

August 26, 2013
English: A man demonstrates sounding a shofar ...

A man sounds a shofar at a synagogue in Minnesota.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re in the season of the shofar.

If you go to a synagogue with weekday services, you’ll hear it: the primitive sound that comes from a raw-looking piece of animal horn. It’s meant to wake up your soul. When you hear it, just shut your eyes and let yourself feel it. Let the vibrations shake you up.

Jews have listened to that sound since the earliest days; there are records of the shofar sounding in the Torah, as the Hebrews traveled through the desert. We know the shofar was blown in the Temple. The sound echoes down the centuries.

On Thursday, Sept 5, 2013 we’ll hear it again: there’s a whole short service dedicated to it in the Rosh Hashanah Day service.

Here are some basic facts about the shofar:

  • The singular is SHOW-far, the plural is show-fa-ROTE.
  • The commandment for Rosh Hashanah [New Year's Day] is to hear the sound of the shofar.
  • No, you do not have to blow it yourself.
  • Do not ask to blow someone else’s shofar. It’s as personal as a toothbrush (and full of their spit.)
  • The shofar is usually a horn from a ram or kudu, but never a cow.
  • Most shofarot are plain, with no decoration or separate mouthpiece.
  • A man who blows the shofar is a Ba’al Tekiah (bah-AHL Teh-kee-YAH).
  • A woman who blows it is a Ba’alat Tekiah (bah-ah-LAHT Teh-kee-YAH.)
  • Decorated shofarot are not used for services.

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.


More About Hebrew Names: What if I Have One Jewish Parent?

May 24, 2013

Apple Tree In Full Bloom, Washington State.

A while back I wrote A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. A thoughtful reader of this blog commented over on twitter that I neglected to talk about the Hebrew name of children of interfaith marriages. Excellent question!

If you haven’t read the earlier piece, it explains that Hebrew names include a given name and the names of the people through whom one has a claim to Judaism. So for children of two Jewish parents, their name follows the pattern Firstname  ben/bat  JewishFather’sName v’ JewishMother’sName. For a convert to Judaism, their name is Firstname-of-their-choosing ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah. (If that doesn’t make sense, you might want to click on the link and take a look at the other article before reading further.)

I did an informal survey of Reform rabbis about this very question a few months ago.

Out of eight rabbis who replied, three said they included the name of the Gentile parent, transliterated to Hebrew.  So Ruthie, whose parents are David (a Jew) and Susan (a Catholic) would have the Hebrew name Rut bat Da-veed v’Su-san.  Or Joe, son of Steve (Hebrew name Shlomo) and Jane (a Methodist) would have the name Yosef ben Shlomo v’Jane.

The other five rabbis said, no, they only use the name of the Jewish parent, so the children above would be Rut bat Da-veed and Yosef ben Shlomo. Almost all rabbis mentioned that they would be very careful to mention both parents’ names in English at an event like a bar mitzvah or naming. This is a more traditional answer.

It’s a delicate subject, because names and family relationships are close to the heart. The latter approach is more in line with strict Jewish legal terms, but given that we are commanded to “Honor father and mother,” naming the non-Jewish parent also has its logic.

What do I think? I think that as a general rule, the traditional answer makes sense. I love my parents, but I did not receive the Torah from them; I receive it through the merit of Abraham and Sarah. My biological parents are not in my Hebrew name because it is my “ID” when I am called to the Torah, and it has to do with my credentials as a Jew, without any rejection or disrespect to them. However, in a case where the non-Jewish parent has been instrumental in raising a child as a Jew, I can see the logic of including their name. As with many things in Jewish life, there is a theoretical answer, but in real life I would make the call on a case by case basis.

Again, if that was gibberish, take a look at A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. I invite your comments!

– HaRav Rut bat Avraham v’Sarah


If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

May 21, 2013

English: This vending machine was made by Nati...

“Keep us in your prayers.”

Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said these words last night to TV anchor Rachel Maddow, when she asked what concerned viewers could do for the victims of the tornadoes that ripped through Moore, OK yesterday. According to his official biography, Mr. Lamb attends a Baptist church. I don’t know anything about Ms. Maddow’s religious affiliations. And yet I know in my gut what Mr. Lamb was saying to Ms. Maddow, and her serious nod in reply made sense, because we’re all Americans and we say these things when things are so bad that there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do.

What is it we are asking for, when we ask for prayers? My guess, from Mr. Lamb’s affiliation, is that he hopes that viewers will direct words or thoughts to God that will influence or inform God’s choices over the next hours and days. I do not want to make light of Mr. Lamb’s faith, any more than I’d want him to make light of mine. My faith works differently, however. (I feel odd calling it “faith,” but again, we’re Americans and that’s the lingo.)

When I tell people that I will keep them in my prayers, I am absolutely serious about that statement. I call their names to mind or may even mention their names aloud when I say my daily prayers. However, I do not expect the prayers to influence God. For starters, the one thing I know for sure about God is that I know bubkes [nothing] about God. God is beyond my little brain. I take my directions for my behavior from Torah, which suggests that even if my brain is too limited for God, it is good to pray daily, and it is good to use that time to pray for things that concern me.

So why pray, if I think that God is beyond my imagination? I pray because I am a limited being. I pray words that have been said for generations, that have shaped the thoughts and attitudes of Jews through the centuries. When I pray for people, I grow my compassion for them. I meditate on their sorrows, and my heart grows bigger. Will my prayers affect the fate of people in Oklahoma? I don’t know for sure. What I am sure of is that it is good for me to have compassion for them, it is good for me to think of them as part of my circle of concern. It will be good for me, should I ever be so unfortunate as to be in a disaster, to know that other people far away care about me. But it will also be good for me to have learned, from prayer, that I am not the only person in the world with troubles.

God is not a vending machine. I cannot put a prayer in and get what I want. God is not even a bad vending machine, that takes my prayer and gives me what it wants. God is beyond me. But in praying for those in trouble, I strengthen the bonds of humanity. When I pray, I remind myself that I am not God.

When I pray, I remind myself that I am my brother’s keeper, no matter how different our politics, no matter how different our ideas about things like “God.”


Why Go to Funerals?

May 20, 2013
Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

As regular readers know, sometimes I get topics from looking at the searches that brought people to my blog (thank you, wordpress.com, for the great info!) Here’s a great one:

How is it a good thing to go to a funeral?

Let me rephrase it just a bit:

Why would anyone in their right mind go to a funeral?

Jewish tradition gives us two big reasons to go to a funeral. The first, levayat hamet [accompanying the dead] is exactly what it sounds like: we accompany the dead person to the grave. The reason behind that is that dead bodies are vulnerable. They can’t defend themselves. Bad things can happen to them. So we accompany the dead person to the grave to be sure that he or she is put in the ground with respect for the person that they were.

The second reason to go to a funeral is menachem avel [comforting the mourner]. “Comforting” does not mean “make them feel all better” – that’s impossible. Comforting, in this context, means simply being with them, letting them know that people care. You do not need to “say the right thing” – all you really need to do is to avoid saying the wrong thing. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be silent.  “I am so sorry for your loss” is perfectly fine. The traditional words of comfort are “May you be comforted among the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem” – another reminder to the mourner that he or she is not alone.

Things not to say:  “You’ll get over it.” “He was old.” “He’s in a better place.” “She’s better off.” or even “She’s watching you from heaven.” You have no proof that any of these things are true, so don’t say them.

Funerals are uncomfortable if you are not used to them. Jewish funerals are generally quite short and simple. There are a few traditional prayers and psalms, and either the rabbi or the family stand up to talk a bit about the person who died. At graveside, there are brief prayers and then family and friends take a shovel of dirt and put it on the casket in the grave. These things are done to help bring home the reality of the death and to help the mourning process get moving.

The more funerals you attend, the more accustomed to them you will become. For tips on attending your first Jewish funeral, check out this article. Death is a part of life. It is a great kindness to mourners to reach out to them when they are grieving, and especially to attend the funeral.

How is it a good thing to go to a funeral? It is a good thing, because it is a kind thing. No one should stand alone by the grave of someone they love.


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