Is Judaism a Religion or a Culture?

January 11, 2014
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Ethiopian Jews meet with Israeli President Ezer Weitzmann

A lot of Americans are puzzled when they look closely at the Jewish community, because sometimes it looks like religion isn’t very important to Jews. Many Jews only go to synagogue at the High Holy Days. Many more never go to synagogue at all. We have lots of “secular Jewish” organizations that do social justice work or poor relief or jewish community service of some kind. Some Jews refer to themselves as cultural Jews. (When was the last time you heard someone refer to themselves as a cultural Christian?)

It gets even more confusing when you look at world Jewry, because Judaism encompasses a number of ethnicities. Here in the US we are most familiar with Ashkenazi culture (think Fiddler on the Roof.) Ashkenazi means “Jews from Eastern Europe.” However, the first Jewish Americans were Sephardic, meaning that their ancestors had at one time been part of the Jewish culture of Spain. There are also Mizrahi Jews, Jews of the Middle East, who have rich and interesting subcultures such as Persian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Egyptian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and so on. Most of the Mizrahi communities today survive in Israel or the US, because they were evicted from their home countries in the 20th century, but the music, the food, and the liturgy survive and are distinct from anything else in the Jewish world.

Judaism is a religion, but it is more than that. It includes religion, worldview, lifestyle, a calendar and a sense of connection to the other Jews of the world. It is rooted in a Teaching, which we call Torah, and the language of that Teaching, Hebrew. Jews disagree about the pronunciation of Hebrew or about the interpretation of Torah but even the most a-religious Jew is linked to other Jews by those two things. Our concepts of justice, of law, and our priorities of life find their sources in Torah. Our ways of measuring time, of eating and drinking, of welcoming children and mourning the dead are rooted in Torah. We do not agree on interpretation, but that is interpretation, not the source itself.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan said it best when he called Judaism a civilization. It defies limitations like “religion” or “ethnicity;” it is one of the oldest civilizations on earth.  That is why, when the sage Hillel was asked to sum it up while standing on one foot (in the 1st century!) he concluded his precís with the words “Go and study,” and why the sage Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

So, go and study. Turn the scroll and learn, but resist any temptation to confine Judaism to a tidy package. There’s nothing tidy about it.

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Five Tips for a More Meaningful Shabbat

July 5, 2013
Shabbat meal

Shabbat meal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some Tips for Making the Most of Shabbat:

IMAGINE what you think Shabbat should be.  Traditional observance for 25 hours? Or a more liberal approach? Let your imagining be very specific. Then, even if this is not something you could do every week, make that imagined Shabbat happen, just once.  See how it feels, tastes, smells.

STUDY Shabbat. The observance of Shabbat is really an art that merits a bit of study. If you haven’t read Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Shabbat, you’re in for a treat. If some other book appeals to you, give it a go! Survey other Jews you trust: how do they observe Shabbat?

SHARE your desire for a more meaningful Shabbat with your partner or spouse. Maybe they are wishing for more, too!

DECIDE ahead of time what you are going to do or not do on Shabbat. Make a plan and commit to it for one week. Shabbat will take place whether you “show up” for it or not. Torah tells us to “keep Shabbat” and “remember Shabbat” – both verbs suggest that we take action towards Shabbat, not simply let it roll over us.

EXPERIMENT if you are not satisfied with the way you currently experience Shabbat. If you don’t usually attend synagogue, give it a try. If you never turn off your smartphone, turn it off! If you find that traditional observance leaves you grumpy, take a good hard look at what you are doing and why.  Maybe it’s time for a change.


On Being Good: “Is this the fast I have chosen?”

July 1, 2013
mmmm doughnut ...

(Photo credit: bunchofpants)

“I am not going to eat that doughnut; I’m going to be good.”

If you are an American, you’ve heard it. If you are an American woman, you’ve heard it a lot. But when was the last time you heard yourself or someone else say it about something that actually had moral value?

“I’m to obey every traffic law today. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m going to lobby against my own financial interests in favor of the interests of the poor. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m going to speak kindly to every person I meet for the next hour. I’m going to be good.”

… or even in reference to food:

“I’m not going to buy or eat chocolate that might have been produced by enslaved children. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m not going to buy or eat food that causes human or animal suffering. I’m going to be good.”

In Isaiah 58, God says to Israel:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

What kind of a world could we build if we put the energy into actual good deeds that we put into dieting and diet talk?

This post was inspired by: 


Prayer of the Broken Heart

June 23, 2013

English: Women with Broken Heart

How is one to pray with a broken heart?

Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately  need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.

There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths.  That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”

A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?

The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.

In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:

  • Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
  • We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
  • We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
  • We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
  • Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
  • With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
  • Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.

Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?


Why Join a Synagogue?

January 18, 2013
We Celebrate The Torah

(Photo credit: wordsnpix)

1.  CRADLE TO GRAVE JEWISH EDUCATION OPPORTUNITIES. Whether you are the parents of toddlers or a grandparent yourself – or a single person who wants to deepen their Jewish life – the most likely place to find opportunities for Jewish learning and growth is your local synagogue. Even if formal classes aren’t offered, you can find other Jews interested in film, or mysticism, or cooking, or whatever your heart desires.

2. RABBI ON-CALL. Not every congregation has a full time rabbi, but those who do offer you a rabbi you don’t have to shop for in a crisis. Some things you can schedule ahead of time, but most of life’s most stressful times do not come at our convenience.  Also see above: a rabbi is a teacher.

3. EXTENDED FAMILY. Many of us find local extensions of “family” at synagogue, people who can be there for us in good times and bad. When our relatives live far away, it can be good to have some family nearby.

4. OPPORTUNITIES FOR PERSONAL GROWTH. Do you have talents you long to share? Synagogue communities can be a place to learn and cultivate leadership skills, music skills, and public speaking skills. They are a place to find support for parenting challenges and for “sandwich generation” stresses. It is a community of shared values in which we can grow to be our best selves. And yes, a synagogue is the place for Jewish spiritual growth via worship and learning.

5. BUILD JEWISH COMMUNITY.  In every generation, some Jews have kept the hearth warm at synagogue for newcomers.  If you join a synagogue, you support the Jewish future by keeping the doors open for Jews.


Why Learn Torah?

November 29, 2012
Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem

Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learn Torah because I think it offers a framework for living my life.

If I am busy observing 613 mitzvot [commandments] there is not much time or energy left for getting into mischief.

If I am busy blessing the food that I eat, the mitzvot I perform, and the ordinary pleasures of life there’s very little time left for being unhappy.

If I fill my days with chesed [lovingkindness] there will be no room for kveching.

If I fill my mouth with blessings there will be no room in it for lashon hara.

I learn Torah because it offers me a framework in which I can explore my options and make choices to live a better life. When I have a tough decision, I look to the tradition for the many discussions on that subject: what did the early rabbis have to say about it? What did Maimonides teach? What have more recent scholars had to say to people in my situation? What do my rabbis think? And then I use my brain, and I decide for myself.

But without the study, without the Torah, I have to make it up all on my own. There are things I won’t think of until it is too late. There are things I might never have considered. But when I have the Torah at my back, I know that while I may still make a mistake, I will know how I got there, and the tradition will still be with me to show me how to take responsibility and repair any damage.

With mitzvot [commandments] to shape my life, and the Torah to inform my choices, I believe I have a chance at making a real difference in the world.

I learn Torah because people much wiser than I found wisdom there.


Giving Justly

November 26, 2012
Food Bank Donations

Food Bank Donations (Photo credit: NJLA: New Jersey Library Association)

After the last long weekend (almost a week, really) of consumption (Thanksgiving aka Turkey Day, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday) two clever nonprofit executives have come up with the idea of “Giving Tuesday.” So let’s see:  first give thanks, then consume, then give?

Jewish tradition suggests that giving be part of our budget from the beginning, not an afterthought at the end.  However this new holiday (?) offers is a reminder near the end of the secular year that our lives are not just about us. One measure of a person is the good that he or she manages to do in the world.

How much should we give for tzedakah? That’s the Jewish word for charitable giving. Let me ask you that question another way:  guesstimate the following figures:

  • the cable bill per month
  • amount spent on coffee drinks per month
  • or some other not-necessary-for-survival budget item

Now compare that to “given in tzedakah a month.” Tzedakah includes:

  • money to charities
  • to your temple
  • to Cousin Fred to pay his rent last month
  • in-kind gifts to charities (canned goods to the Food Bank)
  • the dollar to the homeless woman

The idea is that this giving relieves suffering and makes life more livable for people who need help. The question is, how much was it? And how does that compare to your cable bill? Your coffee bill? How does it compare to any other nice-but-not-necessary-for-life item in your budget?

If the numbers appear to be out of balance in favor of tzedakah, good for you! If they are out of balance the other direction, I encourage you to think about writing a check  on Giving Tuesday. It’s another way of keeping life in balance.

(If you’d rather do this by a more traditional method, you can use Maimonides‘ rule of thumb: 5% of income if you have a low income, 10% if you are well-off. I know, those are challenging percentages, but it is the ideal, and there are people who manage to do it, most of them on the lower, not the upper end of the income scale.)

Consider giving for justice’s sake, not just on Tuesday, but on a regular basis.  As Hillel says, “Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has.” (Avot 4.1) The more we give, the richer we feel.  That’s the miracle.


Why I Belong to a Congregation

October 13, 2012
English: Exterior of Temple Sinai - First Hebr...

English: Temple Sinai – Photo credit: Wikipedia

Today I was reminded again why I belong to a congregation.

My partner is out of town, enjoying a long-planned trip with friends. The friends with her are good friends of mine, too — but the three of them are doing something that I wouldn’t enjoy. So I don’t begrudge her being gone, nor do I begrudge them. Truly, it’s all good.

Only I’ve been lonesome. It’s been a stressful week, for a lot of reasons that are not for a public blog, and I was a bit sad and a bit lonely.  I’ve been following my instincts when lonesome and stressed-out, which is to watch more TV than is good for me, and to work more than is really necessary. In other words, I’ve been hiding.

But today I had a commitment to keep: I had promised to read the haftarah for services this morning. This morning, as I got dressed up to go, I wished I didn’t have the commitment. I wished I could just hide some more. But I got up, dressed up, and went to services at Temple Sinai.

As soon as I walked in the door, most things were familiar. I noticed that the prayer books and chumashim (books with the Torah and haftarah in them) were jumbled on the shelf, so I tidied them up. I chatted with a acquaintance, and met a couple of new people. I reconnected with a recently widowed person with whom I hadn’t really talked in years.

The service was nice. Some of the words blew past me, but others reminded me of the person I would like to be, the person I intend to be.  We learned a little  Torah, and the chair of the Green committee told us what that committee does (encourage recycling and improve water use around the shul.)  The music was excellent, although I was a trifle annoyed that I didn’t know all of it.

At kiddush (the Shabbat meal) afterwards: more friends, more little conversations.  Nothing earthshaking, just a reminder that I’m part of a community. I’m needed, if I will just step up and straighten the books, or volunteer for something. I’m needed to pay attention, too. Other people have troubles, bigger troubles than mine: I heard about recovery from surgery, and new widowhood, and disappointments in business.  I heard a few jokes, applauded a couple of impending birthdays, complimented someone’s Torah reading. I resolved, as I left, that I need to be more present in this place, because it connects me to other Jews, to people with Jewish values.

This is the real reason I belong to a congregation.  I came home reconnected to the Jewish people.  That is almost always what happens to me when I go to shul (synagogue). Some of it was good, some of it was boring, some of it was trivial, but it was centered on Torah. I am reminded of who I am, what I want to do in the world.

I am a Jew.  I am part of a People. I remember that best when I can touch base with other Jews, and the best way I know to do that is with my congregation.

Thank you, Temple Sinai.  I love you.


A Beginner’s Guide to Sukkot

September 27, 2012

A Pretty Sukkah

Sukkot is perhaps the most joyful Jewish holiday. Here are a few basic things to know about it:

WHAT DOES SUKKOT MEAN? Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh].

WHO CELEBRATES SUKKOT? Jews worldwide celebrate Sukkot, although the holiday is most festive in the land of Israel.

WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on Oct. 1, 2012. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.

WHAT’S THE POINT? Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.

WHERE DO WE KEEP SUKKOT?  Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.

WHAT ELSE HAPPENS DURING SUKKOT? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held together with an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.  There are also special festival readings and prayers of praise in the synagogue.

ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?  Yes!  There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.

WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH? Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:

  • Go on a picnic with family or friends.
  • Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
  • Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
  • Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.

Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality.  Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!


Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi

September 12, 2012

Rabbis are individuals, no two quite alike.

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.

The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old.  This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.

If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens.  My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be.  Oy!)

So you want to find your rabbi.  Here are seven bits of advice:

1.  ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.

2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS.  You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.

3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT.  You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them.  Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.)  You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi.  This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.

When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen.  Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can.  Ask her the questions on your mind.

4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES.  Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them.  Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!”  So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.

5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK.  If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.

6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME? August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”

7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG: If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.

If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net.  If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.

Happy hunting!


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