Teaching and Learning and Joy, oh my!

September 29, 2013

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

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

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

I love to teach. It’s what I do.


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.


Why I Love Shavuot

May 9, 2013
English: Sunrise on Mt. Sinai in Egypt

English: Sunrise on Mt. Sinai in Egypt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m so excited:  my favorite Jewish holiday is coming!

I love Shavuot. I’ve loved it ever since the first time someone suggested I go to Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the Study for the Night of Shavuot, which might better be called the Jewish All Nighter.

I was a new convert, fresh from the mikveh. I’d been going to Torah Study at my synagogue for a while, but I found it very intimidating. Everyone was so sure of themselves! And loud! I was a bit timid, and while I loved study, Torah study was overwhelming. Still, when someone turned to me and asked if I was going to attend the all night study session to celebrate the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai, I nodded.

I learned a lot of Torah that night, but I learned more about Jews, and about myself. I got a feel for the joy of study, for the adrenaline charge in a good machlochet [difference of opinion]. I learned that even the most scholarly people get silly after 2 am. Most of all, by the end of the night I was one of the gang. I never again felt timid in that room.

It’s been a long time since that first Tikkun. Now I’m a rabbi, and I’m teaching one of the 11:30pm sessions at the community gathering at the JCC. The rest of the night I’ll go from session to session, learning and getting silly and yawning and learning some more. But there will still be that giddy feeling of sitting up all night with the Torah, loving it and loving the people of Torah. What could be more wonderful?


Chanting my way into Torah

February 21, 2013
Torah

Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

I’m preparing to chant Torah this coming Shabbat.  It is not the easiest thing for me, but it’s good for me, because if I don’t use this skill, I’ll lose it. The process of preparing the portion to chant takes me into a deep analysis of the text, a dream-place where the text transforms before me.

Yes, there are some texts that bore me, at least before I’ve studied them. This one is a case in point: Exodus 30, the directions for the small golden altar for burning incense.  The Torah goes into excruciating detail about its dimensions and construction. When I first read it, I sighed. Not only do I need to chant it, I need to preach on it, and I had the feeling it was going to be a job to get a good drash out of a small piece of furniture.

So I began: first translating the passage for myself. It’s very straightforward, almost a cookbook. Nothing catches my eye. Then I begin to chant from the tikkun, the book that has all the marks to designate vowels, punctuation, and melody (the Torah scroll itself has none of those.)  I go one short phrase at a time, singing it over and over until I’ve got it. Periodically I stop to figure out how to fit phrases together.  Still boring: details, details.  Details, details, details.  Yawn.

Then I begin to notice how the melody comments upon the text: emphasize this word, that phrase.  Make a sort of soprano hiccup (geresh!) on one little preposition.  Gradually the text warms up, or I warm up to it. The little incense table begins to take shape, and glow.

Sometimes Torah is transparent. More often is it opaque.  All I know is that if I will spend time on it, invest my heart in it, open my soul to it, every time it will come to life before my eyes.

 


6 Tips for Beginning to Study Torah

December 28, 2012

If you are a beginner at Torah study, here are six tips that will help you. The most important one is #1 – if you can find an ongoing group to study with, that’s the best of all.

  1. STUDY WITH OTHERS.  Reading Torah by yourself is good, of course, but Jews typically study with partners or groups.  We do this for a number of reasons, but most of it boils down to the obvious: two heads are better than one, and ten heads offer lots of resources for looking into a text.
  2. READ ALOUD. Read a verse, or a section aloud, then discuss. Hearing the text is different than reading it, and will spur different ideas. Even if you have read the text a hundred times before, read it aloud.
  3. NO SINGLE RIGHT ANSWERS. When Jews study, we are not looking for the “right answer.” Usually there are many right answers.
  4. STAY SELF-AWARE. Notice the difference between what is IN the text and what you BRING to the text.  For example, our reading of several stories in Genesis may be colored by our own experiences as eldest or younger children. It’s not bad to have those reactions, but it’s good to be conscious about them.
  5. LISTEN AND SPEAK.  Hillel said, “The shy person will not learn” – if we don’t ask questions and speak up, we don’t learn much.  However, the converse is also true: the person who is always talking will not learn much either. Listen to what your study partners have to say, and think it over. Don’t just react.
  6. BE REGULAR IN STUDY. Don’t drop into a group occasionally: become a regular. Learning with others is good, but when we meet regularly to study we develop relationships with our partners and with the text that will deepen our access to Torah.

Happy Learning!


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.


7 Ways to Taste Shabbat

April 30, 2012
Shabbat meal

Shabbat meal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if, for one day, we were slaves to nothing and no one?  How would our lives be different?

That is the premise of Shabbat:  the seventh day, the day of rest, the day when even God rested from the work of Creation.  The problem of Shabbat, often, is that many of us are intimidated by the idea of a full-on shomer Shabbat experience.  It’s just too much change, all at once, if you are starting at or near zero.  

Instead, I’m offering you seven options for letting a little Shabbat into your own life.  These are things that have worked for me and for my family.  They may need to be modified for you and your family.  You may only want to try ONE of them, or one of them may inspire you to your own path to Shabbat. That’s OK.

[For a more traditional set of information about Shabbat at home, there are excellent articles on My Jewish Learning.]

1.  SHABBAT DINNER.  What is dinner like at your house on an ordinary day?  What would make it better? The answer to that will differ from one household to another. What if there were candles on Friday night? What if there were agreement ahead of time that there would be no criticizing or  nagging? What if there were guests? What if no one had to cook, if it were all take-out?  What if you used the good dishes? If any of these things sound like “work” to you, don’t go there, at least at first.  Do something that makes you feel that you could say, “Tonight we are slaves to no one and nothing.”

2. TURN OFF THE CELL PHONE. Have you ever ignored someone right in front of you, perhaps someone you love, because something on the cell phone was Very Important Right Now?  Not everyone can turn off their cell phone.  Some are doctors on call, after all.  But if you can, consider turning off the cell phone and try some old-fasioned conversation.  Or just look and listen.  Rabbi Micah Streiffer wrote recently about Shabbat as a remedy for Information Overload.

3. REACH OUT TO FAMILY. Shabbat can be a great time to reach out to family who are distant, maybe even as a routine. Do you have a child at college? A sister or a parent in another city? A brother with a busy life on the other side of town?  If family is in town, but you never get together any more, maybe get together for a meal.

4. REACH OUT TO FRIENDS. When did you last hang out with your best friend?  What about inviting them (and their family?) for dinner and board games?  What about a Saturday afternoon bike ride, or hike in the park? If you have friends who celebrate Shabbat, ask them if you can join them for part of it, to get a taste of it.  It really is OK to ask, as long as your are willing to take “no” for an answer.

5. GET SOME SLEEP. According to the L.A. Times, 75 million Americans do not get enough sleep. A Shabbat afternoon nap will not make up for a week of 4 hour nights, but it can go a long way to bring some shalom, some wholeness, back into life.  Or instead of staying up to watch Leno or Ferguson or any of those late-night comics, turn in early on Friday night!

6. MOVE FOR JOY. Go to a park and play!  Ride your bike!  Play tag with your kids! Roughhouse with your dog! Get outdoors, find some nature, or unroll the yoga mat for a leisurely session of pure catlike pleasure.  Get back in touch with your body.  Get back in touch with your spouse’s body.  We are created beings, physical beings, and it is not good for us to live in our heads all the time.

7. GATHER WITH OTHER JEWS. Gather with other Jews for Shabbat, at synagogue or the Jewish Community Center.  If your town doesn’t have a synagogue or JCC, find out where the Jews gather.  If services don’t speak to you, try Torah Study – many  synagogues have a Torah Study group that meets on Shabbat, and it is often a group of friendly people who enjoy a bagel and a good discussion.  Jewish life and Jewish learning is always richer in company.

These are just seven little possibilities.  Follow your heart, follow the hearts in your household.  Every family keeps Shabbat in its own way; if you begin the journey, something wonderful awaits!


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