What’s a Mitzvah?

August 27, 2014

“What’s a mitzvah?” a reader recently asked.

If you look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, it will tell you that a mitzvah is a commandment.

“Commandment” in English implies that it comes from outside, and it isn’t my choice. And yet each mitzvah IS a choice: I can keep it, or I can neglect it. It’s up to me. These duties are rooted in Torah, but they are acted out in my life, and in the lives of my fellow Jews.

I prefer to think of mitzvot (that’s the plural) as my sacred duties. Whether they are as lofty as saying my prayers, or as mundane as paying workers on time, they increase the holiness in the world, and they are choices I make every moment of every day. I do not get a gold star for doing them. They are just what I do as a Jew.

This month I’m asking myself: which of my sacred duties have I neglected? Which have I done poorly, done for ego, done only when someone is looking? Which have I treated as truly sacred?

How can I do better?

This post is inspired by #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, also known as @imabima.

 


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!

 


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.


Time and Torah

May 20, 2014

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Among the everlasting puzzles of the Torah are its expressions of time. The Book of Numbers is a case in point: it is explicitly not in chronological order.

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt. (Numbers 1:1)

Then, in chapter 9, we read:

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt (Numbers 9:1)

There are other instances where the chronology is not so clearly out of order, but where a careful reader will say, “What? Didn’t that already happen?” Genesis has two completely different Creation stories – was the world created twice?

For this reason, our sages concluded long ago that “there is no earlier or later in the Torah.” (Pesachim 6b). In other words, while we may certainly seek insight from the arrangement of events in the Torah, we should not assume that the only way to arrange them in the order in which they appear.

Genesis chapter 5 is full of ages that drive readers crazy. Adam supposedly lived to be 930 years of age. (Genesis 5:4-5) “Did he really live that long?” students ask, and I always reply, “What do you think?”

It does not make any sense that a human being was able to be alive for 930 years. It is somewhat more believable (but still a stretch) that Moses lived to be 120. I think it is more likely that these extreme ages have symbolic meanings, which may or may not be available to us today. Adam’s age is 130 when he sires Seth, the third son who was born after Cain killed Abel. Then Adam lives 800 more years. I am not aware of particular significance of either 130 or 800 — but what if the text is telling us that Adam felt 130 after one son murdered the other? But then the birth of a third child gave him hope, and he was fortunate to live to see that third child grow up and have children of his own?

If you follow up by reading Genesis 5, you’ll see that the chronology of the story of Noah doesn’t really work, since Noah was supposedly 500 when he sired Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and the Flood was 100 years later….!

But remember, “there is no earlier or later in Torah.” So perhaps it makes more sense to say, Adam lived to a good old age and saw his grandchildren. Noah was no spring chicken when he built the ark. Moses was a grown man when he spoke with the burning bush and an old man when he looked out from Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land.

While we like to think in chronological patterns, life itself is not that simple. Have you ever met a child who was an “old soul?” Met someone in their 80’s with a young heart? Needed to know how a story ended, before you could take in its beginning? Whether Torah is a blueprint of the world, or a mirror of the world, “it is not in the heavens” (Deut. 30:12) but here in our hands, to interpret today.

Image: Gero, “Time,” Some rights reserved under Creative Commons license.


The Bondwoman’s Narrative

January 25, 2014
Title Page, in the author's handwriting

Title Page, in the author’s handwriting

I just finished reading The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts. The book was published in 2002, but I somehow missed hearing about it until I read a New York Times article this past September. I added it to my list of books to read, and it finally came to the top.

I love books that open up a window to history, and this one did not fail. “Hannah Crafts” is the pen name of Hannah Bond, a woman who was born and grew up enslaved in the antebellum South, and who as an adult made a successful run for freedom. The edition I read has both a Prologue by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and footnotes by Dr. Gates, which provide a context for the story, which appears to be heavily autobiographical. This is the only known written slave narrative that was not edited by white publishers.  The copy that was discovered appears to be the working manuscript, so we see not only the story as the author intended it, but also the rejected phrases and false beginnings that can reveal a great deal about the writer’s process, even her handwriting. As such, while the story in the narrative is wonderful and carried me into the history, Dr. Gate’s material and Ms. Crafts’ own notations offer the reader an even deeper trip into her experience.

Ms. Crafts makes clear that this world is not divided so neatly into black and white as many romanticists imagine, but that indeed, many if not most people in the novel’s world are or might be mixed race. Uncertainties about this form a major plot point, but it also led me to wonder how much of the later anxiety about “drops of blood” in the Southern psyche and legal system came from insecurity about this point. This carries me back to some of my other ruminations about authenticity (Who’s the Most Jewish?, The Problem of Legitimacy Part 1 and Part 2.) Sometimes I wonder if we human beings are cruelest to those we think may be a bit too much like ourselves.

The book itself was a page-turner. It’s clear she’d read some Brontë and similar novels, but her own voice shines through, and I’m glad that no helpful editor came along to “fix” it. It is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, and to the difference small kindnesses can make in the world. I am horrified to think of all the Hannahs whose voices are forever lost.

The Torah connection to this? Do I even need to say it? Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt… [Genesis 15:15] We are commanded to pay attention to this topic, to continue to learn, to continue to fight injustice, to free the captive. Hannah Crofts voice speaks to us across time, reminding us what it is to be enslaved.


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.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Government Press Office (GPO)


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