Pass It On!

English: Girl lighting shabbat candles
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been a Jewish professional for almost 14 years.

I started with the Outreach Department of the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.) There I was part of a national staff that assisted congregations in planning programming to be more welcoming to new members of the community, including converts to Judaism, interfaith households, and Jews who had grown up without Jewish community.

“Programs” were at the heart of the work. We designed programs to help people integrate into their congregations. We designed programs to help the congregations grow into more welcoming places. We designed programs to help people talk about difficult topics like Christmas trees, and in-laws. And all that work was important.

Looking back, though, I think the most important programs were those that taught people how to “do Jewish”: how to light Shabbat candles, how to prepare for the High Holy Days, how to set a Passover table, and so on. Those programs taught people that they didn’t need programs: they needed to take action themselves. And in retrospect, we left out a very important instruction: Now that you know how, go include others in this mitzvah you’ve learned how to do.

I continue the Outreach work in this blog with my “Especially for Beginners” category of posts. I’ve got posts on cooking Shabbat dinner, and posts on Synagogue Vocabulary. I’ve written about what “Yashar Koach” means and how to find a rabbi. And all this is good and necessary, judging from the fact that the blog gets lots of readers via searches, people looking for bar mitzvah etiquette and rules for funerals and whatnot.

But “programs” are not the reason that Jewish civilization has thrived for three millennia – Jews living Torah and teaching it to others is how we have survived to this day. Instruction books can only tell “how to,”  whether written in codices by 16th century mystics or in blogs by modern day rabbis. They cannot transmit the warmth of the table, the camaraderie of an afternoon spent decorating a sukkah with friends, the laughter around a Shabbat table. They cannot transmit the power of simple human presence at a shivah.

Many of us want the warmth, the camaraderie, the laughter, and the comfort. But we will not get them from “programs.” We will get them from living Torah with other Jews. That is why I’m moving into a place where I can more easily have people over: I want to teach Torah by Doing Torah. And what I want to tell you is that you can do this too.

Join me on this adventure. Invite someone for this Shabbat. Invite others to join you, even if nothing is kosher, even if it is at a restaurant, even if you do it with takeout on a card table. Don’t think of it as entertaining – think of it as what it is: Torah.

What’s Simchat Torah?

Simchat Torah (seem-CHAT toe-RAH) or (SEEM-chas TOE-rah) is a joyful day on the Jewish calender.  It concludes the fall series of Jewish holidays. Some things to know about Simchat Torah:

Simhat Torah Flag
Children can’t dance with the Torah in their arms, so they carry flags to celebrate (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

MEANS – “Rejoicing of the Torah.” Many Jews literally dance with the Torah scrolls on this day.

WHEN – This holiday falls after Sukkot. For Diaspora Jews, it is the second day of Shemini Atzeret. For Israeli Jews and Reform Jews, it is the day after Shemini Atzeret. (Either way, it’s the 23rd of Tishrei, which in 2013, begins at sundown on Sept 26.)

WHAT DO WE DO? – We finish reading the end of the Torah Scroll, then quickly begin reading it again! In many congregations, this activity is accompanied by dancing, parades, and banners.

WHY? – We love Torah, and we want make sure we never stop reading it. Therefore we make a very big deal about beginning again. Also, since the Torah has to be rolled back to the beginning, and that’s a big deal anyway, why not make a party of it? This is an opportunity to express our love for Torah.

Details differ among Jewish communities, and your congregation may have special customs of its own. For instance, when I was a rabbinic intern at Congregation Etz Chaim in Merced, CA, we used to unroll the whole Torah scroll and take a “tour” of it before rolling it up again.

Does your congregation have a special Simchat Torah custom? Share it with us in the comments!

Jewish Blessings for Meals

The sanctification of ordinary life is a hallmark of Jewish living. “You shall be holy, as the Eternal your God is holy” begins the Holiness Code, the very heart of the Torah (Leviticus 19.)

So when we eat, we take an ordinary thing (eating) and turn it into something more, something sacred, by surrounding the act of eating with blessings.

First, we NOTICE: I’m going to eat dinner!

Then, we ACKNOWLEDGE by blessing: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Creator of Time & Space, who brings forth bread from the earth. We acknowledge that we are not the Bosses of Dinner: even if I cooked that dinner, I did not grind the flour, I did not grow the green beans, and I certainly didn’t give life to all the various components of the meal. By blessing I acknowledge that it is a miracle that the meal exists and that many human hands and perhaps animal lives went into making it. I acknowledge that this meal is a miracle.

Then we EAT. Yay!

Then we BLESS again. This time it is a long blessing called the Birkat Hamazon, It is a set of four blessings that we say because of the mitzvah (commandment) in Deuteronomy 8:10 “You will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless.” This time it is a thank you blessing, but it doesn’t stop with a private thanksgiving. It goes on to thank God for sustaining all creatures, for sustaining the Jewish People, asking that God sustain the Jews in the future (sort of a thanks-in-advance) and then a fourth blessings gives thanks for all the many happy relations between God and Israel.  Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, Memphis has made a very nice YouTube video you can watch below.

The Power of Love

English: An Aastra 53i VoIP handset. Photo tak...

It is taught: Rabbi Eliezer the great used to say: Why does the Torah warn in thirty six places – and some say, in forty six places – concerning the stranger? Because humanity tends towards evil. Why is it written ‘Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’?  – Bava Metzia 59b

Over and over, the Torah repeats to us a commandment concerning the stranger, that we will not mistreat the stranger, that we will be kind to the stranger, that we will in fact love the stranger. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (“the great”), a first century rabbi, one of the greatest rabbinic minds in our history, commented upon it. He said that this commandment is repeated so often and in so many ways “because humanity tends towards evil.”

We tend towards evil especially where strangers, people not like ourselves, are concerned. The drive for survival wired our ancestors’ brains to think automatically in terms of “friend” and “enemy.” If someone is strange looking, he might be dangerous. “Better get her, before she gets me,” thinks the deepest parts of my brain, the parts that trained in scary places in the distant past, and less distant places, like high school and the business world.

Torah calls us beyond the programming we inherited from our ancient forbears.  It seems awfully risky to adopt “love” as our default approach. Our impulse to hate the stranger is embedded deep in the brain, so that it is intuitive to strike out at someone we see as a threat. It is surprising that the Torah commands it, but so it does, again and again and again.

On Aug 21, 2013, we were witnesses to a remarkable example of the wisdom of this Torah lesson. A young man walked into the Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Center in a suburb of Atlanta armed with assault weaponry and over 500 rounds of ammunition. One of the women he took hostage surely saw him as a stranger: he was white, she was black, he was armed, she was not, he felt he had nothing to lose, she feared for her life. And yet Antoinette Tuff looked at Michael Brandon Hill and she was able to see a human being, and to speak with him and to listen to him as a human being. And because she did that, no one died that day.

If you have not listened to the recording of their conversation made by the 911 operator, I recommend it. You can listen to it here: http://youtu.be/1kVpipSXRKA

I cannot imagine a higher-pressure situation than Ms. Tuff faced. But she chose to see Mr. Hill as a human being. She listened to him. She spoke to him from her heart. She did not talk down to him. Over the conversation: as he revealed the troubles that had led him to this very bad decision, she listened to him without judgment. “We all go through something in life.” She offered to walk out with him, to give himself up to the police.

She said, “We not going to hate you, baby.”

I don’t know that I could be that calm in the face of such a situation or could speak with such kindness to a man with a gun.  But I do know that’s what it sounds like to love a stranger.

What are we ordinary people to take from this? Perhaps the next time we see a stranger, we could observe our impulse to hate and fear that person, and then choose something different.  Perhaps we could choose love, and in doing so, choose life.

The Mark of Remembrance

 

 

English: Philtrum highlighted by light
Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

Tractate Niddah (30b) of the Talmud records a folktale that I find comforting and infuriating: while we are in utero, an angel comes and teaches us the whole of the Torah. Then as soon as we are born, the angel slaps us on the mouth so that we will forget it all. The mark that is left is the philtrum, the vertical dent between the mouth and nose.

Thus when we study Torah, we are not learning for the first time; we are instead striving to remember the Torah that we already know.  As a teacher, my task is to help my students remember. 

I find that when I remember that, I am a much better teacher.

 

 

Why Do Good?

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...
British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do good?

Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:

I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.

All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?

I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe  that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.

When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.

When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.

When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.

None of this requires metaphysics.

My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution.  We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.

Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy.  I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.

When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.

Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

Bibles
Bibles (Photo credit: Mr. Ducke)

“Which Bible is best, Rabbi?” That’s usually how the question is phrased. Rather than talk about which is “best,” let me give you a quick lesson on which Bible is which, and you can decide for yourself.

The JEWISH BIBLE is different from the Christian Bible. The obvious difference is that there is no New Testament. Then if you compare tables of contents, you will also see that the two are arranged differently and that many Christian Bibles have more books, even after you take away the NT. Those books were included in an early translation of the Jewish Bible, but were not included when the Jewish Bible was finally set at 24 books in roughly the 2nd century of the common era.

For Jewish study and prayer, I strongly recommend a Jewish Bible.  It will be easier to use with the group, if only because the books will be in the same order and have the same names. The Jewish Bible is often called the TANAKH. That is an acronym of the words Torah [Teaching], Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings], the three divisions of the Bible.

Unless you read Hebrew, you will read the Bible in TRANSLATION.  The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew, with a few short passages in Aramaic. No translation is perfect; every translation reflects choices by the translator.  If you want a really good idea of what the text says, you will have to learn Hebrew. Next best thing is to check a couple of different translations when you are wondering about translation.  Here are some of the most common ones:

New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPS or NJV) – This is the translation you will encounter in most liberal (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) synagogues. It was begun in 1955 and completed in 1984.

Old Jewish Publication Society Version (1917). Similar to the NJPS, but the English of the translation is evocative of the King James Bible. It is available online.

The Living Torah (1981). A user-friendly but still scholarly translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an American Orthodox Rabbi. It is noted for its detailed index, footnotes, and cross-references.

Koren Jerusalem Bible – This is the first Israeli translation of the Bible into English. (It should not be confused with the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which is a completely different thing.) The Koren Bible is distinctive in that proper nouns, names and places are transliterated and not Anglicized.

Art Scroll Tanach – Mesorah Publishing issued the Art Scroll Tanach in 1993. The English translation is amended with explanations from Rashi and other commentators. It is a less literal but more traditional interpretation of the text.

There are also some notable modern translations of Torah (1st five books of the Bible)  and a few more books:

Everett Fox – This is possibly the most literal translation of the words in the Torah. To stay close to the Hebrew, Fox sometimes mangles the English. It can be a useful aid but I would not want this to be the only copy of the Torah in my possession.

Robert Alter – Alter’s translation, like Fox’s, hews close to the Hebrew, but with a more poetic ear.

Richard Elliot Friedman – published his translation of the Torah in the volume Commentary on the Torah, 2001.

If I had to answer the question above with a single title, I would say, “the Hebrew Bible.” (Then we could argue about which manuscripts, but I know that’s not what you mean.) If you are looking for a good Jewish translation of the Bible, each of the titles above have its advantages and disadvantages.  My advice is, get yourself a Bible, whichever one appeals to you, and then do your best to wear it out. The best Bible is the one you actually read.