An Apology to My Readers

Image: Me at the computer with my assistant, Gabi the poodle. Photo by Linda Burnett.

I thought polls would be an interesting addition to the blog.

I thought I’d figured out how to do them.

I thought I had written a pretty good poll.

And now I know I have a lot to learn about poll making and WordPress.com.

I am going to keep working on using polls, but this week’s attempt was a not-ready-for-the-Internet production.

I’m really sorry I made a mess.

I will leave it up because some of the comments are really quite interesting, but due to the problems with the poll, don’t try to draw any conclusions from the “results.”

Now, back to the keyboard to figure this thing out!

Thank you for your patience and readership.

 

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What’s Your Jewish Food Observance?

I’m curious about the Jewish food observance of my readers. If you want to add something to your answer, you can do so in the “Comments.” Thanks for participating!

What is Shalom?

Image: The word “Shalom” in Hebrew letters, in blue. Public domain.

Shalom.” It is often the first word a Hebrew student learns to read. It is the Hebrew word the most non-Jews are likely to know. If you ask for a definition, most people will tell you “Peace, Hello, or Goodbye,” and they won’t be wrong.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Shalom is a positive value, far more than just the absence of war. It signifies wholeness. One can be not-at-war and still be miserable. However, a miserable person by definition lacks shalom.

Like most words in Semitic languages it is based on a root of three consonants: shin, lamed, mem.  From that root we get many words: shalam, complete; nishlam, finished; l’shalem, to pay a bill; meshulam, repay; shlaymut, wholeness. What they have in common is a sense of integrity, of nothing missing or awry.

When I greet you with “Shalom!” I am wishing you wholeness of body and spirit. When I use a related greeting, “Mah shlomkhah?” the literal translation is “How is your peace?”

Shalom is not an abstract. It depends on real conditions in the world. A hungry person, a fearful person, or a hurt person cannot have shalom. Shalom includes bodily needs as well as spiritual ones. When we deny the needs of others, we deny them shalom.

Shalom also requires participation. We deny ourselves shalom when we bear a grudge. We deny ourselves shalom when we mistreat our bodies so that they get sick. We deny ourselves shalom when we tell ourselves we need something we cannot have, or when we refuse things we actually need. We deny ourselves shalom when we sin and choose not to make teshuvah.

At the close of the Kaddish, we pray for peace:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleynu, v’al kol Yisrael, Veyimru: Amayn.

May the Maker of peace on high, make peace upon us, and upon all Israel. And we say: Amen.

When we say these words, it is both a prayer and a commitment to action. We are saying, “Please, God, give us shalom!” while at the same time saying, “I am ready to do what it takes to make shalom!”

Are we?

 

Blessing the Volcano

Image: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Eruption of Kilauea Volcano. 11/14/59. Public Domain, USGS photo.

My friends know that I have a special place in my heart for the Big Island of Hawaii. I spend most of my vacation time there. It is hard for me to articulate the reasons I love that place so much. Some of it is the aloha that I feel from nearly every local person I encounter.  Some is the sight of the ohia lehua flowering shrubs that grow in the most barren-looking volcanic stone. Some is the song of the ‘apapane, a scarlet songbird that nests in the ohia. Some of it is the taste of the delicate flesh of fresh ono, a delicious fish.

All those are a part of my fascination. And yet the centerpiece that brings them all together, that draws me back and back to that island, is the terrible vision at the heart of it: the volcanoes.

Hawaiian myth talks about Madame Pele, she who “devours the land.” So do the locals today, even those who will tell you that they “aren’t religious.” The reason they speak of Pele the way they do is that seeing a live volcano is a holy experience. When I look into the crater of the volcano, when I see the glow of lava and smell the stink of volcanic gases, I feel yirat haShem, the fear of God. I feel wonder and awe and terror at the might of Creation and the Creator.

Certainly it is possible to look at the volcano with a scientific eye, to analyze the composition of the lava and the gases in the air. But even the most cold-eyed volcanologist will tell you that a volcanic eruption is powerful beyond imagining and profoundly dangerous. They will also tell you that they cannot control the volcano: once it is erupting, they can observe it, but when the lava flows, the only rational response to it is to get out of the way. Seeing an eruption takes us to the edge of life and death, to the primal forces that shape our world, and for many of us, it is a religious experience.

Volcanologists will tell you that the volcano (in this case, Kilauea) is death and life in one huge messy package. When we see the flow of lava, we are watching the process of creation, new land emerging from the earth, destroying everything it touches, and then cooling to begin the long, slow process that will in millennia become arable land. After the lava cools, tiny ohia seeds will ride the wind over the lava field and fall into the cracks where moisture collects. They are not bothered by the sulfur dioxide air; they put out their tiny roots and begin the work of transforming the lava rock into fertile soil. Ohia is a miracle. The volcano is a miracle: a giant, terrifying miracle.

There is a blessing for the sight of a volcanic eruption:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haOlam, sheh-ko-KHO ug-vu-rah-TOH mah-LAY oh-LAHM.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-is, whose strength and power fill the world.

This blessing is only for the times when we witness in person a powerful display such as a volcanic eruption, a horrific storm, or an earthquake. There are other blessings, softer blessings, for the gentler wonders of nature, but this is the blessing for natural events so powerful they can kill us. This blessing is for those moments when nature forces us to acknowledge our fragility in this world.

I am a Jew. I worship only the one God, the God of Israel, but I recognize God’s creation when I see it. The Hawaiians give this experience of God the name Pele. I whisper the blessing, and tremble in awe at the Holy One.

*At this writing, almost 2,000 people have been displaced and many have lost their homes. Here is an article about ways we can help those suffering during this eruption of Kilauea.

 

What is a Ketubah?

Image: Ketubah by Miriam Karp. Two trees join to form a chuppah under which the text of the ketubah is written. Photo by Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.

A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract. Signing it and witnessing it is an essential part of a Jewish wedding. In its traditional formulation, it is a one-way contract listing the responsibilities of a Jewish husband to his wife. The husband commits to providing food, clothing, and conjugal relations to his wife, and should he at some future time divorce her, he commits to paying her a specified amount of cash. There have to be at least two qualified witnesses.

Originally, the ketubah was an effort to protect both groom and bride. There is no ketubah mentioned in the Torah. In Biblical Judaism, the groom had to pay a mohar, a dowry, for the wife; this money was to be held for her security in case of death or divorce. The rabbis saw that young men delayed marrying, because it took time to raise the mohar funds, so they devised the ketubah, which committed the groom to future payments in the event of divorce but no payment at the time of marriage. That way,  a young man could marry before he got old.

It was even more a protection for the bride. A Jewish divorce must be initiated by the husband, and to carry it out, he has to give his wife a get, a bill of divorce. That activates her claim for support in the ketubah, so he know that if he divorces her, he would owe her support. In ancient times, a woman who had been married and cast aside had no rights to her children and very few options other than starving. With the ketubah, the woman had enforceable rights.

(Problems have arisen in modern times about husbands getting a civil divorce and then refusing to grant a get to the wife, but that’s a separate subject for another time. See agunot.)

For the text of the traditional Aramaic ketubah, and an explanation of its details, see The Ketubah Text at MyJewishLearning.com.

The traditional text does not meet the needs of some modern Jews. Rabbi Rachel Adler, in her book Engendering Judaism, proposed a new text for the ketubah. Instead of the traditional text, which outlines the obligations of the husband only, her new document was modeled on a business partnership between equals. She calls this document a brit ahuvim, a lovers’ covenant. A copy of that text is available on ritualwell.org.

Many couples choose alternate texts, and for some couples, the process of writing their own ketubah, their own marriage agreement, is a helpful prelude to the very serious step of marriage.

Ketubot (the plural form) are often embellished with artwork, and have become a major vehicle for Jewish artistic expression. The ketubah in the picture is that belonging to me and my wife.

Ketubah
Detail from the ketubah pictured above. Artwork and calligraphy by Miriam Karp. The text is based on the brit ahuvim with some changes by the couple.

In Gratitude: An anniversary

Image: Textile art with Genesis 21:1 and a vision of Jerusalem with lions of David, the skyline of the Old City, and stone tablets flanked by doves. Art by Barbara Binder Kadden, photo by Ruth Adar. All rights reserved.

I was ordained a rabbi ten years ago today in the City of Angels.

The photo is of a beautiful hanging that Barbara Binder Kadden made for me when I set off for school in 2002. Barbara asked me for a verse from Torah that was particularly meaningful to me. I cited Genesis 12:1: “Go to yourself, from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land which I shall show you.” Those were God’s words to Abram, after which Abram set off to become the patriarch Abraham.

Thirty two years ago I set out from Tennessee without a clue, much as Abram set out from Haran in Genesis 12. Like Abram, I became a Jew, I acquired a name, and I had many adventures that for good and ill made me into the work-in-progress I am today.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my teachers and colleagues. Rabbi Rachel Adler mentored and mothered me through my years in Los Angeles. R. Tamara Eskenazi opened the doors of Torah for me. R. Dvora Weisberg and R. Joel Gereboff unlocked the gates of Talmud. R. Lew Barth taught me how to dig treasure from the fertile ground of midrash. Yossi Lechem enchanted me with the algebra of Hebrew grammar (you had to be there.) Steven Windmueller and Bruce Phillips equipped me to deal with the changing Jewish American scene, and R. Michael Berk taught me about Northern California Jews. Barbara Kadden taught me the best of what I know about educating adults. Linda Feldman taught me how to walk softly and avoid tender toes. Rene Molho z”l taught me about the Shoah, and gave me perspective on Jewish community that I try to pass along.  R. Sandy Akselrad hired me, God bless him, and taught me how not to fall on my face in the real world. Yuval Selah tutored me in Hebrew for four years with infinite patience and love.

I am grateful for my study partners, R. David Novak, R. Deborah Goldmann, and R. Robin Podolsky. I’d have learned nothing without them. I am grateful to R. Sabine Meyer, with whom I continue to explore the wonders of teaching “Intro” and the Torah of canine companions. And where would I be without Fred Isaac, my first Jewish study partner, and Maryann Simpson, my partner in studying class dynamics?

I am grateful for the students who inspire me to learn more and and be a better servant of the Jewish people, including you, dear readers.

Finally there are the people without whom I have trouble imagining the world. Rabbi Steven Chester has been my rabbi, my mentor and my friend since I first knocked on his office door in the early 1990’s. My sons, Aaron and Jim Scott, inspire me to choose life over and over again; I am so much more alive because of them.

And then there’s the love of my life, Linda Burnett. (Thank you for baseball and everything else, my dear. You are right, these are the good old days.)

OrdChesterMe
Rabbi Steve Chester, giving me his charge on May 18, 2008 in Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

 

 

Building Your Jewish Library

Image: Bookshelves of Jewish books, art, and objects. (Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.)

What books should be part of a Jewish household? Beyond that, how does one build a Jewish library?

  1. Every Jewish home should have a Jewish Bible. Not an “Old Testament,” not a “Living Bible,” not the “King James Bible” or any of its descendants – a Jewish Bible. How can you tell if it is a Jewish Bible? There will be no New Testament in there. It may have the word “Tanakh” on the cover. It will be arranged into Torah, Prophets, and Writings. There are several good Jewish Bibles on the market. One excellent option is to get one that comes with a commentary, such as:
    1. The Torah, A Modern Commentary, ed. Plaut.
    2. Etz Hayim, Torah & Commentary, ed. Lieber.
    3. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, eds Eskenazi, Weiss
  2. For quick answers to Jewish questions, you either need access to some of the excellent Jewish web sites on the Internet, or a good basic reference workJewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is one excellent choice.  A Guide to Jewish Practice by David A. Teutsch is a three volume set of books that is even more detailed. The text I use for my Introduction to the Jewish Experience class is Settings of Silver, by Stephen Wylen. It is a single volume with a good index.
  3. A Jewish home should have a siddur (Jewish prayer book,) or a book of Jewish prayers for the home, or both. The siddur should be the one you normally use at synagogue (ask your rabbi.)  On the Doorposts of Your House has home rituals of many kinds, from hanging your mezuzah to celebrating the holidays. At a minimum, a card or bentcher with the basic blessings for Shabbat will come in handy.
  4. Every home should have at least one haggadah, the script for the Passover seder. There are a zillion haggadot on the market, ranging from free give-aways to very expensive art books. Which one(s) you choose will depend on your tastes.

Beyond the absolute basics, your interests will shape your Jewish library. For instance, if you are interested in Torah study, you may want to own one or more commentaries. If you are interested in Jewish film, there are a number of good books on those subjects.

For more suggestions of books and topics, see My Basic Jewish Book List.