Shabbat Shalom! – Behar

Parashat Behar* is the next-to-last reading in the Book of Leviticus. It deals with the law of the Sabbatical Year (shmittah) and the Jubilee Year (yuval) among other topics. It’s one of the portions that on first blush makes for rather dry reading, but when you start digging into it, complexities emerge and things get very interesting.

Some of the divrei Torah from online darshanim this week:

Land, Labor, Liberty by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

To Treat With Respect is the Essence of Holiness by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Seasons in the Sun by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Trekking to Holiness by Hanna Perlberger

Real Estate – Do Market Forces Rule? by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Conditional Covenant by Rabbi Ron Kronish

Turning to the Land by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

*This year there are differences of opinion about the calendar this year (5776.) If your congregation is following a different schedule, know that we’ll all be back together again before too long. 

 

What is Shavuot?

Image: A new Jew makes a commitment to a life of Torah. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Shavuot [shav-00-OHT or sh-VOO-us] is coming. Even thought it is a major Jewish holiday, only the more observant Jews will even be aware of it.

That’s a shame. It’s a beautiful holiday – and in real ways, it is the completion of the journey we began at the Passover seder. The trouble is that unlike Passover, it didn’t see as successful a transition to the new realities Jews faced after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

HISTORY Shavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating our acceptance of the covenant at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The drama and pageantry of the holiday made Shavuot a major event in the Jewish year.

Perhaps the most famous record of Shavout is that in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 2. While that chapter refers to an experience of the disciples that later came to be remembered by Christians as Pentecost, one verse tells us a lot about Jerusalem during Shavuot:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. – Acts of the Apostles 2:5

Jews from all over the known world gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot! This tells us that:

  • Jews lived all over the world by the year we now remember as 33 CE and
  • Shavuot was so important, and such a pleasure, that they would travel from Italy, and Spain, and Babylon to attend the festival.

In the Bible, the festival has three names:

  • Chag Shavuot [Festival of Weeks] (Exodus 34:22) because it comes precisely 7 weeks (49 days) after Passover
  • Chag K’tzir [Festival of Reaping] (Exodus 23:16) because it aligns with the barley harvest in Israel
  • Yom HaBikkurim [Day of the First Fruits] (Numbers 28:26) because this was the festival at which farmers would bring the first fruits from their fields to offer in the Temple.

THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on June 11 in 2016.

OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:

  • Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day. We complete the count on the night before Shavuot.
  • Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot.
  • Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
  • In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service.  For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
  • The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.
  • Many conversions to Judaism are scheduled for the time around Shavuot, because of the connection with receiving the Torah and the Book of Ruth.

Jewish Plans: What’s Next?

Image: Fred Isaac, my first study partner, and I look over a Torah scroll. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Tonight I had my last meeting for the year with my Wednesday night Intro class. Every class has its own personality, and I always hate to see them go.

Besides talking about Jewish American food customs (a fun topic, which is why I use it for the last night of class) we talked a bit about “What next?”

Some of them are moving on to conversion programs, or weddings, or some other preset project under the wing of a rabbi or congregation. I want to be sure that the others get the support they need to take whatever is the next step for them. Next steps could take many forms, including:

  • Another formal class (Hebrew perhaps? Maybe via an online class?)
  • A commitment to attend services weekly for several months to learn the service?
  • Develop and commit to a no-matter-what Shabbat routine?
  • Join a Torah Study group?
  • Chevruta study [study with a partner] on a course of reading or maybe films?
  • A Jewish book club?
  • Learn how to blow the shofar?
  • A bagel making class or other Jewish cooking program?
  • Search for and join a synagogue?

And you, dear reader: do you have any Jewish plans for the summer? Feel free to share them in the comments where they can inspire others, and where I can cheer for you!

 

Kashrut: A Spiritual Journey

Image: Shakshuka, an Israeli dish of eggs and tomatoes. Photo by calliopejen1, click for copyright notice.

This is an update of a post from a couple of years ago. Life changes, and the journey continues.

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to learn from someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans (one red, one white,) and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: a classmate who did kept kosher lived right around the corner. David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont, had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I backed off on the kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

This past September a series of changes in my health moved me back toward kosher observance. I no longer eat meat, so my kitchen has only dairy to worry about. My kitchen is still not kosher by traditional standards, but it has been a comfort to me to be able to reframe a medical necessity with a spiritual nechemta (consolation.)

What’s next? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll bring in assistance to really kasher the kitchen. Or perhaps I’ll continue becoming more concerned about the sources of eggs and dairy products. For me, Jewish food practice is a spiritual journey.

 

The One (Best) Key to Jewish Experiences

Image: A golden key. Public domain.

What single thing could most strongly improve the quality of your Jewish experience? It’s simple: learn some Hebrew.

Hebrew is as essential to Jewish citizenship as English is to American citizenship. Sure, there are American citizens who don’t speak English well, but much of the American experience is closed to them. The same is true for Jews and Hebrew: a person can certainly be a good Jew and not be able to read a word of Hebrew, but they will forever be on the outside looking in.

Total fluency takes time and effort. Fortunately, every little bit you learn has a big payoff:

Learn the alef-bet and reap these rewards:

  • The letters will cease to be squiggles and become familiar.
  • You will have the essential tool to move forward.

Learn a few greetings, and you will:

  • Be able to exchange greetings with fellow Jews from all over the world.
  • Have something to say to any Israeli you meet.
  • Begin to feel more connected to Jews everywhere.

Learn to read and understand a few simple phrases and you will:

  • Be able to order coffee on Dizengoff St. in Tel Aviv.
  • Know more Hebrew than most American Jews.

Take a conversational Modern Hebrew class and you will:

  • Be able to visit Israel and feel like mishpachah [family], rather than a tayar [tourist.]
  • Have the tools for ever-expanding conversational skills – just keep at it!
  • Open the door to Modern Hebrew literature.

Take a Prayer Book Hebrew class and you will:

  • Understand prayers, rather than just mouth them.
  • Be able to follow along as the Torah and Haftarah are chanted.
  • Open the doors to Jewish spirituality.

Take a Biblical Hebrew class and you will:

  • Discover that there’s much, much more to those stories in Genesis.
  • Begin to enjoy the rich poetry in every line of Hebrew.
  • Hold your own in any discussion about “what the Bible really says.”

Keep on studying and the vast universe of Jewish texts and experiences will open to you!

“But I’m not talented at languages!”

So what? You have probably learned many things in your life without being “talented” at them. One can learn to make toast without being a “talented” cook.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbis tell us that one good deed leads to another. So too, with Hebrew, every bit of progress leads to more progress. The sooner you begin, the sooner you will learn your letters and their rewards will begin!

 

 

 

Our Interfaith Family

Image: Aaron, Linda, Ruth, and Jim, at the Alameda County Courthouse for our civil wedding on July 19, 2013. Photo by random stranger.

My family is an interfaith family.

I became a Jew 20 years ago this summer. At the time I had two middle school age sons who already had a sense of who they were, and they were not interested in becoming Jewish. I put my rabbi’s business card up on the refrigerator and told the boys that they were welcome to contact Rabbi Chester if they had any complaints about me.

They were charmed. Middle schoolers love to have options, especially for complaining about their parents.

Both guys became knowledgeable about Judaism. They visited Israel with me. Jim picked up a little Hebrew. Aaron asked thoughtful questions about Israeli life.

When I decided to apply for rabbinical school, they were supportive. “Go for it, Mom!” Part of my attraction to the rabbinate was that I loved learning ways to make our home both authentically Jewish and authentically their home, too. The creativity of good rabbinic work appealed to me, still does.

I moved to Jerusalem in 2002, just as the younger son, Jim, started college. The second intifada was at its height. Someone asked Jim what he would do “if your mother gets blown up.” I was horrified by the question. He coolly said, “I’d call our rabbi, of course.”

OUR rabbi. I have to admit, I loved hearing him say that.

Periodically one or the other will call me and say, “Mom, I have a rabbi question.” Usually it’s a question that a Jewish friend has asked them. (Ironies abound.) Occasionally, they are curious about how something looks through a Jewish lens. They keep me on my toes.

They aren’t Jews. They aren’t interested in becoming Jews. That’s fine. They are part of the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that left Egypt with the Jews, traveled with the Jews, has always been part of the Jewish community.

Neither one is particularly comfortable with ritual or formal religion. They don’t come over for Shabbat dinner, and they don’t celebrate Jewish holidays with us. As a family, we celebrate birthdays, and national holidays, and fun things like Pi Day.

When I was ordained they came to the service. When I stepped out from under the chuppah and Rabbi Levy announced me as Rabbi Ruth Adar, Aaron hollered from the back of the sanctuary, “WAY TO GO, MOM!”

When Linda and I were married under the chuppah at Temple Sinai, nine years ago this month, they were both there. They could not witness our ketubah (since they aren’t Jews) but they celebrated with us. When the State of California finally decided to let us get married in a civil ceremony, they were our witnesses.

Next month Jim is getting married to his sweet bride in a civil ceremony. There will be Jews, and Catholics, and Episcopalians, and assorted Christians and agnostics – and that’s just the family.

Our interfaith family.

Where Was the First Synagogue?

Image: A gathering of Jews pray and read Torah. Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Rabbi Sarah Schechter leads Jewish services, at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq.  Public Domain.

Where was the first synagogue?

If you want the answer from archaeology, the answer is, we don’t know. We have some ruins and inscriptions from the 3rd century before the common era that are definitely from synagogues, but it’s entirely possible that synagogues existed for a long time before that.

However, that’s only one way of looking for the answer.

A traditional way to look for Jewish answers about history is to look in Jewish texts. Then the answer appears very early in our story, in the book of Leviticus:

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread, and assemble all the congregation at the door of the Tent of Meeting.” – Leviticus 8: 1-3

Various artists have pictured the camp of Israel in the wilderness following the descriptions in the Torah. This image by Johann Christoph Weigel (1654-1725) is fairly typical and consistent with the text:

Weigel

At the very center of the picture stands the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting. The Israelites are camped all around it, organized by tribes. The Levites are closest to the Tent of Meeting (orange squares on three sides of it) and the blue, green, yellow and pink squares are the camps of the other tribes. Look back to the center: the area in front of the Tent of Meeting is an open space. That is where God has commanded Moses to “assemble all the congregation” for the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel.

The words here are also significant: the words for “assemble” and “congregation” are words we still use in the names of congregations: “Kahal” (in a verb form here) and “Adat.”

The first synagogues were not buildings. They were assemblies of Jews, brought together by a common worshipful purpose.  This is different from the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting, and later, the Temple: those were places of sacrifice, and parts of them were only open to the Levites and the priests.

Another example of a gathering of Jews that certainly looks like a synagogue:

All the people gathered themselves together as one person in the open space before the Water Gate [in Jerusalem.] They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly [kahal], which was made up of men and women and those who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And the ears of the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. – Nehemiah 8: 1-3

This is an account of the first public Torah reading on record. Jews still gather to read Torah from the Scroll; we gather to read from the sefer Torah, the “book of the Law,” in either a permanent synagogue building or in a place that for that time is designated for the purpose.

The essential element is not the building – the essential element is the gathering of Jews. This has been true from the very earliest days.

 

As a practical matter, most congregations choose to build or purchase a synagogue building. That allows for safe storage of Torah scrolls and books and for learning space. It is also convenient to have these things in a dedicated space. But it is important that we remember that the congregation is not the building; the physical plant is not nearly as important as the people who gather there.

So where is the world’s oldest synagogue? The Mediterranean is dotted with ruins of ancient synagogues. However, the oldest synagogue isn’t a building. A synagogue happens whenever and wherever Jews gather to study and pray.