A Sukkot Treat: The Orionids!

Image: A night sky, with meteors. (Pixabay)

A proper sukkah has holes in the roof that allow us to see the stars. That’s particularly handy this year, since the rest of Sukkot lines up nicely with a waning moon and the peak of the Orionid meteor showers.

Every year between roughly Oct 2 and Nov 7, the Earth passes through debris left behind by Halley’s Comet. We experience that as a meteor shower, a show of “shooting stars.” The peak of the Orionids falls just after Sukkot ends (Oct 21 – 22) but if the skies are clear you may still get a nice show – keep your eyes open!

As for Halley’s Comet itself, we won’t see it again until 2061, or in the Jewish calendar, 5822.

Advertisements

Basic Jewish Books: 5780 Edition

Image: A bookshelf with several of these books.

Every year I take a hard look at the list of books I recommend to the Intro to the Jewish Experience students. This year’s list omits some oldies and adds a few new books. No one needs to own ALL of these – I offer this list as a browsing list for your next step in growing your interest in specific Jewish topics.

*Books with an asterisk are those I strongly recommend to my Intro students. If I weren’t so concerned about their budgets, I’d require them.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

*Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. (The only text I require for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

Here All Along: Finding Meaning Spirituality & a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism After Finally Choosing to Look There by Sara Hurwitz. New and highly recommended.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin.

Judaisms: A 21st Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper (A college text, a little more challenging but a truly wonderful book.)

Jewish Bibles

*Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh. (JPS is the Jewish Publication Society.) 

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

If you would like to own a commentary on the Torah, a book with footnotes that explain things in the text, I recommend any of these:

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut (in many Reform synagogues)

Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, ed. JPS (in many Conservative synagogues)

A Torah Commentary for our Times, ed. Harvey J. Fields

About the Bible

Jewish Study Bible by Adele Berlin An excellent one-volume resource for text study, no Hebrew required.

What’s In It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Jewish Narratives by Stephen Fuchs  This little book is helpful for those who wonder what a collection of old stories and rules has to say to modern Jews today.

Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliot Friedman is a basic, readable explanation of the “documentary hypothesis,” the idea that the Torah is a blend of several different voices.

*Haggadah

Every Jewish home should have at least one copy of the haggadah, the script by which we lead the seder every year at Passover.  There are many to choose from, from some rather uninspiring free haggadot to very expensive art books. Some of the best fall in between those two extremes. The best way to find one is to go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you. Some households write their own haggadot; that’s a project that’s best done after you’ve been to a few seders.

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow. 

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel. 

*The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel (Specifically has to do with Shabbat.)

Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days: A Guided Journal by Kerry M. Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabath

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon (High Holy Days)

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew (High Holy Days) 

My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays and One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot 

Jewish Home

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg

The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (New Edition) by Daniel B. Syme

*On the Doorposts of Your House, CCAR Press (also in .pdf format) This book includes very detailed explanations of home rituals, from hanging a mezuzah to lighting the Chanukah candles.

Jewish Lifecycle

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener (A superb guide for mourners)

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin

The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement by Dr. Ron Wolfson and David J. Wolpe

Jewish Parenting

Nurture the WOW by Danya Ruttenberg

Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, MSSW

How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by Salkin, Lebeau, and Eisenberg

Conversion to Judaism

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)

Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff (conversion)

Jewish Thought

*Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green

*Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God?

The Book of Jewish Values by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish History

Your choice of history book will depend on your taste and preferences. Choose the one that works for you. *Do read at least one of these!

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack (graphic novel format but quite good, an excellent choice if you are ambivalent about fat volumes.)

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok Potok is a great story teller. 

My People: Abba Eban’s History of the Jews by Abba Eban Eban was Israel’s first representative to the United Nations, and he was a major player in the foundation of the State of Israel.

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson An outsider history of the Jews, very well done. Strikes a balance between scholarship and storytelling.

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin A shorter history, good if you want “just the facts, ma’am” history.

Israel

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert A detailed history of Israel from 1862-1997. Predominantly Zionist in its point of view.

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen Very readable. There are a few minor errors, but it is remarkably clear-eyed about the complexity of Israel and its emotional connection for American Jews.

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar A scholarly approach, staunchly Zionist.

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977 by Gershom Gorenberg. Gorenberg is an Israeli journalist. If you are curious about the roots of the current situation and the occupation of the West Bank, this is a good choice.

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur A reader of primary documents. Better if you already know a little bit of the history of Modern Israel.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. The writer is controversial, but the book is excellent and centrist in stance.

It Was 30 Years Ago Today…

Image: Aerial image of the collapsed Cypress Structure in Oakland (USGS)

The engineer who came to take a look at my house said to me lightly, “Well, I wouldn’t trust it in a major earthquake, and you really ought to get that foundation fixed, but it isn’t an emergency.” I had called her in to check out a crack in our basement wall. That conversation took place early in October, 1989.

When the shaking began, I was working in my home office. One child was upstairs playing, and the older, a first grader, was chatting with a friend on the kitchen telephone. The longest 19 seconds of my life began with that jolt. All I could think was that I had to get the children out of that house.

I scrambled to the kitchen, snatched the phone out of Aaron’s hand, and threw him out the front door onto the lawn. Then I ran back to get Jim. I remember that the frame of the house was groaning, and the china cabinet was shuffling away from the wall in the dining room. Jim was strolling down the stairs, singing, and I grabbed him up. We ran out into the yard just as the shaking stopped.

Car alarms were going off. A few people came out of the houses, looking around. I clutched my children and whispered to the house, “OK, you can fall down now.” It didn’t, but it would be two years before the repairs were finished just in time for the Oakland Hills Fire.

That was the beginning of a long, tense evening. Linda was missing. This was before cell phones, and she should have been on her commute home from SFO. My heart flipped over when the radio said that the Bay Bridge was “down.” It would be more hours before we heard about the horror of the Cypress Structure.

Turns out, Linda had an appointment at the eye doctor’s, and had just had her eyes dilated. It was a while before she could see well enough to drive home. We were lucky, though: the optometrist’s office was in downtown Oakland, so we were all on the same side of the Bay. Other couples were separated for days because with one bridge down, the other bridges suspect, BART halted, and no ferries in operation, there was simply no way home.

Over the following days, we found out about all the dreadful things that had happened around us. Ours was the most-damaged house in our immediate neighborhood, but it was nothing compared to the pancaked Cypress Freeway, where 42 people died in their cars, or the entire Marina District of San Francisco, which burst into flames when the ground liquified and gas lines burst.

Most frightening of all to me was the aftermath in Santa Cruz, near the epicenter of the quake. Robin Ortiz worked behind the counter at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. Her co-workers escaped the building as the un-reinforced brick structure collapsed, but she was missing under the rubble. Rescue workers toiled for hours to find her, but gave up late in the evening, convinced she was dead. Her partner of five years, Ruth Rabinowitz and their friends begged the workers to keep going and eventually police were called to pull them away from the wreckage.

What chilled me was the way the media treated Robin’s partner Ruth. She was portrayed as a nut, a hysterical lesbian fruitcake. A widow would have been a tragic figure: hysterical perhaps but understandably so. This “friend,” as they kept calling her, was just a nuisance, as were her friends. Police arrested five people, including the widow. Robin’s body was found late the next day.

It was a sobering lesson in second-class citizenship. The message was clear: our relationships were not real in the eyes of the public or the law. It would be 24 years before same sex couples in California would enjoy the protection offered by civil marriage.

Thirty years have gone by, and a lot has changed. The Cypress Structure and similar double-decker freeways are all gone from the landscape. The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge is a thing of beauty. Ferries now crisscross the Bay every day, revived in the wake of disaster. And since 2013 same-sex marriage has been legal not just in California, but all over the U.S. When I refer to “my wife,” nobody even blinks.

Rest in peace, Robin Ortiz.

Surpassing Civilization: Heschel’s “The Sabbath”

Image: My dog-eared copy of The Sabbath.

Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.

– Abraham Joshua Heschel

The paragraph above is from the book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, written by Rabbi Heschel in 1951. Periodically I reread this book, because it always has something new to teach me.

In the midst of all the political turmoil of the present, with climate change looming and so much meanness on social media that every visit there makes me want to cry, this passage comforted me even as it challenged me. The task of the Jew – my task – is to live a life of Torah within the world, to live a life that elevates this world, or at least my part of it.

I often talk about Shabbat in very practical terms, talking about the benefits of connecting with loved ones, or the need for actual rest from work. Those are definitely a part of Shabbat, strengthening our families, our bodies, and our souls, but Shabbat is much, much more.

Done properly (and I would argue that “properly” will be different for every person and every household and for every stage of life) Shabbat affords us a moment to will into being a better world. I aspire to a home of light and love; on a well-kept Shabbat, I make an extra effort to make that happen. Perhaps I cannot pull it off for a full 24 hours, much as I would like, but every moment of it that I can manage will transform me and my household in ways that will not disappear when Shabbat is over.

Even more, this passage reminds me that Judaism is not about a rejection of this life – it advocates engagement in life, living fully and present to all that life brings. Judaism is not about looking down our noses at the rest of the world, nor is it about sitting in judgment on the rest of humanity – it’s about saying, “Hineni!” – “Here I am!” – both to my loved ones and also to those whom it is hard to love.

This is only a tiny scrap of what this little book has to offer – if you haven’t read it, you are missing out. For those who have read it, share your favorite passages in the Comments!

How To Win a Jewish Argument

Image: Two women arguing. (Anetlanda/Shutterstock)

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

Avot 5:17

Arguments among Jews are raging on social media and elsewhere these days. We argue about Israel. We argue about the rights of the groups who have been historically diminished or disenfranchised by Jewish communities: women, people of color, converts, LGBTQ Jews, disabled Jews. We argue about the proper labels for friends and enemies: Christian Zionists, Palestinians, Donald Trump. We argue about anti-Semitism: where it comes from and who it oppresses. The arguments grow bitter and lately I have come to believe that we spend too much time fighting one another while real dangers circle around us.

The rabbis worked out much of what we think of as Rabbinic Judaism through a process of machlochet [argument.] First a rabbi would raise a question, then the other rabbis would share what their teachers had taught them and what they had observed. These discussions have come down to us through the Talmud, and also by way of mouth through our teachers.

In the passage above from Mishnah Avot, the writer gives us an example of “argument for the sake of heaven.” His contemporaries would immediately recognize the reference to Hillel and Shammai, which is recounted at greater length in Eruvin 13b:

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha [law] is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.

The Gemara asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.

Eruvin 13b

The rabbis of Hillel’s academy “won” the argument because “they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted,” and when they taught the law they would teach both their opinions and those of their opponents, prioritizing the opinions of their opponents.

In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the argument for the sake of heaven is an argument in search of the truth. Its opposite, the argument not for the sake of heaven, is an argument in search of victory. When we argue to seek the truth by hammering it out between us, that is a wonderful thing. When we argue to diminish or humiliate our opponent, it is disgraceful.

When we argue only to win, when we make ad hominem attacks, when we wreak our anger by inciting others to words and acts of hatred, we tear down Am Yisrael [the Jewish People.] When we argue out of envy, out of spite, or out of a desire to humiliate, we do terrible harm. When we speak disdainfully or hatefully of other Jews we hurt ALL Jews. When we speak disdainfully or hatefully to other Jews, we are truly losers, no matter what our cause.

So let us ask ourselves, whenever the rhetoric gets heated, whenever we feel the adrenaline flowing, whenever we are arguing with another Jew, “Is this argument for the sake of heaven?” Am I seeking Truth, or attempting to impose my truth by arguing louder, more angrily, with more name-calling? The rabbis call to us across the centuries to tell us that how we argue matters.

Happy Sukkot! – Time to Play!

Image: Temple Sinai families hang out in the sukkah. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Tonight begins the festival of Sukkot. Believe it or not, it is actually as important a feast as Passover.

Before you panic, read this about the holiday: Sick of Synagogue?

Sukkot is our reward for all the hard work of the past few weeks. We’ve mended our relationships, and now we can enjoy them by hanging out with friends (preferably but not necessarily in a sukkah.)

To learn more about the Festival of Sukkot, which is so much fun that the ancients referred to it as Heh Khag – THE Holiday – check out these articles:

What is Sukkot?

Sukkot Hospitality

7 Questions about Sukkot

The Festival We Forgot?!

Sukkot Vocabulary 101

Jewish Tradition on Money & Ethics: Foundational Beliefs

Image: An accounting ledger page, with numbers (Pixabay)

There are some basic concepts that form the foundation of the teachings of Jewish tradition on money.

First: We hold any possessions we have, including wealth, as stewards for God. We may say, “I earned what is in my bank account” and indeed, we may have worked hard for it. Or we may not have worked at all – perhaps we inherited it. Either way, we are responsible to the Holy One for what we do with our resources, great or small, because it is all part of the larger Creation.

Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.

Deuteronomy 8:18

Second: Poverty is bad. It is bad in and of itself. It does not serve any good purpose.

There is nothing in the world more horrible than poverty. It is the most terrible of all suffering. Our teachers have said that if every difficulty were on one side and poverty were on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

Exodus Rabbah 31: 12, 14

Third: Wealth is neutral. It is not bad in and of itself, nor is it good. It must be acquired and used justly.

…And give to us a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of strengthening the body, a life that has in it a fear of heaven and a fear of sin, a life that does not have in it shame and disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life marked by our love of Torah and a fear of heaven, a life in which the wishes of our heart will be filled for good. Amen.

– Prayer for Rosh Chodesh, Ashkenazi siddur, my translation

They have sold for silver Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of sandals.

Amos 2:6

Jewish tradition envisions a world in which everyone has enough to live, and those who have more than enough are just in their acquisition and use of wealth.

As it is written: “You shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God for the good land that God has given you.”

Deuteronomy 8:10 (Also in the Birkat Hamazon)