Help: the Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

Image: A Reform prayer book. Photo by Linda Burnett.

A reader asked:

Please, PLEASE post about whether us disabled people who can follow along more easily via electronic devices than by hoisting heavy (for some of us) books is OK. Since reading your posts on this subject, I’ve been feeling like I have been a nasty, red carbuncle in the congregation when I’ve shown up to worship alongside my loved one who has an upcoming bat mitzvah, and I’ve actually held back from going at all. I don’t want to be a blot on my loved one’s special day when that day comes!

Congratulations on the upcoming bat mitzvah service!

There’s no problem with using a tablet or smartphone app on a weekday. It would be rude to check email or follow the stock market in services, but of course it is fine to use a prayer book app or a  Tanakh/Chumash app.

Shabbat is different. For a “Shomer shabbes” Jew, using such a thing in synagogue on Shabbat would be deeply offensive. Your options break down by movement:

Reform: There are several good apps available for a Chumash (Torah portions and readings from the prophets.) If anyone questions your use of the tablet, just explain that it’s due to a disability and that should be the end of it. (As for the siddur, I’ve been informed that there’s a problem with the app, but I’m going to research that and update asap.) There is also a small, lightweight “Traveler’s Edition” of Mishkan Tefilah available.

Some congregations project the pages of the siddur and other service materials on the front wall or a screen. If the synagogue offers that sort of arrangement, you’re in luck!

Conservative and Modern Orthodox: They are unlikely to be open to the use of electronics on Shabbat, but if you call ahead and speak with the rabbi, it may well be that they have alternative accommodations to offer. One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, reminded me that there are pocket-sized siddurim (prayer books) easily available, and perhaps getting your own lightweight copy is an answer. Certainly you can ask to use one at the synagogue, if you don’t own one.

Renewal and Reconstructionist: Call ahead and ask; the answer will differ from place to place.

When I made the original post (More Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests) I was thinking of the people who come to a bar mitzvah and pull out the phone out of habit and begin checking email. That’s very offensive, and would be so on any day of the week. Using a tablet to follow the service is in the same category with using an electric wheelchair, and is OK on a weekday anywhere, and on Shabbat in some synagogues but not others.

In synagogues where using a tablet or smartphone isn’t an option on Shabbat, and there’s no lightweight option available, I’d arrange to sit next to an able bodied person who is willing to share, to hold their book where you can see it. You will then have the added bonus of a knowledgeable page turner, which can be quite helpful. Since one cannot know who is able by looking at them,  I’d phone ahead (WELL ahead)  to the synagogue and ask if they might be able to find a volunteer.

Another option: if you are not familiar with the service, you may find the prayer book more frustration than help, anyway. Give yourself the option of simply sitting and listening. If someone presses a prayer book on you, just say, “No, thank you.” There are many ways to be in a Jewish service – for more about that, see New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners.

I hope that you are able to find arrangements that work for you, so that you can enjoy the occasion.

Meeting a Rabbi About Conversion

A reader wrote to me and asked: “Tomorrow I’m going to meet with a rabbi to ask about conversion. How should I prepare for that meeting?”

First of all, you’re on the right track! Meeting with a rabbi is the first step on a path to conversion. You may have been reading and studying, you may even have been going to services, but until you meet with a rabbi, it’s all academic.

As for “preparing” – Just go and be yourself. If you can speak the words, “I’m interested in conversion to Judaism,” that’s good enough. The rabbi can help you from there.

Some things to know:

  1. There is a very old tradition in which rabbis send a person who inquires about conversion away three times before actually having the conversation. While I don’t know of any Reform rabbis who currently follow that tradition, you may encounter a rabbi who does. On the other hand, if the rabbi says, “I don’t do conversions” then ask for a referral – or just go find another rabbi yourself.
  2. If you get what seems like a lukewarm welcome, understand that this, too, is part of the tradition. Jews don’t proselytize, and we have been on the receiving end of many efforts to convert us. Therefore we tend to hang back and not get too excited when someone says, “Hi! I want to be a Jew!” You aren’t unwanted. We just want to make sure it’s what you really want. Persist.
  3. No rabbi is going to rush to sign you up for conversion. It’s a very serious step. This first meeting is just that – a first meeting. Even if you choose to work with this rabbi, you have at least a year of studying and living Jewishly before an actual conversion.
  4. You do not have to convert with the first rabbi you meet. If you are comfortable with that rabbi, great. If you aren’t comfortable, then maybe this rabbi isn’t the right rabbi. Try another one. We’re all different.
  5. Questions are OK. Questions are encouraged.

I wish you the very best with your first meeting, and with your journey, wherever it takes you!

Progressive Judaism: A View from Tradition

Photo by Michal Patelle (Women of the Wall) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A reader asks: “How can I defend progressive Jewish views?”

I can’t tell you why you are a progressive Jew, if you are one. All I can tell you is why I am a progressive Jew. I will start out by explaining my idea of how Jewish history works.

Judaism has adapted as it has moved through history. Biblical Judaism gave way to Rabbinic Judaism, with stops along the way to argue about Greek ideas (kept some, ditched others). Rabbinic Judaism emerged out of the chaos and disaster of the revolts against Rome. Judaism was fairly unified for a while, as the Geonim ruled from Babylon, but as centers of learning came into being in Spain, in Germany, and in Egypt, rules for Jewish practice began to differentiate by region into Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi Judaism.

Occasionally a group of Jews would decide that the Messiah had arrived. Some, like the proto-Christian Jews, spun off into new religions. Others, like the followers of Shabbati Zevi, were horribly disappointed when he proved to be merely an ordinary man (he eventually converted to Islam, in fact.)

One of the interesting things about Judaism is that we keep careful records of our disagreements. The Talmud is a huge library of disagreement, carefully preserving minority opinions. Disputation is one of the ways we train our rabbis: go into any rabbinical school (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or nondenominational) and you will hear disagreements going on, sometimes very loud, passionate ones. Machlochet [debate] is a process, and it is the way we get at the deeper meanings in Torah.

I trust the process of Jewish history. I do not know what Judaism will look like 500 years from now. I trust, though, that by participating in Jewish life in my own time, I am helping to move towards Jewish life in the future. Some Reform ideas have been pretty bad. We really blew it when some of us tried to move Shabbat to Sunday. Other Reform ideas have caught on with much of the rest of the Jewish world: egalitarianism is looking to be a success. Many  Orthodox Jewish women are now studying Talmud, and some of them are serving in leadership roles in Orthodox communities.  This was unthinkable 100 years ago, and who knows how the role of women in Judaism will develop over the next century?

Progressive Judaism (in its various forms) is only one part of the larger Jewish world. We, along with the various forms of Orthodoxy, are engaged in a process of scholarship, experimentation, testing, and development, moving toward the Jewish future. It’s not that any one movement or party is “best” or “true” Judaism. We’re all part of a work in progress.

Personally, I look at the rabbis of the Mishnah: Hillel, Rabbi Akiva and Yochanan ben Zakkai, and I appreciate the great creative spirit they brought into birthing Rabbinic Judaism. I think the best of the Reform movement echoes that spirit. They, too, made mistakes (horrible ones, sometimes) and that was part of the process. However, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism (and most recently, the Renewal Movement!) bring their own emphases and values to the discussion; without them, we’d be lost.

My guess is that in the future, Jews will continue to differ on what it means to live a life of Torah. To me, that’s what keeps Torah, and Judaism, alive.

 

A question for discussion: Which modern-day movement or understanding of Judaism is home for you? If you are a progressive Jew, why? If you are Orthodox, why?

 

 

Is the Talmud Full of Lies?

I wrote a longish piece for this blog entitled What is the Talmud?  I got a letter not too long after from a reader with a sincere question that I’ve been thinking about since: “What about things in the Talmud that are unfriendly to Christians or even to Jesus?” I’ve seen other questions in the search terms people use to find things on the blog, such as “Is the Talmud full of lies?”

First, if you aren’t sure what the Talmud is, read the earlier blog post. I’m not going to explain it here, other than to say that the Talmud is sacred to religious Jews from Orthodoxy to Reform.  We engage with the volumes differently in some ways, but we all see them as sacred.

Condemnation of Other Religions

As rabbis often do, I’m going to start answering this question by asking a question. Is the Talmud the only holy book that speaks ill of other faiths? If you look in the Torah, there are some very nasty things in there about “Canaanite ways” and the Egyptian religion. If you look in the rest of the Bible, you’ll see disparaging talk about other religions of the time.

One can cherry-pick the Gospel of Matthew or the Quran for lines that speak unflatteringly or with condemnation of nonbelievers. I’m not going to offer examples because I do not want to provide quotes to someone intent on misusing them. Try Googling “Antisemitism New Testament” if you want some examples.

All ancient Scriptures have passages that are no longer representative of the understanding of modern believers. Each moderate expression of religion has its own way of dealing with those passages. For example, in 1965, Roman Catholic pontiff Paul IV signed the encyclical Nostra Aetate [In Our Time] which revisited Catholic relations with non-Christian faiths. It explicitly rejected the interpretations of Matthew 25 that had horrible consequences for Jews. It redefined relations with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.

Like these other Scriptures, the Talmud has passages that look down on outsiders. This should not come as a shock to anyone. What matters is what we teach currently, and how we behave. Jews today believe that belief in Judaism or Jewish practice is NOT required for salvation: one can be acceptable to God by being a decent person, period. (This is one of the reasons we don’t encourage conversion to Judaism: once one is Jewish, then there are more requirements!)

References to Jesus

There are some passages of Talmud that refer to a character named “Balaam.”  Some scholars believe that some of those might actually be coded references to Jesus of Nazareth. More of them are references to the Balaam of Numbers 22, a significant story in the Torah. There are other references to someone(s) named Yeshu. Again, it isn’t clear which of them refer to Jesus and which to someone else. An example:

On the eve of Passover, Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. But since nothing was brought forward, he was hanged on the eve of Passover. Ulla replied, Do you suppose he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not an enticer, one about whom Scripture says, “Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him?” (Deut 13:9). But with Yeshu it was different, for he was connected with the government. – Sanhedrin 43a

This passage appears not in a discussion of Christian history, but as an example in a discussion about the notifications required in a capital trial. Another name sometimes interpreted to refer to Jesus is “Plony” which is actually should be translated “Anonymous” or “Mr. X.” (“Mrs. X” is Plonit.) Usually when we see “Plony” it means that we could apply this case to many different people.

All that said, there are passages that do seem to refer to Jesus or his mother in unattractive ways. One example is in Sanhedrin 106a:

R. Papa observed: This is what men say, “She who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters.”

This passage began as one of those Balaam passages, referring to the Balaam of Numbers. Then it shifts, and this observation by Rav Papa, with its reference to a carpenter, seems to be a smear on the mother of Jesus. It’s also a bit of a non-sequitur to the passage preceding it.

Consider the Source!

Be careful where you read about these passages, too. In researching this piece, I looked at a lot of websites which purport to give lists of terrible things in the Talmud. I went through the lists, looking for examples to use in this article, and often I found mistranslation, out of context quotes, and flat-out lies. Then when I looked elsewhere on the site, I realized it was an antisemitic website, with a full panoply of lies about Jews. So consider the source before you take something as truth.

In Summary

Is everything in the Talmud lovely and sweet? No. Some of it sounds like exactly what it is: fifth century discussion written by men who had fifth century notions of astronomy, physics, anatomy, and economics. There is a severe lack of women’s points of view. Problematic passages abound. We wouldn’t be able to read it at all were it not for notes left us by a tenth century teacher and rabbi, Rashi.

Why read it at all? Because some of what’s in there is wonderfully insightful. It is the record of the process of hammering out what it might mean to live a life of Torah. It touches on everything, from the most mundane (they are preoccupied with bathrooms) to the most sublime (the will of God.)

Modern day students of Talmud use its study in many different ways. We do read it all, although some parts are taught much more often than others. The obscure ugly bits don’t get much use other than as an intellectual exercise. When there is something difficult to understand, we engage with it as we do with problematic parts of Torah: we study. We struggle. We may sometimes lift our hands and say, “I have no idea what to do with this.”

Personally, when I’m studying, I am guided by another quotation from the Talmud, one that I believe will keep me mostly out of trouble:

[Hillel] said to him: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” – Shabbat 31a

Halloween and the Jews

Here comes Halloween! For some Americans, this is THE holiday, more than July 4, more than Thanksgiving, more than even Christmas. People plan their costumes months in advance, lay in supplies of candy for trick-or-treaters, and decorate their front yards.

The origins of the holiday go far back in European history. Some say it originated in the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which was then re-cast into the Western Christian calendar of All Hallows’ Eve, a prelude to All Saints Day on November 1. (Notice the influence of the Jewish calendar here, with an Eve/erev the night before a festival day!)

Can you see where I’m going with this? Halloween isn’t a Jewish festival, and its origins are pagan and Christian. What’s a Jew to do about Halloween?

My own practice is to have some candy ready, should little children stop by. It isn’t a Jewish holiday, but hospitality is a Jewish value, and I’ll be darned if I am going to turn children away from my door in disappointment. I don’t decorate, I don’t make a big deal of it, but if someone rings my doorbell in search of a goody, they’ll get a goody. This isn’t my holiday, but I can practice Jewish hospitality in the midst of it.

Here’s why I don’t dress up or decorate for Halloween:

  • “Trick or Treat” does not match up with Jewish values. Sure, the treats can be hospitality, but the threat of mischief – even jokingly – smacks of extortion.
  • Judaism already has a costume holiday for jokes and mayhem. Come Purim, I’ll dress up and get crazy and do it within the tradition.
  • I grew up Catholic, observing All Saints Day. For me, Halloween’s Christian origins are real and apparent.
  • I’m busy! I have Shabbat every week, I am still recovering from the High Holy Days and Sukkot, and before long it’ll be Chanukah. Really celebrating the Jewish year gives me plenty of holidays already.

I can hear some readers saying, “Oh, rabbi, don’t be such a spoilsport! It’s a secular holiday!” or even “Rabbi, it’s easy to say all this, you don’t have young children.”  I hear that. It’s hard to stand back from colorful, fun celebrations. But just as I can enjoy my neighbor’s Christmas lights, I can enjoy her Halloween decorations without needing some of my own.

There are many holidays I don’t celebrate because they aren’t mine: BeltaneChinese New Year, Eid al Fitr, or any of the many Hindu festivals, and Easter. I live in the wildly diverse Bay Area, and I have friends who are Wiccan, Chinese-American, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. I might be invited over for a holiday, and that’s cool. I’ll return invitations come Passover.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you and your family. But let me suggest a question you might ask: if you make time for Halloween, do you make time for Shabbat? Are you going to make just as big a deal of Purim? What are your plans for Chanukah? For Passover?

We have our own round of holidays and festivals, and they can keep a Jew pretty busy.

Why Ants & Mosquitoes?

Sometimes real life intrudes on blogging. Yesterday I spent too much of my day fighting an ant invasion. Since I have dogs, I needed to avoid poisons, which meant that whatever I did was going to be a bit more labor intensive than liberal use of a can of Raid.

We have called a truce, I think. I was too much trouble and they are looking elsewhere. (I hope.)

In the midst of all this tsuris, I had an appointment with my trainer to work out. She asked me, “Why do Jews think God made ants and mosquitoes?” I’ve been thinking on that one ever since.

My first thought was a resounding “I don’t know.” A lot about God is mysterious, as I wrote last week.  Only fundamentalists think that religion should answer every question. For most Jews, religion raises more questions than it does answers, and that’s how we think it should be. Torah spurs us to ask the big questions and to struggle with possibilities.

But it occurred to me that in this case, we have a little more information. In the book 1491: New Revelation of the Americas Before Columbus, science writer Charles C. Mann points out that many species we take for granted as “local” today actually are exotics, foreign imports, that traveled to far parts of the globe after Europeans began traveling and trading.  The mosquito is one such critter. Originally most species were confined to Southeast Asia, but soon after 1492, they spread over the globe. In other words, in the now-distant past, many species we experience as pests may have lived in a much better balance with nature in the past than they do now.

So perhaps “Why did God make the mosquito?” is not the right question. Maybe the better question is, “What are we going to do about the fact that mosquitoes are a vector for disease in our world today?” And perhaps, since the ubiquity of ‘skeeters is an unintended consequence of mercantilism and colonialism, we should learn to ask more questions before we embark on ambitious projects, and keep an eye out for the fallout of our experiments.

When it comes to ants, I know that they have many useful and admirable qualities. I just don’t want them in my house. For now, I am trying to convince the Ant Mob to stay outdoors by deploying diatomaceous earth in their trails leading into my home. It’s my way of saying, “Go away!”

Here’s hoping they take the hint!

A Gift for the Rabbi?

One search string I’ve noticed more than once on the list of terms that brought people to this blog from a search engine: “What to give a rabbi for a gift?”

A donation to the rabbi’s discretionary fund is always a fine thing to do; it’s a gift that allows the rabbi to do something good for others. (Discretionary funds cannot be spent on personal purchases of any sort.)

Here are some other ideas:

  • Donation to their honor to a charity you know they support
  • Gift certificate to a bookstore
  • Gift certificate for the rabbi and spouse to attend a sports or cultural event (Tickets for a particular evening can be tricky – rabbis work many evenings.)
  • Gift certificate for restaurant
  • Gift certificate for something you know they enjoy
  • Gift certificate for something you think they would enjoy with their family
  • Homemade preserves or baked goods.
  • A bottle of good kosher wine.

The key to this, as with all gift-giving, is to think about what the person might enjoy. If you know of a particular interest or hobby that your rabbi enjoys, then that will make this an easy choice. Things that they can enjoy with their spouse or family are thoughtful gifts, as time with family is often particularly precious. Something that will provide a small comfort: a free cup of coffee, for example, can be very nice.

You might be surprised that Judaica is not on this list. Many rabbis have all the candlesticks, kippot, tallitot, seder plates, and so on that they can use. The same is true of Jewish-themed ties, earrings, and so on. The exceptions to this are things made by children: if your child colors something for the rabbi, it will be treasured.