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?

 

 

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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.

Ask The Rabbi: Working at the Bar Mitzvah

I recently had a lovely email exchange with a young person who had been hired for his first job working as an artist for a bat mitzvah. He had a lot of questions, and I thought that the answers might be useful to others. Thank you, Benjamin, for asking good questions, and making me think of other things that might help!

What is a bar or bat mitzvah? A bar mitzvah (bat for girls) happens when a young person turns 13. It actually happens whether there is a celebration or not; a Jew over age 13 is bar or bat mitzvah regardless. The usual celebration in North America has two parts. First, a synagogue service at which the young person leads the service, or reads Torah, or both. This is serious business and requires years of study and preparation. Secondly, there may be a party, which can range from a very low-key affair at home or the synagogue to something quite fancy at a hotel or other venue.

How big a deal is it really? For the young person, the synagogue service requires a year or more of preparation. For a Jewish family, this is a life event on a par with a wedding. Relatives travel from far away to attend, and most families save for a long time to pay for the party.

What is proper dress for a bar or bat mitzvah? Dress professionally. Unless you have heard otherwise from the parents, a suit and tie for men, a professional dress outfit for women.

What terminology should I know? Bar mitzvah is for a boy. Bat mitzvah is for a girl. B’nei mitzvah is plural, unless there are only girls involved, in which case it is b’not mitvah.

Is there a customary greeting that I should know? As a non-Jew, you are not expected to know any Hebrew. “Hello” and “Congratulations” are fine. However, these are nice phrases to know:

  • Mazal tov!– (MAH-zel tov) – “Congratulations!” suitable either for the young person or for family members.
  • Shabbat Shalom! (Shah-BAHT shah-LOHM) – “Happy Sabbath!” – suitable from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday.

Who is actually in charge? In the synagogue, if the rabbi or cantor (clergy) tell you to do or not do something, you are wise to comply. During the service, ushers may remove someone who doesn’t follow the rules set by the congregation. (If they tell you no photos, or no flash, during the service, believe them.)  At the party afterwards, the hosts are in charge.

Good luck! And if you are reading this and have other questions, I hope you will ask them in the comments, so I can continue to improve this resource!

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear?

Image: A rabbi and three other worshipers read from the Torah scroll. Photo by Linda Burnett.

I’ve been looking at the Google search strings again, the words that people use to get to this blog. Yesterday one set caught my eye: “Jewish Rabbi Vestments.”

I’m going to take that to mean, “What special clothing does a rabbi wear?”

The most accurate answer to that is that a rabbi does not wear any special clothing. Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves “rabbi.”  Rabbinical study involves multiple languages (Hebrew and Aramaic, at least) and it generally takes five or more years.

Rabbis wear what other people in their community wear. A rabbi from a Hasidic group will dress like other adult men in his group. I dress like a 60 year old woman from the Bay Area of California. If I lived in New York City, I’d dress up a bit more (because, New York!) but otherwise I would look very much like one of my congregants or students.

I imagine this person was thinking about worship. To lead a service at any time of day, most rabbis will wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and they will wear a head covering, called either a kippa or a yarmulke. But any service leader will wear the same things; those are not reserved for rabbis. And in theory, any adult Jew should be able to lead a service. (In Orthodoxy, men only can lead the service, unless only women are present.)

U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le'il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base's Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma'ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so.  Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)
U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le’il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. 

In a morning service, adults may wear a tallit (in a Reform service, some will wear one, in a Conservative service, most adult men and women will wear them, and in an Orthodox service, you will see the tallit on adult males only.) Alternatively, some men wear the fringes you see on the prayer shawl on a sort of undershirt, so you don’t see the tallit but the essential part, the fringes, are there. In addition, in the morning service, in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues you will see people wearing tefillin, also known as phylacteries. Those are the black boxes attached to head and arm with leather straps.

Here is a photo, showing a boy and two men dressed for morning prayers. Notice that they are not all dressed alike. We cannot assume from the dress that any of them are rabbis.

Photo by  Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

In an afternoon or evening service, you will not see the tallit except on the leader (it shows who is leading) and you will not see tefillin at all. Head coverings will still be in place. For an example, look at the first photo on this page, of U.S. Air Force Rabbi Chaplain Captain Sarah Schechter leading an evening service. Notice that except for the tallit, she is wearing her uniform.

Now, there are some Reform congregations that have a custom for the rabbi to wear a pulpit robe (like a judge’s robe) with or without a tallit. They are increasingly rare, though. Also, I anticipate (and welcome) comments about the customs at local synagogues, or in various communities: there is a great variety of Jewish practice, and my statements here about what Jews wear for worship are meant only to be general.

Rabbis and cantors are primarily teachers: the rabbi teaches Torah, and the cantor or chazzan,  is a specialist in the language of the service and in liturgical music. Both also officiate at lifccycle services, like baby namings, funerals, and weddings, and if they went to accredited schools, they have training in things like premarital counseling, grief support, and in navigating the gray areas and complexities of Jewish custom.

But we really don’t have special outfits. My “vestments” for prayer are exactly the same as you would see on any other observant Jew in my community. Gender can make a difference, depending on the tradition of Judaism in question.

We all stand before the Holy One as members of our community. We each bring different gifts and different skills, but our clothing is basically the same.

For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners) 

Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.

Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.

What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry? The procession with the Torah involves people kissing and touching the Torah scroll as it passes. If you are curious about that practice, this article explores it.

What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur? An article about the books we use in the service.