Where Does One Begin Learning about Judaism?

Image: A class at Temple Sinai, in Oakland, CA. Photo by Linda Burnett.

For the beginner, the bookstore and the Internet offer an unlimited array of information about Judaism. I remember when I began my own Jewish journey, I was tempted by every interesting-looking book I saw. The Internet was only in its infancy, but I’d have read every website I could find.

There are several problems with this approach:

  1. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Not every book is well written, and the Internet is the Wild West. Just because someone calls themself “Rabbi” doesn’t mean they have a degree from a reputable rabbinical school, or ordination from a recognized group of Jews.
  2. There are many valid approaches to Jewish tradition. Even good books and websites will appear to contradict each other, because there are many different ways to be Jewish.
  3. “Judaism” is an enormous topic. Even the greatest scholars cannot master it all. For the beginner, it’s a little like trying to drink the ocean.
  4. Some topics aren’t beginner topics. If you haven’t learned some basic Torah (which is different from Christian Bible,) meaningful study of Talmud or Kabbalah is only going to be frustrating.
  5. The upsurge of interest in Judaism has spawned a vast army of people interested in making a profit from beginners. Be sure of someone’s credentials before you part with any money.
  6. Even good books or websites can mislead or be misunderstood. A teacher or a community of learners can help process information and avoid misunderstandings.

So where is the right place to begin?

Here are some choices for beginners, in the order I recommend them for people who think they might be interested in conversion:

  1. Take a class. You can find classes by calling a synagogue. If you can’t find a synagogue, see if a local college has a class. Some beginner classes are called Taste of Judaism, some are called Introduction to Judaism, some are called Basic Judaism. My own class is called Introduction to the Jewish Experience. Almost every synagogue will have a Torah Study group, and if you attend regularly and listen, you can learn a lot not only about Torah but about Jews. You are not committing to anything by taking a class.
  2. Find a synagogue, and make an appointment to talk to the rabbi. Be honest about why you are interested (you want to learn about Judaism out of curiosity, or you are thinking of conversion, etc.) Random rabbis on the internet are NOT the same thing – a rabbi who serves a congregation has been vetted by someone. For tips in finding a rabbi, read 7 Tips for Finding Your Rabbi. Again, there is no commitment implied in simply making an appointment to talk.
  3. Read, but pick your books and websites carefully. A number of sources offer good lists of books. There’s an excellent list at Judaism 101.  You can see my own list at Good Books for Basic Judaism.I also recommend websites at Learn About Judaism Online. The Reform Judaism website offers its own list of books. Rabbi Josh Yuter, a Modern Orthodox rabbi offers a great list for those interested in Orthodox Judaism. I went to the local Jewish book store (back before Amazon took over the world) and the owner of the bookstore recommended reading to me. If you have a local Jewish bookstore, you are fortunate indeed.

Ultimately, every Jew needs a rabbi or teacher, and that is true for people curious about Judaism, too. Books can’t help you refine your questions, or point you to a resource that is particularly good for the individual you are. Of the choices above, (1) and (2) are by far the best – (3) is a poor substitute for a real live teacher.

Some of our ancient sources are quite firm about the value of a teacher:

Joshua the son of Perachia would say: “Get yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and give every person the benefit of the doubt.” – Pirkei Avot 6:1

Whatever route you choose, I wish you a joyful Jewish journey!

 

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Basic Judaism Class Online!

Image: Lehrhaus Judaica logo “Jewish Learning Since 1974”

Have you wished that you could take a class to learn basic facts about Judaism, but haven’t been able to find or schedule one locally? I teach such a class through Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, CA.

The class begins this Sunday, October 23, at 3:30pm Pacific Time. If you cannot attend in “real time,” recordings of each class will be available for registered members of the class.

Hardware requirements: You need a computer and high speed Internet access. Some have been able to use tablets, but I can’t vouch for your success with them – a laptop or desktop computer is a safer bet. We use Adobe Connect, a platform that can be accessed via a Mac or Windows computer.

This is not a “conversion class,” although some of the people who take it may be studying towards conversion. People take the class for many reasons: they are in an interfaith relationship and want to learn more about Judaism, they are born Jewish but want an adult Jewish education, or perhaps they have begun working for a Jewish institution and want to understand Jewish life. If you are curious about Judaism, that’s all you need.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are studying with a rabbi for conversion, ASK YOUR RABBI before signing up for any online “Intro” class. They may prefer or require a particular class.

The class has three 8-week parts, which may be taken in any order:

  • Fall: Jewish Lifecycle & Holidays
  • Winter: Israel & Texts
  • Spring: Traditions of Judaism

To sign up for the class or to read more about it, visit the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog online. There you will find more info about the class, including the schedule and tuition.

Maimonides on Conversion

Image: Portrait of Maimonides, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Parashat Ki Tavo contains the famous formula for bringing the first fruits to the Temple, the same formula that we recall in the Passover Haggadah, beginning:

My father was a wandering Aramean. – Deut 26:5

This line was the subject of a question sent to Maimonides (1135 – 1204) by a man known to us only to us as Obadiah the Proselyte. “Proselyte” is a fancy word for “convert.” Obadiah wanted to know if it was permissible for a convert to Judaism like himself to refer to Jacob as “my father” when in fact Jacob was not his physical ancestor. He extended the question to phrases such as “Our God” and other phrases that suggest familial relationship. 

Maimonides’ gracious answer has been a comfort to gerim [converts to Judaism] ever since. “Yes!” he writes in return, “You may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least.” Maimonides reminded Obadiah that Abraham brought many souls into the covenant, and that ever since then, all those who have adopted Judaism are counted among the disciples of Abraham. Maimonides concludes by admonishing Obadiah: “Do not consider your origin as inferior!”

So, too, do the blessings, curses and commandments in this portion apply to all Jews, not only some. We are one people, whether we became Jewish in the waters of the womb or in the waters of the mikveh.

This d’var Torah appeared in slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.

Nothing New: The Threat of Rape in Ruth

Image: Laborers work in a field. Public domain, pixabay.com.

Earlier this week I posted a study on Ruth 2:21-23.  I used a rather old-fashioned translation available on the Sefaria.org site because it was sufficient for my purpose at the time:

And Ruth the Moabitess said: ‘Indeed, he said to me: You will keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest.’ And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law: ‘It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens, and that thou be not met in any other field. So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. – Ruth 2: 21 – 23 (JPS translation, 1917)

But now I’d like to look at a different angle on the passage using a more nuanced translation:

Ruth the Moabite said, “He even told me, ‘Stay close by my workers until all my harvest is finished.” And Naomi answered her daughter-in-law Ruth, “It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls, and not be annoyed in some other field.” So she stayed close to the maidservants of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished. Then she stayed at home with her mother-in-law.” – Ruth2:21-23 (JPS translation, 1985)

The 1985 JPS translation seems quite a bit different, although it is a translation from exactly the same Hebrew text. The difference important to me here is the translation of יִפְגְּעוּ, which 1917 translates “be met” and 1985 translates “be annoyed.” (If you wish to see the Hebrew, you can do so here.) Other possibilities for translating that verb include “be hurt,” “be bothered,” or “be disturbed.”

Naomi is explicit that she worries that Ruth may be “hurt, bothered, disturbed, or annoyed.” Plainly, Naomi is afraid that if the male workers see Ruth as vulnerable, she might be raped. Her advice is to stay with the other women, seeking protection in numbers and perhaps in the protection of their respectability.

Today when I was studying the passage with some other women rabbis, we read the passage together. Then they were surprised when I continued with the study from my previous post. The were surprised because there has been a particularly horrible story in the news here in the Bay Area about a rape trial, and they thought that I was going to teach a lesson in connection with that.

And certainly there is such a lesson here, although it is a sad and frustrating lesson. We have here evidence that even in the 5th century BCE women felt the need to warn other women about the possibility of rape. Ruth was exactly the sort of woman who is still the most vulnerable today: poor, without influence, and a member of a minority group who was despised because of stereotypes that painted minority women as hypersexual and available. Naomi feared that a man might see Ruth as someone who could be used and discarded without serious consequence.

We know that such warnings are of limited help, that “doing everything right” is sometimes no protection at all. The dramatic tension in the Book of Ruth derives from the vulnerability of the two poverty-stricken women and their uncertain fate.

Ultimately the Book of Ruth teaches that every human being has a right to respect. Ruth the Moabite, vulnerable in the field because of her minority status, was the same Ruth who was worthy of being the great-grandmother of King David.

This is one of the larger points the book makes: Ruth, the ultimate outsider is always also the ultimate insider, a woman fated to be the ancestor of King David. David, the ultimate insider, chosen by God, is also the great-grandson of a poor foreign woman.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. – Eccesiastes 1:9

I pray for a day when no woman has to worry about rape. I pray for the day when Ecclesiastes will be wrong.

 

Naomi and the Art of Rebuke

I confess that I’ve retreated into study lately, and it has made for rather sparse blog posts.

One project is a study sheet on Sefaria.org, looking at the way Naomi instructs Ruth in living a Jewish life. Naomi fascinates me: she’s a very prickly character, but when Ruth messes up, Naomi is very gentle with her:

And Ruth the Moabitess said: ‘Indeed, he said to me: You will keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest.’ And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law: ‘It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens, and that thou be not met in any other field.’ So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. – Ruth 2: 21 – 23

Boaz had said to Ruth, “Stay with my young women” (Ruth 2:8) but when Naomi asks about it, Ruth says that he told her to stay “with the young men.” Perhaps this sounds like no big deal, but in the context of the book, it’s a problem. Ruth is a foreigner, and subject to stereotypes about her origins: Moabites have a reputation for immodesty and immorality. (Genesis 19:35-37)

Is Ruth actually immodest?

Or is Naomi worried that she will be victimized because of that stereotype?

Is Ruth simply a beginner at Hebrew, and having trouble distinguishing male and female forms of the word?

What strikes me is Naomi’s gentleness. She simply answers in such a way that she can correct the mistake. Ruth is smart enough to catch the hint and stay with the young women in the field.

Naomi doesn’t harangue Ruth. She doesn’t remind Ruth that she’s a foreigner. She just restates the matter, and trusts that Ruth desires to learn.

Naomi is my role model in teaching people who want to become Jews. They need help learning how to be Jewish – it is not something one knows intuitively. There are things that might be fine for a “Moabite” to do or say that are not appropriate for a Jew. A good teacher finds ways to correct the student without embarrassing or haranguing them.

The most effective teachers I’ve had have also been the gentlest.

If you would like to see the texts on which I draw for this study, you can see the source sheet I compiled on Sefaria.org, The Art of Gentle Rebuke: Instructing the Convert.

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 over 20 years ago. 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 difficulties in doing that with integrity were marvelous puzzles. I wanted to do that for more families. 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.

A couple of summers back, Jim married to his sweet bride in a civil ceremony. There were Jews, and Catholics, and Episcopalians, and assorted Christians and agnostics – and that’s just the family.

Our interfaith family.

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

Image: A young man putting on a tallit. Photo by 777jew at pixabay.com.

I have been a big fan of the “Wrestling with God” blog for a long time. I discovered it when Adam left a comment on my website. I always check out other bloggers who leave comments and I’ve found some real treasures that way. (Yes – leave a comment and I’ll check out your blog. But leave a token comment, e.g. “Cool blog!” and I’ll just delete it. SAY something, please.)

What I love about Adam’s blog is the beautiful honesty of it. I always worry about conversion bloggers who abruptly stop writing after they step out of the mikveh. Maybe they got busy with their Jewish lives – or are they feeling bad about failing to be “super Jews”? Adam just keeps posting what’s on his mind – and what’s on his mind is often the sort of thing on the minds of many new Jews.

In this post, Adam talks about what it means to live Jewishly despite illness, or busy stretches at work, or family troubles. The only thing I would add is that with practice, some Jewish practices can become more routine, and can actually support us during the tough times. Other things just have to wait until we are more able. German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would reply “Not yet” when other Jews would quiz him about his performance of mitzvot. The fact that one is not YET doing thus-and-so does not say anything about what might happen tomorrow.

Wrestling With God

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning…

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