Basic Jewish Books: 5781 Edition

Image: Two of my bookshelves. Photo by Ruth Adar.

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 many 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 for time and money, I’d require all of them.

Required Texts for Intro to the Jewish Experience

*Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. I chose this as a text because it is a good book, at a reasonable price, and it has an index that will allow students to use it as a reference book after the class is done.

*Tales of the Holy Mysticat: Jewish Wisdom Stories by a Feline Mystic by Rachel Adler. A simple story that introduces the reader to the language used to talk about observant Jewish life. Excellent glossary included.

*Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green. When people ask me for a “first book” about Judaism, this is the one I offer. It is little but it gets at what I regard as the heart of the matter.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub. A good Intro text, and the best introduction I know to Reconstructionist Judaism.

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.

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

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

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. More of a reference book than a basic introduction, but it covers such a broad scope that it seemed to fit best here in the list.

Jewish Bibles

*Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Many Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in the pews and for study. (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. In this commentary the JPS translation has been amended slightly to deal with the most egregious cases of gendering God. This is by no means a book just for women.

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

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

About the Bible

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

The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, by Ellen Frankel. One of the first books to wrestle with Torah from a feminist point of view, and still with excellent insights on the text.

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.

Jewish Prayer

A Guide to Jewish Prayer, Adin Steinsaltz. This is a guide to prayer by one of the most respected rabbis in recent memory.

Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration, by Naomi Levy

A Book of Life, Embracing Judaism as a Spritual Practice, by Michael Strassfeld

Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life, by Alan Lew

Minding the Temple of the Soul: Balancing Body, Mind & Spirit through Traditional Jewish Prayer, Movement and Meditation, by Tamar Frankiel.

Lost in the Service? by Ruth Adar. For the person who feels completely lost in a Jewish service. (article, accessible online)

How do Jews Pray for the Sick? by Ruth Adar. (article, accessible online)

Jewish Ethics & Social Justice

There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, by Jill Jacobs

The Passionate Torah: Sex & Judaism by Danya Ruttenberg

Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice, and Religious Reconciliation, by Deborah Hart Strober, and Gerald H. Strober.

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, by Jonathan Sacks

The Book of Jewish Values: A Day to Day Guide to Ethical Living by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.  This book is rather old, but it is my favorite because of the format, looking at the origins of the holidays as well as how-to’s of observance.

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel. 

*The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel The greatest book ever written about Shabbat. Essential reading.

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 a collection of facts and quotations about the entire High Holy Days cycle, from Elul to Simchat Torah.

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

Passover & 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 and have seen what you do and do not want in your haggadah.

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot 

Jewish Home

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg. Ms. Greenberg is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi and a thoroughgoing feminist. Her book offers us a view inside traditional observance. (Hollywood depictions of traditional Jewish observance are often problematic – don’t believe everything you saw in a movie.)

The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (New Edition) by Daniel B. Syme. A basic guide to keeping a liberal Jewish home in the 21st century.

*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. It is a great reference book to own.

Jewish Lifecycle

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener. A superb guide for mourners. Rabbi Brener is both a Reform rabbi and a psychotherapist.

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

Living a Jewish Life, Updated and Revised Edition: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today’s Families, by Anita Diamant

Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life, by Harvey Goldberg

Jewish Parenting

Nurture the WOW by Danya Ruttenberg. The author is a rabbi and a parent.

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)

5 Things to Do If You Want to Become a Jew, by Ruth Adar (article)

Jewish Thought

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

Thinking About God: Jewish Views, by Kari Tuling. An excellent new book by a Reform rabbi.

Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, by Danya Ruttenberg.

God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism , by Abraham J Heschel. A beautiful, challenging book outlining Heschel’s theology of radical amazement.

Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, by Judith Plaskow. One of the first books to address Judaism from a feminist point of view. A classic.

Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition, by Arthur Green.

LGBTQI & Gender

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Denise L. Eger. A collection of essays, prayers, and blessings, specifically around LGBTQI issues.

Queer Jews, by David Schneer & Caryn Aviv, Published in 2002, this is already a little out of date but it will acquaint you with many of the queer Jewish voices out there.

A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, by Noam Sienna

Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening, by Haviva Ner-David

Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, by Daniel Boyarin. Just as interesting as its title: eye-opening about gender roles and Judaism.

Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler. Not an easy book, but a groundbreaking 1998 book that demonstrates that “Jewish Law” need not be a patriarchal straightjacket.

Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, by Daniel Boyarin. Heavy going but worth the effort. Boyarin is a major talmudist, and in this book he looks at the sexual lives and preoccupations of the sages of the Talmud.

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 This is in graphic novel format and is quite good. It is an excellent choice if wordy books put you off.

A History of Judaism by Martin Goodman. I have not read this yet, but have heard good things about it.

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok Potok is a great story teller, and this history reads like a novel.

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.

The Story of the Jews, 2 Volumes, by Simon Schama. This is a take on Jewish history through the eyes of a British Jew and art historian — quite different than a rabbi’s point of view. The link given is to volume 1, but don’t miss the second volume.

“Jewish History” is an enormous subject, crossing both thousands of years and nearly the entire globe and many, many cultures. Therefore I include this list of more focused histories:

The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane Gerber. A solid history of Sephardic Judaism.

Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism by Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez 

The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home. Joyce Goldstein. Explore Sephardic and Mizrahi culture through their food.

*JIMENA.org — Not a book, but a website full of stories, photos, news and information. You can also follow the organization on Facebook and Instagram.

Antisemitism & Holocaust

Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.

Antisemitism: What it is, What it isn’t, Why it matters. by Julia Neuberger.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein. A close examination of the best-documented pogrom before the Holocaust.

Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo. It is a literary memoir by a resistance leader, a non-Jewish woman.

*Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Psychiatrist Frankl wrote a memoir of his time in the Nazi death camps, and wrote this book of lessons for spiritual survival.

Night by Elie Wiesel. The classic first-person account of the Holocaust through one man’s eyes.

The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart. An excellent novel about the Holocaust.

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.

Parashat Mikeitz: Joseph Weeps

Image: A man crying. (Daniel Reche / Pixabay)

Parashat Miketz begins and ends with tests.

The first test: Pharaoh summons Joseph from prison to interpret his dreams. In telling Joseph about the dreams he changes tiny details in the dreams to see if Joseph is really the seer that the servants claim. (Midrash Tanchuma, Miketz 3) Joseph passes the test: in his interpretation of the dreams, he smoothly corrects the details without comment. Pharaoh trusts him immediately, declaring that he is full of ruach Elohim, the spirit of God, and appoints him vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. Thus Joseph passes Pharaoh’s test.

The second test: At the conclusion of the Torah portion, Joseph tests the brothers who sold him into slavery. His brothers arrive and do not recognize him; he has disguised himself in Egyptian finery. (Genesis 42:7) Seeking to see if they have changed, Joseph administers an elaborate test, holding first one brother and then the other hostage.

Joseph’s mistrust runs deep. He is so overcome with emotion that at one point he leaves the room to weep. By the end of Miketz, he is still testing, wondering if these men have changed, if he can trust them enough to reveal himself as their brother.

In the first test, Joseph is supremely capable and at the same time humble. He shows no anxiety. In the second test, his emotions overcome him. What is the difference? In the first case, he has little to lose and everything to gain. In family matters the stakes are much higher. The secular world encourages us to focus on career and accomplishments, but trouble in family relationships reduces even the Vizier of Egypt to tears.

Here in the United States we have all but made a god out of business. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. Business ethicists tell corporations that their first duty is to stockholders, over all the other stakeholders in a situation. Civic leaders have been given a false choice between “the economy” and “curbing the pandemic” as if money and human beings are an equal exchange.

He turned away from them and wept.

— Genesis 42:24

The second most powerful man in Egypt wept over his estrangement from his family. Nowhere else in the long Joseph story does Joseph weep: not when his brothers dump him into a pit to die, not when he is sold into slavery, not when his employer’s wife framed him for rape and sent him to prison. Only at the sight of these brothers is he moved to tears.

We human beings are social creatures. Relationships are key to our spiritual lives and our physical health. People are more important than business. People are more important than money.

Human life and relationships are priceless. Whenever we talk about the good of the economy over the good of human beings, we flirt with the grave sin of idolatry.

Ask Joseph. He knew.

Parashat Vayera: A Dead Sea Story

Image: The Dead Sea (Photo by Matthijs van der Ham from Pixabay)

Once upon a time, in the middle of the wilderness, there was a beautiful green valley.  The valley was green because a river flowed through the valley, from the mountains in the North to a lake in the South.   It was the most fertile place for miles around; food and flowers grew there, and the river and lake were full of fish.   It was no surprise that many people wanted to live in that place.  Anyone who passed by would take a look at it, and say, wow, I want to live there

The people in those towns in the valley knew it was a wonderful place, and they wanted to take care of it. They thought that they would keep it beautiful and happy by outlawing anyone who wasn’t beautiful or happy.  They especially didn’t want poor people to stick around, and so they passed a law saying that it was a crime to give any help to poor people.  They didn’t like strangers, either – so it was the custom in the town to be mean to strangers, so they wouldn’t stay around for long. 

When a poor person or a stranger left the valley, they’d look at each other and nod and say, see, we know how to keep this place nice.

A family came traveling through the valley, a man and his nephew and their wives and households.  They were not poor people, in fact they were very well to do, and they were going to settle down.  The nephew and his wife looked at the valley, and the town, and said, this is a beautiful place – we want to live here!  The uncle and his wife looked at it, and said, well, yes, but the people are not very friendly.  So the party split up, and the nephew, Lot, and his household moved to the valley.  Abram, his uncle, continued traveling, but they stayed in touch. 

Now that I’ve mentioned their names, maybe you recognize the story.  Abram was Abraham our ancestor, and Lot was his nephew the shlmiel.  (A shlmiel is a Yiddish word for a hapless fool, a mediocre sort of guy who can’t ever seem to make a wise choice.)  Lot saw the beautiful rich valley, and he chose to live in Sodom.  The Torah only tells us a little bit about Sodom, that it was a sinful place, but there is midrash that tells the rest of the story, about the law against helping poor people, and the culture of cruelty to strangers.  In the Torah story, God is so angry at the meanness in Sodom and Gemorrah, that God blasts the place with fire.  Abraham tries to bargain with God about it, but in the end, even Abraham cannot save the cities because there are so few good people in them.  Lot has to flee in the night, and loses his wife when she makes the mistake of looking back.

If you visit that valley today – which you can do! – you will not see a beautiful green valley.  You’ll see one of the most desolate places in the entire world, the desert valley around the Dead Sea.  Nothing grows.  The sand and rocks are full of salts that will burn your feet if you walk barefoot.  The water in the Dead Sea is so poisonous that if you swallow even a single mouthful of it you’d have to be rushed to a hospital.  It is so salty that any tiny cut will burn like fire when the water touches it. 

Now you may be asking yourself:  did God really blast a green valley and kill everyone in it because they were mean to poor people and strangers?   Or was the Dead Sea just such a mysterious and dreadful place that our ancestors felt the need to come up with a story about the poisoned land?

My answer to that is that I wasn’t there, and I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.  What I do know is that the story of Sodom and Gemorrah is a powerful story about Jewish values.    It teaches us that hospitality is not a frill, but a core value, a mitzvah.  It teaches us that tzedakah is not just charity, it means justice.  It teaches us that a city that mistreats the weak, a city like Sodom, is a doomed city.

If Sodom is a giant lesson in what NOT to do, the Torah also gives us an example of the way we as Jews are called to live.  Abraham Avinu, Abraham our ancestor, was no fool: he was an astute businessman.  But he did not confuse being “smart” with being cruel.  He ran to greet strangers, to offer them hospitality.  The sages tell us that he and Sarah had a huge tent with open sides, where they welcomed many souls. 

Nothing lives in the Dead Sea.  There are no descendants of Sodom; it only survives as the name of an evil place.  Yet the memory of Abraham is still green, as green as the Torah says the valley was before the sins of Sodom.  Let us, the children of Abraham, keep his memory green, by acting as he did, with kindness and with generosity to all in need.

Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

What many of us strive for in life is achieving personal integrity, a state of being when our ‘inside’ motivation matches our ‘outside’ behavior. Ideally, our actions should reflect who we (really) are. We don’t just want to believe that we’re honest, we want to act in ways that are honest, a perfect match-up of […]

Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

Shelach L’cha – Joshua’s Name

Summary of the portion:

  • Moses sends 12 spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Joshua and Caleb give a good report, but the rest of the spies say the land is too dangerous and the people are frightened.
  • God is furious, and threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel. Moses intercedes on the behalf of the people. God announces that only Joshua and Caleb will enter the land – all others who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel.
  • Moses teaches the Israelites about taking challah, the observance of Shabbat, how to treat strangers, and the laws of fringes.

Name changes in the Torah text have great significance. Most of us are familiar with the story in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and the patriarch Jacob gets a new name, Israel.

This week’s Torah portion has another significant name change.

In the initial list of leaders going into the Land of Israel as spies,

Verse 8 tells us, “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.

Then in verse 16, we read:

Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.”

What the text does not tell us is why Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua ben Nun.

When I asked Rashi, he told me that “by giving him this name Joshua, which is a compound of Yah and Hoshia, “God may Save”, he in effect prayed for him, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies.”

When I asked Sforno, he told me that Hosea was already known to be a man of valor among his peers, who had given him the name Joshua, and Moses was only formalizing the custom that already existed.

When I asked Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, she told me that Moses added the yud to the front of Hosea’s name because it was the equivalent of the number 10, and Moses hoped to arm him spiritually by making him the spiritual equivalent of the other ten spies. The yud he received was a special letter, because it was the yud that was replaced with a hey when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Sarah had a strong spirit, and the yud was given to Joshua for strength.

When I asked Bamidbar Rabbah, she told me that Moses added the yud to Joshua’s name because Caleb would get his reward from the land, as it teaches in Deuteronomy 1:36, “to him will I give the land on which he has trod.” But Joshua received the reward that would have gone to the other ten spies, in that a yud, which stand for ten, was added to his name.

In another place, Bamidbar Rabbah said, “When Moses saw that the spies were a wicked bunch, Moses said to Hosea ben Nun, “May the Lord “YAH” save “Hoshia” you from this evil generation.”

All of this is to say that Joshua was lifted up by God and Moses to be a mighty leader of a strong-willed people. From it we also learn that one of the glories of Torah is that there is no single story, no single right answer. When we perform the mitzvah of engaging with words of Torah, we need not fear that all the answers are found, because we continue learning more from that time to this.

I gave this d’var Torah for the Tuesday Morning Minyan at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, in celebration of the beginning of my 26th year as a Jew. A quarter century ago I entered the mikveh and became a Jew; a wandering soul found her way home at last.

How to Judge a Prophet

Image: President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Lately there have been a lot of people making predictions about the future: that the country will open back up over the next month or so, that if we do open up it will be a disaster, that the coronavirus is some kind of hoax, that the U.S. is on its way to being the pariah among first-world nations, this one will will the next election, no that one will….etc., etc.

Torah teaches us to be wary of people who claim to know the future. There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Deuteronomy which lays out the Rules for Prophets.

First of all, it sets out what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters with ghosts. They were not necromancers or magicians. All those jobs are described as “abominations.” (Deut. 18:12)

Next the passage lays out a discussion about the reasons for, and requirements for prophets. A Hebrew prophet was an ordinary Hebrew whose life was taken over by God, God used that person as a mouthpiece whenever there was an important message to convey, which could be hazardous for the prophet. The role did not guarantee honor or even respect: Jeremiah suffered horribly for his prophecies, and died in a deep pit in Egypt for his trouble.

Just after that, the Torah asks an interesting question: how do you tell a false prophet from a true one? The answer it gives is slippery: if they speak in the name of God and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine (Deut. 18:22) If their words don’t come true, then they are false prophets and we shouldn’t listen to them.

For Jews, the Age of Prophecy is closed, but we still sometimes have to decide whom to believe when it comes to predictions about the future. That has been a sharp issue when it comes to the current pandemic: there is a lot of variation in the predictions, and the information seems to change every day. The disarray in information is extremely stressful, a state that also isn’t good for our immune systems.

Worse yet, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating, and accusations about who is hoaxing whom.

Torah cuts through all of that with a simple question: what sort of track record does the speaker have? Has he expertise in this matter? What level of expertise? Do they have a track record managing pandemics? Or if not a medical expert, on what basis is this person making their claims to expertise? And what about past prognostications: is this just the latest sensational click-bait theory or have they been right about things in the past?

Torah encourages us to ask for credentials and a track record, whether we are questioning a prophet or the modern-day variations on that theme. As they say in Missouri, “Show me!”

Talking Amongst Ourselves: Voices of Torah

Image: Voices of Torah, Volumes 1 and 2.

Every quarter, I write one or two divrei Torah (words of Torah, short reflections on a bit of Torah) for the newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR.) Many other rabbis write similar short articles, bringing their learning and insight to the other portions. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman edits each piece, making it much better, and then it appears in a little rabbis-only newsletter. And for years, that was that.

Now the CCAR Press has collected these words of Torah into Voices of Torah, Volume 1 and Volume 2. They are arranged by Torah portion, from Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) through V’Zot Habrachah (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12,) with a few additional pieces for holidays (High Holy Days, Purim, Passover, et al.) I’m honored that several of my little pieces were included in Volume 2.

Each short d’var Torah (word limit 250 words! practically Haiku!) is written about a specific Torah portion. Each was written by a rabbi for their colleagues: for rabbis, by rabbis. Some of them are little gems. The editors have polished them up for a lay audience, de-obfuscating the jargon and translating the rabbi-speak into Standard English. It is now a nice resource for someone seeking insight into a particular Torah portion, or someone who needs to give the d’var Torah for a meeting.

The books are for sale directly from CCAR Press or from other online bookshops, including Amazon and Powell’s.

Divrei Torah on Parashat Miketz

I associate memories with certain Torah portions. I remember Shelach Lecha as the week I  became a Jew, and the week I left home for rabbinical school. I remember Yitro as the first time I first chanted Torah for the congregation. And I remember Miketz because it was the portion I was assigned for my first d’var Torah in rabbinical school.

On the one hand, the stories in Miketz have been favorites of mine ever since I was little: Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams! Joseph becomes the Prime Minister of Egypt! Joseph faces his brothers again! And on the other hand I was going to speak before the whole school, and I wanted to say something profound about the Joseph story. Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur was assigned to me as a mentor for the first sermon, and I was as intimidated by his reputation as Joseph’s brothers must have been in Pharaoh’s court.

I didn’t say anything profound that week. It was a fine learning experience: Rabbi Marmur taught me how to dig into the text for something coherent to say, and as far as I recall, I performed adequately. I remember, with blushes now, my overblown ambitions for that sermon.

However, I have some wonderful divrei Torah for you from people with more practice at it than I had back in 2002!

Rabbi Ellen M. Umansky — Forgiveness and Reconciliation with the Past

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild — Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat — Miketz: Letting Yourself Dream

Rabbi John Rosove — Jewish Survival is not a Given

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken z”l — Joseph and Potiphar: The Named, The Neutered, and the Neutralized

Vayeshev: Journey to Leadership

Image: Caterpillar, pupa, butterfly: this animal completely transforms over its lifetime. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, shows us the transformation of Joseph from a spoiled favorite-child to a leader. Seems to me that’s useful information in light of the world’s troubles right now.

Joseph was the spoiled youngest son of a rich man, doubly spoiled after his father began trying to compensate for the death of his mother Rachel. Often first-time readers feel a sharp sympathy for his brothers, who hated him so much that they debated killing him and then settled for selling him into slavery. I’ve never gone that far – I don’t think anyone deserves to be murdered or enslaved, certainly no young person – but there’s no doubt that the young Joseph was obnoxious.

The older Joseph is wiser, not just because he has suffered but because he as used his time well. Midrash tells us that he spent his years in prison learning: he learned to speak every language spoken in that prison, he learned the life stories of everyone in the prison, he became a student of human nature and indeed, all the humanities.

The boy who was interested only in his own aggrandizement became curious about others.

The boy who wanted everyone to listen to him learned how to listen to others.

The boy who said things thoughtlessly learned to hold his counsel and measure his words.

I think, from now on, this is how I’m going to judge candidates for office. Not: will they be good for me? But: will they be wise in office?

All politicians are human beings. They will have flaws, and sometimes voting seems like an exercise in choosing which flaws I’m willing to live with. But looking at the Joseph story, what I see is the qualities that make for good leadership in unpredictable times: a willingness to listen, curiosity, a need to understand others so pressing that languages became important.

At any rate, it’s a different way to see a candidate, and with all the manipulation from media and outside influences, new paradigms for seeing might be really helpful. I know that the presidents who in my opinion have failed us had the qualities I associate with young Joseph: self-involved, wanting to be important, too quick to speak, too quick to judge, and greedy. The greatest leaders, in my opinion, have been the ones who were willing to listen to everyone, who did so not for an advantage but out of curiosity.

I’m not going to say which were which. I just invite you to join me, as the next election approaches, to try asking these questions:

  1. Is this person curious?
  2. Is their education over, or ongoing?
  3. Have they ever suffered real misfortune? How did they respond?
  4. Can they be quiet when quiet is called for?
  5. Do they learn from mistakes?
  6. Do they seek fame and/or fortune, compared to the other candidates on offer?
  7. What are their relationships with others like?

No policy there at all – just a question, are they closer to Joseph the Spoiled Kid or Joseph the Tzaddik?

Shabbat shalom.

P.S. – If you use the comments to endorse a political candidate, I will delete the post. I’m not going to use this space to advocate for a particular candidate, nor am I going to provide it for that purpose.

Vayishlach: Pain & Confusion

Image: The sciatic nerve, which is where Jacob was injured. (Lightspring/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Vayishlach “and he sent” is the name of this week’s Torah portion, a portion full of pain and confusion. It is so chock full of things to write about that I almost failed to write about any of them.

I can’t touch Dinah’s story this week. I don’t have enough emotional armor right now, so I’m not going there. Instead, I will point you to a sermon by one of my teachers and to a brilliant new book on the subject, The Story of Dinah: Rape and Rape Myth in Jewish Tradition by Gavi S. Ruit, with a forward from another of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Tamara Eskenazi. The sermon is available free online. The book is expensive: convince your synagogue library that they need it, or petition the library for it, because it is worth it.

The first line of Parashat Vayishlach seems straightforward: Jacob has been humbled by his suffering at the hand of the trickster Laban (and Laban’s daughters, Jacob’s wives.) He realizes that he is ready to make peace with his brother Esau. So he sends messengers – melachim – to his brother in hope that they can negotiate a peace and Jacob can return home.

The messengers return from the task, and report that Esau himself is on his way with 400 men. Numbers in the Bible mean all sorts of things, and sometimes nothing at all, but according to my Hebrew grammar instructor in Jerusalem, Yossi Lechem, “400 men” is code for “an enormous army coming to beat the daylights out of you.” Jacob panics and divides his caravan in two camps, then approaches Esau alone, camping for the night by the river. There he is accosted by and wrestles with ish, a man.

The Hebrew words in this parashah are fascinating and somewhat obfuscating. Melachim can mean either messenger or angel. Ish usually means “man” but in this passage may mean “angel” and possibly is a euphemism for “God.” Ish also appears in the phrase arba’ah ish imo, “400 men with him.”

Bottom line: this is a setup for a comedy or tragedy of mistaken identity. Which shadowy figure is God? A man? An enemy? An angel? And after all these years, who is Jacob?

I remember reading this passage when I was still very new at Hebrew, and I found it bewildering. I got something along these lines just from verse 4:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃

Jacob sent angels into the face of Esau his brother, in the Land of Seir, in the country of Edom…

Genesis 32:4, (a very) alternative translation

And frankly, while it is not a great translation (wheredid Jacob get the power to command angels?) it speaks to the mystery, the confusion, and the high stakes of this passage. Jacob has a relationship with the land in Canaan, and he believes his destiny to be tied to it. The land is in the possession of Esau, his twin who became his enemy because Jacob cheated him repeatedly. The only way Jacob can go home to this critical bit of real estate is by making up with Esau.

Then, as if things were not complicated enough, another ish appears by the bank of the river after Jacob is alone and vulnerable. This ish, all alone, beats him in a wrestling match, and gives him a permanent injury to his sciatic nerve (ow!) He also gives Jacob a new name: Israel.

The name is a new translation problem. The usual translation is something like this one from sefaria.org:

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32:29

I’m more inclined to translate ki-sarita “Because you have persisted” and va-tukhol “and you have proven yourself able.” Thus:

Said [the ish], “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have persisted with deities and human beings, and have proven yourself able.”

Genesis 32:29 (alternative translation)

As I read it, Jacob hasn’t prevailed over much of anyone. He was cheated by Laban. His beloved, Rachel, participated in her father’s scheme. His first wife Leah knows that he doesn’t love her as much as he loves Rachel, and so his household is full of strife. His brother is apparently coming to kill him, and a mystery figure by the river has maimed him for life. The come-from-behind scrapper, the “supplanter” Jacob is now Israel: a fighter, not necessarily a winner, but a fighter.

As I write this, in December of 2019, we are living in a very confusing time. The Jewish community has been divided into two camps, pro- and anti-Trump. It is hard to tell the angels from the messengers. It is impossible to see where it is all going, but right now the Jewish community feels wounded by a resurgence in anti-Semitism worldwide and especially in the United States. Our synagogues are vandalized; our schools and other institutions are under threat.

But Jacob is still Israel: he’s a fighter. He may be terribly wounded, his house may be divided, but he never gives up. He persists.

May we each do our best to live lives of Torah. May we seek out the best in one another and ourselves. May we not be so impaired by our wounds that we give up the fight. May we not be in so much pain that we confuse friends and enemies. We are Israel, and we do not give up. We persist.