The Interfaith Bible Seminar

Rachel Mankowitz is one of the most engaging Jewish bloggers on the Internet. I loved this post about an interfaith Bible Seminar and wanted to share it with you.

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Leading up to our yearly ecumenical Thanksgiving service, the local clergy decided to try out an interfaith bible seminar, including two liberal synagogues (one being mine) and a Methodist church. It’s a trial run, to see how we all do, and then maybe more churches and synagogues will be willing to join the group for next year.

I had a lot of questions. Are we all reading the same translations? No, but they are surprisingly similar. Do we read the books in the same order? Nope. The Methodists read from the Old Testament, but also from other books, and on a three year cycle that excerpts pieces out of order. Jews, in general, read the first five books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, in order, throughout each year (though we may excerpt different parts of those chapters, for speed, and then there’s the prophets and the writings, but I…

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One God, Many Relationships

Image: Digits create a visual pattern stretching out to infinity. (geralt/pixabay)

Anyone who studies Judaism for more than ten minutes will notice that Jews do not agree on much about God except that whatever God is, is One.

Some Jews think of God in very personal terms. Some Jews believe in God in only the most abstract terms. And some Jews do not believe in God at all. This puzzles outsiders, who think that we should at least agree on theology. How can Jews say we are one faith when we have multiple theologies?

The way I like to explain this is to point to one of our most important prayers. It is called the Tefilah [“the Prayer,”] or the Amidah [“Standing,” because we stand when we say it] or the Shmoneh Esray [“18” even though there are 19 parts to it.] It starts with a blessing the prayer books label Avot [“Fathers.”] Here is the egalitarian version:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, God of our fathers and mothers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah; the God, the Great, the Mighty and the Awesome, God of Gods, who bestows kindness, who creates everything, remembering the love of our fathers and mothers, and bringing redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name. Sovereign, Deliverer, Helper and Shield, Blessed are You, Eternal One, Sarah’s Helper, and Abraham’s Shield. – my translation of the Hebrew version in Mishkan Tefilah, p76.

If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s a passage in there that seems awfully redundant:

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah

Centuries ago, a rabbi asked, “Why do we say the prayer that way? Why not “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”? (He was too early to be interested in an egalitarian version.) 

The answer the other rabbis gave was that each of the patriarchs (and matriarchs) had their own relationships with and perceptions about God. They did not all experience God in the same way. Abraham had regular conversations with God. Sarah only met God once, and she got in trouble for laughing. The same with the other patriarchs and matriarchs; they each encountered God in different ways and degrees.

So it is with us modern-day Jews. Belief, for us, is a bit of a side-trip anyway. The essence of Torah is doing. As Hillel said when he was asked to teach Torah standing on one foot: 

That which is hateful to you do not do to others. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study. – Shabbat 31a 

Oh, Jerusalem!

Image: The City of Jerusalem. (walterssk/Pixabay)

There’s a faded poster in my living room. It was a campaign poster for Shinui [“Change”] a secular Israeli political party that ran in the 2002 elections. It reads, in Hebrew:

If I forget you, Jerusalem, how will you see tomorrow?

It is a play on Psalm 137:5:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

Psalm 137, perhaps more than any other, expresses the Jewish longing for the much-contested real estate we call Jerusalem. I love that poster because it expresses to me the complexity of Israeli society, the layers of history and tradition and modernity.

Ever since the beginning of the Iron Age, and maybe even before that, people have been fighting over the place called Uru-shalim (the Amarna texts, 1330 BCE,) Beth-Shalem, Yerushalaim (ירושלם‎), and Ierousalēm (Ιερουσαλήμ, in the Greek New Testament.)

Genesis calls it Shalem, the city of King Melchizedek (based on Genesis 14:18) and Mt. Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son in Genesis 22. Psalm 76 refers to it as Salem, a name which the Puritans borrowed when they founded a certain infamous town in Massachusetts. Some texts refer to it as Zion, after Har Tziyyon, the hill upon which the Temple Mount stands.

The locals called it Jebus until King David captured it and made it his capital, so sometimes people refer to it even today as the City of David.

After the Romans flattened it in the 2nd century CE, they renamed it Aelia Capitolina after the family of Herod (Aelia) and they built a temple to Jupiter to replace the Jewish Temple. They were certain that would be the last anyone would hear of the Jews.

The modern Arabic name of the city is القدس al-Quds, which derives from the Semitic root Q-D-S, meaning “Holy,” because for Muslims, too, it is a holy city. Mohammed is believed to have visited in the year 610, and to have made a journey to heaven from the al-masjid-Al-Aqsa, the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque, atop the hill known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The Ottomans called the city al-Quds aš-Šarīf, and it was in their possession for centuries.

Then there are the Christians, for whom Jerusalem was the scene for the theophany of Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre encompasses several of the sites in the drama. Some Christians believe that in years to come Jerusalem will be the stage for the Second Coming. Many Christians live in the city today, and like the Jews and the Muslims, there are many holy sites, many sacred markers there for them.

Make no mistake, with the exception of the Romans, who probably loathed the place and everyone in it, the city is a holy and a beloved place. It is the most-contested scrap of real estate in the world.

I lived there for a year, the best and worst year of my life.

Jerusalem wrings the heart. It tests the soul. It drives some people crazy: there is an actual diagnosis called “Jerusalem syndrome” in which perfectly sane people come to visit the city and then suffer from delusions of being a Biblical character or of having some special destiny. I know that I lived there only 12 months and I was changed forever by it. It will never release its hold on me.

So when I heard about the pronouncement by President Trump that he was going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I trembled. So many people are so invested in that place, and his pronouncement only spoke to the Israelis. It was bound to cause trouble, because for many years now, there has been an assumption that West Jerusalem will be the capital of a Jewish state (in fact, it functions as such already) and that East Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state. What Trump seems to have been saying, whether he realized it or not, is that he is giving up on the two-state solution, and that the fate of the Palestinian residents is of no concern to him.

I tell my students that anyone who talks about the Middle East and begins, “It’s very simple” should be disregarded out of hand. There is nothing simple about that place — and that goes double and triple for Jerusalem. I care very much for the Jerusalemites I know, both Israeli and Palestinian, and I hate to think of them in the midst of violence.

I worry that the President doesn’t understand that the situation is complex and delicate. I worry that he thinks he can be a broker between the two sides but only speak to one. I worry that he fails to realize that there are not just two sides, but dozens of different stakeholders in the city of Jerusalem, and that they could easily be at each others’ throats, because that holy city, that dear place, has a tendency to bring out extremes.

In the meantime, I will pray Psalm 122:

 I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet have been standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for[a] Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
There thrones for judgment were set,
    the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
    “May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
    and security within your towers!”
For my brothers and companions’ sake
    I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.

IMG_20171218_181646

If I forget you, Jerusalem, how will you see tomorrow?

Just Say “No” to “Chris-muck-kah!”

Image: Santa, a menorah, and “Say NO to Chrismukkah” in red letters.

Once upon a time, Elijah hosted a potluck supper. He asked all the guests to bring a dish from their own tradition.

  • Sarah brought sufganiot, those fabulous jelly donuts that Israelis eat at Chanukah.
  • Mike brought Irish Soda Bread.
  • Jacob brought latkes with applesauce and sour cream.
  • Louise brought a Christmas ham.
  • Ruth brought hush puppies and fish, fried in oil.
  • Jessie brought cranberry sauce.
  • Erin brought sugar cookies with red and green icing.
  • Aaron brought green bean salad, from his mom’s recipe.

As each of them arrived, Elijah welcomed them and had them put the dishes on the dining room table. Then, when everyone was there, he uncovered a big food processor and began to dump all the food into it, whirling it together into a paste.

The guests were horrified. The delicious food they’d brought was turned into muck! What a horrible thing to do!

That’s how I feel about “Chrismukkah” – it turns delightful holidays into “muk.” Christmas is beautiful on its own. Chanukah is beautiful on its own. Mixing them together is dreadful, like blendering ham with sugar cookies and latkes.

Chanukah is about the rededication of Jews to Judaism. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus – or in “secular Christmas” about warmth and giving. They are two separate holidays that truly don’t go together.

Enjoy the lights! Enjoy each other’s holidays! But keep them separate, so we can still taste them both.

 

Yiddish Words I Don’t Use

Image: Wooden letters spelling “WORD.” Art by exopixel/shutterstock.

There are some words in Hebrew or Yiddish that I don’t use ever.

I’ve written about one of them in Who are You Calling Shiksa? – it’s a nasty, unfriendly word, and no amount of “reclaiming” will fix it.

Another such word is shaygitz. It means “varmint,” or “rascal” and it is distinctly unfriendly.

Like shiksa, shaygitz has its roots in the Hebrew word sheketz, meaning “abominable,” “filth,” or “blemish.”

My colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr pointed out to me today that the word goy needs to join the list. Its original meaning in Biblical Hebrew was innocent, meaning “nation,” or “people,” – there are places in the Torah where it actually refers to the Jews! But it has come to take on a pejorative meaning in Yiddish and even worse, it has been co-opted by white supremacists as a badge of honor for anti-semitic chants, etc. I don’t use the word, and now I will gently correct people who use it to me, even when it’s supposed to be a joke.

Some words can be salvaged. “Queer” is one such word. It had a neutral meaning until someone chose to use it hatefully to taunt LGBTQ folk. We took the word as our own, and defanged it. Shiksa and shaygitz are hateful in their core meaning; they can’t be repurposed without dragging along the stigma.

Goy is a little different. It hasn’t always been used to disparage. I look forward to a day, someday, when we can use the word as Isaiah did:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
V’lo Yil’m’du od milchamah!

Nation shall not lift up its sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore” – Isaiah 2:4

But for now, not in my vocabulary.

What is a Prophet?

Image: A portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls (via Wikimedia)

Jews and Christians understand the word “prophet” differently.

This can cause misunderstanding. We’ll be going along talking and thinking we’re communicating, and then it will turn out that we use the same English word for two completely different meanings. It’s as if I were walking along talking to a UK citizen about something “in my boot.” I am referring to something in my shoe. The British listener believes I’m referring to the cabinet at the back of my car! We are both right, but we aren’t communicating.

Jews understand prophets to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The prophets spoke to our entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

The prophets were limited to a particular time in our history. Jewish prophets occupied an historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders. Not long after we returned to the Land of Israel from Babylon, though, the time of the Prophets was over. Our last prophet was Malachi, who is believed to have lived during the time of Ezra.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless. They call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill the commandments.

For Christians, the same figures have a different role. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fortellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. Christians speak of events in the New Testament “fulfilling the words of the prophets.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Not all Christians are Dispensationalists. The Dispensationalists have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their messages and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

The two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor, etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful from a Jewish point of view. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently.  Knowing about those differences can improve our communication and foster mutual respect – and that is a worthwhile goal.

To My Christian Friends Coming to Seder

Image: Matzah (Unleavened bread.)

Dear Friends,

I’m so glad that you will be joining us for seder this Passover. The seder is a core experience of Jewish life and hospitality. We’re glad to have you.

After a few experiences with guests at the seder table, I’ve learned that it helps if you get a little orientation ahead of time. So, some history:

The seder goes back to the time just after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era (which you call “70 AD.”) Our people were distraught at the loss of our Temple, at the violence of the Roman armies, and we looked desperately for a way to make sure that the central story of our heritage would be handed down intact.

You see, up until that time it was our custom to travel to Jerusalem for the festival every year. It is one of three such “pilgrimage festivals” in Judaism. Families would travel long distances to camp in the valleys and hills around Jerusalem. On the last day before the festival, the head of each household would carry a lamb or goat down to the Temple, where the priests would slaughter it ritually and begin the process of roasting it before they handed the roast back to the householder. Then he (usually he) would return to the family and they would finish roasting the meat, munching on unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs as was commanded in the Torah. While all this went on, there was storytelling by the elders and children, telling the story of our deliverance from Egypt. That’s how Passover was celebrated while the Temple still stood.

After the Temple was destroyed, we could no longer have the animal sacrifices, because we can only make those sacrifices in the Temple. Our elders made the decision to use the most powerful teaching practice of the time to transmit our story. That practice was the symposium banquet, a Greek custom at which wealthy free men reclined around a table, enjoying food and wine and discussing important issues. So from that time to this, we recline around the table, using the Haggadah, a script, to discuss our story at a level that everyone at the table can enjoy, linking our story to music and the tastes and odors of delicious food.

That’s what the Passover Seder is: a sacred moment in which we pass on the heritage of our people, experiencing it anew every year. The seder has served us well, seeing us through centuries of persecution and exile. It differs from the symposium in that we make the declaration “Let all who are hungry come and eat:” the learning offered at the seder is for anyone who is hungry for it, not only the privileged. Men, women and children participate at the seder table.

You may have heard from someone about links to your own Christian story. It’s true: Passover (Pesach) is mentioned in your New Testament. The gospels say that the events leading up to Easter took place during the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, it is not true that the “Last Supper” was a Passover seder. Think about it: the Temple was still standing in the year 33; it would be standing for 37 more years. Jesus never went to a Passover seder, although as an observant Jew, he certainly took part in the Passover observances of his time: the sacrifices, the storytelling, and the unleavened bread.

So here’s what I ask: when you come to sit at my seder table, be there for a Jewish experience. I’m inviting you into my world on one of the holiest nights of its year. Just as I would not come into your church for Christmas services and tell everyone about all the Jewish content in the service, don’t come to a seder table to teach about Jesus. We both know that there are connections, and if you feel powerfully about that, press your minister or priest for interfaith events. There are many days of the year when those would be appropriate. Christmas, Easter, Rosh HaShanah and Passover are not those days; they are days when each community has its own important work to do.

I’m glad you are coming to my seder table, and I hope that you have a wonderful evening with us. Pesach sameach! (PAY-sokh sah-MAY-ahkh) – Happy Passover!

L’shalom,

Rabbi Ruth Adar

P.S. – For more advice about getting the most out of your first seder read Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Seder Guest. 

• This post appeared last year on this blog in a slightly different form.