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 

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What is Sigd?

Image: Ethiopian Jewish Women celebrate Sigd in Jerusalem. (Photo: Yehudit Garinkol)

Sigd is the name of the only Jewish holiday in the month of Cheshvan. It is celebrated by Ethiopian Jews on the 29th of Cheshvan. The word “sigd” (ሰግድ) means “prostration” in Amharic, an Ethiopian language.

50 days after the solemnity of Yom Kippur, on the 29th of Cheshvan, Ethiopian Jews celebrate the festival of Sigd [“Prostration”.]  This year (2018) it will be celebrated beginning at sundown on November 6, ending at sundown on December 7.

The holiday celebrates the renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. On the larger Jewish calendar, it echoes the Biblical holiday of Shavuot, which falls 50 days after Passover.

The text to which the holiday is based in two passages in the book of Nehemiah, which recounts the events of the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon:

On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding.

He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching.

Ezra the scribe stood upon a wooden tower made for the purpose, and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah at his right, and at his left Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, Meshullam.

Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up.

Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands upraised. Then they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the LORD with their faces to the ground. – Nehemiah 8:2-6

and then, in the next month, and the next chapter of the book:

On the twenty-fourth day of this month, the Israelites assembled, fasting, in sackcloth, and with earth upon them.

Those of the stock of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

Standing in their places, they read from the scroll of the Teaching of the LORD their God for one-fourth of the day, and for another fourth they confessed and prostrated themselves before the LORD their God. – Nehemiah 9:1-3

As Shai Afsai wrote for the CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly:

Those two ancient Jerusalem assemblies, on Rosh Hashanah and on the twenty-fourth of Tishre, are the Sigd’s blueprint. Reading, translating, and expounding upon portions of the Bible, as well as the lifting of hands in prayer, and prostration, are features of the day. And as on that twenty-fourth of Tishre gathering, the Sigd also involves fasting and a communal confessing of sins, as well as re-acceptance of the Torah.

Back in Ethiopia, during their long exile, the Jewish community gathered on mountaintops to pray and hear words of Torah. Nowadays Ethiopian Jews in Israel gather at the Tayelet, a large plaza which overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem, to recall their years of exile and to celebrate their reunion with the Jews of the world in Israel. They welcome Jews of all backgrounds to the celebration.

They campaigned for many years for the inclusion of Sigd as an official Jewish holiday in Israel; that quest was successful in 2008.

For photographs of the celebration in 2017, see this Times of Israel article by David Sedly,

While I am not aware of American Jewish celebrations of Sigd (please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong!) this seems to me to be a wonderful opportunity for celebrating the Torah here as well. What if our religious schools took this holiday as an opportunity for learning about the diversity of Jewish ethnicities and expressions in the world?

Why I Chose Reform Judaism

Image: The logos of Hebrew Union College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism, the three institutions that organize the Reform movement in the USA.

I chose Reform Judaism when I chose to become Jewish. I did it over my inclination to “more tradition” and the talk I heard from Jews about Orthodoxy being “more authentic.”

At the time (1995), I chose Reform because I was out as a lesbian and I had no intention of lying or hiding something so basic about myself. Reform welcomed me as I was. For the Conservative Movement at the time and for Orthodoxy, my orientation was at least a problem if not a deal-breaker, depending on the rabbi.

Initially, I was sad that more traditionalist movements were not available to me. But by the time I applied to Hebrew Union College to study for the rabbinate, I was adamant about being a Reform Jew. Someone asked me if I had considered “upgrading” my conversion, since I kept kosher and was ritually observant. I said “no” because by then I had a strong sense of Reform Judaism as my home base within the Jewish People.

After ten years of service and study as a rabbi,  I can be more articulate: Reform is traditional in the sense that it hews closely to the creative spirit and adaptive genius of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, the great rabbis of early rabbinic Judaism. Those rabbis built a form of Judaism that could survive two millennia of persecution. Reform continues to build a Judaism that can thrive in modernity and into the future.

Does the Reform Movement make mistakes? All the time. So did the early rabbis – witness Rabbi Akiva’s declaration that Shimon ben Kosevah was the Messiah. Akiva gave him the sobriquet “bar Kokhba,” the name by which his disastrous attempt at a revolt is remembered. That revolt (132-135 CE) resulted in our long exile from the land of Israel.

Reform Judaism valued me as a giyoret [female candidate for conversion] because it has a commitment to the idea that all human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. If there were no Reform Judaism, would we have families sitting together in shul? Women rabbis? Women congregational presidents? LGBTQ Jews living their lives without lies and closets? We’ll never know, because the Reform movement pioneered those innovations.

There are other issues where the jury is still out. Intermarriage rates are high in the United States. Beginning with in 1978 with Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president of what we now call the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ,) our movement has reached out to embrace intermarried couples and their children, hoping to maintain the connection with them. We’ve had mixed results. Personally I know children of intermarriage who proudly identify as Jewish, but I am also aware of the number of families whose children identify as “both” or “nothing,” categories that most Jews understand to mean “gone forever from our community.” We are still struggling with that set of challenges.

As I see it, each tradition within Jewish tradition has a role to play in moving us forward in history. It would also be foolish to toss the “baby” of our tradition with the “bathwater” of superstition. It would also be foolish not to engage with the world as it is, in the present. But it is not possible to do all of those things at once. For every Jew, there’s a community somewhere that will feel like the right fit.  With our communities, each of us help to bring Judaism to the next generation, to the future.

Book Review: “Judaisms”

Image: Cover, Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper

Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper is a wonderful exploration of the Jewish world as it exists today.

The organization of the book is a radical departure from the average “Intro to Judaism” text. The book explores the question of Jewish identity by looking at 21st century Jewish communities and the ways in which actual live Jews express their identities.

The author arranges Jewish topics into themes such as “Sinais,” “Zions,” “Diasporas,” “Genocides,” and “Futures.” He takes an interdisciplinary approach, consulting theological, sociological, historical and literary resources to examine Jewish life in terms of each theme.

Looking at this book as a rabbi, I am challenged and fascinated. Where I have been trained to look to traditional rabbinic literature for insight (and let’s face it, for rules) Dr. Hahn Tapper gets right at the questions that bother my students most by using a multiplicity of disciplines to examine Jewish reality on the ground. This approach is important because the last 50 years have brought enormous changes to Judaism. The intermarriage rate is nearly 70% in some communities. The status of women has shifted dramatically in liberal Judaism: women serve as rabbis and as rabbinical school professors and deans. LGBTQ Jews are challenging old norms while reexamining traditional texts for new insights.

The title, “Judaisms” may give some pause. Personally I find it refreshing to acknowledge that while we can all say the Shema we may understand it quite differently, and live out those understandings in different ways. We have a common history, with smaller communal side-trips, and both the common history and the local variations are authentic. Too often we frame these differences as a test of authenticity and then use them to bully one another.  We may all observations of difference a game of “I’m Jewier than you,” an ugly little pastime that does not serve our communities well.

I like this book so much that I’m adding it to my list of recommended texts, and considering it as an additional text for my Introduction to Judaism classes next year. It is substantial but not heavy reading, as it was written to be a text for an undergraduate-level college Introduction to Judaism course. The illustrations are beautiful and plentiful. It comes with online resources as well, provided via the University of California Press website.

Dr. Hahn Tapper is  the Mae and Benjamin Swig Associate Professor in Jewish Studies, and the Founder and Director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Traditions of Judaism: Online Class Starts Sunday, 4/8

Image: Ethiopian Israeli Jews celebrate the holiday of Sigd in 2008. (Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, some rights reserved.)

The Spring term of  Intro to the Jewish Experience class starts Sunday at 3:30pm Pacific Time.

This segment of the class is “Traditions of Judaism.” We will learn about many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews of Color, the Prayer Book [Siddur] and the service, and finish up with Jewish food customs.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. What’s Going On in the Service?
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  6. Mizrahi and Other Jewish Communities
  7. North American Judaism
  8. Judaism & Food Traditions / What’s Next for You?

The class is also available by via recordings if you are busy on Sunday afternoons. Lectures are only a part of the class; we use a Facebook group for discussions and all students are welcome to schedule online one-on-one sessions with Rabbi Adar.

To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Oakland, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. Those links will also give you more specific info on tuition, scheduling, and locations.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order. Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) The course is not a conversion class; it is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the varieties of Jews in the world and their traditions.

I love teaching “Intro” – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

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.

Sick and Tired

Image:  Four withered roses in a vase without water. (pixabay)

I feel sick at heart this Tisha B’Av.

The Jewish community is horribly divided. We are divided in many ways, and we poke many fingers at one another, scolding.

Some Haredim see the Kotel as their synagogue. From their point of view, whatever they need to do to maintain the sanctity of that place as they define sanctity is justified.

Some other Jews believe that the Kotel belongs to all Jews everywhere and because the Haredim have said and done ugly things, whatever they say about the Haredim is justified.

Some Jews believe the State of Israel is a supreme value and any threat to it is an existential threat, so whatever happens in its defense is justified.

Some Jews believe that the State of Israel has committed crimes in its defense, and that whatever they need to do or say to other Jews to protest is justified.

Some Jews talk about “the Orthodox” as if they were monsters.

Some Jews talk about “the Reform” as if they were monsters.

Some Jews act as if Jews of color don’t even exist.

Some Jews think other Jews don’t “look Jewish enough.”

Some Jews say Jews who became Jewish as adults aren’t really Jews.

 

I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THIS.

I am probably also guilty of some of it.

However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of baseless hatred is equivalent to the three transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b