What is Orthodox Judaism?

Image: Haredi men pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (MoneyforCoffee / Pixabay)

A comment on Twitter brought it to my attention that some people were referring to the community that suffered the anti-Semitic terror attack in Monsey, NY on Dec. 28, 2019 as “Habad.” That is incorrect.

You may be asking, “The who? What?”

This seems like a good opportunity to talk a bit about the diversity within the Orthodox Jewish world. I offer the very sketchiest of primers here – entire books could be written on this subject. First I shall point you to Orthodox Judaism and Reyna Weiss’s excellent article, Haredim (Charedim,) or Ultra-Orthodox Jews on MyJewishLearning.com. These treatments do more than skim the surface, which is what I am about to do.

Now, for Rabbi Adar’s 500-word approach to the subject:

  1. There is no such thing as “the Orthodox.” Orthodox Judaism is wildly diverse and includes both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The word Orthodox means that that the particular group of Jews seeks to be fully and strictly observant of halakhah (Jewish law.) The diversity comes in when they start getting specific about what “fully and strictly observant” means for their particular community, or when minhag (custom) of a community comes into play.
  2. Modern Orthodoxy, which made its appearance in 19th century Germany, seeks to be fully compliant with the details of halakhah (Jewish law) while engaging positively with the modern secular world. Within Modern Orthodoxy you will still find a wide spectrum of practice.
  3. There are many other traditions of Judaism that strive for strict observance. They differ about all sorts of things: the importance and legitimacy of mysticism, ethnic styles, the State of Israel, Zionism, models of leadership, attitudes towards contact with Jews outside their particular group, or with liberal Jews, etc. Most of them call themselves “Orthodox.”
  4. A sub-group within Orthodoxy that is itself quite diverse are the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox. (Some feel that “ultra-Orthodox” is a slur, and so the term Haredi or Charedi or Hasidim is preferred.) In general, Haredim wear distinctive and extremely modest clothing and separate their communities from outsiders.
  5. Hasidim are a sub-group within the Haredi world, but their roots go back to the 18th century. It arose as a spiritual revival movement and is strongly identified with its founder, Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov [Master of the Good Name.] (There are also liberal Jews with deep interest in hasidoot, the mystical teachings of Hasidic rabbis.)
  6. Chabad is a well-known Hasidic movement. It was founded in 1775 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe. The name “Chabad” is an acronym of three emanations of God: Chochmah, Binah, Da’at. They are also sometimes referred to as Lubavitch because from 1813 until 1915 their leadership resided in the town of Lyubavichi in Russia. For more about Chabad, I recommend this article from the Jewish Virtual Library.
  7. There are many, many smaller groups that identify as Orthodox, as Haredi, or as Hasidic. The congregation in Monsey, NY are members of such a group, and honestly I don’t know much about them. As I am able to learn more, I will add the information to this article.

Most important to me is to underline before I finish this that while I do not see Orthodox expressions of Judaism as “more authentic” than other expressions of Judaism, I respect Orthodox Jews as cousins with whom I have more in common than not. We differ on many things but I stand with them against the tide of the dark forces of anti-Semitism that have been particularly cruel to them in the past month.

We are all Jews.

A Jew on Christmas Day

Image: My neighbor’s house is amazing. (Photo by Adar.)

My neighbor’s house is amazing, like a branch office of Disneyland.

My house has a menorah in the window. One of our poodles is mesmerized by the menorah; we don’t know why.

Many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that most of us have time off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food.

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by and see their Christmas tree.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

May be new secular year be a year in which we have the courage to see new ways of listening and talking, walking and running.

May we have courage. May we have heart. May we have strength.

May we remember this feeling of being the Other the next time we are tempted to Other another.

Amen.

(Adapted from a previous post, in a different year. Time flies, and things change.)

Do Not Believe These Lies

Image: Person w/ name tag, “Mr. Know-It-All.” (Rob Byron/Shutterstock)

I just had a conversation online with a very nice gentleman. He had been given a bunch of misinformation by a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer (SAJM.)

The question in this case was, “Can a person convert to Judaism?” The SAJM answered, “No, a person has to be born Jewish.”

It happens that I had that same conversation many years ago, with another SAJM. There was no reason to doubt this person, so instead of converting early in my twenties, I converted at age 40, after a better-informed Jew told me that the previous answer was bunk. I lost almost 20 years of Jewish living to that Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer.

SAJM’s do a lot of damage to Am Yisrael (the People of Israel.) They spread all kinds of misinformation, for instance:

NOTE: ALL OF THE STATEMENTS IN THE LIST ABOVE ARE UNTRUE! If you want to learn more about them, click the link for each UNtrue statement.

Sometimes misinformation (or even information, poorly delivered) can be cruel. For a real-life example, read “my teacher said im not jewish.”

How not to be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer:

  • Refer questions of Jewish identity or status to a rabbi. If you want to show off, offer the questioner names and contacts of several rabbis.
  • If you thought you learned it somewhere but you can’t remember where or from whom, at least look it up before you reply.
  • Remember that there is great diversity in Judaism. Not everyone is from your shul, your movement, your particular Jewish heritage. Even for rabbis, not all answers apply to all Jews!
  • Remember that humility is a virtue, and teaching error is a sin.

Don’t be a Self-Appointed Jewish Misinformer! By making appropriate referrals, looking things up, and remembering the vast variety in Judaism, you can contribute to the Jewish world.

Ask the Rabbi: Jews and Tattoos

Image: Person getting a tattoo on their forearm. (Aamir Mohd Khan /Pixabay

“Rabbi, I have heard that if a person has a tattoo, they cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Is that true?”

The textual reference for this bit of misinformation is a line in Leviticus, from the Holiness Code:

You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Eternal.

Leviticus 19:28

This was originally likely a reference to outside religious practices in the ancient Near East, although the specifics have been lost to history. Many of our ritual practices, both “do’s” and “don’ts” served to distinguish the People of the God of Israel from their neighbors. Similarly, the previous verse commands:

You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.

Leviticus 19:27

Just as there are some Jews who observe the side-growth mitzvah [sacred duty] by wearing peyot [side locks] there are Jews who would never, ever get a tattoo. However, there are many Jews with non-kosher haircuts, and a number of Jews with tattoos they got for beautification or for medical reasons.

So yes, there is a traditional Jewish aversion to body art, including tattoos. This aversion has been heightened by the experience of forcible tattooing of Jews during the Holocaust.

Jewish tradition sees the body as a holy vessel in which we are embodied in the world, and through which we carry out mitzvot. We should therefore care for our bodies and treat them with respect. In the last twenty years it has become common for people to view tattoos as a form of beautification, or as an art form, and some have even used this art form to express their devotion to Judaism or Jewish values.

It is possible that somewhere in the world there is a Jewish cemetery with a “NO TATTOOS” rule. However, I am not aware of such a cemetery, and I would be surprised to find such a place. The commandment to bury a body respectfully overrides the aversion to markings, precisely because we put such a high value on caring for the body, in death as well as in life.

So let the myth be debunked: your tattoo’ed body can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. In the meantime, concern yourself with using that body to do some mitzvot!

P.S. – If you are considering getting a tattoo in Hebrew, please proceed with caution. Unless you have an observer who knows Hebrew, it is very easy for a non-Hebrew-speaking tattoo artist to get a design backwards, upside down, or misspelled. Better yet, study Hebrew yourself, then get the tattoo.

Jewish Diversity: An Online Class

Traditions of Judaism is an introduction to the things all Jews have in common as well as an exploration of the vast diversity in Jewish life. The goal of this course is to acquaint students with Jewish communities worldwide, and equip them to appreciate and interact with Jewish cousins whose customs are different from yours. Some students will also learn more about the histories behind their own family stories.

We’ll start with the things we have in common: Shabbat, the synagogue, and the prayer service. While each of these has analogs in other religions, the Jewish approach to Sabbath, to organizing ourselves, and to prayer are quite distinct. I’ll offer a model for understanding the prayer service so that you will be able to attend a service anywhere, in any language, and get something out of the service.

Then we’ll move on to explore many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi history and traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews in Israel, and then come full circle to look at Jewish food traditions.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Mizrahi Communities: History & Culture
  6. North American Judaism (including Canada)
  7. Jewish Communities in Israel
  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.

Online Class: To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. Begins Sunday, March 31, 2019 at 3:30pm, Pacific Time.

Berkeley Class: If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Berkeley, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. This class begins on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, at 7:30pm. The 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.  (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) 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. 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 this class – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

On Jews and Whiteness

Image: Presentation of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes : Damaris Lewis, Jasper Pääkkönen, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Spike Lee, Adam Driver, Corey Hawkins. Photo: Georges Biard, with permission.

I have a new favorite movie: BlacKkKlansman. I am not writing a review here, so I’ll spare you the long list of reasons I like it. I want to focus on one moment in the film, one stark question.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

It is the moment when Ron Stallworth, the black cop played by John David Washington, tells Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, that the two of them are going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the scene:

from BlacKKKlansman (2018)

The moment that I want to focus on comes at the 32 second mark:

Ron asks, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

Flip: “Lookit, that’s my f—–g business.”

Ron: “It’s our business. Now I’m going to get you your membership card.”

One of the subplots in the film is Flip’s gradual discovery that he does indeed have skin in the game. In an early scene he is asked by a co-worker if he’s Jewish, and he says, “I dunno – am I?” He is an assimilated secular Jew, and he is invested in that assimilation without being particularly conscious about it.

Because one of the Klansmen is suspicious that he might be a Jew, Flip spews a lot of anti-Semitic invective as cover, throwing around not only words like “kike” but a horrific speech on the “beauty” of the Holocaust and the need for “those leeches” to be exterminated. It is a heart-stopping moment, perfectly acted: we see the performance for the Klansman, and deep behind it, in Driver’s eyes, the terror of his own words. We see him recognize his skin in the game at the moment in which he is most desperate to save his skin from the Klan.

Spike Lee has a complicated history with American Jewish audiences, but he and the writers of the film (two of them Jewish, by the way) have articulated the question for American Jews at this moment. There has been a considerable squabble lately about Jews and whiteness, and considerable anxiety about the rise of white supremacy in our world. This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question:

“Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

The point is, my fellow liberal Jews of all complexions, we do have skin in this game. The question is, are we going to recognize it and drop the fantasy that if we act white enough – if we are cultured and educated and assimilated and meet standards of white beauty – that the white supremacist will somehow pass by our houses? Because that has been our strategy for the last century. It has been a successful strategy, up to a point: Jews are now seen by whites as such desirable mates that there’s talk of an “intermarriage problem,” to give but one example.

But here’s the thing: if we are so focused on those assimilated values of whiteness and homogeneity, we will never notice how that very assimilation causes us to behave to those in our midst with different complexions, the Jews of Color who cannot (and should not have to) pass. We will never notice because we are invested in whiteness.

I can imagine a reader saying now, “But rabbi, what you are saying is that Jews aren’t white!” That compels me to ask why do we keep acting so darn white? Why are we so fragile, waving frantically at photos of long-dead Jews marching with Martin Luther King, insisting that “not all” of us participate in racism? If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?

Why are people of color made unwelcome in our communities, treated like outsiders? Why do we quiz them, or assume they are the janitor or a convert? Why, upon seeing them, do we feel we have to comment on their difference?

We will be white as long as we continue to deal in white privilege.

We will be white until a Jew of Color can walk into our service and simply be accepted without comment.

On that day we will become One: one People of the one God.

Thus it has been said: Adonai will become Sovereign of all the earth. On that day, Adonai will become One and God’s Name will be One.

Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the daily service

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