One Question: Light Dawns!

Image: a cartoon light bulb by ElisaRiva via pixabay.com.

Today, teaching a class about Sephardic Judaism, I was burbling along with the usual lecture about the Golden Age of Spain when a student asked me a brilliant question:

So, all this had to be in private, right?

Earlier I had outlined the rules under which dhimmis operated in Islamic Spain. One of those rules was that all Jewish or Christian religious activity had to take place in private – no public menorahs, no creche in front of Town Hall. So the question made perfect sense: if Jewish religious activity had to take place in private, wasn’t all Jewish activity private?

If I were a cartoon, I would have had a light bulb over my head at that moment. Suddenly I understood why it was that so much of Sephardic cultural accomplishment took place in the secular realm. The Sephardic Golden Age saw accomplishments in love poetry, in music, in mathematics and medicine.

The religious accomplishments of the culture were mostly scholarly – things that could happen in a quiet private space. Also, while there is a deep spirituality in Sephardic Judaism, it too is private: much of it is mysticism and of that, much was secret.

So my answer to the question was that no, only the religious accomplishments were private. The rock star poets of the Golden Age circulated their secular poetry in the public sphere, keeping their religious poetry for the synagogue. Science and mathematics are purely secular. And philosophy deals with even religious subjects at arm’s length.

It was a moment in history when Jews were welcome to participate in the secular culture. Jews could excel in the secular realm, because the surrounding culture didn’t force us into a religious straightjacket.

One question opened up a whole aspect of Sephardic history to me.

This is why I love teaching. This is why we never finish learning Torah.

 

The Wind Report: Jews & Politics

Would you like to read some solid Jewish analysis of politics in this election year? I recommend The Wind Report, a blog by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

WindmuellerOne of the many interesting and valuable classes I took in rabbinical school had to do with Jewish community organizations and life. Dr. Windmueller was one of the teachers for that course. He has since retired from the faculty of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and now his expertise is available to readers with wifi and a smartphone or computer.

Dr. Windmueller’s expertise is not purely academic. From 1973-1985 he served as Executive Director of the Jewish Federation in Albany, NY, and for the following ten years he was the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation‘s Community Relations Committee. His tenure at the LA Federation took place during a particularly tumultuous period for the city. In short, Dr. Windmueller knows politics, and he knows Jews and politics.

I also recommend his book, The Quest for Power: A Study in Jewish Political Behavior and Practice. In it, he puts the situation of 21st century American Jews into a historical and sociological context.

Don’t rely on random social media messages from who-knows-who for information about “the Jewish vote” in this election – check out The Wind Report for good information.

 

The Story of the Four Chaplains

Image: The Four Chaplains were honored with a commemorative 3¢ stamp issued in 1948, showing their four faces above the sinking Dorchester, with the words “These Immortal Chaplains… Interfaith in Action.”  Image is in the public domain.

This week in 1943, U.S. Army Transport ship Dorchester carried 902 troops, merchant marines and civilian workers from Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland. The icy waves were a prowling ground for German U-boats, and one of the Coast Guard cutters accompanying the Dorchester had picked up a shadow on its sonar. The men on the Dorchester were under orders to keep their life jackets on, but down in the bowels of the ship, many disregarded the order because of the heat of the ship and the difficulty of sleeping in a bulky life preserver.

On Feb 3, 1943, a German U-Boat silently surfaced at 12:55 a.m, hidden by the night. The officer in charge of U-223 took aim and fired three torpedoes at the troop ship. One torpedo hit the Dorchester below the water line amidships, opening the hull to the frigid Atlantic and knocking out the power and with it radio contact with the three Coast Guard escorts. A lookout aboard the CGC Comanche spotted the flash of the explosion, and radioed for help.

Aboard the Dorchester, men awakened by the explosion had to find their way topside in the dark. Many were killed in the initial explosion; many more were wounded. Many had undressed to sleep, and when they emerged on the tilting deck, they were without lifejackets. This was the Arctic; no one could survive long in those waters even with a lifejacket, but without one, he would be doomed.

According to survivors, there were four rays of light on that dark deck. Four chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed moved quickly and quietly among the men, calming them and directing them to lifeboats. They prayed aloud for the dying and encouraged the living.

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney tried to go back to his cabin for gloves, but Rabbi Goode stopped him.  Goode answered. “Never mind, I have two pairs.” The rabbi pressed his own gloves into the young man’s hands. Later, in safety, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode didn’t have two pairs of gloves. The rabbi had already decided that he was unlikely to leave the Dorchester.

The chaplains opened a locker on deck and began distributing life jackets to those who had left theirs below. When all the jackets were given out, they removed their own and handed them out, too. The chaplains did not inquire whether the next man in line was a believer, much less was he someone of their own faith; rather, the chaplains simply gave the life-saving gear to the next person in need.

The Dorchester sank that night, with only 240 survivors out of the 902 souls aboard. Survivors report hearing the chaplains on the deck of the ship, singing together to the very end.

On Dec. 19, 1944, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross were awarded posthumously to each of the four chaplains. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on them, but could not do so because of the strict requirement that it be given for “courage under fire.” Instead, the Congress issued a special “Four Chaplains Medal” for them and them only.

The four chaplains served together and with a common purpose. Their story caught the imagination of the nation, since at that time the majority of Americans did not think of Jews and Catholics in the same way they thought about white Protestant ministers. Before this time, Jews in the United States were generally regarded as non-white foreigners, no matter their place of birth. This event was a crucial step on the road to change in U.S. interfaith relations.

As one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which!) pointed out to me, before the Four Chaplains one did not hear the phrase “Judeo-Christian” in American discourse. While I admit to mixed feelings about the ways to which that phrase is used (often ignoring real and important distinctions between Jewish and Christian belief) I can never forget that underneath it lies a conviction that we have essential ties.

I look forward to the day when the essential ties among all people of good will are appreciated and celebrated: when no religion is seen as lesser, when no one is “white” because everyone is truly equal. Then, and only then, will the legacy of the Four Chaplains bear its true fruit.

Is the Bible History?

Image: a small section of the Merneptah Stele, translated: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Public domain.

The quick answer: no, and yes. The Creation stories are not history (and they are definitely not science.) They convey values: that all created beings are essentially good, that order is preferred to chaos, that human beings are responsible for the care of the world. They convey a religious world-view, not a scientific explanation of anything.

Some of the Bible, especially Genesis, is prehistory. None of the folks in Genesis were writing those stories down, as far as we know. The stories have survived because they were oral traditions. Oral traditions are tricky: at their best, it’s amazing what checks out, but at their worst they are like a game of “telephone” in which every detail is changed as the story travels. However, again, what the book gives us is an account of our people’s understanding of who they are, and of the vision of a particular (very dysfunctional) family.

Exodus is a puzzle. There is no corroborating account in the Egyptian archives, and no archaeological evidence of a vast multitude of people crossing the Sinai wilderness. We are not even sure which pharaoh is the Pharaoh of the story. At the same time, there are some tantalizing connections. One of the pharaohs thought to be a possibility for the Yul Brynner role is Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE), who celebrated his victory over some Libyan immigrants by commissioning the Merneptah Victory Stele and placing it in a temple in Thebes. The 7.5 foot stone slab has an inscription which provides the first mention of Israel outside the Bible:

The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!” Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head: Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace, Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not, Khor is become a widow for Egypt. All who roamed have been subdued. By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun, Son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat, Given life like Re every day.

This part of the inscription mentions places inside of Egypt, but also places in Canaan: Canaan, Ashkelon, and Gezer. Many (but not all) scholars agree that the Israel mentioned here is indeed connected to the Israel of the Bible. Of course, there’s the little problem that Israel’s “seed” [descendants] were hale and hearty – perhaps Merneptah was just engaging in some ancient Egyptian PR – or was he covering up a successful rebellion? We’ll never know.

Likewise, we have no corroborating evidence for the rest of the journey back to Canaan, but how likely is it that we would have much evidence? Egypt wasn’t writing about it, since it was an embarrassment to Egypt. No one else much cared. (“Escaping slaves? Big deal!”)The stories survived as oral history until the Jews wrote them down, probably during or immediately before the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE).

It’s only when we get to the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah that we get much outside evidence for the stories in the Bible, by now the stories in the Books of Kings, 930-586 BCE. For that era, we have a number of inscriptions and quite a bit of archaeological evidence, as the kings of Israel and Judea became involved in geopolitics, often against the advice of the prophets. As it is now, the Holy Land was at the fulcrum of world politics. The superpowers of Egypt in the south and Mesopotamia (Babylon and Assyria) in the east jockeyed for advantage, and little Israel and Judah were in the middle. As a result, we have inscriptions and depictions of kings, none of them very flattering but all very much there.

So in summary: No, the Bible isn’t a history book. It is more of a journal, an account a nation gives of itself. Many of the things in it actually happened, but whether an “objective viewer” would agree on exactly how things happened is another question. By the time we get into the later books, Kings and beyond, it is remarkable how much of it does bear out, which is why I also say: Yes, there’s history in there.

For me, the Bible’s worth does not depend on outside inscriptions, or its value as history. Its worth lies in the fact that for thousands of years and millions of people, this collection of books has been a source of inspiration, learning, and solace. Whether the Exodus included 600,000 refugees or 50, its message of freedom remains. Torah is divinely inspired, for me,  because in my struggles with its words, I encounter God.

 

 

Lehrhaus Judaica Online Courses, 2016

Lehrhaus Judaica offers eight online courses over the next several months. (Full disclosure: I teach two of the eight classes.) The classes are taught using Adobe Connect, a platform which allows a learner with a computer and a reliable Internet connection to participate in class without a lot of special software.

All times listed are Pacific (US) time.

Here are the offerings, with links. For more info, or to register for a class, click on the class link:

Prelude to Rabin with Riva Gambert – Thursdays, Jan 28 – Feb 25 7-8:30pm ($70) – In this 20th anniversary year of Rabin’s assassination, we will take a look at four milestones in the nation’s history. (1) Socio-political climate that led to modern political Zionism (2) The post WWI French and British mandate system ((3) Palestinian Jewry’s response to WWOO and (4) American political landscape following the war that shaped President Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel in May 1948.

Lost Goddess: The Life and Death of the Divine Feminine in the Biblical World with Jehon Grist, PhD – Thursdays, March 17-April 21, 7-8:30pm, ($50). Like it or not, most of us consciously or unconsciously think of God as “He.” But scanning through the ancient religious lives of Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hittites, Canaanites and also Israelites, we see a generous number of goddesses. Who were they and what can we learn about them?

Israel and Texts with Rabbi Ruth Adar – Sundays, Jan. 10 – Mar 6, 3:30-5pm, ($90) The land of Israel has been central to Jewish history, both ancient and modern. This class will examine the history ancient Israel, the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, and the modern return to the land. With that history as a backdrop, we will learn about the great texts of Judaism, including the synagogue service. This class may be taken by itself, or as part of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience series.

Traditions of Judaism with Rabbi Ruth Adar – Sundays, April 3 – June 5, 3:30-5pm, ($90) There have been many different expressions of Judaism since the days of the Second Temple. In this class we will study the varieties of Judaism: Ashkenazi Judaism, Sephardic Judaism, and the modern streams of Judaism. We will also look at some of the elements that make American Judaism distinctive. The class will also explore the phenomenon of antisemitism from ancient times to today. This class may be taken by itself, or as part of the Introduction to the Jewish Experience series.

Prayerbook/Biblical Hebrew with Jehon Grist, PhD – Sundays January 24 – March 20, ($95, $90 seniors and students)

Bible Circle: The Text in its World with Jehon Grist, PhD – Tuesdays, Feb 23 – Mar 15, 7-8:30pm ($35)  Since childhood, we’ve all visited some of the great Bible stories, but we’ve also sometimes scratched our heads, not really understanding everything they have to say.

To fully explore the story, you need to go full circle and discover the Biblical world from which it came. That’s what this course will do. We’ll study selected texts, covering everything from the basic story line, to the meaning of obscure words and phrases (all in English translation), to the fascinating differences found in other ancient versions of the Bible.

But we’ll also visit the places and cultures that thrived when these stories were composed, from Biblical villages and the Jerusalem temple to Egyptian palaces and more. Richly illustrated with hundreds of images and numerous video clips, we will time-travel through four selected Bible texts, bringing them and their world to life.

 

What is Tzom Tammuz?

I am watching the sun sink towards the horizon ending the day of Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, so this post will reach most of my readers too late for the actual day this year.

The 17th of Tammuz is a “minor” fast day in the Jewish year. It commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple. It begins a three week period of increasingly deep mourning in Jewish life, running from Tzom Tammuz until Tisha B’Av, the day on which we remember the destruction.

A minor fast is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

Tzom Tammuz is the beginning of a three week period of mourning that leads up to Tisha B’Av, when we remember the Destruction of the Temple. I’m going to write a good bit more about that in coming days, but for now, just now that we have entered a time of mourning in Jewish life.

These minor fasts mark significant events in our life as a people. When you thinking about milestones in your own personal history, are there days you remember because they led up to major events? Do you do anything to mark them?

The Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is located in the midst of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, near the Portuguese Synagogue. This is the historical Jewish quarter; I gather that most of Amsterdam’s Jews live in other parts of the city today.

Here's the wheelchair entrance. Yes, the woman on the scooter is me.
Here’s the wheelchair entrance. 

Getting there: The museum itself is in a complex of buildings at 1 Nieuwe Amstelstraat, and the closest tram stop is Waterlooplein. The entrance for visitors on wheels is a door to the right of the main entrance; ring the bell and a guide will come to assist you in navigating to the ticket counter. They were happy to let me take my scooter everywhere I wanted to go.

The museum seems like a huge disjointed puzzle, but there’s a reason for that. It is actually a complex of four historic synagogues, the New Synagogue (1752), the Great Synagogue (1671), the Obbene Shul (1685), and the Dritt Shul (1778). All four were Ashkenazi synagogues and they were active until the 1940’s, when the Nazis closed, looted, and gutted them. Today Amsterdam is still home to many Ashkenazi Jews, some of whom pray in new synagogues built since the war, and some of whom are completely secular.

The permanent exhibits are impressive: one can get a good feel for the history of the Jews of Amsterdam from them. I thought I understood how important these people were to American Jewish history but half way through the exhibits realized that there are connections I never imagined. (More about this in a future post!)

The museum’s planners took advantage of the layout of the Great Synagogue to assemble the best exhibit on Jewish religion I’ve seen anywhere. The bimah has been restored, so that visitors can stand on the bimah and see an open Torah scroll (under glass.) Exhibits around the periphery explain Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle, the calendar, and home observance. All is brought to life with various artifacts and objects, some on loan from families and some on loan from the Portuguese Synagogue.

There is also an impressive exhibit on the secular lives of Amsterdam’s Jews, from the first arrivals in the early 17th century until the present day. I got a sense of a vibrant community that was merely tolerated when it first arrived, but which would have had few choices without that tolerance. The city fathers of Amsterdam were adamant from day one that the Jews must take care of their own and contribute to the prosperity of the city. This stricture was tested when the Ashkenazim arrived later in the century, fresh from the pogroms of the Ukraine and nearly all penniless. With the help of their Sephardic cousins, they eventually did well and built the four synagogues which make up the museum today.

What I did not realize before I visited the museum was that not all Jews in Amsterdam were prosperous. Some were almost unimaginably wealthy, but others were desperately poor. I followed the exhibits with interest and am still very curious about the economic disparity and how it played out in their communal life. I look forward to learning more about this in future, even if I have to learn to read Dutch to do it.

It’s a great museum. One sad thing: we visited on two separate weekdays, and both times had the museum largely to ourselves. Tourists, even Jewish tourists, seem to visit the Anne Frank House and the Portuguese Synagogue and then feel that they have “done” Jewish Amsterdam. For me, this museum and the Holocaust memorial at the Hollandishe Shouwburg were the highlights of my visit. I look forward to writing about the H.S. in a future post.

I could write for a very long time and not tell you everything about the Jewish Historical Museum. I recommend the website very highly for a “virtual tour” of the facility.