Online Class: Learn About Jewish History and Texts!

Image: A group of people studying together. (Pixabay.com)

Have you ever wished you could take a class to sort out what words like Torah, Tanakh, Gemara, Mishnah, and Talmud really mean? Wondered how “Jewish law” is related to the Torah text? Ever wished you could learn more about the history of Israel and the Jews?  Ever hoped to go to a Torah or other text study class with confidence? Here’s your chance.

Starting on Sunday, October 18, 2020 and running through Dec 13, I will teach a class on the history and texts of Judaism. No Hebrew is required; this class is geared for beginners to Jewish study. Classes will meet from 3:30 – 5pm Pacific Time via Zoom.

Class Sessions:

Oct 18 — Welcome and Shabbat Texts

Oct 25 — What is the history of Ancient Israel?

Nov 1 — What are Torah, Tanakh & Midrash?

Nov 8 — What are Biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism and how are they different?

Nov 15 — What are Mishnah, Gemara, and the Talmud?

Nov 22 — What are Codes, Responsa, and Jewish Law?

Dec 6 — What is Antisemitism?

Dec 13 — History of Zionism & Modern Israel

Besides lecture on the history and concepts, we will also engage in Jewish text study, encountering these texts first-hand.

This class is part of a series, Intro to the Jewish Experience, but students are welcome to take the class as a standalone class.

For more information and to register, check out the class page in the HaMaqom online catalog. Tuition is on a sliding scale, and financial aid is available.

HaMaqom creates inclusive communities through Jewish learning and practice. We have deep roots in the Bay Area. We have been the leading provider of transformative adult Jewish learning experiences since 1974. We offer courses and programs from leading Bay Area Jewish educators and take seriously our responsibility to serve the most diverse Jewish community in the world. We welcome all who wish to learn with us and do not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, sexual identity, or national or ethnic origin. HaMaqom was previously known as Lehrhaus Judaica.

Tehillim: Psalms from the Heart – New Class Starts 7/9/2020

Image: King David with his harp, mosaic from the Gaza Synagogue, 6th c. CE. (Alexander Siviridov, Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

The Book of Psalms is a treasury of poetry that expresses the full range of human emotion, from despair to ecstasy. Many traditional translations obscure the richness in the Psalms with flowery or euphemistic language, but the original psalms themselves are muscular, even raw, as they express the deepest truths of the heart.

I would like to study this 2500-year-old collection of human expression with you. Each week we will explore another Psalm in English; I will offer some insights from the Hebrew, and from various commentaries. Students bring their own insights to the mix. No Hebrew is required, although students who read Hebrew are welcome. 

Registrants will receive a Zoom link from me the day before the start of the course.

Tehillim: Psalms from the Heart will meet Thursday, July 9, 2020 thru Thursday, August 20, 2020, from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM Pacific Time. For more information, and to register, please visit the course’s page in the HAMAQOM | The Place online catalog. Sliding scale for tuition, and financial aid is available.

The Bloods of Your Brother: A Study from Mishnah Sanhedrin

Image: Drawing of the Council of the Sanhedrin in Solomon’s temple, by Gerhard Schott, circa 1723-1729. (Image courtesy of the Henry Wilson Coil Library & Museum of Freemasonry.)

In the United States, multiple people have been killed without benefit of a trial by the authorities (police.) In Israel, we have just seen the killing of an unarmed autistic man, Eyal Hallaq, by Israeli police officers. It seems a good time to reflect on the Jewish teachings regarding the value of a single life.

Mishnah Sanhedrin includes discussions among the rabbis on the rules governing the workings of rabbinical courts. It was written down in 200 CE, but had been transmitted from rabbi to student as Oral Torah for as many as 400 years before that. The customs and laws described go back even further, although we do not know exactly how far.

This particular section of the mishnah has to do with instructions to the witnesses in capital cases, cases in which the accused will be executed if found guilty. As you will see, the instructions remind witnesses of the seriousness of taking a life – in this case, the life of the accused. When the passage cites a passage in Torah, I will stop to give you that passage.

I thought about writing a summary, but the words of the mishnah are so powerful in and of themselves, and so pertinent to the killings we have seen lately, that I think anything I add will diminish them.

Here’s what the rabbis said to witnesses in a capital trial. As you read it, imagine that you are in the rabbinical court, listening as the presiding judge admonishes the witnesses:

How did they admonish witnesses in capital cases? They brought them in and admonished them, [saying], “Perhaps you will say something that is only a supposition or hearsay or secondhand, or even from a trustworthy man. Or perhaps you do not know that we shall check you with examination and inquiry? Know, moreover, that capital cases are not like non-capital cases: in non-capital cases a man may pay money and so make atonement, but in capital cases the witness is answerable for the blood of him [that is wrongfully condemned] and the blood of his descendants [that should have been born to him] to the end of the world.” For so have we found it with Cain that murdered his brother, for it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10).

M. Sanhedrin 4.5

Then [God] said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s bloods cry out to Me from the ground!”

Genesis 4:10 (from the Cain and Abel story)

Resuming Mishnah Sanhedrin :

It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother” meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. Another saying is, “The bloods of your brother” that his blood was cast over trees and stones. Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. Again [but a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. Again, [but a single person was created] against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven”. Again [but a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.” And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be involved with this trouble”, was it not said, “He, being a witness, whether he has seen or known, [if he does not speak it, then he shall bear his iniquity] (Lev. 5:1).

M. Sanhedrin 4.5

And now the cited passage from Leviticus:

If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard a public imprecation and—although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter—he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment

Leviticus 5:1

Back to Mishnah Sanhedrin:

And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be guilty of the blood of this man?, was it not said, “When the wicked perish there is rejoicing” (Proverbs 11:10).]

Which says:

When the righteous prosper the city exults; When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.

Proverbs 11:10

A little later on in the mishnah, it requires that if the accused in a capital case is convicted and has to be executed, then the first and if needed, the second blow must be given by the witnesses, for in testifying they take on responsibility for the death of this person.

Some questions for study:

  1. What are the rabbis saying to the witnesses? Can you restate it in your own words?
  2. It makes sense that a murderer is responsible for the blood of the murdered person. Why is a murderer also responsible for the descendants who will never be born?
  3. Why is a witness in a murder trial responsible for the blood of the convicted murderer, and for the descendants who will never be born?
  4. What are our responsibilities as Jews, when we are witnesses to violence?
  5. What do you imagine the rabbis would have to say about viral videos that make millions of us witnesses to violence and killings? By watching the video, do we become witnesses? What are our responsibilities as witnesses?

If anyone wants to take a crack at these questions in the comments, I welcome you!

I owe the inspiration for this post to my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler.

Justice, Truth, and Peace

Image: Statue of Lady Justice. (Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Pirkei Avot 1:18

This quotation from Pirkei Avot stuck in my mind last night, as I watched the impeachment trial of the president on TV.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was the president of the Sanhedrin during the First Revolt against Rome, and his life ended in martyrdom: he was beheaded by the Romans, along with the High Priest, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, just before they destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. For his entire life, Roman Judea had been in turmoil.

Shimon was the son of Rabban Gamliel, another president of the Sanhedrin, and his great-grandfather was Hillel the Elder. The family traced their lineage back to King David. They were as close to royalty as the rabbis ever got.

Here and now in the 21st century, things are looking grim. In the impeachment trial, over half the “jurors” (Senators) have signaled a disinterest in justice or truth by voting again and again for a trial without witnesses or evidence. The Senate Majority Leader has said explicitly that the Republicans in the Senate are coordinating their votes with the White House — that without witnesses or evidence, the matter is already decided. Serious charges are being brushed away as if they are a meaningless nuisance.

The world stands on “justice, truth, and peace.” One might also say that those three qualities are interdependent: it is impossible to have any two of the three without the third. If we want justice, then we need to know the truth of a situation. If we want the truth, then we must hear from witnesses and see the evidence. If we want peace, then we need a process for justice that sorts out what is true and that meets inequities with just solutions.

At this moment, the situation seems dark. The world feels like it is falling apart (nuclear threats from rogue nations, climate change and its terrors, growing inequities of income and resources, to name but a few.) Over half of our people have serious concerns about our leadership, specifically the President and the people who work for him.

What is the righteous person to do at such a time?

Whatever our political ties, we can remind our lawmakers that we are watching this process and taking notes. We can write, fax, or call them and say, “We are watching.” We can demand that they seek the facts. If the facts are in the president’s favor, then he need fear nothing. If the facts are not in his favor, then the Senate will have to take action.

We can, each of us, individually choose justice, truth, and peace:

  • We can conduct our disagreements in just and fair ways, arguing the issues, not the personalities.
  • We can seek truth, not the “post-truth” that privileges emotion and personal belief.
  • We can be relentless in seeking honesty in ourselves.
  • We can ask, “Where is the evidence?”
  • We can refrain from name-calling and mockery.
  • We can seek to connect with the person on the other side of the argument.
  • When it gets to be too much, we can withdraw and recharge rather than burn down the house.
  • We can be humble about the things we do not know, and honor the learning and expertise of others.
  • We can choose hope over despair. I may feel like all is lost, but I must behave as if there is still some hope for improvement.

Online Class: Meet the Tanach and Other Jewish Texts!

Image: A scroll, a pen, and ink. (Image by zofiaEliyahu from Pixabay)

I teach three online classes on basic Judaism for an organization called HaMaqom | The Place. Registration for two of them just opened up, and I welcome any of you who are interested to join us.

These two classes are accessible for beginners, but they are not what people usually think of as “Intro to Judaism” topics. The first:

Texts, History & Israel

This class offers an introduction to the classical texts of Judaism, from the Jewish Bible itself to the commentaries, the Talmud, the law codes, and the topic of Jewish Law, or halakhah. I use history as the framework for approaching the texts, and we explore the relationship of those texts to the Land of Israel. By the course’s end, students will have gotten a taste of Torah study, Talmud study, and the process known as Jewish Law.

Class meets online on Sunday afternoons, Pacific Time, from 3:30 – 5pm using the Zoom learning environment. You can follow on a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone.

Tuition is on a sliding scale. Financial assistance is available for those who need a little more slide on the scale – please do not hesitate to request it.

Registration & More information

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה וְנִתַּאי הָאַרְבֵּלִי קִבְּלוּ מֵהֶם. יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:

Joshua ben Perahiah used to say: appoint for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend and give every person the benefit of the doubt.

Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6

Interested in Learning Talmud?

Image: Logo from Ten Minutes of Talmud. (Blog)

A number of people have asked me about resources for learning Talmud. While the classical way to study is with a teacher and a chevruta [learning partner] there is an online resource I can heartily recommend.

Ten Minutes of Talmud is a weekly offering from Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, a scholar-rabbi who is both an expert with the texts and a superb teacher. Her posts introduce readers to a juicy bit of text, then guide them through the process of learning the text themselves.

Selections are short and simply written. If the reader brings a long experience to the study, that will enrich the learning, but it is also accessible to and worthwhile for a beginner.

Rabbi Scheinerman is the author of The Talmud of Relationships, a recent two-volume offering from the Jewish Publication Society. The book is a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.

Blog Link

Jews by Which Means?

Image: A mikveh – ritual bath for immersion.

In discussions about conversion to Judaism, I’ve read various terms to denote people who have been Jewish all their lives, and people who became Jews as adults. There is considerable disagreement about English terminology for the latter: some of them object to “convert,” and some dislike the euphemism “Jew by Choice.” The Hebrew term is “Ger Tzedek,” or for a woman, “Giyoret Tzedek,” meaning “Righteous Resident.”

For those who have been Jewish all their lives, I generally hear “Born Jew” or simply “Jew.” Conversion is the exception, historically, and as any person who became Jewish as an adult can attest, there are prejudices against them in the modern Jewish community.

Lately I’ve been studying BT Yevamot 46a, a major source in the Talmud about the process of giyur [conversion.] One fascinating part of the discussion involves an implied explanation for our process of conversion: it is intended to be identical to a process the Israelites went through in the book of Exodus, before receiving the Torah at Sinai. It starts:

The Sages taught in a baraita: With regard to a convert who was circumcised but did not immerse, Rabbi Eliezer says that this is a convert, as so we found with our forefathers following the exodus from Egypt that they were circumcised but were not immersed. With regard to one who immersed but was not circumcised, Rabbi Yehoshua says that this is a convert, as so we found with our foremothers that they immersed but were not circumcised.

BT Yevamot 46a

In the verses that follow, the sages reason that many of the Israelites had stopped circumcising their children during the years in Egypt, but that all had to be circumcised before they had the ritual meal of Passover. Then they found verses to support the idea that all of the men and women immersed in living water before they received the Torah at Sinai. Their children would inherit their Jewishness (though children with penises still needed brit milah [ritual circumcision] at eight days.) They did not need immersion in a mikveh to be Jews.

So perhaps instead of saying “Born Jews” or “Jews by Birth” perhaps it is more accurate to say “Jews by Inheritance.”

Why does this matter? I think it is an important distinction, particularly with the racist nonsense circulating about “Jewish blood” and “Jewish DNA.” Judaism is not a biological thing: it is a precious possession, a valuable inheritance, or something that a ger tzedek has striven and made sacrifices to obtain.

Once the rituals are complete, and the conditions are met, there is no distinction between the person who inherited his Judaism, and the one who strove for it:

Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a Jew in every sense.

BT Yevamot 47b

Jewish Tradition on Money & Ethics: Foundational Beliefs

Image: An accounting ledger page, with numbers (Pixabay)

There are some basic concepts that form the foundation of the teachings of Jewish tradition on money.

First: We hold any possessions we have, including wealth, as stewards for God. We may say, “I earned what is in my bank account” and indeed, we may have worked hard for it. Or we may not have worked at all – perhaps we inherited it. Either way, we are responsible to the Holy One for what we do with our resources, great or small, because it is all part of the larger Creation.

Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.

Deuteronomy 8:18

Second: Poverty is bad. It is bad in and of itself. It does not serve any good purpose.

There is nothing in the world more horrible than poverty. It is the most terrible of all suffering. Our teachers have said that if every difficulty were on one side and poverty were on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

Exodus Rabbah 31: 12, 14

Third: Wealth is neutral. It is not bad in and of itself, nor is it good. It must be acquired and used justly.

…And give to us a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of strengthening the body, a life that has in it a fear of heaven and a fear of sin, a life that does not have in it shame and disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life marked by our love of Torah and a fear of heaven, a life in which the wishes of our heart will be filled for good. Amen.

– Prayer for Rosh Chodesh, Ashkenazi siddur, my translation

They have sold for silver Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of sandals.

Amos 2:6

Jewish tradition envisions a world in which everyone has enough to live, and those who have more than enough are just in their acquisition and use of wealth.

As it is written: “You shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God for the good land that God has given you.”

Deuteronomy 8:10 (Also in the Birkat Hamazon)

Moses’ Prayer for the Sick

Image: Sunrise over Sinai. (MountainsHunter/Shutterstock)

Yesterday I wrote about the Mi Shebeirach, a long and beautiful prayer we say when someone is sick. But what if we want something short and easy to remember?

There is such a prayer in the book of Numbers chapter 12. Moses’ sister Miriam develops tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a disfiguring illness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El nah refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

So what do we learn from this? One way to read this is that prayers for a sick person can be helpful, but that prayer is not a substitution for proper treatment. Miriam has to take the treatment for tzara’at, she has to be isolated for a while, but she will be healed.

If you wish to use the prayer, you can certainly pray in English. But if you wish to pray in Hebrew, here are some choices:

  • El nah refah nah lah! “Please, God, heal her!”
  • El nah refah nah loh!”Please, God, heal him!”
  • El nah refah nah hem! “Please, God, heal them!”
  • El nah refah nah hehn! “Please God, heal them!” (females only)

I sometimes combine this prayer with my breath, thinking or saying softly “El nah” on the in-breath and “refah nah lah” on the out-breath. This sort of breath prayer can become almost automatic, so that “with every breath” the prayers become a part of us.

What is a Sefer Torah?

Image: Person lifting the Sefer Torah for all to see.

Once I was in synagogue, and I heard someone refer to something that sounded like “the Safer Torah.” I was new to the Jewish world and wondered: what made that Torah safer?

The person I asked laughed a little and said, no, it’s not “SAY-fer.” The proper pronunciation is “SEH-fer,” and it means “Book.” Sefer Torah is \Hebrew for “Torah Scroll.”

The Torah is indeed a book, actually five books. When we see it in the ark or touch it during hakafah, the parade during the Torah service, it does not look like a book. It looks beautiful and mysterious, an ancient shape wrapped in precious materials. Calling it the sefer Torah reminds us that it is not really a mysterious object: it is a book! It is a book with which we are intimately familiar, our inheritance.