Children in Cages: More Ways to Help

Image: A chain-link “room” jammed with people. The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org.

First a quotation from the great teacher Maimonides:

You do not find a mitzvah greater than the redemption of captives, for captivity is in the same category as famine, drought, or exposure, and one stands in danger to one’s life. One who averts his eyes from redeeming [the captive] transgresses [the commandment], (Deut. 15:7Do not harden your heart and shut your hand, and (Lev. 19:16Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor, and (Lev. 25:53He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight, and nullifies the commandment (Deut. 15:8You must open your hand, and the commandment, (Lev. 25:36Let him live by your side as your kinsman, and (Lev. 19:18Love your fellow as yourself, and (Proverbs 24:11If you refrained from rescuing those taken off to death, [those condemned to slaughter–if you say, “We knew nothing of it,” surely He who fathoms hearts will discern], and many such sayings. You cannot find a greater mitzvah than the redemption of captives.

– Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor, 8:10

One of the most important forms of tzedakah is money given to free the captive, according to Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah. I have already listed opportunities for gemilut hasadim, acts of kindness that do not involve cash, in Children in Cages: Things We Can Do Today.

This is a list of good places to donate where your money (however small an amount!) will make a difference for the people in detention camps:

Holly Cooper, Co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at UC Davis, is one of the few attorney [sic] with legally mandated access to some of the worst facilities where the children are being held. Her team is doing vital work, investigating, advocating and suing to help the children. Over the weekend has already been an outpouring of support for this work, and now we can add ours too. We can click here to donate to Together Rising’s fight for the rights of children in Detention camps. Information here.

From Rogan’s List, June 25; via Valerie Sopher at Temple Sinai

A list of links to places to donate, from Rabbi Suzanne Singer:

        Legal Support

        Political Support

        Bail/Bond Funds and Support

        Psycho-social support

Humanitarian Support        

Community or Multifactor Support

What are The Three Weeks?

Image: An imprint of a foot in the sand, just before the surf obliterates it. (Pixabay)

Believe it or not, we are at the barest beginning of a cycle that will bring us to the High Holy Days in the fall.

Sunday marked the beginning of the build-up to the grimmest day in the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av. For the next three weeks, the Haftarah (prophetic) readings will warn us that God is angry with Israel, that it is time to repent our selfish ways.

What to do with these? We can go to shul, read or listen to the Haftarah readings, and let them open our hearts. If the Saturday morning services are difficult for you to access, read the readings:

  1. Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
  2. Haftarah for Ashkenazim: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4 Haftarah for Sephardim: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 4:1 – 4:2
  3. Isaiah 1:1-27

How can we make use of these readings to enrich our spiritual lives?

1. We can hear them in the context of the synagogue service -or-

2. We can read and ponder them: “What do the prophets’ words have to do with me?”

3. We can open our hearts to repentance and change.

Traditionally this was a season of sadness, preparing to re-experience or remember the trauma of Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the Temple.

Besides that, it is a reminder that our tradition is to remember and learn from past mistakes. It is another “Never again” – this time not about the Holocaust but about the terrible, terrible damage we do ourselves and others when we indulge in sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

So I will not say “Enjoy” – but I will wish you fruitful reflection and fruitful prayers during this solemn time.

Do Jews Believe in the Devil?

Image: An image of a devil. (by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The very short answer is: No, Jews do not believe in the Devil of Christian theology.

A longer, more complete answer:

Jewish scripture has a character known as HaSatan, the Adversary. HaSatan appears in the beginning of the Book of Job:

One day the divine beings presented themselves before the LORD, and the Adversary came along with them.

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Where have you been?” The Adversary answered the LORD, “I have been roaming all over the earth.”

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!”

Job 1:6-8

In this and in chapter 3 of the book of Zachariah, “HaSatan” is not a personality. HaSatan is the title of a role, a job description. “Ha” means “the.” “Satan” means “adversary.” In Job, HaSatan plays the persecutor, taunting God that Job only loves God because God has been good to him. God allows HaSatan to inflict suffering on Job so that Job can demonstrate his faith in God. In Zachariah, he is the Accuser, and an angel (malach) is God’s mouthpiece, rejecting the accusations of HaSatan.

The figure in the adversary role has little or no volition: it cannot do anything without the permission of God. It plays a role equivalent to that in English of a “devil’s adversary:” it is an expression of opposition. Angels have a similar role in the Jewish Bible: they function as messengers or as extensions of God, but they do not have agency of their own.

Sometimes in other texts HaSatan is an expression of the yetzer harah, the evil or selfish inclination. It never acquires the independence, to say nothing of the raw power, of the Satan figure in Christian tradition.

There are a number of Talmudic texts about HaSatan, for instance:

Reish Lakish says: Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one, that is, they are three aspects of the same essence. He is the Satan who seduces people and then accuses them, as it is written: “So the Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with vile sores” (Job 2:7). He is also the evil inclination, as it is written there: “The impulse of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continuously” (Genesis 6:5); and it is written here: “Only upon [Job] do not put forth your hand” (Job 1:12). The verbal analogy between the various uses of the word “only” teaches that the evil inclination is to be identified with the Satan. He is also the Angel of Death, as it is written: “Only spare his life” (Job 2:6); apparently Job’s life depends upon him, the Satan, and accordingly the Satan must also be the Angel of Death.

Bava Batra 16a

HaSatan has these roles (a named figure in Job, the evil inclination in humans, and the Angel of Death) as it is picked up as a theme in Jewish mystical writing and in folklore, but it is in those sources that it takes on a role more like that of the Christian Satan. That may be from cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian ideas in golden-age Spain and in northern Europe. It may also have arisen from the need of a suffering people to separate the suffering in life from the all-good person of their God.

At any rate, most modern Jews do not believe in “Hell” and do not believe in “Satan” as an independent figure busy in the world. We are much more inclined to attribute the evils that come from human misbehavior to human beings, and to attribute “evils” from the natural world (earthquakes and other natural disasters) to the balance of nature established by God.

Jews have been and continue to be ferociously monotheistic, so that an independent and equal opponent to God is a logical impossibility.

What do you believe, and why?

Who or What is Chazal?

Image: A page from a medieval Jerusalem Talmud manuscript. Found in the Cairo genizah. Public Domain.

“Chazal say…” a more advanced rabbinical student said to me, in answer to a question. I heard, “Chagall says…” and was very confused. I’d asked a question about halakhah (Jewish law) – why is he quoting a Jewish artist?

Chazal (Kha-ZAHL) is a collective noun meaning “the sages,” the ancient rabbis, from the “Men of the Great Assembly,” up through the closing and final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, roughly from 500 BCE until about 650 CE. Think of it as a fancier way of saying “the ancient rabbis.”

Rabbis talk about those rabbis in terms of eras of rabbis:

First there was the age of the Men of the Great Assembly, which ran from the time of Ezra the Scribe up until about the time of the Maccabees. One of the last of that era was Shimon the Righteous:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Then there was the age of the Zugot, or Pairs of teachers, the last and most famous of whom were Hillel and Shammai. They all lived in Palestine, the land of Israel. They saw Rome come to power in the land, and were alive during the time of a fellow called Jesus.

Next came the Tannaim, which means “repeaters.” They were the rabbis who formulated the Mishnah. They taught during the difficult period just before and after the destruction of the Temple, from about 20 BCE – 200 CE.

The rabbis after the redaction of the Mishnah are called the Amoraim, which means “those who speak.” They are the rabbis of the Talmud. Some of them lived and taught in Babylonia, and some lived and taught in Palestine. They lived from 200 until 500 CE.

The last era of rabbis who are Chazal is a rather shadowy group called the Savoraim, the “reasoners.” They lived in Babylonia, and were responsible for putting the Talmud into its final form from 500-600 CE.

So now you know that Chazal is not Chagall! Had there been no Chazal, likely Chagall would have painted differently; most of his subject matter was deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition shaped by Chazal.

Free Sample for Regular Readers!

Image: Studying from a Torah Scroll with my study partner, Fred Isaac. Photo by Linda Burnett.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I teach an online class called Introduction to the Jewish Experience. In the winter, the topic is “Israel & Texts,” an exploration of the library of books that have shaped Jewish experience since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Tomorrow, Feb 3, 2019, I’m going to open that class to auditors for one meeting only. In other words, you can get a free sample of the class simply by clicking the link below.

Class meets from 3:30 to 5 pm Pacific Time (6:30 Eastern, 5:30 Central, 4:30 Mountain, etc.) The topic will be “Torah, Tanakh, and Midrash.” I’ll explain what those are, and we’ll learn where they came from and what Jews do with those texts.

Why am I doing this? I have several bees in my bonnet about the NFL and American football. I’d like to give anyone who forgoes the annual concussion-fest of “SuperBowl” a little treat, and this is what I have to offer.

I am not going to publicise this via Twitter for obvious reasons – only those who subscribe to this blog or is a friend on Facebook will see it.

Three requests. By clicking on the link below you agree to all three of these requests:

  1. When you click the link and enter the Zoom classroom, your microphone will be muted. Please leave your microphone off during the class and let the registered students do the talking and asking questions.
  2. You are welcome to send me your questions at my email rabbiadar-at-gmail-dot-com, and I will answer them in upcoming blog posts.
  3. Please do not publicise this offer via social media of any sort. I am not set up to wrangle vast numbers of pop-in visitors.

And now, THE LINK.

See you in class!

Sometimes Silence is a Mitzvah

Image:  A woman sits silently, arms folded. (ivanovgood/pixabay)

And Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory for him to refrain from speaking, as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). — Yevamot 65b

In the midst of a discussion of the command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” (Genesis 1:28) the Talmud goes on a little side trip. The wording is a bit awkward in this translation (from the excellent Sefaria.org website).  I shall rephrase:

Rabbi Ile’a said, according to Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, “It is a mitzvah to rebuke another person when the rebuke will be heeded. It is similarly a mitzvah for a person to refrain from rebuking another when they know their words will not be heeded.” Rabbi Abba agreed: “That one is obliged to refrain from speaking, as Proverbs 9:8 says, ‘Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you.'”

This passage reminds me of times when I have engaged in arguments with online trolls – people who enjoy starting quarrels and upsetting people for the fun of it. A fictional example:

TRUEBELIEVER: COFFEESHOPRABBI is a stupid libtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: Please don’t use words that stigmatize people with disabilities.

TRUEBELIEVER: Stupid libtard! Stupid libtard! #StupidLibtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: I’m not calling you names. Why are you calling me names?

TRUEBELIEVER: MAGA! MAGA! MAGA!

As Maureen points out in the comments, the “Block” function on most online systems is the best option at such times. When I’m thinking clearly, I answer the first line – namecalling – with a block. No conversation, no second chances, just silence.

My time is better spent encouraging voters to get to the polls, or calling my representatives. So is yours.

Rabbi Ile’a was right.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Blood Moon?

Image: Giuseppe Petricca took this image of a “supermoon” total lunar eclipse on Sept. 27, 2015, from Pisa, Italy.

Periodically the news has stories about “blood moons.” According to Space.com:

A “blood moon” happens when Earth’s moon is in full eclipse. While it has no special astronomical significance, the view in the sky is striking as the usually whiteish moon becomes red or ruddy-brown.

This are normal, predictable natural events, but you would not know that from much of the news coverage they get. The longest total eclipse of the 21st century will take place on July 27 and will be visible from South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. For more about the science of this remarkable event, read “Blood Moon 2018: Longest Total Lunar Eclipse of Century” on Space.com.

Some Christian preachers are making much of the fact that this particular “blood moon” (aka eclipse) will be visible from Jerusalem. They believe that this moon is a harbinger of the end of the world. They cite verses in the prophet Joel, chapter 2, and in the Christian scriptures of Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2 and Revelations, chapter 6.

So what’s in that passage of Joel?

Before them earth trembles, heaven shakes, sun and moon are darkened, And stars withdraw their brightness.

And the LORD roars aloud at the head of His army; for vast indeed is His host, numberless are those that do His bidding. For great is the day of the LORD, Most terrible—who can endure it? 

“Yet even now”—says the LORD— “Turn back to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting, weeping, and lamenting.” 

Rend your hearts, rather than your garments, and turn back to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment.  – Joel 2:10-13.

This passage is typical of the Hebrew prophets: it is a call to repentance. Scholars disagree about the time when it was written. It has few details to identify a particular date. What is clear about it is the call to a return to just ways: “Rend your hearts, rather than your garments, and turn back to the LORD your God.”

What we can take from the “blood moon” is a sense of wonder at the mysteries of creation. We get lost in our smartphones, in our computer screens, and we forget to see the miracles all around us.

Then, having taken notice of the natural world, perhaps we will be moved to take better care of it, lest in our foolishness and waste we so alter creation that we destroy it.