When Torah Entered the World

Image: A person performs hagbah, raising the Torah for all to see at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal (Canada). (2010 Photo by Geneviève Afriat, some rights reserved.)

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.
The whole Torah exists only to establish peace.

Its highest teaching is love and kindness.
What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.
Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization.

Honoring one another, doing acts of kindness,
and making peace: these are our highest duties.
But the study of Torah is equal to them all,
because it leads to them all.

Let us learn in order to teach.
Let us learn in order to do!

– “Reading the Torah on Shabbat” in Mishkan Tefilah, p 375

These lines were written by John Rayner z”l and Chaim Stern z”l, two leading scholars of 20th century liberal Judaism.

I love reading these words during the Torah service. Each line gives me something to ponder. Sometimes I think one could make a whole course of study out of it, taking one line at a time, considering its sources, and reflecting on its meaning.

Some lines in here are very familiar, like Hillel’s famous admonition:

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.
That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it. – Shabbat 31a

Others are not familiar, but thought-provoking:

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.

What does that mean? Was there a time before Torah? When did Torah enter the world? What does “freedom” mean in this context? (See what I mean? Lots to ponder here.)

There is also a line that makes me laugh, then feel very serious:

Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization.

I want to laugh, thinking about all the various Torah study groups I have attended: ordinary folks around a table, striving to understand Torah, sharing knowledge, trotting out their individual soapboxes sometimes. We’re the true guardians of civilization? Really? Then I think, uh-oh, if we are the true guardians of civilization, then the world is in a pot of trouble!  And I look at the world, and soberly I think, “Yeah, we are” and “Yeah, it is.”

We are not the only true guardians of civilization (thank goodness!) We guard it along with the Koran-study-ers, and the New Testament study-ers, and the many other sincere people who study to learn how to be good human beings, who recognize that goodness isn’t easy and we aren’t born knowing how to be good. And it is still a very big job.

At the end, Rabbis Rayner and Stern do not let us off the hook. Study for its own sake (Torah lishma) is very pleasurable, but it is not enough:

Let us learn in order to teach.
Let us learn in order to do!

So, let us learn, and teach, and do!

See you in the world!

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How To Read the Bible

Image: An open Bible.

For those readers in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d like to let you know about a learning opportunity. Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, Ph.D. is offering a four week course titled, How to Read the Bible: Bridging the Gap Between Ourselves and Our Inherited Texts. Rabbi Morrison is a wonderful teacher, and the new Executive Director of Lehrhaus Judaica.

Were I free on those nights, I’d be tempted to attend, myself.

Here’s Rabbi Morrison, talking about his course:

The description from the Lehrhaus catalog:

To many contemporary readers, the Bible often feels impenetrable and outdated, principally because of the manner in which Jewish texts have been taught in religious schools for generations. This course will explore methods for reading the Bible that are central to liberal Judaism’s orientations to reading sacred texts, but are not frequently utilized in synagogue settings. We will discuss myth and metaphor and the Bible’s literary history in order to uncover the ancient meanings of several of the Bible’s classic narratives and its law codes, and to determine their relevance to modern day Jews and the world in which we live.

The class will meet Thursdays, January 25 – February 15 from 7:00 – 9:00 pm at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. For more information and to register, visit the Lehrhaus Catalog online.

Learning Hebrew: Reading the Joseph Story

Image: Part of the story of Joseph in the Torah Scroll.

Whenever we reach Parashat Vayeshev, this week’s portion, I can taste tuna fish. That may seem like a weird association, but this portion is linked in my heart to the lunchtime study group in which I learned to read Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies started with the Aleph-Bet and “Prayer Book Hebrew,” the prayers in the synagogue service. There’s a giant step from knowing what the prayers say to reading the Torah, and Rabbi Steven Chester chose the Joseph story to carry us across that chasm in 1997.

Each week we had a short passage to translate. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verse, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time exactly what we, personally, would translate aloud. We were a group of middle-aged learners, bobbing our heads to find the sweet spot in our progressive lenses in order to see the text.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were awful. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. Rabbi used our mistakes to review grammar or to show us (again)  how to break down a word to find it in the dictionary.

Our glacial pace through the text meant that we studied it deeply, noticing the choices about grammar and the repetition of certain words in the text. It was my first taste of learning a text on that level: word by word, even letter by letter. I was enchanted.

Sometimes Rabbi Chester enriched our study by showing us a midrash on a particular scrap of the text. This was also his sneaky way of introducing us to the glories of midrashic texts and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, since he always gave us those texts in both the original and translation. We’d read the translation, but the original words would wink at me, promising more: more meaning, more depth, more nuance.

That class marked the beginning of my love for text study. It met Wednesday at lunchtime for years, and now as a teacher myself I marvel at his chutzpah and patience in leading us into that tangle of grammar and vocabulary. It was an unusual and bold way to teach Biblical Hebrew. It was also a brilliant choice, because the powerful current of the narrative kept us going. Who could quit, halfway through that story?

By the time we came to the end of Genesis 50, my translations were less ridiculous, and I felt confident enough to tackle other parts of Torah on my own. I learned the most important lesson for Hebrew study: stick with it long enough, and it will begin to sink in.

Foolish, feckless Joseph grew up to be a tzaddik, and I had begun to grow towards becoming a rabbi. And every year, when we read this narrative again, it stirs old memories of sitting around a table, munching our lunches and puzzling out the mysteries verse by verse.

Thank you, Rabbi Chester.

Online Basic Judaism Class Open NOW!

Image: Logo of Lehrhaus, Judaica, a school for Adult Jewish Learning.

This coming Sunday October 22 is the first class meeting for Intro to the Jewish Experience, 5778. If you want to get a basic Jewish education, here is your chance to get it in the comfort of your bunny slippers. Classes meet on Sunday afternoons at 3:30 Pacific Time, or at your leisure via class recordings.

  • In the Fall term, Oct-Dec, we cover Jewish Holidays and Lifecycle Events.
  • In the Winter term, Jan – Mar, we study Israel and Jewish Texts: Torah, Bible, Talmud, and the many connections between the land, the documents, and the history. We also will take a look at anti-Semitism, both its history and its present-day manifestations.
  • In the Spring term, Apr – June, we look at the many Traditions of Judaism: Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and American Judaism.

The class is designed for anyone who would like to feel more comfortable in a Jewish environment or deepen their knowledge of Judaism. The Fall Term is basic, but Winter and Spring will have fresh information and challenges for anyone whose Jewish education stopped after high school.

You can sign up for the entire series for $225, or for one of the three terms that interests you, for $90 per term.  Register at http://catalog.lehrhaus.org/series/2017/fall/I100-OL/

This class will be taught via the Zoom teleconferencing platform and should be accessible from most computers and tablets. The class also includes access to a private Facebook page where students can network and have ongoing discussions.

For those who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there will be an in-person class that mirrors the online class. It will meet on Wednesday evenings at 7:30pm at Temple Sinai in Oakland. You can register for the Wednesday evening class here.

I will be your instructor. For more information about me, see About the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

Oakland Pride March, 2016
Rabbi Ruth Adar (center) with friends from Temple Sinai, Oakland, including “Intro” graduates and Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin. Oakland Pride March, 2016.

Meet Hillel, Who Would Teach Anyone

Image: The entrance to the Tomb of Hillel the Elder, as it was around 1900. From the Jewish Encyclopedia, published by Funk & Wagnalls between 1901 and 1906. Public Domain.

Hillel the Elder is perhaps the most famous and most quoted of the early rabbis. He was born in Babylon about 110 BCE and died in Jerusalem about 10 CE. He was renowned in his own time as a teacher of Torah and had many students, who became known as Beit Hillel, the House (or School) of Hillel. His name is forever associated with his fellow scholar, Shammai, who had his own followers, known as Beit Shammai.

He is not called “Rabbi Hillel” because he is from a time just before the rabbis. Some writers give him that title, but in his case it is an anachronism.

 

All of our information about Hillel comes from sources written down long after his death, in some cases, hundreds of years after his death. What we know for sure is that he founded a great school of Torah study. The debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai became the model for beneficial disagreements, “arguments for the sake of heaven.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

The stories we have about Hillel himself depict him as a mild individual with a brilliant mind for Torah. One of the longest stories about Hillel is from Shabbat 31a, which is so good that I will quote it in its entirety:

The Sages taught in a baraitaA person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai. The Gemara related: There was an incident involving two people 

who wagered with each other and said: Anyone who will go and aggravate Hillel to the point that he reprimands him, will take four-hundred zuzOne of them said: I will aggravate him. That day that he chose to bother Hillel was Shabbat eve, and Hillel was washing the hair on his head. He went and passed the entrance to Hillel’s house and in a demeaning manner said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Hillel wrapped himself in a dignified garment and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. Hillel said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked him: Why are the heads of Babylonians oval? He was alluding to and attempting to insult Hillel, who was Babylonian. He said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they do not have clever midwives. They do not know how to shape the child’s head at birth.

That man went and waited one hour, a short while, returned to look for Hillel, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, Hillel wrapped himself and went out to greet him. Hillel said to him: My son, what do you seek? The man said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why are the eyes of the residents of Tadmor bleary [terutot]? Hillel said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live among the sands and the sand gets into their eyes.

Once again the man went, waited one hour, returned, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, he, Hillel, wrapped himself and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why do Africans have wide feet? Hillel said to him: You have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live in marshlands and their feet widened to enable them to walk through those swampy areas.

That man said to him: I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid lest you get angry. Hillel wrapped himself and sat before him, and he said to him: All of the questions that you have to ask, ask them. The man got angry and said to him: Are you Hillel whom they call the Nasi of Israel? He said to him: Yes. He said to him: If it is you, then may there not be many like you in Israel. Hillel said to him: My son, for what reason do you say this? The man said to him: Because I lost four hundred zuz because of you.Hillel said to him: Be vigilant of your spirit and avoid situations of this sort. Hillel is worthy of having you lose four hundred zuz and another four hundred zuz on his account, and Hillel will not get upset. – Shabbat 30b-31a

This passage is followed by other stories about Hillel. Here is another, perhaps the most famous story of all:

There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai whacked him with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study. – Shabbat 31a

The image that emerges of Hillel is a man so willing to teach Torah that he will put up with some significant shenanigans from students. He means it when he says “no question is too stupid!” In the second story, Shammai rejects a jokester who seems to be mocking the Torah. Hillel summarizes the Torah, then admonishes him: Go study. Hillel has faith in the power of Torah study to change a life.

Hillel was a modest man who established a great school of rabbis. He is one of the foundational figures for Rabbinic Judaism, and a role model to all of us who try to do justice to Torah in our own time.

How is Torah like Fire?

Image: A bonfire at night. (pixabay)

A teaching metaphor from the Talmud:

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said: Why are matters of Torah compared to fire, as it is stated: “Is not My word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29)? To tell you: Just as fire does not ignite in a lone stick of wood but in a pile of kindling, so too, matters of Torah are not retained and understood properly by a lone scholar who studies by himself, but by a group of Sages. — Ta’anit 7a

What is Parashat Hashavua?

Image: Two Jews examining a Torah Scroll. Photo by Linda Burnett.

The quick answer to the question, “What is Parashat Hashavua?” is “It’s the Torah Portion of the Week.”

We go through the year, from Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah, reading the entire Torah Scroll from end to end. The beginnings of this custom go back into the mists of history – we don’t know exactly when Jews began studying a regular portion of Torah each week, but all over the world, Jews continue to do it. Some do it alone, but more gather weekly in groups for “Parashat Hashavua study.” For some, this study is their primary form of worship.

Some might ask, isn’t it boring to read the same things again and again? An ancient rabbi known to us as Ben Bag Bag said,

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. – Avot 5:22

Torah deals with the most sacred and the most mundane topics, everything from the nature of God to what to do with a lost cow. Every week, the Torah portion brings us narrative, commandments and mystery.

The words remain the same, but we change. To a child, the story of Noah is about a boat full of animals. An adult might read the story with horror at the carnage. A couple having trouble conceiving will notice that many of the matriarchs and patriarchs had the same problem. As we age, the stories change again and we might feel affinity for characters who did not interest us when we were young.

The words remain the same, but history moves on. It changes the lens through which we read the stories and hear the commandments. In a year when nations rattle their sabers, we may find strength in knowing that Jews have been turning and turning that scroll for thousands of years.  If we are looking for leadership, the Torah offers us role models for good leaders and examples of poor ones.

The words remain the same, but our skills grow. In the beginning, most people read for the stories, and find the directions for sacrifices almost unbearably boring. A good commentary, or better yet, study partners with varied skills can change that dynamic. The stories have depths the beginner does not suspect. The “boring parts” have subtleties that can amaze us.

For many of us today, the world is increasingly uncertain. Parashat Hashavua study offers us a mix of routine and insight that can both comfort and strengthen us. If you would like to begin, it can be done very simply with online tools:

  1. Go to Hebcal.com, the online Jewish calendar.
  2. Look at the top of the screen, after the date, and find the clickable link for the Torah portion. Click it.
  3. That will take you to a page with lots of information on the Torah portion of the week. Then you have options. You can:
    1. Scroll down to where it says “Torah Portion” and click the link.
    2. Use the chapter and verse to go to the Torah portion in your own Bible or commentary.

OR: Call your local synagogue, and ask when the Torah Study group meets. They will likely be a mixed group of adults, some of whom know a lot, and some who know just a little. All were beginners at one time. Show up, follow along, and participate when you feel ready. Be ready for multiple interpretations and conflicting ideas; that’s a good thing, not a problem. Torah Study groups are a way to make friends and become a part of things at your congregation; keep showing up, and you will become a regular.

The weekly study of Torah has sustained the Jews for thousands of years. Your place at the table is waiting.