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.

 

Is the Talmud Full of Lies?

I wrote a longish piece for this blog entitled What is the Talmud?  I got a letter not too long after from a reader with a sincere question that I’ve been thinking about since: “What about things in the Talmud that are unfriendly to Christians or even to Jesus?” I’ve seen other questions in the search terms people use to find things on the blog, such as “Is the Talmud full of lies?”

First, if you aren’t sure what the Talmud is, read the earlier blog post. I’m not going to explain it here, other than to say that the Talmud is sacred to religious Jews from Orthodoxy to Reform.  We engage with the volumes differently in some ways, but we all see them as sacred.

Condemnation of Other Religions

As rabbis often do, I’m going to start answering this question by asking a question. Is the Talmud the only holy book that speaks ill of other faiths? If you look in the Torah, there are some very nasty things in there about “Canaanite ways” and the Egyptian religion. If you look in the rest of the Bible, you’ll see disparaging talk about other religions of the time.

One can cherry-pick the Gospel of Matthew or the Quran for lines that speak unflatteringly or with condemnation of nonbelievers. I’m not going to offer examples because I do not want to provide quotes to someone intent on misusing them. Try Googling “Antisemitism New Testament” if you want some examples.

All ancient Scriptures have passages that are no longer representative of the understanding of modern believers. Each moderate expression of religion has its own way of dealing with those passages. For example, in 1965, Roman Catholic pontiff Paul IV signed the encyclical Nostra Aetate [In Our Time] which revisited Catholic relations with non-Christian faiths. It explicitly rejected the interpretations of Matthew 25 that had horrible consequences for Jews. It redefined relations with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.

Like these other Scriptures, the Talmud has passages that look down on outsiders. This should not come as a shock to anyone. What matters is what we teach currently, and how we behave. Jews today believe that belief in Judaism or Jewish practice is NOT required for salvation: one can be acceptable to God by being a decent person, period. (This is one of the reasons we don’t encourage conversion to Judaism: once one is Jewish, then there are more requirements!)

References to Jesus

There are some passages of Talmud that refer to a character named “Balaam.”  Some scholars believe that some of those might actually be coded references to Jesus of Nazareth. More of them are references to the Balaam of Numbers 22, a significant story in the Torah. There are other references to someone(s) named Yeshu. Again, it isn’t clear which of them refer to Jesus and which to someone else. An example:

On the eve of Passover, Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. But since nothing was brought forward, he was hanged on the eve of Passover. Ulla replied, Do you suppose he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not an enticer, one about whom Scripture says, “Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him?” (Deut 13:9). But with Yeshu it was different, for he was connected with the government. – Sanhedrin 43a

This passage appears not in a discussion of Christian history, but as an example in a discussion about the notifications required in a capital trial. Another name sometimes interpreted to refer to Jesus is “Plony” which is actually should be translated “Anonymous” or “Mr. X.” (“Mrs. X” is Plonit.) Usually when we see “Plony” it means that we could apply this case to many different people.

All that said, there are passages that do seem to refer to Jesus or his mother in unattractive ways. One example is in Sanhedrin 106a:

R. Papa observed: This is what men say, “She who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters.”

This passage began as one of those Balaam passages, referring to the Balaam of Numbers. Then it shifts, and this observation by Rav Papa, with its reference to a carpenter, seems to be a smear on the mother of Jesus. It’s also a bit of a non-sequitur to the passage preceding it.

Consider the Source!

Be careful where you read about these passages, too. In researching this piece, I looked at a lot of websites which purport to give lists of terrible things in the Talmud. I went through the lists, looking for examples to use in this article, and often I found mistranslation, out of context quotes, and flat-out lies. Then when I looked elsewhere on the site, I realized it was an antisemitic website, with a full panoply of lies about Jews. So consider the source before you take something as truth.

In Summary

Is everything in the Talmud lovely and sweet? No. Some of it sounds like exactly what it is: fifth century discussion written by men who had fifth century notions of astronomy, physics, anatomy, and economics. There is a severe lack of women’s points of view. Problematic passages abound. We wouldn’t be able to read it at all were it not for notes left us by a tenth century teacher and rabbi, Rashi.

Why read it at all? Because some of what’s in there is wonderfully insightful. It is the record of the process of hammering out what it might mean to live a life of Torah. It touches on everything, from the most mundane (they are preoccupied with bathrooms) to the most sublime (the will of God.)

Modern day students of Talmud use its study in many different ways. We do read it all, although some parts are taught much more often than others. The obscure ugly bits don’t get much use other than as an intellectual exercise. When there is something difficult to understand, we engage with it as we do with problematic parts of Torah: we study. We struggle. We may sometimes lift our hands and say, “I have no idea what to do with this.”

Personally, when I’m studying, I am guided by another quotation from the Talmud, one that I believe will keep me mostly out of trouble:

[Hillel] said to him: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” – Shabbat 31a

How the Rabbi Got Her Name

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“What about a Hebrew name?”

The question from an Intro student seemed routine.

“You choose your name,” I explained, ” but it is the custom to use ‘bar or bat Abraham v’Sarah’ for the second part of a convert’s name.” I focussed on the usual question (“Why Abraham and Sarah?”) but before I could trot down that line of thought, he pulled me up short.

“No, I mean, how do you pick the name?”

A n old memory stirred.

“Well, let me tell you how NOT to choose a name,” I said. “I had read in a book somewhere that ‘All female converts to Judaism take the name Ruth.’ So when my rabbi asked if I had chosen a name, I figured I’d give the right answer and said ‘Ruth.’  He said, ‘Great choice!’ and it was done. It was only later that I found out I had had a choice. But I was so intent on impressing him that I missed my opportunity to think about it with his guidance.

“Later, after thinking on it for a while, I decided that Ruth was actually the right name for me. The Biblical Ruth is my role model. But after that, I learned that with Judaism, questions and discussion were more valuable than ‘right answers’ and showing off.

“New Jews can choose their own Jewish name. It might be a name from a role model, or a quality you want to nurture in yourself. It might be an homage to a dead relative. It is a highly individual decision.”

He nodded, and the class flowed on. My younger self, the one who was afraid to look ignorant, who was afraid to ask questions, gradually faded back into memory.

“The shy will not learn,” said Hillel, in the 1st century BCE.

Yes, I thought, but they can learn not to be shy.

My Joseph Story

The Joseph story has its own place in my heart. I have always felt a strong connection to the powerful novella that closes out the book of Genesis. That connection was strengthened when my rabbi chose it to use as our text for learning Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies had started with “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.

Each week we had a short passage to translate, divided among the members of the class. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verses, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time which verses we, personally, would translate aloud.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were often a mess. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. But he always knew if we’d cheated, so it was better to bring what I had translated, even if it was obviously wrong. He’d use our mistakes to review grammar or review how to break down a verb 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 in Hebrew.

Sometimes our teacher 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 into 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.

A Kiss is Just a Kiss – Or is it?

Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. – Genesis 33:4

In the Torah scroll, the word “kissed” in this verse is always written with a dot above each letter. This is extremely unusual; words in the Torah Scroll usually have no dots or signs at all. While we don’t know exactly why the early scribes saw fit to write the word this way, from the earliest times rabbis have taken it as a sign to pay special attention to that word in the text.

When the text says that Esau embraced Jacob, falling upon his neck and kissing him, the collection of midrash called Genesis Rabbah offers two interpretations side by side:

  1. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said that Esau felt compassion for his brother and kissed him with all his heart.
  2. Rabbi Yannai interpreted the dots to mean that the meaning of the word “kissed” is reversed: Esau bit Jacob’s neck, and it miraculously turned hard as marble. The two men wept because Esau’s teeth and Jacob’s neck both hurt.

This is a classic example of two people reading the same text and having very different reactions to it. This happens with many of the characters in Genesis, particularly with Jacob and Joseph. I have seen students get terribly angry and seem to take someone else’s interpretation as almost a personal insult.

When I have spoken with such people outside of class, trying to understand, it began to make sense. They were identified with a character in the story, and it hurt them to hear another student say that character was a bad guy.

Perhaps Rabbi Simeon was an eldest child, and felt sympathy for Esau. Perhaps Rabbi Yannai could not forget the time that his older brother hurt him.

Torah, particularly Genesis,  is a mirror. We look into it and we see ourselves. Sometimes that is conscious, and sometimes it’s a kinship we feel deep in the unconscious.

Is there any character in Torah to whom you feel particularly close? Have you ever felt hurt by someone else’s reading of a story in Torah?

Why the Horror Stories in Torah?

Once an Intro student asked me, “Rabbi, some of the stories in the Torah are awful! Can’t we just scissor some of them out?”

After I recovered from the mental image of someone taking scissors to the Torah, I agreed that some of the stories there are truly horrible. Parashat Vayera has some real doozies:

  • Lot offers his virgin daughters to a mob bent upon rape. (Genesis 19)
  • The destruction by fire of two entire cities. (Genesis 19)
  • Abraham tells the King of Egypt that his wife Sarah is his sister, thereby saying, “If you want her, fine by me!” (Genesis 20)
  • Jealous of the servant Hagar’s son by Abraham, Sarah demands that Abraham toss mother and son out to die in the desert. (Genesis 21)
  • Abraham believes that God has told him to go make a human sacrifice of Sarah’s only son. He takes Isaac up to Mt. Moriah and is stopped at the last minute before the kill by another vision.  (Genesis 21)

These stories are ghastly, no doubt about it. It is tempting to turn away from them, or to do what some traditional and modern commentators have done, and try to explain why they are really OK.

There’s another way to engage with these narratives, though: that is to tackle them as the dreadful stories that they are. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has done exactly that in her groundbreaking book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical NarrativeAs the title suggests, she doesn’t try to sugarcoat the horror stories in the Bible; instead, she demands of them “What can we learn here?”

Every generation of Jews encounters these stories anew, and sees new things in them. If you find them off-putting, join the club. While I learned them at a young age and initially simply accepted them, I now think about these cruelties in a different light. Maybe Sodom deserved destruction, but Lot’s daughters? Isaac? Ishmael? Hagar? Sarah? These are brutal stories, and they should raise serious questions within our souls.

The stories aren’t there to say, “Offer your daughters to rape mobs!” They are there to get us to ask, “Why did Lot do such a horrible thing? Did he have other alternatives?” “Should people who hear voices always just go do what the voices tell them, or should they talk with someone – their wife, their rabbi?” They may serve to remind us that Ishmael’s descendants are our cousins, and that my 21st century family is not the first to be dysfunctional.

Those questions are Torah at work upon us. Torah is not merely the words in the scroll; it is also those words at work on our hearts.

Happy studying!

Seven Tips for Torah Study Success

If you are a beginner at Torah study, mazal tov! If you are worried about “doing well,” here are seven tips to help you learn and enjoy:

  1. STUDY WITH OTHERS.  Reading Torah by yourself is good, of course, but Jews typically study with partners or groups.  We do this for a number of reasons, but most of it boils down to the obvious: two heads are better than one, and ten heads offer lots of resources for looking into a text.
  2. READ ALOUD. Read a verse, or a section aloud, then discuss. Hearing the text is different than reading it, and will spur different ideas. Even if you have read the text a hundred times before, read it aloud.
  3. LOOK AT THE TEXT. While someone is reading the text, keep your eyes on it. Look at each word as it is read. Even if your reading skills are poor, follow along. Hearing and seeing the text will help unlock it for you.
  4. NO SINGLE RIGHT ANSWERS. When Jews study, we are not looking for the “right answer.” Usually there are many right answers.
  5. BE SELF-AWARE. Our reading of stories in Jewish texts will be colored by our own experiences. It’s not bad to have those reactions, but it’s good to be aware of them, and to remember that others may have had other experiences. For instance, some students feel very identified with Joseph and angry with his brothers. Others have the opposite response: they find the young Joseph insufferable! There’s room at the table for all of us.
  6. LISTEN AND SPEAK.  Hillel said, “The shy person will not learn” – if we don’t ask questions and speak up, we don’t learn much.  However, the converse is also true: the person who is always talking will not learn much either. Listen to what your study partners have to say, and think it over. Don’t just react.
  7. BE REGULAR IN STUDY. Don’t drop into a group occasionally: become a regular. Regular attendance with your Torah study group will help you form relationships with both the text and with the others in the group.

Happy Learning!