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!

Torah Study Resource Online!

From time to time I like to let you know about Jewish study resources online, especially free resources. One of my favorites is:

Ten Minutes of Torah

is a regular offering published for years now by the Union for Reform Judaism. The writers are Reform rabbis, cantors, and educators. Each day of the week there is a different category of topics, and you can hear from many different Reform voices. North American Reform Judaism is a wide and diverse movement, so you will hear from more-traditional writers as well as those who are “very Reform” (whatever that is!)

Not only can you study the current weekly offerings, but the archive of past articles is full of great ideas.

Do any of you already use it? If so, what do you think? And for those of you who give it a try, I’d be very interested in hearing back sometime about it.

What online Torah Study resources do you use regularly?

New Talmud Study Resource Online!

Interested in Talmud study, but looking for a manageable study program online?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman has just begun publishing Ten Minutes of Talmud. Each week she offers a bit of Talmud text in English with introductory notes and a commentary. You can follow it on the blog or sign up to receive it by email.

The program requires no tuition, no books, nothing but access to email and your time and attention.

Here is some background on Rabbi Scheinerman from her blog:

I am a Jewish community hospice rabbi, and I teach and write. I have served on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and as president of both the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and the Greater Carolinas Association of Rabbis. I was a congregational rabbi for 27 years, serving Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated congregations. You can visit my home page at http://scheinerman.net/judaism, my Torah commentary blog at http://taste-of-torah.blogspot.com, and the Talmud Blog I share with my chevruta, Rabbi Louis Rieser, at http://nuviewtalmud/blogspot.com.

I wish you fruitful study with her!