The Voice of Torah

Image: Julie Arnold chants Torah at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV. At her side is Rabbi Sanford Akselrad. Photo courtesy of Julie Arnold.

The first record we have of anyone reading Torah from the scroll to a congregation is in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose… They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. – Nehemiah 8: 1-4, 8

The Hebrew phrase sefer Torah [the book of the law] is still the way we refer to a Torah scroll. The sefer Torah from which Ezra read to the people was very similar, if not identical, to the Torah scrolls in synagogues worldwide today.

A Torah scroll has only consonants and spaces in it: imagine reading this article without vowels, capitalization or punctuation:

trh scrll hs nl cnsnnts nd spcs n t mgn rdng ths rtcl wtht vwls cptlztn r pncttn

Between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, in Tiberias and Jerusalem, a group of scholars called the Masoretes worked to make sure that the text was preserved properly. Part of their work was setting up a system of markings to show vowels, punctuation, and emphasis for the Torah text.  These markings are called te’amim. They are not written in the Torah scroll – nothing is ever added to a Torah scroll! – but instead they are available in a book called a tikkun korim [correction for readers] which the Torah reader uses to prepare – think “notes for homework.”

The te’amim function as punctuation and emphasis and they are expressed by the Torah reader in musical tunes called “trope.” Those tunes are established by tradition and will differ depending on where one’s teacher learned the craft. My te’amim teacher, Cantor Ilene Keys, uses one of the Lithuanian traditions for trope. (For more about that tradition, and about its place in my life, see The Chain of Tradition.)

So when we sit in synagogue and listen to a Torah reading, we are hearing not only the text itself but also the generations of effort to safeguard that text:

Ezra the Scribe copied down the scroll with great care;
his heirs are the soferim [scribes] who make each new Torah scroll
with such great care that it is usual for it to require a year of work.

The person reading the text “stands on the shoulders” of their teachers,
who guarded the text by teaching the te’amim and the proper use of the tikkun.

And each reader has spent significant time in the past week,
studying and preparing to vocalize the text:
learning the trope, learning the words,
practicing to say each word clearly and correctly.

Thus is the ancient text transmitted from generation to generation.

Is the Bible History?

Image: a small section of the Merneptah Stele, translated: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Public domain.

The quick answer: no, and yes. The Creation stories are not history (and they are definitely not science.) They convey values: that all created beings are essentially good, that order is preferred to chaos, that human beings are responsible for the care of the world. They convey a religious world-view, not a scientific explanation of anything.

Some of the Bible, especially Genesis, is prehistory. None of the folks in Genesis were writing those stories down, as far as we know. The stories have survived because they were oral traditions. Oral traditions are tricky: at their best, it’s amazing what checks out, but at their worst they are like a game of “telephone” in which every detail is changed as the story travels. However, again, what the book gives us is an account of our people’s understanding of who they are, and of the vision of a particular (very dysfunctional) family.

Exodus is a puzzle. There is no corroborating account in the Egyptian archives, and no archaeological evidence of a vast multitude of people crossing the Sinai wilderness. We are not even sure which pharaoh is the Pharaoh of the story. At the same time, there are some tantalizing connections. One of the pharaohs thought to be a possibility for the Yul Brynner role is Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE), who celebrated his victory over some Libyan immigrants by commissioning the Merneptah Victory Stele and placing it in a temple in Thebes. The 7.5 foot stone slab has an inscription which provides the first mention of Israel outside the Bible:

The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!” Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head: Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace, Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not, Khor is become a widow for Egypt. All who roamed have been subdued. By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun, Son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat, Given life like Re every day.

This part of the inscription mentions places inside of Egypt, but also places in Canaan: Canaan, Ashkelon, and Gezer. Many (but not all) scholars agree that the Israel mentioned here is indeed connected to the Israel of the Bible. Of course, there’s the little problem that Israel’s “seed” [descendants] were hale and hearty – perhaps Merneptah was just engaging in some ancient Egyptian PR – or was he covering up a successful rebellion? We’ll never know.

Likewise, we have no corroborating evidence for the rest of the journey back to Canaan, but how likely is it that we would have much evidence? Egypt wasn’t writing about it, since it was an embarrassment to Egypt. No one else much cared. (“Escaping slaves? Big deal!”)The stories survived as oral history until the Jews wrote them down, probably during or immediately before the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE).

It’s only when we get to the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah that we get much outside evidence for the stories in the Bible, by now the stories in the Books of Kings, 930-586 BCE. For that era, we have a number of inscriptions and quite a bit of archaeological evidence, as the kings of Israel and Judea became involved in geopolitics, often against the advice of the prophets. As it is now, the Holy Land was at the fulcrum of world politics. The superpowers of Egypt in the south and Mesopotamia (Babylon and Assyria) in the east jockeyed for advantage, and little Israel and Judah were in the middle. As a result, we have inscriptions and depictions of kings, none of them very flattering but all very much there.

So in summary: No, the Bible isn’t a history book. It is more of a journal, an account a nation gives of itself. Many of the things in it actually happened, but whether an “objective viewer” would agree on exactly how things happened is another question. By the time we get into the later books, Kings and beyond, it is remarkable how much of it does bear out, which is why I also say: Yes, there’s history in there.

For me, the Bible’s worth does not depend on outside inscriptions, or its value as history. Its worth lies in the fact that for thousands of years and millions of people, this collection of books has been a source of inspiration, learning, and solace. Whether the Exodus included 600,000 refugees or 50, its message of freedom remains. Torah is divinely inspired, for me,  because in my struggles with its words, I encounter God.



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


“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?