A Succinct Lesson on Jewish Thought

Image: A flowering cholla cactus. Photo by Kenneth Redmond on pixabay.com.

An old Ashkenazi gentleman once said to me, “I don’t know what happens when we die. Some say we go to heaven with the pearly gates. Some say it’s a big yeshivah up there. But me, I think it’s just this life and then, you know, the worms. So we better do our best in this life, since it’s all we’ve got.”

In truth, there’s no single Jewish idea about the afterlife. I have always like this man’s description of the puzzle, though, because it seems to hit all the main points of a typical Jewish worldview:

  1. Life is full of mystery.
  2. Some say this, others say that.
  3. But yes, I have an opinion, which is not a rosy one.
  4. The important thing is to live a good life.

 

 

 

Meet Sefaria!

If you have not yet discovered Sefaria.org, you are in for a treat. It bills itself as “A Living Library of Jewish Texts” which is exactly correct. It contains all the major Jewish texts in Hebrew and some lesser known texts, many of them with English translations.

They have recently updated the site with a modern translation of the Tanach (Bible) texts. Most of the major rabbinic texts have translations available, many of them by users of Sefaria. (That’s one of the things that makes it a “living library” – it is constantly under construction.)

When you enter Sefaria, you’ll be greeted with a menu of the available texts. Old hands will recognize them. Those new to Jewish texts may find a primer helpful. Below are some very brief definitions of terms on the menu, along with pronunciation. When there are two options for pronunciation, the first is the Modern Hebrew / Sephardic pronunciation and the second is the Ashkenazi.

TANAKH – (tah-NAKH) The Jewish Bible, Genesis through Chronicles. (Note to Christians: While there are definite connections between your Old Testament and our Bible, they are not the same. The Tanakh is arranged differently and our translations differ.)

MISHNAH – (mish-NAH or MISH-nah) Discussions by the rabbis, redacted in 200 CE by Rabbi Judah the Prince. Mishnah is the record of the early part of the process we call Oral Torah.

TALMUD – (tahl-MOOD or TAHL-mood) What is the Talmud? will give you the basics.

MIDRASH (mee-DRAHSH or MID-rash) – What is Midrash? will answer that question.

HALAKHAH – (hah-lah-KHAH or hah-LAH-khah) is what many refer to as “Jewish Law,” although that can be somewhat misleading. Halakhic literature includes codes and other lists and explanations of rules for Jewish living derived from the Written and Oral Torah.

KABBALAH – (kah-bah-LAH or kah-BAH-lah) Jewish mystical literature.

LITURGY – (LIT-ur-gee) Prayer books, services, and documents that are used in the context of ritual, such as a ketubah [marriage contract.]

CHASIDUT – (khahs-ee-DOOT or khas-EH-dus) About 250 years ago, Ashkenazi Judaism was dominated by an intellectual approach to Torah; a rival movement grew up which focussed on inward experience of the Divine, mystical knowledge, and a more emotional expression of Torah. Chasidut is the literature produced by the teachers in that movement. However, it is famously a difficult term to define and I look forward to the comments which will explain that I have completely misunderstood it!

MUSAR – Jewish literature that concerns itself with systematic self-improvement. To quote Rabbi Louis Jacobs, z”l: “The Musar Movement was founded by Israel Salanter in nineteenth-century Lithuania with the aim of promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct among traditionally minded Jews.” (from The Musar Movement)

RESPONSA – Through the centuries, Jews have written questions (she’e’lot) to scholarly rabbis, requesting clarification of proper Jewish practice. Rabbis respond with answers (teshuvot) citing cases and precedent in the halakhic literature. This process continues today.

APOCRYPHA – Books not part of the final canon of the TANAKH which may have been included in earlier collections or in Bibles of other faiths, e.g. the books of Maccabees.

You might enjoy browsing “Source Sheets,” which are study aids put together by Sefaria users using the library materials. For instance, you can find source sheets on these topics:

Give Thanks and Praises (Rabbi Sari Laufer)

Blessing Food (Rabbi Jill Zimmermann)

Mayim, Mayim! Ten Wet Jewish Texts (Rabbi Justus Baird)

Who is Moses? (Rabbi Marina Yergin)

Drinking on Purim (Rabbi Ruth Adar)

Enjoy!

 

pablo (4)

Jews Rejecting Trump

Image: Rabbi Rothbaum speaks as Hazzan Wallach and Susan Lubeck hold “Jews Reject Trump” signs. Photo by Bend the Arc.

Last night I participated in a prayer service outside Republican headquarters in my home town of San Leandro, CA.  It was part of a prayer service and demonstration organized nationally by Bend the Arc – Jewish Action.

This year, the Republican candidate for President of the U.S. has made such outrageous statements about Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, and people of color that he has boosted the legitimacy of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. He tried to avoid repudiating those organizations. His followers have targeted journalists with Jewish names on social media.

As I wrote earlier this month in Stop the Hateful Cycle:

“I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.”

So when I got the call from Bend The Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, inviting me to participate in a rally against Trump (not for any other candidate, merely against Trump and his message) I was glad to participate. There was going to be a meeting at the Republican HQ, and we would be there to witness against racism.

We gathered outside the Republican office on MacArthur Blvd in San Leandro. Bay Area Regional Director Susan Lubeck briefed us quickly on the program and how to behave (support one another, be polite, de-escalate). The program was an observance of the yahrzeit of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman of blessed memory. They were murdered on June 21, 1964 for their voter registration and freedom school activities in segregated Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Susan had notified the San Leandro Police that we would be there, and the beat officer for the neighborhood came up before the program began, just as people were beginning to arrive for the meeting at the Republican HQ. We were careful not to block the door or create problems. The treasurer came out in hopes of shooing us away; he said they didn’t have anything to do with the national candidates. We made note of the “TRUMP” poster in the window and stayed.

Hazzan Risa Wallach led us in a nigun, a wordless hymn. We heard speeches from Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, from Susan Lubeck, and from a woman currently working to raise the minimum wage (I am sorry that I was unable to catch her name.) We also heard from Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. Hazzan Wallach chanted El Maleh Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and then we said Kaddish for the three martyrs.

Periodically people would come out of the meeting and photograph us on their cell phones and make videos. We ignored them. When we began to say Kaddish, they shut the door to the office and we did not interact with them again. Periodically people driving past saw our signs (“Jews Reject Trump”) and honked in support.

It was a quiet, peaceful event (thank goodness!) and over in less than an hour.

I am grateful to Bend the Arc – Jewish Action for their organizing prowess and to Rabbis Rothbaum and Manhoff for their eloquent words. May the day come, and speedily, when no such events are needed ever again.

candle-and-poster-3-480

My Evening At the Iftar

Image: Medjool dates in a dish   Copyright: forden / 123RF Stock Photo

Last week, my friend Muyesser sent me a text message: “Would you and Linda like to come to Iftar on Monday night?” Linda had plans, but I was free and very excited; I’d never been to an iftar.

We are in the middle of the month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from food, water, and intimacy from sunrise to sunset. Just after sunset, they break the fast with a meal called iftar. Usually it is a meal just for the family at home, but it can also be a community occasion, a big party. This iftar would be a gathering of Muslims from many different parts of the Bay Area, meeting at a high school over on the peninsula, south of San Francisco.

As the sky turned various shades of red, men and women carried in huge platters of food and put them on a buffet table that ran down the center of the room. Children ran around excitedly, and adults who were done with their tasks gathered at tables, talking. Then the organizer stood up with a microphone and welcomed us. He then passed the mic to me for a short blessing. I prayed for all the children of Abraham and Sarah to be blessed with insight, courage, and open hearts to see us through challenging times. After that an imam taught for a few minutes about the spirituality of Ramadan. Then a young man came forward to chant from the Quran.

Suddenly the sun slid below the hills and it was time to eat. My neighbor, a very sweet woman, offered me a medjool date from a little plate on the table. People were moving towards the buffet table, nibbling dates. Others were still standing by their tables, drinking from bottles of water.

The potluck was delicious and it reminded me of many Jewish potlucks I’ve attended. There was a huge platter of quartered pita, followed by salads, hummus, roast vegetables, dolmas, roast chicken pieces, and many different concoctions of rice and legumes, some with nuts. Dessert was on a separate table.

Where before the atmosphere had had a nervous energy (everyone was hungry!) I could feel the room relax as we ate. I sat with a group of women who became more and more playful, stopping every few minutes to make sure that I’d gotten some of a delicacy, or that I had enough to eat, or did I need water? One mother sent her daughter to the dessert table (“Bring back a plate of them!”) They were very sweet, and we laughed and talked.

Iftar1
These were my dinner companions for the evening. I’m so glad we took a photo!

Then, as the children got up to play, people began to visit. Several people came by the table to thank me for the blessing. The terrible murders in Orlando came up, and the women around me were emphatic in their disapproval. They and I were on much the same page: how was it that a man was able to buy a military type rifle with a large magazine, when he had been under investigation for terrorism and was a known wife beater?

It was a peaceful evening, a friendly evening. Eventually it was time to say my goodbyes. The organizer and my friend were both very kind, and we agreed that we needed to bring our communities together in the near future.

I made my way to the car. The Strawberry Moon, the full moon of the Summer Solstice, hung in the eastern sky above my home.

StrawberryMoon

A Prayer for Love

There is no place for hate in American society, if we are truly a nation “of liberty and justice for all.”  We are a nation committed to the concepts:

  • that every person has a right to the free exercise of their religion
  • that every person has a right to speak their mind
  • that every individual is innocent until proven guilty
  • and many other rights secured by our Constitution and its amendments.

There is no place for hate among the Jewish people, because we are commanded to love those who are most different from us. (Leviticus 19:34)

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:34

 

This Shabbat, we are in shock from the events of the week just behind us. We have seen hateful carnage. We have heard hateful words.

Some of us, in our shock, in our fearful response to fearful events, have said hateful words.

We have had strong reactions, spoken strong words, spoken up for dearly held beliefs.

In the quiet of Shabbat, let us release our fears and open our hearts.

Let us choose to see the face of the Other with compassion and a recognition of the divine spark within.

Let us repent of all speech that failed to meet the test of love, and resolve to do better in the week ahead.

May the peace of Shabbat bring us to wholeness, to wisdom, to a fearless commitment to the principles we hold as citizens and to the mitzvot, the commandments, we observe as Jews.

And then, as the holy day passes, may we face the future with renewed strength and calm.

May we comfort the mourners and heal the wounded. May we resolve to speak words of love to the face of hatred, because love will always be stronger than hate.

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. – Song of Songs 8:6

 

 

Summer Reading 2016

So, what are you reading this summer?

My reading is pretty eclectic at the moment.  Here are some of the books at my bedside and in my e-reader:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – I’m about half way through it, and while I doubt I’ll ever see the Broadway show, I am riveted by this book. I have always had a soft spot for the business-minded Founding Father, but there’s detail here that’s new to me.

The Invention of God by Thomas Römer – I read an article in Haaretz about this book, and now I want to read the book. It’s waiting for me on the e-reader

Felicity: Poems by Mary Oliver – Some of Mary Oliver’s poems are the best sermons around.

Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice by Michael Satlow – I read an article about this book and decided it should be on my reading list. I suspect it will inform my teaching next fall.

Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition by David Sears – More and more, I think compassion is a key concept if we want to live in this planet much longer. I understand that Sears’ is a good book for looking at Torah sources on the subject (Oral and Written) so it’s on my list.

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong – I think this one is actually a re-read for me, but I find that the junk in the media about Islam confuses my mind, and I need a refresher.

Starting in July, I’m also going to be reading some technical material from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL.) I’m a ham radio operator, but I have let my skills atrophy. My plan is to join a local group of hams who do emergency work, and to do that I need to get my knowledge and skills back in order. I’ll spare you the details.😉

Are there writers you find unreadable? I just gave up on Hemingway for the umpteenth time. His choppy sentences and puerile attitudes give me headaches. I have very fond memories of his cats on Key West, but otherwise I am not charmed.

What’s on your list? Anything fun? Is there anything you’d like to recommend to others?

 

Irano-Jewish Hebrew Illumination (Shanameh)

Now for something completely different… Jewish art from Persia!

Reblogged this from Jewish Philosophy Place, a blog I follow and enjoy.

jewish philosophy place

001003004005006007

Not your Ashkenazi book illumination, these Iranian Jewish book illuminations are identified as mid- to late 17th century. Full of violence, they transpose the Jewish narrative takes shape as if drawn from the Shanameh (Book of Kings)  the classic and foundational Persian epic poem. I found these in Marc Epstein’s Skies of Parchment/Seas of Ink — Pinchas impaling Zur and Cosbi, Joshua conquering Jericho and crossing the Jordan, angels uprooting a tree in Ahashverosh’s garden, and the killing of his sons and collaborators. The  pictures illuminate the Musa Nama (Book of Moses), the Imrani Fath Nama (Book of the Conquest), and the Ardashir Nama (Book of Ahashverus). The narrative scenes take place out in the desert, out in nature. I’ll return to this point later, but for an outsider, the only visual (i.e. non-narrative) element that distinguishes these illuminations as “Jewish” is the Hebrew calligraphy.

View original post