Shabbat Shalom: Ki Teitze

Image: One of my bookshelves, with Bibles, a crown, and a yahrzeit candle. (Ruth Adar)

This week’s Torah portion has a little surprise in it.

Readers familiar with the Book of Ruth may be puzzled to read the commandment against marrying Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:4:

“An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord.” Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, was born a Moabite: that is the whole point of the Book of Ruth.

How could King David be descended from a forbidden marriage?

The sages struggled with this text and its apparent conflict with the Book of Ruth, especially since the prohibition is reinforced by a line from Nehemiah 13:1-2: “At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of God, since they did not meet Israel with bread and water, and hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing.”

The sages resolve the issue in M.Yevamot 8:3, ruling that the prohibition is only against Moabite men converting or marrying a Jewish woman; Moabite women are permitted to convert. The Gemara elaborates with a story about an Edomite who suggested to Saul that David may not be fit even to be part of the kahal, since he descends from Ruth the Moabite. Saul’s general, Abner, replies that the prohibition applies only to males, because women stay in the house when men go out to meet strangers. (Yevamot 76b)

Another possibility from modern scholarship: Megillat Ruth (The Scroll of Ruth) was composed from a legend that had circulated for centuries. It was written down in the early Second Temple period when Ezra was making his proclamations against “foreign wives.” It was composed as a reply to Ezra’s attitude about intermarriage, by arguing that even King David had an ancestor who was not born a Jew.

At every point in Jewish history, there is someone warning against converts in general or against a particular convert. As a giyoret (female convert) myself, I take comfort in knowing that there have also been, in every age, someone speaking up for us.

Shabbat Shalom! – Shoftim

Image: A blackboard with “Rules for Prophets” written on it. (Source: Ruth Adar.)

Parashat Shoftim contains what we might call the Rules for Prophets. First we are told what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters of ghosts. Deuteronomy 18:12 twice uses the word to’evah (abomination) to describe such people. We do not look to the prophets to “tell the future” to us. We look to them for messages from God about God’s priorities.

God promises to raise up prophets for Israel from among the people, citing our choice at Sinai to hear the word of God through Moses instead of directly. Prophets are answerable to God, but we will have to choose which prophets to heed: according to Deuteronomy 18:22, if they speak in the name of God, and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine.

This circular solution — believe them IF what they said comes true — is not entirely satisfying. In Jeremiah 28:9 Jeremiah debates Hananiah, a false prophet, and reminds him that “only when the word of the prophet comes true can it be known that YHVH really sent him.” In M. Sanhedrin 1.5, we get a sense of the seriousness and difficulty of determining the veracity of a prophet from the requirement that it requires a full Sanhedrin court of 71 to try a prophet. Jesus of Nazareth may have been thinking of this week’s Torah portion when he said, “Beware of false prophets… you shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7: 15-16)

The Age of Prophecy is over, but the problem of judging those who claim to predict the future is still with us. Jewish tradition encourages us to be skeptics and to require facts, to ask, “What are your results?” before we put our faith in a human being. In practical terms, that means we need to question information that comes before us. What is the source? How good a source is it? How well does it prove out, when held up against reality?

The Rabbi Goes Back to School

Image: The cover of Reading Hebrew with Tikva, one of the textbooks for class.

Today, on the first of Elul, I did something I’ve needed to do for a while: I signed up for a class in Modern Hebrew.

“But rabbi, don’t you already read Hebrew?” I can imagine a reader thinking. And yes, I read the Jewish Bible just fine. I can read the medieval commentaries, and of course the prayers in the prayer book.

However, drop me into the middle of Tel Aviv, and my shortcomings will truly shine. Biblical Hebrew is to Modern Hebrew as Shakespeare is to Modern English — yeah, they are the same language, sort of, but the vocabulary has changed. I’ve never been very good at Ivrit Modernit (Modern Hebrew) and my last class was 20 years ago. So, time to fix that!

Would you like to learn Hebrew? Tikva Farber, my teacher, is a highly trained teacher who gets excellent results with students. You can find her upcoming classes on her website, Hebrew with Tikva. If the class times are not good for you, or if you are shy, she offers private lessons, too. I’m signed up for the intermediate class, since I have not forgotten everything, but there are classes for total beginners, too.

Why learn Hebrew? There are many good reasons:

  1. Do you love Torah? Hebrew will take you into the heart of Torah.
  2. Do you care about Israel? Learning Hebrew is a way to express your love for Israel. It is not enough to say, “Oh, many Israelis speak English!” Many Israelis don’t speak English. Moreover, even if they do, Hebrew language is a key part to understanding and being understood in modern Israel. There are words and concepts that do not translate easily — by learning Hebrew, you make a beginning at understanding Israelis.
  3. Are you a critic of Israel? You, too, could benefit from learning some of the language. For one thing, if you want to be taken seriously by Israelis, one way to say, “I’m committed” is to learn some Hebrew.
  4. Attending services is entirely different when you’ve learned to understand Hebrew.
  5. Planning to visit Israel? The person who visits who speaks no Hebrew will be stuck as a tayar, a tourist or sightseer. Want to ask questions of someone beside your tour guide? Want to make friends? Learn some Hebrew!
  6. Finally, are you parenting a Jewish child? Want to communicate to them that Hebrew school is important? Children believe what they see us DO, not necessarily what we SAY. Tell you child Hebrew is important by learning some yourself.

It’s OK to struggle. It’s OK to not be good at it. I am hard of hearing, and I’m terrible at understanding spoken Hebrew. I want 5782 (2021-22) to be the year that my Hebrew gets better, not worse. I invite you to join me!

“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”

The title of this post is an old Yiddish saying, meaning “People plan, and God laughs.” We can plan all we want, but sometimes things turn out in unexpected ways. I thought I was done with Coffee Shop Rabbi and this blog– then God laughed.

I will definitely continue to teach Intro to the Jewish Experience, but in a new place: Jewish Gateways, in Albany, CA. The classes will all be online, via Zoom. Classes will start in September, 2021, after the High Holy Days. I will tweak the syllabus a bit. More about that in future posts.

I will return to keeping this blog, although I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that, yet. There will be new posts from time to time, and they’ll have to do with topics that interest me. Again, more about that as clarity emerges.

Here’s a question for regular readers: What topics interest YOU? What would you like to hear more about? You can reply in the comments.

Image: A photo of a little lemur with a surprised look on its brown and black face. Image from Pixabay.com.

Shabbat Shalom: Shelach L’cha

Summary:

  • Moses sends twelve spies to the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and the country. Despite the positive report of Joshua and Caleb, the people are frightened. (13:1–14:10)
  • God threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel but relents when Moses intercedes on their behalf. To punish the people, God announces that all those who left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel except for Joshua and Caleb. (14:11–45)
  • Moses instructs the Israelites regarding setting aside challah, the observance of the Sabbath, how to treat strangers, and the laws of tzitzit. (15:1–41)

Name changes in the Torah text have great significance. Most of us are familiar with the story in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, and the patriarch Jacob gets a new name, Israel.

This week’s Torah portion has another significant name change. 

In the initial list of leaders going into the Land of Israel as spies,

Verse 8 tells us, “From the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.

Then in verse 16, we read:

Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.”

What the text does not tell us is why Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua ben Nun.

When I asked Rashi, he told me that “by giving him this name Joshua, which is a compound of Yah and Hoshia, “God may Save”, he in effect prayed for him, “May God save you from the evil counsel of the spies.”

When I asked Sforno, he told me that Hoshea was already known to be a man of valor among his peers, who had given him the name Joshua, and Moses was only formalizing the custom that already existed.

When I asked Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, she told me that Moses added the yud to the front of Hosea’s name because it was the equivalent of the number 10, and Moses hoped to arm him spiritually by making him the spiritual equivalent of the other ten spies. The yud he received was a special letter, because it was the yud that was replaced with a hey when God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah. Sarah had a strong spirit, and the yud was given to Joshua for strength.

When I asked Bamidbar Rabbah, she told me that Moses added the yud to Joshua’s name because Caleb would get his reward from the land, as it teaches in Deuteronomy 1:36, “to him will I give the land on which he has trod.” But Joshua received the reward that would have gone to the other ten spies, in that a yod, which stand for ten, was added to his name.

In another place, Bamidbar Rabbah said, “When Moses saw that the spies were a wicked bunch, Moses said to Hosea ben Nun, “May the Lord “YAH” save (Hoshia) you from this evil generation.”

All of this is to say that Joshua was lifted up by God and Moses to be a mighty leader of a strong-willed people. From it we also learn that one of the glories of Torah is that there is no single story, no single right answer. When we perform the mitzvah of engaging with words of Torah, we need not fear that all the answers are found, because we continue learning more from that time to this.

“See the Priest”- Tazria/Metzora

Image: Two people talking at the beach by wei zhu from Pixabay

Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant, embarrassing things. Medicine addresses disease these days, but what if we used the teaching in this portion to address modern plagues: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has told us that an opinion we voiced is racist. Our first impulse on hearing such things may be denial.

The Torah offers us a different path: it directs us to go to the priest (in our day, a trusted counselor) and say, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my child dated a black person.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are issues to address. Then they could help us toward change for the better.

Seeking guidance requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “So-and-so said that my behavior was racist.” 

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others. Some are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to someone, and that person passes along their pain to a third party.) These problems can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage. Besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is also for them, the plagues of the human spirit.

This D’var Torah appeared in a slightly different format in the CCAR Newsletter.

Changes at Coffee Shop Rabbi

Image: Logo of HaMaqom | The Place

As Ecclesiastes 3 points out so eloquently, there is a time for everything.

I began Coffee Shop Rabbi and this blog in March of 2010. I wanted to write simple explanations about Jewish life, and to correct misconceptions about Jews and Judaism. At that time, if you Googled “Talmud” the first page of citations that came up were antisemitic web sites. Thanks to changes made by Google, and an explosion of Jewish participation in the World Wide Web, that’s no longer the case. MyJewishLearning.com came into being, with articles from genuine experts, not just one rabbi. Sefaria.org came into existence, making Jewish texts available to anyone who wishes to “Ta Shma” — Come and Learn!

Over the past four years, my mission shifted: I tried to address the challenges of living in a world of what seemed like increasing darkness. What I learned was that in such a time, we Jews need community, not lone voices. I spent more time teaching classes at HaMaqom, more time on social media, and felt that here on the blog, I was mostly repeating myself.

Then came March of 2021.

HaMaqom | The Place has hired me as their new Executive Director. I will still teach Intro to the Jewish Experience on Sunday afternoons and evenings, but the bulk of my time will be spent nurturing its brilliant staff, raising funds, and representing the organization in the community.

HaMaqom | The Place creates inclusive communities through Jewish learning and practice. That is its mission statement, which is perfectly in line with my own mission, which you can read in another post, Passing the Torah. I’m going to put my heart, my soul, and my energy into building HaMaqom into a place — The Place — where Jewish friendships and connections are nurtured and from which new Jewish leadership can bloom.

I invite my readers to join me on this journey. How?

I haven’t decided what to do with this blog. I suspect that its job is done. I will keep the domain name and make sure it is maintained — it is, after all, ten years of work, still useful when someone wants a quick answer to a simple question! — but I don’t expect to post new material here, unless I use it to tell you about programs at HaMaqom.

Thank you for reading, thank you for your questions, your feedback, and your encouragement. I hope at least some of you will follow me into my next chapter.

We pass the Torah from hand to hand
and make sure all the Jews who want can hold it:
can write it on their hearts,
speak of it in their homes,
teach it to their children,
bind it on their hands,
hold it before their eyes,
and write it – in golden letters! –
on the doorposts of their gates.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, Passing the Torah

Stop AAPI Hate

The text of this graphic is below:

The Jewish people know all too well how hate

can move from words to actions.

For years, the Asian-American community has

reported increasing incidents of prejudice and

hatred, and yesterday in Atlanta that bigotry erupted

into devastating violence.


The women’s Rabbinic Network mourns with

the families of those who were killed, we

offer support and comfort to our Asian-American

members, and we stand with the Asian-American community.

#StopAAPIHate

FREE Passover classes at HaMaqom | The Place!

HaMaqom | The Place in Berkeley, CA is offering free online Passover classes and events over the coming month. Are you ready to learn? Ready to get ready? Worried about how you’re going to get into the mood for Passover this year? Interested in learning some new and interesting possibilities for enjoying the holiday? Help is one the way!

All events are free of charge, but you need to register in order to attend. To register for each event, use this link.

Passover 101 (Tuesday, March 9, 2021, 7-7:30 pm Pacific Time.

Passover, also known as Pesach or Chag HaAviv, celebrates the Israelites Exodus from Egypt and includes themes of liberation, redemption, and renewal. Join us to learn more about this holiday and its traditions in this interactive session with Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Bsisa 101: Celebrating the New Jewish month of Nissan with Libyan and Tunisian Jews (Tuesday March 16 7-7:30pm Pacific Time

The new Jewish month of Nissan brings with it themes of renewal and hope for prosperity and health, as Passover is just around the corner. Join Asher Grinner and Tamar Zaken as they share the home-based tradition of Bsisa, where family members gather to bless and be blessed, celebrating the season of renewal marked by Rosh Hodesh Nissan.

Come to the Seder Table (Thursday, March 18 7-8pm Pacific Time

At HaMaqom, we celebrate and lift up the diversity of our Jewish community and practice. Passover is the perfect time of year to showcase the ways different families celebrate this holiday of liberation and new beginnings. This event will feature 6 family seder traditions from HaMaqom and One Table community members and staff. Get ready for Passover with us!

Community Cafe: Stories of Liberation, Deliverance, Revelation, and Rebellion (Tuesday, March 23 5:30-6:45pm Pacific Time)

Stories connect us and add meaning and depth to our lives. Come to HaMaqom’s community cafe event, where you will hear inspiring, Passover-themed storytelling this Spring. This semester, HaMaqom’s Community Cafe participants workshopped true stories from their lives about liberation, resilience and other Passover themes.  Join us to hear these moving stories as our participants perform them for a live zoom audience.  

Mimouna 101: Moroccan Post Passover Celebration (Sunday April 4, 7-7:30pm Pacific Time)

Mimouna, a celebration that marks the end of Passover, is celebrated in Moroccan and North African Jewish communities. Mimouna includes themes of renewal, joy, coexistence, and inviting in neighbors. Join Ziva Trau as she shares her family Mimouna traditions, featuring special foods, music, and other rituals.

Passover @ The Place is generously sponsored by The Douglass-Pearlmutter Family, the Kabat Family, and Fred Isaac & Robin Reiner.

HaMaqom’s commitment to keeping our learning opportunities affordable and inclusive is a part of who we are and is only possible because of the generous support we receive from our wonderful community.

Are You Curious About Judaism?

Image: Three people learning, and the HaMaqom Logo. (hmqm.org)

Are you curious about Judaism? Have you ever wanted to have a chance to ask a rabbi a few questions?

I’m offering a class titled “Sampling Judaism” online this month and next, three meetings in which I’ll make a 30 minute presentation about:

  • What do Jews think about God?
  • What is Torah, exactly?
  • Who are the Jews and what do they want?

Then in each class, students can ask questions about the presentation or about anything else about which they are curious. This is a very basic class, an introduction to Jewish learning and life, and it is built around YOUR questions. No Hebrew required, no credentials required.

If this is something that interests you, Sampling Judaism is easy to sign up for. Just click the link to go to the HaMaqom website and there you can get all the info about cost, times, and registration.

The class is offered on a sliding scale and financial aid is available. Class will meet on Monday nights from January 25 through February 8, from 7-8pm Pacific Time.