A Pre-Shabbat Mitzvah?

Image: Box of food for the hungry. (135 Pixels / Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Pirkei Avot is a section of the Mishnah which is full of pithy advice. Pirkei Avot can be translated “Verses of the Fathers” but I prefer to think of it as “Advice from the Uncles.” (Alas, there are no women quoted in it!) Here’s one of my Top Ten from the book:

Ben Azzai said: Be quick in performing a minor commandment as in the case of a major one, and flee from transgression; For one commandment leads to another commandment, and transgression leads to another transgression; For the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment and the reward for committing a transgression is a transgression.

Pirkei Avot 4:2

This verse is the foundation for Living on the Mitzvah Plan, the plan for living I use when depression knocks on my door. It reminds me that our lives tend to spiral in whatever direction we choose to aim them: if you choose a good path, it will go up and up, but a bad path will lead to compounding disasters.

This time of year, there is lots of winter cold left, but the donations and goodwill of the December holiday season are past. Consider looking up your local Food Bank and sending them a buck or two; they will turn every small donation into an astonishing pile of healthy food for their clients. According to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, they turn every $1 donated into SEVEN DOLLARS worth of food!

Here in the Bay Area of California, housing is expensive and many people are going without food — or with less healthy food — in order to keep up with rent or house payments. You may have neighbors who are food insecure and hiding it. By supporting the local Food Bank, you help the working poor eat better, and you may help keep a neighbor from sliding into homelessness.

Linda and I support our local food bank, the Alameda County Community Food Bank. If you don’t know who helps the hungry in your area, check this link: Find Your Local Food Bank.

Friday is a great day to give a little tzedakah (money to relieve suffering or deprivation) since we are just about to enjoy Shabbat. Consider sending any amount to your local food bank, to spread the joy of Shabbat!

Books about Jewish History

Image: A stack of books, with flowers and an apple. (congerdesign /Pixabay)

“What’s a good book about Jewish history, Rabbi?” I get that question several times a year, and the answer is, there is no single definitive history but there are a lot of good books out there. Here are some books I recommend to my students:

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. This is a comprehensive history of the Jewish People, written in a very accessible style. It’s probably the most exhaustive one-volume history currently in print.

Potok, Chaim. Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. Potok is a master novelist, and this very readable history is a good introduction to Jewish history. It’s available as a used paperback.

Schama, Simon. The Story of the Jews, Vols. 1 “Finding the Words” and 2. “Belonging.” These volumes (with a third volume expected in the near future) are a cultural history of the Jews written by an art historian and scholar.  These are companion volumes to Schama’s PBS and BBC series. Schama tells this history differently than a rabbi would tell it — and I think that’s the strength of this series.

Scheindlin, Raymond. A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood. This history is brief and very readable, by a distinguished scholar who is also a Reform rabbi. Used copies are easily available online and sometimes in local used bookstores.

Mack, Stan. The Story of the Jews . This history is written in graphic novel format. Reviewers have pointed out a few historical inaccuracies in it (for example, the specifics of Hitler’s rise to power are incorrect.) On the plus side, it does a good job of describing a lot of the Jewish story and putting things into a chronological framework. This one is a very easy read, but it still has lots of good information.

Not a history per se, but a great resource:

Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People from the Time of thePatriarchs to the Present. This is an excellent historical resource, especially if you are drawn to pictures, time lines and graphics.

Is there a book you recommend that isn’t on this list? I’d be delighted if you’d share it in the Comments.

Justice, Truth, and Peace

Image: Statue of Lady Justice. (Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Pirkei Avot 1:18

This quotation from Pirkei Avot stuck in my mind last night, as I watched the impeachment trial of the president on TV.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was the president of the Sanhedrin during the First Revolt against Rome, and his life ended in martyrdom: he was beheaded by the Romans, along with the High Priest, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, just before they destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. For his entire life, Roman Judea had been in turmoil.

Shimon was the son of Rabban Gamliel, another president of the Sanhedrin, and his great-grandfather was Hillel the Elder. The family traced their lineage back to King David. They were as close to royalty as the rabbis ever got.

Here and now in the 21st century, things are looking grim. In the impeachment trial, over half the “jurors” (Senators) have signaled a disinterest in justice or truth by voting again and again for a trial without witnesses or evidence. The Senate Majority Leader has said explicitly that the Republicans in the Senate are coordinating their votes with the White House — that without witnesses or evidence, the matter is already decided. Serious charges are being brushed away as if they are a meaningless nuisance.

The world stands on “justice, truth, and peace.” One might also say that those three qualities are interdependent: it is impossible to have any two of the three without the third. If we want justice, then we need to know the truth of a situation. If we want the truth, then we must hear from witnesses and see the evidence. If we want peace, then we need a process for justice that sorts out what is true and that meets inequities with just solutions.

At this moment, the situation seems dark. The world feels like it is falling apart (nuclear threats from rogue nations, climate change and its terrors, growing inequities of income and resources, to name but a few.) Over half of our people have serious concerns about our leadership, specifically the President and the people who work for him.

What is the righteous person to do at such a time?

Whatever our political ties, we can remind our lawmakers that we are watching this process and taking notes. We can write, fax, or call them and say, “We are watching.” We can demand that they seek the facts. If the facts are in the president’s favor, then he need fear nothing. If the facts are not in his favor, then the Senate will have to take action.

We can, each of us, individually choose justice, truth, and peace:

  • We can conduct our disagreements in just and fair ways, arguing the issues, not the personalities.
  • We can seek truth, not the “post-truth” that privileges emotion and personal belief.
  • We can be relentless in seeking honesty in ourselves.
  • We can ask, “Where is the evidence?”
  • We can refrain from name-calling and mockery.
  • We can seek to connect with the person on the other side of the argument.
  • When it gets to be too much, we can withdraw and recharge rather than burn down the house.
  • We can be humble about the things we do not know, and honor the learning and expertise of others.
  • We can choose hope over despair. I may feel like all is lost, but I must behave as if there is still some hope for improvement.

Talking Amongst Ourselves: Voices of Torah

Image: Voices of Torah, Volumes 1 and 2.

Every quarter, I write one or two divrei Torah (words of Torah, short reflections on a bit of Torah) for the newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR.) Many other rabbis write similar short articles, bringing their learning and insight to the other portions. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman edits each piece, making it much better, and then it appears in a little rabbis-only newsletter. And for years, that was that.

Now the CCAR Press has collected these words of Torah into Voices of Torah, Volume 1 and Volume 2. They are arranged by Torah portion, from Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8) through V’Zot Habrachah (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12,) with a few additional pieces for holidays (High Holy Days, Purim, Passover, et al.) I’m honored that several of my little pieces were included in Volume 2.

Each short d’var Torah (word limit 250 words! practically Haiku!) is written about a specific Torah portion. Each was written by a rabbi for their colleagues: for rabbis, by rabbis. Some of them are little gems. The editors have polished them up for a lay audience, de-obfuscating the jargon and translating the rabbi-speak into Standard English. It is now a nice resource for someone seeking insight into a particular Torah portion, or someone who needs to give the d’var Torah for a meeting.

The books are for sale directly from CCAR Press or from other online bookshops, including Amazon and Powell’s.

Tu B’Shevat Approaches!

Image: A snowy landscape with bare-branched trees. (Ina Hoekstra / Pixabay)

Tu B’Shevat this year (2020/5780) will begin at sundown on February 9, and end at sundown on February 10.

Because our history goes so far back, many Jewish holidays evolve over time, but this one has changed a lot since its inception, when it was the beginning of a fiscal year for fruit farmers. To learn more about the holiday, check out Tu B’Shevat for Beginners.

It is sometimes called The New Year of the Trees, one of four days that mark a new year for the Jewish people. For more about the other new years, see Four New Years Every Year?!

In this era of worries about climate change, some of us are cultivating a new respect for the trees. Have you ever planted a tree? Saved a tree? Been saved by a tree? Please share your stories in the comments!

Please Don’t Tell Jews How to be Jewish

Image: Annoyed woman with steam coming out of her ears. (Pixabay)

Lately I’ve noticed an uptick of comments and questions from gentiles that come in the general format:

“Why aren’t you Jews conforming to my ideas of how to be Jewish? Doesn’t that make you a bad Jew?”

Usually they are folks who seem to have read the King James Version of the Bible, and nothing else, and they are bothered that the real live Jews around them aren’t acting like Biblical Jews. Alternatively, they’ve picked up some of the antisemitic tropes about Jews, and they want to know why we don’t act in accordance with those tropes. Or — a third, friendlier possibility — they’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof or Yentl and want to generalize from those Hollywood musicals.

Biblical Judaism is not Rabbinic Judaism. Since the Romans destroyed our Temple in the year 70, Judaism has gone through some massive changes. We don’t sacrifice animals (no Temple!) and the Kohanim, or priests, do not make their living running the sacrificial cult any more. Our clergy are rabbis, who are primarily teachers, and cantors, who are experts on worship. If you want to know more than that, I recommend a good book or a Basic Judaism class.

Antisemitism is a bunch of bad information with a hateful agenda. A lot of it is lies, a lot of it is misinformation or twisted information, and it’s hateful. Again, if you want to learn about us, read a good book or take a class. If you want to learn a little about antisemitism, here’s an article.

Fiddler and Yentl are fantasy. So is most of what Hollywood releases on every subject, for that matter! Watching The King and I is entertaining, but it is not a good way to learn the history of Thailand. It gives you a fantasy about a snapshot in time – a particular monarch and his court in the 1860’s, through the lens of 1956 Hollywood. Most movies that include Jewish information – and there are a lot of them! – have some accurate info and some that is sadly inaccurate. If that interests you, check out my website Rabbi At the Movies, where I try to sort the real from the fantasy and the accurate from inaccurate.

Jews in the 21st century are a wildly assorted lot. Some are religious, some not. Some are traditionally observant, some not. Some are educated, some aren’t. Some are Zionists, some aren’t. Some are capitalists, some aren’t. Some are good with money, and some aren’t. Some are smart, some aren’t.

I love a good question, and I love to teach. Bring me genuine curiosity, and I’ll sit and chat all day. But: lecture me on how to be a Jew, when you clearly know nothing about it, and I will get pretty cranky, pretty fast.

Shavua tov, y’all. Have a good week.

What is Daf Yomi? Also – an online class for beginners in Jewish text study

Image: A graphic representation of rabbinic literature. Graphic by Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.

There’s a lot of talk online and elsewhere about “Daf Yomi” right now. It means “Page of Talmud of the Day” – actually TWO pages of Talmud per day, for seven plus years until the whole thing is read. If that’s your cup of tea, mazal tov. But as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) said very eloquently recently on Twitter, Daf Yomi isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. There are lots of other ways to swim in the sea of Talmud.

If you’re new or nearly new to Jewish texts, I have an an option for you. This coming Sunday, I start teaching an online class called “Introduction to the Jewish Experience: Israel and Texts.” We learn about Jewish text study by studying texts together on one kind of text after another.

Jan 12 – Welcome — A Shabbat Text: the Kiddush

Jan 19 – Ancient Israel — The Land where the Bible is set and where it may have been written

Jan 26 – Torah, Tanakh, and Midrash — What they are, how we engage with them.

Feb 2 — Rabbinic Judaism – The pressure cooker and its cooks.

Feb 9 — Mishnah, Gemara, Talmud and Codes — Lions and Tigers and Bears, O My!

Feb 16 — What is “Jewish Law” – and What it is Not.

Feb 23 — Antisemitism

Mar 1 — Zionism(s) and History

Does this sound interesting? It is an introduction to the texts along with the history that gives rise to them. It doesn’t last seven years, but it will give you the basic information you need to engage in pretty much any Jewish text study class that intrigues you.

Registration is open NOW on the HaMaqom,org website.

The fees are on a sliding scale. Classes meet on Sunday afternoons from 3:30-5 Pacific Time, but many people take the class by following the video recordings of the live classes.

See you there?

IMPORTANT NOTE: Registration goes through the HaMaqom office, which is open M-F. If you sign up for the class on a Saturday or Sunday, I won’t get the information until Monday. However, the class you missed will be available via a recording and I will send you the link as soon as I become aware of you as a student.