Meet Rabbi Blank

I spent the past weekend as a scholar-in-residence, teaching and learning and praying in the woods with the fine folks of Temple Emanuel of Tempe, Arizona.  While I get back to life and to my posting routine here in San Leandro, CA, I thought I’d share with you a wonderful blog post by my friend and classmate, Rabbi Stacey Blank:

Rabbi Blank’s Blog

If you want to learn about Israel, follow Rabbi Blank’s blog.  She’s a Reform rabbi, living and working in Jerusalem. Her blog is thoughtful and reflects the point of view of an American born woman who has made aliyah, and what you will learn about is not the “Disney-fied” Israel or the Israel of dreams or nightmares, but the Israel in which millions of Jews actually live.

Happy reading!

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5 Ways to Be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest

Someone has invited you to your first Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner.  Maybe you are “meeting the family” for the first time.  Or maybe it’s just a friendly dinner.  But you are not sure about the religious aspect: what’s expected?  Here are five suggestions to help you be a great Shabbat dinner guest:

1.  ASK QUESTIONS:  Every family has their own customs about Shabbat dinner.  Some are very formal, some equally informal.  Asking a few questions ahead of time is essential:

What should I wear?  Dress will differ from household to household, so ask.  You don’t want to be the only one at the table in blue jeans, or in pearls, for that matter!

May I bring anything?  The answer to that may be “Yes, bring —-” or it may be “just yourself!”  If you are asked to bring something, be sure and ask if they would like it to be kosher, or if there are any restrictions you should know about:  allergies, etc.  Better to ask than to show up with something lethal, right?  And even if the answer is “just yourself” it is nice to show up with flowers.  Not required, but nice.

Finally, it is fine to ask questions about the prayers, the food, or the objects you see.    Some things (a kiddush cup, for example, or a recipe) may come with family stories.

2.  BE ON TIME.  Your hosts may be juggling the hour of sundown, service times at their synagogue, hungry toddlers or other variables.  Shabbat dinner is not a time to be “fashionably late.”

3.  DON’T WORRY ABOUT HEBREW.  There may or may not be Hebrew prayers or songs in Hebrew.  If you feel awkward just listening, you have the option of saying “Amen,” at the end of prayers.  As for singing, if you don’t know the words, you can tap your feet, or clap your hands, or just listen appreciatively.  The dinner may begin with candlelighting and blessings over wine and bread.  If you are not Jewish, you do not have to participate, just listen quietly and observe.  Don’t worry that you do not speak Hebrew; many American Jews do not.  It is a wonderful thing to learn Hebrew, but no one expects you to know it at your first Shabbat dinner!

4.  COMMUNICATE!  Shabbat dinner is not just about food.  It is also about taking time to enjoy one another’s company.  Treat each person at the table as if you expect to learn something important from them.  Contribute to the conversation when you have something to say.  In many Jewish households, friendly dispute is welcome at the table, but do keep the tone friendly!  Off color jokes and off color language are out of place at the Shabbat dinner table.

5.  SAY THANK YOU.  Write your host afterward and thank them for including you.  When you host your own Shabbat dinner (or a similar event from your own tradition) return the invitation!

Dancing with the Rabbis

Image: Cartoon of three rabbis, dancing. (pixabay)

A lot of newcomers to synagogue are intimidated by the choreography of Jewish public worship.  People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door (what?).  There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too.  What on earth?

One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance.  Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. (Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.)

Recently I walked one of my Intro classes through the choreography of the service as it is practiced in most Reform congregations.

First, a few general principles bear repeating:

1.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK:  If you are curious about a gesture or practice, ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask one of the service leaders (after the service!) It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn.  As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!

2.  MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?

3.  EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY:  Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.

  • If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
  • If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
  • In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
  • Show respect to the Torah Scroll:  Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it.  Stand when the Ark is open.

4.  RESPECT THE BODY:  It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.

5.  ESCHEW OSTENTATION:  Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else.

 For more detail, you can check out this handout I gave the class: Choreography of the Service. Happy dancing!

For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners) 

Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.

What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry? The procession with the Torah involves people kissing and touching the Torah scroll as it passes. If you are curious about that practice, this article explores it.

What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur? An article about the books we use in the service.

 

You Don’t Mess with the Laughter

!מענטש טראַכט, גאָט לאַכט

That is, Menscht tracht, Gott lacht:  “Man plans, God laughs.”  It’s the Yiddish version of Murphy’s Law.  It’s been on my mind this weekend.

My plan to “blog the Omer” took a left turn on Thursday evening, when I posted a commentary on You Don’t Mess with the Zohan to my Jewish Film blog.  I said I thought it was racist garbage, and I suggested other films that do a better job of mining the humor in Arab-Jewish tensions.

Someone had a rather strong reaction to my take on the film.  Instead of leaving a comment, he or she chose to hack my account and mess up a bunch of the links on the blog, so that all links from 2009 films led to the Zohan entry.  What I can’t figure is whether they liked or hated the comment, since if they hated it, why lead everyone to it?  And if they liked it, why not just comment?

On the other hand, someone is reading the film commentaries!  I’m delighted.  If someone out in Internet-land is a little less comfortable about movies that take cheap racist shots, I am doing my job.

Whatever the details, all my blogging time has gone to fixing those darn links, and dreaming up a password that will be harder to crack.  I have continued to count the omer, but am only today back to blogging.

I am absolutely certain that God is laughing.

P.S. to the Link Switcher, if you are reading this:  Leave me a comment, either here or better yet, on the Jewish Film blog, and tell me what you were trying to tell me with the links.  Loved it? Hated it? Let’s argue!  It’s more fun and less work, I promise.

Nothing is Wasted

After hour depository (dropbox) of the old Exc...
After hour depository of the old Exchange National Bank building, in downtown Tampa, Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I prepare for a class that simply doesn’t happen.  I had one of those this week:  I was to teach a three-week class on Food and Jewish Ethics, and the timing simply wasn’t right.  There were not enough people signed up, and the management at Lehrhaus Judaica and I regretfully pulled the plug.

It’s a pity, because I was really excited about it.  I was going to spend the first class meeting talking a bit about how Jews do ethics.  Then we were going to brainstorm what ethical issues come up when one contemplates the dinner table, and choose two to four topics to hash out over the remaining classes.  The specifics would be driven by their interests.  But 10 am on Wednesdays was not a good time, despite some interest, so we’ll have to find another time slot and give it a go perhaps in the fall, perhaps in the evening.

So, was the preparation a waste?  Not at all.  For one thing, those lovingly prepared lesson plans are waiting in my Dropbox folder for another opportunity.  All I will need to do is refresh my memory, see if any new ideas have sprouted in the back of my mind since I prepared them, and I’m off to the races.  So that’s all good.

But there’s a deeper reason why it wasn’t a waste:  time spent studying Torah is never wasted.  I approach my own table now with renewed awareness.  When I pick up a piece of nice matzah, I am drawn to read the back of the box:  where did it come from?  Who made it?  When I look at the vegetables in the fridge, I am much more aware of a host of  issues.  The chapters I read on hunger led  to check on the status supplies at my local food bank (not good), leading me to dig a little deeper for tzedakah.

As Mishnah Peah 1.1 says, “Talmud Torah keneged kulam” — “the study of Torah leads to them all” [the things that are valuable both in this world and in the world to come.]

And those are my thoughts at the beginning of Day 5 of the Omer.

Misogyny? Or Something Else?

Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna. — Pirkei Avot 1.5

This verse from Mishnah begins with sentiments that are challenging but easy to affirm:  let your house be wide open!  Let the poor be members of your household!  Then it serves up what looks to be the worst sort of misogyny.

When I see something troubling in a text, the first thing I do is back up and look at the Hebrew.  What EXACTLY does it say?  Here’s a very literal translation:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household.  But do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman.  In speaking to his wife, so much the more so his friend’s wife.  Therefore the sages say, excessive conversation with the woman causes evil to himself and neglect of Torah and he will eventually inherit Gehinnom.

At first reading, that’s not much better.

Short of shrieking and throwing the verse away, I see only one possible way out with this text. That’s the phrase תרבה שיחה, which I translated as “excessive conversation.” We might also read it as “too long a conversation.”

Excessive how?  Too long for what? Let’s look at context. The verse begins with two statements about the household:  “let your house be wide open” and “let the poor be members of your household.” In the patriarchal society of the sages, the household was women’s domain, specifically, the wife’s domain.

Given this context, is it not possible that this is a warning to the men to back off and not interfere in the domain of their wives? That also makes sense of the phrase, “so much more so his friend’s wife”: Don’t tell your wife how to run her house, and definitely don’t tell your friend’s wife how to do so!

There is also a detail in the text that most translations gloss over that supports this interpretation. The phrase “the woman,” repeated twice in this verse, includes the definite article:  it is not “all women” but a particular woman about whom Yosi ben Yochanan is speaking. HaIshah, the woman, can also be translated “the wife.”

So let me try for a paraphrase:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. But do not micro-manage your spouse about it, much less the spouses of your colleagues. Nothing good will come of it; it will lead to neglect of Torah and a bad end.

I believe this text may be read not as a misogynist rant, but as a reminder to the men that they are not the bosses, or the experts, of everything.  They should not meddle in the domain of their wives, and meddling in how other people’s homes are run is even worse.

What can this teach us today? Stay humble.  Remember that everyone has his or her area of expertise. The large principles are good — don’t neglect those first two items! — but I should respect the expertise of others, no matter how much Torah I think I know.

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The Chain of Tradition

The Aleppo Codex is a medieval manuscript of t...
The Aleppo Codex, a manuscript of the Tanakh.. The Masoretic scholars wrote it in the early 10th century, probably in Tiberias, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pirkei Avot 1.1:  Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. 

The transmission of Torah is like a bucket brigade:  starting with God on Sinai, the Torah has been handed down, hand to hand, from that day to this.  We call this the sharsheret shel masoret, the chain of tradition.

I learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA.  She learned from Cantor Nathan Lam at Stephen S. WIse Temple in Los Angeles.  I don’t know who Cantor Lam learned from, but I know that the style of chanting we do is a variant of a style that goes all the way back to Eastern Europe.

Once, in the British Library in London, I saw a 9th century text of the Tanakh with the te’amim (cantillation marks – the musical notations) in it, and I was able to stand at the case where it was displayed and chant the text softly to myself.  That codex was ancient — more than a thousand years old! — but I could read it just fine.  That was the first time I really felt the weight of that chain of tradition.  I could imagine the masorete who wrote that book teaching his student… and then the student teaching his student… down through the centuries until Cantor Lam taught Cantor Keys and Cantor Keys taught me.

The same is true of every d’var Torah — every word of Torah — that I know.  Someone taught it to me.  God willing, I will teach it to others.

A hundred years from now, I do not expect that many people, if any, will remember me.  But I take great comfort and pride in the knowledge that the students of my students will still be learning Torah and teaching it to their children and their students.  I may be just a link in the chain — but what a chain!