Sh’mini: Back to Basics

Several years ago I heard Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin give a wonderful sermon on Parashat Sh’mini. She pointed out that the first part of the portion has to do with the tragedy of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. Immediately after their ordination as kohanim [priests] they experiment with making a burnt offering. Instead of working properly, the offering goes horribly wrong and the two of them are burnt up in an explosion of fire from the mishkan, the portable dwelling of God.

Then, she noted, the text swiftly shifts topic. Instead of continuing with the esoteric topic of sacrifices, Chapter 11 of Leviticus switches abruptly to the topic of Jewish dietary laws: “These are the living things which you may eat…” I had always been bothered by this sudden shift, but Rabbi Mates-Muchin explained it: God understood that the Israelites were not in the right place spiritually for the intricacies of the sacrificial cult. What they needed were the basics: “here is the food you are supposed to eat.” That sermon comes to my mind whenever I explain to an Introduction to Judaism student that I don’t cover kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in the “Intro” class.

There is something in us human beings that makes us think that “more advanced” equals “best.” Some of it is ego: we want to be black belts, not yellow belts. And we think that if we can do some of the “more advanced” exercises that makes us better than if we were only doing “beginner” things. So we want to jump ahead to advanced Judaism: we don’t want to know about dietary laws, we want to learn about kabbalah or gematriaBut beginning Hebrew? – that’s so boring!

The trouble, of course, is that when we jump ahead to the things we are sure will be more interesting, we miss the beauty of the basics, and we will be studying whatever it is without the tools we need. Learning Hebrew is a basic skill for study in Torah and rabbinic literature. The stories in Torah and Tanakh are the building blocks of Jewish ethical and legal thought. But even in English, on the simple peshat level –the level of surface meaning – they are a rich treasury of wisdom.

A life of Torah is a journey. Every step of the way can be a thing of beauty, a precious jewel, from “Aleph, Bet, Gimel” to the most complex lesson in the Talmud. May we each learn some new bit of Torah every day, and value it for the treasure it is!

People of the Library

Jewish bookshelf
Part of my library

We Jews are often called the people of the book, but one could easily argue that we are really the people of the library. A Bible, after all, is not a single book: it is a collection of books, each separate and distinct. Even our Sefer Torah, our Torah scroll, is not a single book but a collection of five books in a single scroll.

The holy books, the s’forim, don’t stop with the Tanakh (Bible.) We have collections of midrash, sermons and stories that launch from verses in the Tanakh. We have the process of Mishnah and Gemara, in which centuries of rabbis clarify the ways in which actual lives of Torah might proceed from the document, Torah. We have mystical literature, and poetry, and law codes, on and on.

We love our books. We write books about our books, and notes within our books. If you look in a used book store or library for old Jewish books, often you will find neatly pencilled notes in the margins, references to the words of our teachers or to other books. I assembled much of my library at used book stores and sales, and I especially value the books with marginalia that came from the hands of other rabbis.

Of course, nowadays all of these books are available in electronic formats, many of them online. I suspect the ancient rabbis would have loved this technology, books that can be searched and indexed in a zillion different ways, all at the touch of a few buttons. Many different writers have pointed out that Talmud was an early precursor to hypertext, so the ancient rabbis might have felt right at home with it!

An observant Jew says the words of the Shema several times a day. It is a set of verses from Torah which we repeat many, many times over the course of a lifetime. The Shema is central to Judaism; it proclaims not only our monotheism but also our reverence for words, the words in our most beloved books:

And these words that I give you today will be upon your hearts.   Teach them to your children. Speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.   Bind them as symbols on your hands and tie them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:6-9

Are You Curious About Judaism?

A Jewish group studying text together
Class with Rabbi Adar

Are you curious about Judaism? Interested in getting a basic introduction to the subject? Considering conversion, or just want to figure out your in-laws?  It’s that time of year again, folks – “Intro” classes are beginning in many synagogues!

I teach two such classes in the East Bay Area of CA: “Exploring Judaism” starts this Sunday at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. The class meets for an hour each Sunday, starting at 10:10am. For more information, click on the link which will take you to the registration page. My other class “Intro to the Jewish Experience” will begin October 22 at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. That class meets for an hour and a half on Wednesday evenings, starting at 7:30pm. For more information or to sign up, check out the class page in the online Lehrhaus Judaica catalog.

Don’t live in Berkeley or Lafayette? Check with your local synagogue or Jewish Federation to find out what classes are starting in your area.

Some concerns I hear every year:

  • Will you expect me to convert? [No]
  • Will you burn me at the stake because I’m L, G, B, or T? [No, I’m a lesbian myself.]
  • Will you be mad if I don’t believe in God? [No, we’ll talk about the many different Jewish ideas about God.]
  • What are you “selling,” rabbi? [Nothing other than a learning experience.]
  • This class is very expensive! [If it is too much for you, say so. Financial aid is often available.]

If you have questions or needs, speak up. This is your first lesson in Jewish community.

My classes have multiple entry points. If not now, maybe then! Get in touch for more information.

I hope that you find an “Intro” class in your area! If you will be taking one of mine, feel free to leave a comment and say “Hi!”