Resources for Torah Study

Image: A study with books and computer. (Pexels/Pixabay)

I strongly recommend to my students that they find a Torah Study group and attend, at least for a while. It’s a great way to get to know a synagogue or other Jewish institution. It’s also one of the quintessential Jewish activities: there is no better way to learn how to think as Jews think. Torah is not just about the Bible; Torah is a worldview.

Here are some resources I highly recommend for beginners:

Sefaria.org – This online library of Jewish texts is a miracle of technology. “Sefaria” is a play on sefer, Hebrew for “book.” Seforim (suh-FOR-eem) are Jewish holy books. Sefaria.org offers a growing selection of Jewish holy texts for study along with other resources. It has a full Tanakh, with English translation, as well as all the major works of rabbinic literature and more. Some books are only partly translated, but don’t despair – scholars are working on them all the time! Click on the horizontal lines in the upper left hand corner of the screen to reach the Table of Contents. Give yourself time to click and explore. If you prefer to learn in more directed ways, scroll to the bottom of the screen and under “About,” click “Help,” which will take you to a series of videos illustrating ways to use the site.

Mechon-Mamre.org is an older, less complicated website offering resources for Torah study and other Jewish texts. I particularly like the Hebrew font they use; it’s very simple and clear.

Maps of Biblical Israel – One unique thing about Torah study is that our sacred text is rooted in the geography of Israel. This website was assembled by Christians (as you can see from all the mentions of “Old Testament” but the maps are very handy.

hebcal.com – For “Parashat haShavua” (weekly Torah readings) this website is a wonderful tool. This is the Swiss Army knife of Jewish calendars: you can click on the weekly portion and get the readings, with links to commentary and sermons online. It will also do date conversion (want to know what day in the Jewish calendar was your birthday?) It’s wonderful.

And finally, a wonderful book:

What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives by Stephen Lewis Fuchs – This little book (less than 100 pages) is a series of short essays in which Rabbi Fuchs offers insights for modern readers on the ancient stories in Torah. While they are written primarily for beginners, they bring depth as well as simplicity to the project of learning Torah as an adult.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and look forward to requiring it for my Intro students during the Winter “Israel & Texts” sessions of the course. Rabbi Fuchs makes a case for a living, vibrant Torah that helps us to understand our lives today.

 

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What Will Sustain Us?

Jewish history is long and it is full of ups and downs. Our individual lifespans are very short. We can take both good news and bad too much to heart, not seeing the long view.

There is a story about a man who found a horse. His neighbors said, “Oh, what good luck!” but the wise man shrugged. His son rode the horse, and fell off and broke his leg. His neighbors said, “Oh, what bad luck!” but the wise man just shrugged. The army came through town, drafting all the young men, but they didn’t want the young man with the broken leg, and the neighbors said…. you get the point. What looks to be bad luck may be good, and what looks to be good luck may not be so great in the long run. Over the very long run, who knows?

Given that we cannot really tell what is good luck and what is bad luck much of the time, how can we make judgements?

Jewish tradition teaches us that what matters is how we conduct ourselves, no matter what the situation. Torah is often translated “Law” but what it really means is “Teaching.” Studying Torah is how we learn how to behave.

We need Torah when times are good because it is easy to fall into bad habits when times are easy. We need Torah when times are bad, because it is hard to be a good person when goodness is punished, and hard to behave rightly when people are hateful to us.

We are living in challenging times on many levels:

The State of Israel is facing decisions about its future: will it recognize all Jews, or only one interpretation of Judaism? How will it deal with women, and with religious minorities? How will it address the situation with the Palestinians? Will there be one State of Israel, or a Jewish state and a Palestinian state?

American Jews also face challenges. How will we behave when many Americans are hostile to minorities and immigrants? How will we behave under a government whose values are different from ours? How will we behave as Jews, towards other Jews who have different values?

In all these cases, Torah – not just the scroll itself, but the broader body of its learning and interpretation – Torah can sustain us as we navigate these challenges. The study of Torah is a great mitzvah, a sacred obligation, because it leads to all other mitzvot. (Kiddushin 40b)

As we say in the service for reading the Torah:

It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it. – Mishkan T’filah, p 374.

Torah Study Resource Online!

From time to time I like to let you know about Jewish study resources online, especially free resources. One of my favorites is:

Ten Minutes of Torah

is a regular offering published for years now by the Union for Reform Judaism. The writers are Reform rabbis, cantors, and educators. Each day of the week there is a different category of topics, and you can hear from many different Reform voices. North American Reform Judaism is a wide and diverse movement, so you will hear from more-traditional writers as well as those who are “very Reform” (whatever that is!)

Not only can you study the current weekly offerings, but the archive of past articles is full of great ideas.

Do any of you already use it? If so, what do you think? And for those of you who give it a try, I’d be very interested in hearing back sometime about it.

What online Torah Study resources do you use regularly?

Update on the Online Torah Study

I’ve heard from 15 of you that you are interested in studying together. The tricky bit is that we’re scattered all over the earth.

I have sent emails with possible class times to all those who replied. Check your email box – and if you left me a comment but haven’t got anything, please check your spam folder!

Pick the times that might work for you, and hit “reply” to let me know. Please don’t “reply to all” – I don’t want us to be a nuisance in each other’s in-boxes!

Shavua tov – have a good week!

Question for You: Torah Study?

Today I’m going to turn the tables a bit, and ask you a question.

I’m thinking about offering an online real-time Torah study group. Details, as they stand in my mind right now:

  • Weekly session
  • Venue: Google Hangouts or Adobe Connect, still pondering that one.
  • Topic: Weekly Torah Portion
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Level: Basic, no Hebrew required.
  • Cost: Suggested donation per session, via PayPal, but no requirement.
  • Starting date: With Parashat Bereshit, week beginning October 11.

Time is the tricky bit, since I am aware of readers in many different time zones. Also, other than a couple of Twitter followers who suggested this scheme, I have no idea whether anyone would actually be interested.

So here’s what I need from you, if you are interested:

  • Your time zone
  • Days and times that would work for you
  • Any comments or suggestions you have on the above.
  • Is there any other subject you’d like to study?

Please reply via Comments – I can get your email or your blog from that (never fear, your email will NOT show to the public and I will never let anyone else have it without your permission.)  I will contact you privately after a few days if it looks like this might actually work. Obviously, if you aren’t interested, no need to comment.

Curious to see how this goes.

The Blessing for Study

A lovely and traditional way to begin a study session is the blessing for the study of Torah:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה
אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך
הָעולָם

אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו
.וְצִוָּנוּ
לַעֲסק  בְּדִבְרֵי-תורָה

Ba-ruch a-tah A-doh-nai

Eh-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-O-lam

Ah-sher kid-e-shah-nu b’mitz-voh-tav

Vi-tsi-va-nu la’a-sok b’div-ray To-rah.

Blessed are You, Eternal One,

Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space:

Who sanctifies us with commandments

And commands us to engage in the words of Torah.

It is perfectly OK to say the blessing in English. Some of you may know slightly different English words. That’s all right. Many of the Hebrew words in the blessing have multiple choices for English translation. I used the ones that I like; please feel free to do the same for yourself!

“Torah” in this case refers to all sacred texts, whether they are from Tanach or rabbinic texts. It might apply to a modern text that we are reading with the intention of Torah study: for instance, a modern commentary or even a work of fiction or poetry.

I am always a little amused by the word “la’a-sok.”  The first time I heard it, it sounded like the English word “soak” and I pictured the study group, sitting in a hot tub, soaking in the words of Torah. The more Torah I study, the more apt that image seems: we marinate in the words of Torah.

“[God] sanctifies us with commandments” – what do those words mean to you? How can a person be made holy by a commandment?  How do they apply, in the case of this particular blessing?

The Joy of Study

Tonight a group of us observed a very old Jewish custom. A dear friend and student of mine is moving away, and I invited him to put together a list of people he’d like to study with one more time.  We gathered around the table with some good food and our books. Some had never studied Gemara before, and some of us were a bit rusty, but it didn’t matter.

We read a famous passage, Shabbat 31a from the Babylonian Talmud. (Click the link if you’d like to read it in English.) It’s a group of stories about Hillel and Shammai and three men who wanted to become Jewish.

What I loved most about this evening was that even though I have read that passage more times than I can count, our group found something new in it, several new ideas. (They were new to us, anyway.) That’s the beauty of studying together with others: while I might wonder about something, in the process of wondering together, we become more than the sum of our parts. We were at best an average bunch of Jews, but our study was extraordinary, because we studied together.

Some of us went back twenty years. Some of us met for the first time over this table. We are all old friends now, regardless. We’ve studied Torah together, and in the process uncovered bits of ourselves.

Here’s the recipe for an evening like this:

  1. Invite 2-10 people who enjoy learning.
  2. Have a few nice snacks, preferably finger food. Also coffee and tea.
  3. Agree ahead of time on the text you will study. Keep it smallish: remember you are going to read and ponder together. (Our guest of honor chose the text.)
  4. Have copies of the text so that every person has one. Unless all of you are fluent in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, use a translation, at least as an aid.
  5. Many Jewish texts are available online; if you meet somewhere that wifi is available, it can be done from laptops, tablets, or even smartphones.
  6. Once you are gathered, say the blessing for study.
  7. Read a bit at a time, out loud. Take turns reading. Pause wherever feels logical, or when someone wants to talk.
  8. Talk about what you see in the text. Be open to the possibility that not everyone will see the same thing (how boring would that be?)
  9. Then go back to reading, bit by bit, broken up by discussion, until either you reach the end or it’s time to stop.

Let me know how it goes.