Tractate Niddah (30b) of the Talmudrecords a folktale that I find comforting and infuriating: while we are in utero, an angel comes and teaches us the whole of the Torah. Then as soon as we are born, the angel slaps us on the mouth so that we will forget it all. The mark that is left is the philtrum, the vertical dent between the mouth and nose.
Thus when we study Torah, we are not learning for the first time; we are instead striving to remember the Torah that we already know. As a teacher, my task is to help my students remember.
I find that when I remember that, I am a much better teacher.
Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:
I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.
All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?
I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.
When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.
When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.
When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.
None of this requires metaphysics.
My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution. We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.
Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy. I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.
When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”
“Which Bible is best, Rabbi?” That’s usually how the question is phrased. Rather than talk about which is “best,” let me give you a quick lesson on which Bible is which, and you can decide for yourself.
The JEWISH BIBLE is different from the Christian Bible. The obvious difference is that there is no New Testament. Then if you compare tables of contents, you will also see that the two are arranged differently and that many Christian Bibles have more books, even after you take away the NT. Those books were included in an early translation of the Jewish Bible, but were not included when the Jewish Bible was finally set at 24 books in roughly the 2nd century of the common era.
For Jewish study and prayer, I strongly recommend a Jewish Bible. It will be easier to use with the group, if only because the books will be in the same order and have the same names. The Jewish Bible is often called the TANAKH. That is an acronym of the words Torah [Teaching], Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings], the three divisions of the Bible.
Unless you read Hebrew, you will read the Bible in TRANSLATION. The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew, with a few short passages in Aramaic. No translation is perfect; every translation reflects choices by the translator. If you want a really good idea of what the text says, you will have to learn Hebrew. Next best thing is to check a couple of different translations when you are wondering about translation. Here are some of the most common ones:
New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPS or NJV) – This is the translation you will encounter in most liberal (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) synagogues. It was begun in 1955 and completed in 1984.
The Living Torah (1981). A user-friendly but still scholarly translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an American Orthodox Rabbi. It is noted for its detailed index, footnotes, and cross-references.
Koren Jerusalem Bible – This is the first Israeli translation of the Bible into English. (It should not be confused with the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which is a completely different thing.) The Koren Bible is distinctive in that proper nouns, names and places are transliterated and not Anglicized.
Art Scroll Tanach – Mesorah Publishing issued the Art Scroll Tanach in 1993. The English translation is amended with explanations from Rashi and other commentators. It is a less literal but more traditional interpretation of the text.
There are also some notable modern translations of Torah (1st five books of the Bible) and a few more books:
Everett Fox – This is possibly the most literal translation of the words in the Torah. To stay close to the Hebrew, Fox sometimes mangles the English. It can be a useful aid but I would not want this to be the only copy of the Torah in my possession.
Robert Alter – Alter’s translation, like Fox’s, hews close to the Hebrew, but with a more poetic ear.
If I had to answer the question above with a single title, I would say, “the Hebrew Bible.” (Then we could argue about which manuscripts, but I know that’s not what you mean.) If you are looking for a good Jewish translation of the Bible, each of the titles above have its advantages and disadvantages. My advice is, get yourself a Bible, whichever one appeals to you, and then do your best to wear it out. The best Bible is the one you actually read.
A while back I wrote A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. A thoughtful reader of this blog commented over on twitter that I neglected to talk about the Hebrew name of children of interfaith marriages. Excellent question!
If you haven’t read the earlier piece, it explains that Hebrew names include a given name and the names of the people through whom one has a claim to Judaism. So for children of two Jewish parents, their name follows the pattern Firstname ben/bat JewishFather’sName v’ JewishMother’sName. For a convert to Judaism, their name is Firstname-of-their-choosing ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah. (If that doesn’t make sense, you might want to click on the link and take a look at the other article before reading further.)
I did an informal survey of Reform rabbis about this very question a few months ago.
Out of eight rabbis who replied, three said they included the name of the Gentile parent, transliterated to Hebrew. So Ruthie, whose parents are David (a Jew) and Susan (a Catholic) would have the Hebrew name Rut bat Da-veed v’Su-san. Or Joe, son of Steve (Hebrew name Shlomo) and Jane (a Methodist) would have the name Yosef ben Shlomo v’Jane.
The other five rabbis said, no, they only use the name of the Jewish parent, so the children above would be Rut bat Da-veed and Yosef ben Shlomo. Almost all rabbis mentioned that they would be very careful to mention both parents’ names in English at an event like a bar mitzvah or naming. This is a more traditional answer.
It’s a delicate subject, because names and family relationships are close to the heart. The latter approach is more in line with strict Jewish legal terms, but given that we are commanded to “Honor father and mother,” naming the non-Jewish parent also has its logic.
What do I think? I think that as a general rule, the traditional answer makes sense. I love my parents, but I did not receive the Torah from them; I receive it through the merit of Abraham and Sarah. My biological parents are not in my Hebrew name because it is my “ID” when I am called to the Torah, and it has to do with my credentials as a Jew, without any rejection or disrespect to them. However, in a case where the non-Jewish parent has been instrumental in raising a child as a Jew, I can see the logic of including their name. As with many things in Jewish life, there is a theoretical answer, but in real life I would make the call on a case by case basis.
When I watch the passing of the Torah at a bar or bat mitzvah,
I wonder: Who passes the Torah to me?
My father was Irish Catholic,
and my mother a Catholic who was once a Presbyterian.
My name is Ruth bat Avraham v’Sarah
But Abraham and Sarah died a long time ago.
I have no family stories about Passover.
Like Ruth, I’m here only because I wanted to be.
Who passes the Torah to me?
When I approached a rabbi about conversion
He gently suggested we study together
And passed the Torah to me.
When my first Hebrew teacher patiently
guided me right to left through the aleph-bet
She passed the Torah to me.
When I shivered in the water of the mikveh
and the cantor led me through the blessings
She passed the Torah to me.
When I talked for an hour with the Beit Din
When the Torah study class showed me how Jews study Bible
When the Talmud group welcomed me for discussions and stories
When an Israeli acquaintance corrected my Hebrew
When my study partner clapped a kippah on my head
They passed the Torah to me.
When a little girl showed me how to tear the challah
When a woman offered me my first taste of a Hillel sandwich
When the guy at the bakery said, “Shabbat Shalom!”
When a committee chair said to me, “Here, you can do this.”
When friends shared recipes and stories and customs
They passed the Torah to me.
If it takes a village to raise a child
It takes a congregation to raise a convert:
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.
My atheist friends give me a lot to ponder. One wrote passionately on facebook:
Media: Stop using the word miracle. It has a whole host of implications, and some of the ones from the last 24 hours of the news cycle are horrifying, and deeply offensive. Don’t use it. Just don’t.
I knew immediately what he meant: there’s a story in the news about three young women who were kidnapped ten years ago and finally managed to escape their captors. I agree with my friend, using “miracle” in this context is a minefield. We’re talking about three young women who appear to have suffered imprisonment and abuse for a decade – he’s right, the word “miracle” is just gross.
That thought led me to another: is the obsessive reportage of this story a problem when we look at it at through the lens of Torah? My answer to that is a swift, “You betcha.”
The story is all over the news right now, and because it is upsetting, people want to talk about it. The fact that it is upsetting and sensational is the reason it’s all over the news, too -Big News is in the business of selling advertising time, after all: this story is much more mezmerizing than drones or the economic crisis facing most Americans. It will sell more soap flakes, and more diet aids, and after all, that is the bottom line.
Torah demands of us that we ask questions: instead of nattering about miracles or obsessing over salacious details, let’s stop and think, what speech is necessary? And is there any way we can learn something or be helpful?
OK, it was necessary to report the story; we need to do know what the cops do, and what goes on in our community. I’m less clear that I need to know about something like this in Cleveland when I live in California, but OK, I’ll go that far. But do I need breathless prose about miracles and gory details from well-coiffed anchors? I don’t think so. Do those poor women need microphones poked in their faces? Do their families? No and no.
Jewish tradition forbids talking about other people unless it is necessary. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a wonderful book on the subject, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. MyJewishLearning.com has an article that gives you the short form of his teaching about lashon hara, [evil speech.] Especially if the words we use could spoil someone’s reputation, or even cause envy, they are not proper speech for a Jew even if they are true. Jewish law is stricter than American civil law on this subject: the truth of the words is immaterial, if they have any potential to cause injury, we shouldn’t say them.
There are words that ARE necessary, sometimes, even unpleasant words. We are commanded not to be passive when someone is being hurt (Lev. 19:16) so by all means, if you know of a crime or a possible crime, report it.
What speech is truly necessary, in the case of the news story? Certainly, if you’ve heard the story and it upsets you, find someone with whom to discuss your feelings. The details of those women’s suffering are not our business; they are the business of law enforcement and the courts. My fears, and my upset are my business. If I find I can’t leave this story alone, then I should talk it out with a rabbi, a therapist, or maybe a trusted friend.
It may be too, that with the story everywhere, it is necessary to talk to children about it. We need to reassure children that (1) this is very unusual and that (2)it is important not to go anywhere with strangers, etc. We also need to tell our children that we will value them no matter what, that they are infinitely precious, and that nothing will change that.
What can we learn? Perhaps we could learn to ask more questions when a situation in our neighborhood seems “a bit off.” I’m afraid that’s all I can think of, though: this isn’t a news story that will inform my vote, or cause me to write my congressman, or make me a wiser person.
Speculating about it or treating this event as if it is some kind of entertainment is a low form of gossip. Making theology out of it (miracles! redemption!) verges on blasphemy. I am not in charge of Corporate News, but I am in charge of my keyboard and my remote. Jewish tradition suggests that if there is something that needs to be said, I should say it; if there is something that needs to be done, I should do it, but that beyond that, it’s seriously time to turn off the news.
Shavuot (“Weeks”) is just around the corner, and although it is a major Jewish holiday, it’s one of the least known.
HISTORYShavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating the covenant at Sinai.
THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on May 14.
OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:
Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot (this year, May 14).
Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service. For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.