Tag Archives: Torah

Torah Study: The Trap of Literalism

Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, and today’s Torah portion is Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-30). It is the shortest parshah in the Torah at only 30 verses, and is part of Moses’ farewell to the Israelites as they all stand across the river Jordan from the Promised Land.

At this point, Moses has already been informed by the Eternal that he will not be going with his people to the Promised Land. He is 120 years old, and he is about to die. He is, at this point, trying to make sure that the people leave with the last wisdom he can give them.

In this parshah, the main messages seem to be “be strong and resolute” and “take these teachings with you and teach them to your children.” This generated a lot of discussion at our Torah Study meeting, but there’s just a few threads I want to braid together for you in this post. Mainly, those threads are leadership, adulthood, and interpretation. So let’s go, shall we?

One of my notes was on verse 31:27, where Moses says to the Israelites:

For I know your rebellious spirit and your stubbornness. Even while I am alive with you today, you are rebelling against the Eternal, and surely after my death!

My original note on this was, “Does Moses think that only his presence is what’s keeping the Israelites on the good path?” Then, during the discussion, I realized that of course he does. He’s already seen what happens when their leader leaves for a while – witness the episode of the golden calf, when he was only away for 40 days. This is not his first rodeo. He’s seen how the Israelites all go off in their own rebellious directions if they don’t have a strong, charismatic leader to keep them together and focused on the main point. They’ve had him leading them for the last 40 years, and there’s nobody really ready to replace him (oh, sure, Joshua’s going to try – but remember how well Joshua did with anyone challenging Moses’ authority back in the day; is he really going to do all that well as a leader when someone challenges his authority? We never find out, since this is essentially the last few chapters of the Torah).

Anyway. Moses is naturally more than a little worried, here. He knows his people well enough to know that without strong leadership, they’re likely to fracture into many squabbling tribes and not follow Torah, even with his dying exhortations to do exactly that. So let’s take this as the setting of this parshah: Moses, the anxious leader/father figure, worrying about the people who have been in his care and under his guidance for 40 years, and how they’re going to function once he’s not there to guide them any more.

During discussion, many people identified this as the same feeling as parents who are watching their nearly-adult teenager finally leave for college or marriage or the job that takes them out of the family home have at that moment. At this point I was reminded of the midrash I read about Adam and Eve and their departure from the Garden: Adam’s kind of like a trust fund baby. He doesn’t have to actually do any work. He just plays all the time. This is what we would call “childhood.” But Eve gets tired of this after a while, so she pulls a stunt that gets Adam’s dad angry enough to throw the kids out and make them earn their own way. They have to grow up – at least a little bit.

Now, here we are again, with Moses worrying about how these kids of his – not just his blood kin but his spiritual children as well – are ever going to make it out in the real world if he’s not there to make sure they’ll do things the right way. They have to grow up – and he won’t be there to guide them.

Up until now, the Hebrew people have pretty much had Moses to tell them what God wants. But he’s not going to be there when they get to the Promised Land. He’s already been informed: this buck stops here. So he’s trying to distill whatever wisdom he can send them off with before he dies, much like a parent helping their kid unload the car at the dorm room door tries to awkwardly say a few words of wisdom before their child flies away into a life where the nearly-adult child will no longer move in rhythm to the same backbeat as the one their parents and younger siblings hear like a heartbeat in the center of their home.

Moses is worried. He knows how his people do when they have a strong leader. He has no idea what they will do when that leader is irrevocably gone.

But he also knows that his departure is inevitable. He knows that they will have to function when he is gone. So he gives them caution – but he also gives them instruction. And that instruction is, essentially: It’s time for you to each develop your own interpretation of what the Law means. It’s time for you to grow up a little more. Now, instead of having me to tell you what the Law means, you’re going to have to start figuring it out for yourselves. It’s time to take the next step – out of childhood, where literalism and black-and-white thinking is normal, and into adulthood, where there are many possible interpretations and all of them can be right.

Rabbi mentioned that the commentary that we use in Torah Study left out an important word in its translation of verse 31:19. The commentary’s translation is, “Write down this song and teach it to the children of Israel.” But there’s a Hebrew word in there that didn’t make it into our commentary’s translation, and it changes the entire meaning of what Moses is saying. That word (which, sadly, I could not catch the Hebrew for during study), means “for yourselves,” and the correct translation is, “Write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel.”

Rabbi felt that this was important enough to also bring in some other texts. One of them is a comparison of the Torah to the Greek legend of the Odyssey. The author of that text, who lived in Nazi Germany and escaped, pointed out that the Odyssey leaves nothing to interpretation, while the Torah leaves almost everything to interpretation. The Torah is sparse, not detailed; it conveys truth, not representation. As a result, with the spaces between the words and the ambiguity of Hebrew, we are given – mainly – the bullet-point description of what happened. This leaves us with the need and the requirement to interpret the rest of it (hence midrashim). Rabbi felt that this need for interpretation is actually of Divine intent, not an accident, because things are always in a state of flux and new interpretations of the Torah will always be necessary for us to maneuver our way through daily life.

Judaism is largely a religion of interpretations, not of literalism. We have many sayings about the space between the words being important – in fact, all our midrashim are, in some sense, about the space between the words. That’s where interpretation happens.  Mozart said that “the music is in the rests,” or the quiet moments where no instruments are playing. The very characterization of this last piece of instruction (which we will see in next week’s parshah) as a poem or a song means it must be open to interpretation, or it has no real meaning.

When we demand the “one true meaning” of our scriptures, we totally miss the point. There are as many meanings as there are stars in the sky, and each one of them can be true. God is in the spaces in between.

Here’s the trap of literalism: the literal mindset that only allows for one interpretation and no other is the mindset of a ten-year-old child. Piaget called it the “concrete operational” stage. This is where the rules are the most important thing, and adherence to the rules is what matters. Some adults are still children under the surface, and still look for the rule set that will make everything simple and straightforward and understandable.

No such rule-set exists. This parshah, in part, is telling us: now that Moses is departing, it’s on us to interpret in order to begin to understand. It’s time for us to grow up. We’re not the children of Israel anymore – we are the people Israel, and it’s time for us to be adults about it.

 

 

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Elul 14 and Learning (How to write a d’var Torah)

BlogElul 2015

Today, I went to my first Torah Study as a Jew. And I want to talk about what I learned there. This is a modified version of a post that I put up on my converts community message board. You can call this entry “Learning how to write a d’var Torah.”

The Torah parshah for this past week was Ki Teitzei (כי תצא), which is Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19. Like most of Deuteronomy, this is a list of many, many rules. Some of these rules are worrisome – for example, in chapter 22, we get this little gem, about a man who falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin:

18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.

Sounds like rather rough times for her, right? But when we look at this another way, we can see that this is actually giving the woman protection in a patriarchal society, where women who were separated from their fathers’ homes and were not married rarely had protection from anyone, of any kind. This seems to be saying “he will provide for her all of his days; he may not put her aside and stop paying alimony.”

Much of this parshah is like that. On the surface, it seems rather harsh. When you dig down, you find that most often, the laws in this parshah are about protecting those who are most vulnerable; who cannot protect themselves.

The final verses of Ki Teitzei are about Amalek, who attacked the Israelites when they were escaping Egypt:

17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.

This is not the only time Amalek is mentioned in the Torah, but let’s just look at this time. We’re supposed to blot out his memory but not forget him at the same time. This seems contradictory.

However, when we take these final verses in the context of the entire parshah – about protecting the vulnerable – it becomes clear that Amalek stands as a representative of the yetzer ha-ra, or the evil inclination, that we all carry within us. Why is he a representative of yetzer ha-ra? Because he epitomizes the thing that this entire parshah is saying “don’t do” – he attacked the vulnerable in the group of Israelites, the women and children and ill and elderly who were in the rear of the train. Historically, it was considered extremely unethical to do that – you were expected to attack the warriors at the front of the train, not the vulnerable non-fighters at the back of the train.

So perhaps the final exhortation to blot out the memory of Amalek is to blot out the yetzer ha-ra that leads us to attack the vulnerable in too many ways: blog post comments, snide words, gossip, taking advantage of people simply because we can.

This is the lesson I’m taking forward into my week: be kind to those who are unable to defend themselves, regardless of the reason, and take no unfair advantage of them even if opportunity should present itself.

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In Praise of the Women of the Wall

I found myself singing along.

Yasher Koach to all these brave women and the men who stood in solidarity with them, and shame on the Haredi man who tried to stop them from praying and reading Torah.

A religion that does not change is a religion that will die out. The Haredim are just hastening the death of Orthodoxy with their behavior.

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Last post for the New Year – for now.

After the spiritual helicopter, I got myself back together just in time to notice that the Torah reading was going to be split up among several people – people chanting the Hebrew, and then people reading the English translation. I also noticed that there were different siddurim in the sanctuary than our usual weekly siddurim – older, and not nearly as much transliteration available. I stumbled through the Hebrew after the second person started chanting – much faster than I was ready for.

But the interesting thing is that the rabbi called for aliyah in a way that I don’t know if anyone expected. He said “if you have helped the hungry this past year, in any way at all – from working in a food bank or at a food kitchen to helping someone hungry eat in some other way, please rise.”

So I did, because I have. When I see a homeless person asking for money, I try to help them get at least enough food for a meal. It’s a thing I’ve always done. Then he had everyone standing – including me – chant the blessing on the Torah. In response to the rabbi’s call: Barchu et Adonai ham’vorach, we then all sang:

Baruch atah Adonai hamvorach le’olam va’ed. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim, v’natan lanu et Torato. Baruch atah Adonai, notein ha-Torah.

Then the chanter read the first part of the parshah – the story of Abraham and Isaac and the burnt offering that wasn’t – and then an English translator read it in English. And then those of us who had been called to aliyah were asked to stand again and chant the closing blessing on the Torah:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, asher natan lanu Torat emet, v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu. Baruch atah Adonai, notein ha-Torah.

Then we sat down.

The rabbi called four more groups to aliyah: those who had sat with the dying in the past year, those who were military or law enforcement, those who were doctors and healthcare workers, and those who were therapists and counselors. All of the groups got to say both the opening and closing blessings on the Torah.

The rabbinical student gave the sermon. It was a profound sermon, about how we are reminded that death is something we may have to deal with any moment, and how Jewish tradition makes us face death and the reality of our mortality on a regular basis. Then she followed up with how tzedakah, teshuvah and tefillah are what we should practice to make that knowledge less frightening. I complimented her afterwards – she’s going to make a great rabbi.

Then there were more prayers and songs, the Torah scrolls were carried around so we could all kiss our siddur or our tzitzit and then touch them to the Torah – that was profound – and then more prayers, the redressing of the Torah, the opening of the Ark (that part happened several times during the service, but this one was to put the scrolls away) and a closing song. I had been there for about an hour and twenty minutes because of misreading the time on my ticket, but I was glad to be there. I had several chats with people after, including the young choir member I’d met the night before.

On the whole, it was a good Rosh Hashanah at temple. I made a great dinner when I got home, too.

But the rough part of the High Holy Days is still to come. Yom Kippur is going to be a marathon; today was more like a gentle jog. I hope I am able to see it through the way I want to.

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Getting Jewish things…

14 Elul 5774

Sometimes you just want to exult about small milestones that seem huge to you.

Two days ago, my fiancé and I hit Michaels and bought crafty things. I am now in the process of painting a spice box for Havdalah purposes. I have also glued together bits and bobs of wood to make a Havdalah candle holder, which is drying overnight, which will also be painted. And I’m searching for a kiddush-appropriate wooden cup, and food-safe clear-coat, so I can make my own miniature self-made version of a Yair Emanuel Havdalah set. My father painted and created most of my family’s holiday things, so I am now following in his tradition.

It’s kind of neat. I’ll show pictures when I’m done.

I have plans for a hanukkiah, next.

And my hardbound copy of the Torah arrived yesterday.

I think that calls for a Shehecheyanu.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam,

Shehecheyanu, viki’imanu, vihig’ianu, lazman ha’zeh. 

I am very happy right now.

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Let’s Talk About Atheism.

I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable being a closeted Jew-ish (and newly religious) person. (I will use that word, “Jew-ish”, with the pronounced hyphen, to describe myself until such time as I get my mikveh dip.) Part of the discomfort is hearing all the arguments that I used to make against religion and theism generally, and Christianity in particular, being raised in current posts by atheist friends of mine on LJ and Facebook. And since many of them are poking at stories in the Tanakh (the “Old Testament,” for the non-Jewish readers in the blogging audience), they are also arguments against Judaism.

Although I used to be an atheist, I never stopped being a traditionalist. This might make me sound like I should be a political conservative, but it didn’t actually affect me that way. I am a liberal and I always will be, but tradition is important to me. Community is important to me. I’ve always looked at the American push for individualism and “go it alone” and “look out for Number One” with a bit of a fisheye. In many ways, the values of Judaism and the values of liberalism go right together. The concept of tikkun olam, “repair the world,” is inherently a liberal value, as are the ideals of community support and tradition.

While I don’t agree with his conclusions, I find Rabbi Yonason Goldson’s article “The Real Reason Why Jews are Liberals” makes some cogent points about this connection.

Judaism is an ideology devoted to the betterment of the human condition based upon values and goals that are fundamentally liberal.

Goldson also points out that liberalism and conservatism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are inextricably tied to one another. They inform one another. Conservatism that never allows change becomes stagnant and brittle, and cannot survive. Liberalism that has no basis in tradition or a shared value system goes off the rails and crashes. So, both are needed.

The problem is, both conservatives and liberals are fighting caricatures of their opposite poles. Conservatives think that liberalism has no values; liberalism finds many of the values of conservatism abhorrent or outdated. And yet when I look at liberal positions, the best and most enduring ones are rooted in already-established conservative traditions: community, treating each other compassionately, living up to our obligations to those who serve, including people in the traditions that create community (marriage, religious practice, creation of family, meaningful work).

So I think that the practice of Judaism at its best and most honest is an inherently liberal practice, based in a set of conservative values that changes slowly over time in response to changing cultural conditions.

I’ve never met a conservative atheist. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist; I’ve just never met one. But I think that most modern atheists tend to go right off the rails because they see no value in tradition and they’d like to sweep it all up and throw it into the dustbin of history, where they feel it belongs. This isn’t to say that atheists don’t hold important and moral values – they do – but they miss the point of tradition and history and often say it’s just not important. I disagree with them on this point, obviously.

But I can also understand why atheists demonize religion and theism. I did it myself, not so long ago, and it’s easy to do. Atheists tend to be surface readers. They look only at the letter of the laws and the literal descriptions of the histories, without knowing the spirit of the laws or the backstory/context of the histories. They also tend to ignore practice for belief or history, thinking that the entire religion must be judged only on its beliefs or histories, and ignoring what the members of that religion do in their day-to-day lives.

For example, I recently saw a meme here on WordPress that ranted about how Judaism implied that it allowed child sacrifice (not to mention blind obedience to G-d), and referenced the Abraham and Isaac story as a supporting point.

I’ve edited to add the actual story from Torah, for context. It is from the Torah parshah called Vayeira, which spans Genesis 18:1 to 22:24. This particular story is Genesis 22:1-19, and is known by most Jews as “The Binding of Isaac,” or the Akedah.

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. 2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. 3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? 8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. 9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. 12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, 16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: 17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

When you read only the words of the Torah on this story, it’s easy to get the idea that G-d was demanding blind obedience while also commanding the horrific act of child sacrifice. I know that this looks very problematic.

But there’s backstory there that you can’t get just from those verses. There’s context that changes the entire meaning of the story. The ancient Hebrews lived in a time and place where child sacrifice to deities was routine, so for Abraham, the initial command from G-d to take his son up on the mountain and sacrifice him was, if certainly devastating, not entirely unexpected. But in this story, G-d is actually providing Abraham (who had been Abram, a pagan, up until G-d called him to found the Jewish people) with a kind of logical proof: Yes, everyone else does this, but from now on the Hebrews will not. Yes, you were willing to when I commanded you to, and for that you are blessed, but as you see, I’m not that much of a jerk. You and your descendants will never know the loss of your children as meaningless sacrifices; their lives and deaths will have some greater meaning.

Now, many atheists will insist that that doesn’t matter and G-d should not have demanded this of Abraham in the first place – he could have just said “So, you know how the other people around here sacrifice their children? Don’t do that.” And that can certainly be argued. But what do people remember more? An object lesson, or a decree?

As a teacher, I’d say that people tend to remember the object lesson far more than the decree. Despite the decree in my syllabus that plagiarism results in an automatic zero on the assignment, I have had students every term who have plagiarized on their papers “because everyone else does it.” Yep, and when you get caught doing it, you get a zero on your paper. Of course these students come begging for another chance and I routinely deny them that chance. Do they remember, the next time they write a paper, that they cannot simply copy from websites? I’d bet they do.

Abraham lived in a culture where it was normative to sacrifice your kids when things got bad. Absent the object lesson, he might have dragged Isaac to an altar at another time when things got bad, unless G-d had put him in the position of being ordered to do it and then reprieved from it. He had to experience it to understand it. He had to gain experiential, not just theoretical, knowledge of it to really get what G-d was driving at, in the same way that some of my students have to gain experiential knowledge that cheating will result in a zero.

But those who read only the surface of the text never get that far. Most of the time, atheists are simply cherry-picking theist scriptures to find “zinger verses,” without understanding the background of those verses. This is something I wouldn’t put up with in my students, and I’m ashamed and appalled that I ever allowed myself to do it, either. Doing this is simply making a caricature of theism. It’s literal-mindedness taken to an extreme.

Are there a lot of very violent stories in the Torah? Yes. Why? Because the people of that time lived in a harsh world and a harsh culture, and let’s face it – they still had a lot of growing up to do. (And let’s not kid ourselves; if the human race should last so long, our two-millenia-hence descendants will look back on our histories of World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq with the same kind of horror that we look back on Jericho, Sodom, and so forth. We’re not as civilized as we like to pretend we are.) Judging the current religion and its practices based on its historical flaws is like judging someone who’s in their 40s for the dumb things they did when they were 15. Atheists who judge religion based only on the religion’s starting point are not being honest in their analysis.

But one of the best things about the Torah is that, given this harsh context, the people in it are not perfect paragons of virtue. They are dysfunctional. They are real people, dealing with real problems. Their stories express the truths of the human condition. Yes, Abraham could have just said to his people: “We don’t sacrifice our kids, even though the other tribes do.” Or he could have said, “I went up there to sacrifice my son Isaac, and G-d told me not to do it. Thus we know by G-d’s demonstration to me that we are not child-killers, and that he has better expectations for us than that when times get tough.” Most people tend to take the second version of the commandment more seriously than the first.

Or we could just lean on the atheistic caricature of what happened and say “G-d set him up for a harsh test of obedience because G-d was being a jerk.” Well, okay, if you want to believe that, you can – but that’s only the surface of what was going on here. It’s a caricature and it misses the deeper meaning. By making a caricature of theism, atheists are simply setting up a strawman. By only looking at the surface, they miss the deeper point. And certainly, that’s their right – but I do not have to listen to them or take it seriously.

It’s human to make caricatures of things we don’t like. I do it myself, and have done it recently. The person to whom I needed to apologize yesterday had become a caricature in my head, and that was unfair to them. I was judging them based on my own assumptions about them instead of discovering the truth (and I’ll be writing another post on why I feel that this was lashon hara on my part, later on). But part of the Torah is about us striving to be more than human – to look to our better nature and keep on enacting it, instead of giving in to our weaker side.

Knowing this makes it easier to contemplate coming out as a Jew-ish person on my Facebook page and my LiveJournal account. Knowing why some people reject theism based on the caricatures in their heads makes it easier to understand how and why some of my friends are going to reject me when I come out. But I also know that I’m going to lose friends when I do it, for the same reasons that I once rejected my religious friends. And I just hope that someday they will understand that it was a caricature that they were fighting, not the reality. It took me long enough; I am willing to give them time to come to the same conclusion.

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My first Torah study session

So I went to the Tikkun Leil Shavuot at my temple tonight. I found out when I got home that the loaner kippah I wore is WAY too big for my head – ack. But that’s vanity, and minor anyway.

The lessons were interesting. First, of course, we studied the giving of Torah – and the 10 “Commandments,” which (we counted) are more like 17 declarative statements and four promises, depending on whether you count each separate “covet” commandment as a new commandment, but anyway. That part of the lesson dealt with two things – what are the declarations? and what is this thing about Moses going back and forth between the people and G-d?

The first part I don’t think I need to go into detail about, partly because we weren’t allowed to take notes and my memory is not wonderful. The upshot here included a fable that the rabbi told about Moses having to justify why humans needed the Torah and angels did not. It was pretty good, actually. I wish I had a copy.

The second part had several interpretations: Moses needed to have power over the people to be an effective leader; G-d only wanted to deal with Moses; Moses was acting as a buffer/ambassador between G-d and the people much as the Americans were acting as diplomatic go-betweens at the Camp David talks between Egypt and Israel; but the one the rabbi presented us with was interesting. Here it is:

We only pray if we’re actually speaking – whether under our breath or not doesn’t matter. Our mouths have to move for it to be prayer. It has to be deliberate action. What we think is between ourselves and ourselves – our own stuff, in our own heads. It belongs to us and it doesn’t have consequences until and unless we act upon it. Essentially, by making Moses a go-between, G-d was saying “Yeah, you all know I could read your minds – but I won’t. You get the privacy of your own skulls and minds.”

I REALLY like that interpretation, and I said so. The way I was raised? G-d hears everything you think, too.

Another point of the lesson was – human beings are not perfect. We are not angels. And we are not expected to be angels. We are expected to do our best and be honest about it.

Then we got into an interesting Babylonian Talmud reading. I’m not sure how to name it (because I can’t find what I thought was the name of the tractate it’s from) but apparently it’s Shabbath 33b through 34a. This tractate is long, and I’ll come back to it in future posts I’m sure, but the upshot is: two rabbis, a father (who spoke against Rome) and a son, paid for it for 13 years of being in hiding from the Roman emperor, who had sentenced the father to death. Their being in hiding is a little weird, and I’ll talk about that in depth in another post after I’ve slept on this, but when they emerged, they were furious that the regular people were not doing what they had been doing for the last decade-plus: studying Torah. It took a while for them to be convinced that it was okay that not everyone was studying Torah in the depth that they had been (because they were in hiding – what else was there to do?). They were judgmental and self-righteous until they realized that they had judged unfairly – and it took a while.

Now the interesting thing here is that these were tied back to the original Torah study, which I guess is the point. Yes, study Torah – but yes, do the real work of life, too. One of the minyan present talked about a poster he’d seen in Israel which directly challenged the Orthodox haredi (who rarely have jobs outside of Torah study, apparently) that listed all the important rabbis and their worldly professions (vintner, doctor, cobbler, etc.), making the point that they were not just rabbis – they did their Torah study in their spare time.

After the study was over, I got to chat with E, one of the other gentlemen there, who is also converting. He encouraged me to come to daytime services when there were going to be a lot more people – and he cautioned me that when and if I do, to be sure to borrow one of the tallitot that the temple provides for people to wear during services, because that’s expected. He also said that he couldn’t find a non-Orthodox mikveh anywhere in this area, which makes me sad and stressed, but that he wasn’t in a hurry to take his dip, either. I am, but that’s me.

When I first got there, I introduced myself to the rabbi and the one other person who was there, and said “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m borrowing one of your kippot.” He said “Eh. Take it home, it’s fine.” So I did. And I felt conspicuous and completely right at the same time.

I like this temple. I hope that the rabbi and I click as well as we seem to have, tonight, when I talk to him on Tuesday.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Judaism

My Jewish Reading List: Books I’ve Read So Far, and Questions I Want To Ask

I’ve seen other Jews-by-choice make lists of the books they’ve read or are reading as part of their conversion process, and it occurs to me that it’d be a good idea if I had a booklist ready when I met with the rabbi next week – especially since there’s a very good chance I’ll actually meet him tonight at Shavuot services. So, here’s what I’ve read so far.

  1. Jewish Literacy, by Joseph Telushkin
  2. What is a Jew?, by Morris Kertzer and Lawrence Hoffman
  3. Becoming Jewish (A Handbook for Conversion), by Ronald H. Isaacs
  4. Why Be Jewish?, by David J. Wolpe
  5. The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
  6. To Life! by Harold S. Kushner
  7. Living a Jewish Life, by Anita Diamant
  8. The Everything Judaism Book, by Richard Bank (this is not an especially good reference, in my opinion, for converts)
  9. Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends, by Anita Diamant (this is an excellent book for converts!)
  10. Read Hebrew in Just 90 Minutes, by Chaim Conway (still working my way through this one)

Other books that are not about Judaism and conversion specifically, but which have informed my understanding of Jewish life and practices because they have characters or important people who are either ethnically or religiously Jewish (or both), include:

  1. The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank
  2. In The Presence of Mine Enemies, by Harry Turtledove
  3. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, by Joanne Greenberg
  4. Just about any kids’ book by Judy Blume
  5. Any book that has a Jewish character in it

Other things that have informed my understanding of Judaism and conversion include several really excellent blogs on the topic, including Coffee Shop Rabbi and Chicago Carless.

There are other sources, mainly people, that have informed this journey as well.

I also know that if I’m going to meet with the rabbi, I should have some questions ready for him. So here’s a few that I’ve got lined up so far:

  1. What do you feel are the main requirements for a person to be a sincere convert to Judaism?
  2. What is your philosophy about converts and conversion?
  3. What is your understanding of tikkun olam?
  4. I will be in an interfaith, gay relationship. Does this pose problems for you, either personally or professionally, with taking me on as a conversion candidate?

Because, you know, I’m not asking any really risky questions or anything, right?

 

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Filed under Conversion Process, GLBT, Identities, Judaism

It’s Erev Shavuot – Chag Sameach!

5 Sivan 5774

(Literally, “Good Festival” in Hebrew – and according to JewFaq.org, it’s one of the three times during the year when it’s most appropriate to say that – Pesach and Sukkot being the other two.)

I’m done with my grading for the spring classes (thanks to some help) and today I file grades, and I’ll be done with that mishegaas finally. From now on I just have to keep up with the online intersession class. This also means I can start writing again; something I’ve been putting off due to the whirlwind of classes and students.

I’ve heard back from the rabbi and we’ve finalized a date for a first meeting – next Tuesday, June 10th (12 Sivan). I’m excited and nervous, and making lists of the books I’ve read and trying to come up with good questions to ask. Anyone have suggestions?

My partner linked something on my Facebook wall about Shavuot this morning, and wished me a happy Shavuot when he got to work and sent me his usual “I made it, I’m safe, love you, have a good day” text. My best friend was over yesterday and she brought me a Mogen David to wear until we make it to the Fairfax district on Friday morning, as well as giving me a gorgeous set of tallit clips that, she says, “ought to be used.” (Yes, I am verklempt.)

Tonight I’m going to be at temple, studying Torah until I get tired, and then I’ll come home and sleep the sleep of the exhausted. But in between now and then, I’m going to make at least one loaf of my grain-free challah so I can take it with me to the study session at temple (because I should provide the noshes I can eat instead of expecting anyone else to, that’s why), and plan out cooking for tomorrow and Thursday. My partner, unfortunately, works the swing shift both days so he won’t be home to have dinner, but there will be leftovers.

Apart from food, I want to talk a little bit about what this day means to me as a Jew-by-choice. Shavuot is one of those smaller holidays, from what I’ve read, and many secular Jews who still celebrate Pesach and Yom Kippur don’t observe it. I think that’s a little sad, considering it’s the day we observe the Jewish people’s receipt of the Torah. But it’s also a harvest festival – the bringing of the first fruits – and a celebration of what Jews do best: study and learn.

There are reasons that children are often introduced to Torah study on Shavuot, and why (from what I understand) graduation from Hebrew school and confirmation ceremonies happen on or near Shavuot. So it’s not just a celebration of the harvest or the day that Jews became the Chosen People. It’s also a celebration of the ongoing need to study and learn. Although there are no specific mitzvot associated with Shavuot, I think an argument could be made that the mitzvot associated with Torah study are central to it.

As an academic, I think that Shavuot may hold a special place in my heart as I develop as a Jew. In a month or so I’ll celebrate the second anniversary of my dissertation defense, and that’s a big deal to me. I teach and learn for a living as a college professor (adjunct or not, I’m still a professor). Shavuot, for me, may become the day that I reaffirm my commitment not just to the Torah and to the Jewish people (although that’s a big part of it) but to studying, teaching, and learning as my life-work.

So have a blintz and pick up your Torah, and chag sameach to you all.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Jewish Practices

“Art thou jealous for my sake?” and Offense Kleptomania

When I put up my “Trolling for Topics” post a day or so ago, Rabbi Adar asked me to write about what part of the Torah is speaking to me right now. After some thought (and some searching through the Torah), I find in Numbers 11:27 – 11:29 this passage:

11:27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

11:28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses from his youth up, answered and said: “My lord Moses, shut them in.”

11:29 And Moses said unto him: “Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”

I find this three-verse section of Parshah Beha’alotkha to be meaningful on several different levels.

First: we have an unnamed tattletale, running to tell Moses: “Hey, these guys Eldad and Medad are usurping your authority as the prophet of our people!” Second, we have Joshua the son of Nun taking this kid at his word and saying to Moses: “Yeah, you should shut them up and make them stop. Who do they think they are?”

And then we have Moses looking at Joshua like he’s grown a second head (work with me here, I’m envisioning this scene) and saying: “What, I should stop them from doing something that indicates they have G-d’s favor?”

I would think for most people, that’s the point of this passage: Moses saying “Hey, I wish all the people were prophets.” He’s pointing out that in this very rule-bound culture, this rule that the tattletale and Joshua think is being broken isn’t a rule that actually exists (much to the tattletale’s and Joshua’s chagrin, I’m sure). I can also envision him wishing that all the people being prophets were the case, if only to take some of the workload and distribute it around a bit.

But there’s one little line that I’m not sure many people notice, and that’s this one:

“Art thou jealous for my sake?”

Let’s look just at this part of this passage. Joshua’s concern seems to be “They’re usurping your place, Moses.” But by saying that, HE is usurping Moses’ place in an entirely different way, by being personally offended that anyone would dare do something that he would find offensive if he were Moses (or so Joshua apparently believes). He’s basically being offended for Moses, and by extension telling Moses “this is something you should be offended about,” instead of allowing Moses to decide whether or not he wants to be or needs to be offended about this. And Moses, bless him, calls him on it. “What, you think I can’t handle this? You think I need you to be angry on my behalf? You think I’m not capable of figuring out whether or not I need to be offended about this? You think I need you to speak for me?”

This very small part of this Torah passage speaks to me because I am, among many things, a social activist. In the not so far-off past, I have been known to do something which I have since labeled “offense kleptomania:” I find out that [insert minority that I’m not part of] has [trouble that I think I have the answer to], and I get outraged.

The problem is, many times, offense kleptomaniacs then get up on their soapboxes and start telling the people who are actually experiencing the trouble what they should do about it. Or, they claim to speak for the people who are experiencing the trouble, instead of allowing those folks to speak for themselves. In essence, offense kleptomaniacs try to take away both the autonomy and the voice of the people who are actually experiencing the problem – and many times do not even realize that that’s what they’re doing.

Now, being outraged by a trouble that someone who isn’t part of my group is suffering? That’s fine. That’s empathy. I would hope that non-Jews find the Holocaust just as horrifying as Jews do. I would hope that whites look at the situation that blacks often live in, in the ghettos, and are outraged by it. But the moment I move from being outraged about it to telling that person what to do about it, or speaking on their behalf without letting them speak for themselves? That’s over the line. That’s making an ass of myself. That’s offense kleptomania.

Now, offense kleptomaniacs often claim that they’re being allies with the oppressed or troubled person or group. It sounds great on the surface, but it doesn’t work so well when you look at it from the oppressed person’s point of view. There’s a difference between being an ally and being an overbearing git. One great example of this is what’s called “mansplaining,” when a man tells a woman (or a group of women) what they’re doing wrong and how they should change it in order to make the problem of sexism or misogyny go away, instead of hearing what the women are saying about the problem (and his role in it). I am thinking of the current #YesAllWomen firestorm that’s going on right now. As an ally, I can and should talk to other men, and tell them to quit derailing the conversation or redirecting it back to their own hurt feelings – to quit mansplaining. That’s me, as a member of the oppressing group, actively pushing away the ability to oppress and calling out anyone else who’s doing it. But as an ally, I do not get to tell women what they have to do, or how they have to do it, or why they have to do it. That’s not my place. It is not okay for me to be an offense kleptomaniac and say “Hey, when men treat women badly, that really offends me just like if I was a woman, so women, do this and this and that to fix it! Also, I’ll be a spokesman for women so that they don’t have to trouble their pretty little heads about it!” (I call this White Knight syndrome.)

Um, no. As a man, I do not have the right to be offended in this way. Women do. I can and should be offended that men make women anxious, nervous, scared, and uncomfortable, and I can and should call men out on it whenever they try to derail the conversation or mansplain. But the moment I say that women shouldn’t be afraid of ME because I’m not like that, or that it’s bigoted for them to assume a man does not have their best interests at heart? The moment I say that I’ll rescue women from this and solve all their problems for them? I’ve crossed the line. If I tell women to dress or act any differently, I’ve crossed the line. I’m being an offense kleptomaniac and usurping their right to be empowered decision-makers that have control over their own lives.

Another example of offense kleptomania are all these people who are not autistic (and often have no autistic people in their lives) who want to “raise autism awareness” and “find a cure.” If you talk to most adult autistics, we don’t want a cure. We just want to be supported so that we can live as normal a life as possible. But do you see any adult autistics on the board of any of these “Autism Crisis” groups? Not bloody likely. That’s why one of my mottoes is that Autism Speaks does not speak for me – even though they keep trying to speak over me, and keep trying to silence me and other neurodiversity advocates. They’re offense kleptomaniacs, plain and simple. They didn’t just cross the line; they left it way, way behind them and they probably don’t even know it’s there.

Joshua, too, crossed the line. Joshua was an offense kleptomaniac in this passage. You see, Joshua had no right to be jealous (offended) that Moses’ authority was supposedly being usurped by these two guys prophesying. Notice, too, that Joshua answered our unnamed tattletale for Moses, instead of letting Moses speak for himself, by demanding that Moses “do something” about the perceived problem. That was Moses’ decision, not Joshua’s, and Moses called him on it.

Now, we don’t get to know what Joshua’s reaction was to being called on it, but I do wonder. Did he try to mansplain to Moses why Joshua had every right to demand that Moses do something about this perceived problem? Did he listen and say “Okay, I’m sorry, I was over the line?” We don’t know. From his reaction, though, it sure looks like Joshua was offended because the authority figure he respected was being challenged, and he wasn’t good with that.

Notice, too, that Joshua made a mountain out of a molehill here. Instead of taking Moses’ big-picture view – wouldn’t it be great if G-d spoke directly to ALL the people? – he took a narrow view: A rule is being broken and that’s not okay (even though, as it turns out, there was no rule being broken). G-d calls us to look beyond our narrow view every time he commands us to welcome the stranger, doesn’t he? The narrow view is not Jewish. It’s human, certainly, but we’re expected to rise above that.

So in this short passage, G-d is calling on us to do several things:

1. You can be offended because something offensive is happening, but you cannot insert yourself into a situation where you have no place. Joshua did that (as did our unnamed tattletale) and Moses, fortunately, called them out on it and said “Not cool, guys.”

2. You can be offended because something offensive is happening, but unless you’re actually the target of the offensive thing, you may not speak for those who actually are offended. You may not take away their voice or their autonomy.

3. Take the broader view. Is this actually offensive, or are you making it bigger than it needs to be? What’s more important – rules, or human beings? Social standards, or people? Take a breath, chill out, and consider before you fly off the handle and make things worse.

Yeah. That’s what I have to say about that.

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Filed under Drashot, Judaism