A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to staff a table at the Chicago Jewish Festival. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with a wide spectrum of people from the Chicagoland Jewish community. During the course of the day, a member of a missionary Christian organization came to my table to proselytize. Putting aside for this blog post the assumptions that motivate a person behind the act of proselytizing, I found fascinating his use of quotes from Tanakh to justify his theological position. It was not the first time I’ve encountered his approach but for whatever reason it struck me that day.
If there was one way to describe his approach I would call it flat. In the traditional Jewish approach to reading the Bible, the text becomes alive with generations and generations of commentary and layers of understanding. If one would map out a Jewish approach to reading Tanakh as a topographical map, it would contain mountains and hills, valleys and plains. In the contrary approach, as exemplified by that missionary, the text is read without context, without commentary and without depth. The words are understood simply through the bias and lens of the contemporary reader. In interacting with this missionary, and with others like him, it is as if we are operating with two different sets of language and do not share a common vocabulary and reference points to have a meaningful conversation.
However, are there times when it is called for to read the Tanakh absent commentary and rabbinic depth? Even as Jews who inhabit a Biblical world of mountains and hills, are there moments when we can gain from seeing the text as flat?
An example of the power of reading the text flattened: The Hebrew Bible mentions multiple times the need to uphold the rights of the immigrant in your midst (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 24:17, Ezekiel 47:21-23 as just a few examples). It is one of the most dominant themes throughout the entire text. Yet, we know that the rabbis understood this oft-repeated injunction to refer to the legally defined, ger toshav—resident alien, a much more limited category with many specifications and requirements than the broad category of immigrant. Does the flat reading of those many verses in the Tanakh still contain an ethic of how we treat the vulnerable in our society?
I believe they do. There is a power to the text even separated from the traditional Jewish exegetical approach to understanding it. When we conceive of the study of the Talmud we classically divide Talmudic literature into two broad categories: halakha (law) and aggada (homiletics or “everything else”). The aggada is no less valuable than the halakha even if one can not derive specific practical steps from it. The aggada frames the way we view the world and how we conduct our moral selves. Similarly, there are times when reading Tanakh flatly, without the richness of commentary, can inform our moral and ethical selves and help us frame the society we live in. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote in his work, The Nineteen Letters:
“… we must first acquaint ourselves with Judaism through the source which it, itself, offers, the only documentation and evidence about itself that it has salvaged from the wreck of all its other fortunes: the Torah. And through the Torah we must attain, also, an understanding of Israel’s destiny. For is not Judaism an historical phenomenon, and is not the Torah the only account of its origin, of its first appearance on the stage of history and of its existence for a considerable length of time thereafter? … Before we open it, however, let us consider how to read it. As a subject for philological or antiquarian research? … As Jews we will read this book, as a book tendered to us by God in order that we learn from it about ourselves, what we are and what we should be during our earthly existence. We will read it as Torah— literally, ‘instruction’ —directing and guiding us within God’s world and among humanity, making our inner self come alive.”
This I believe is the value of approaching the Hebrew Bible and reading it on its own terms. There are limits to that endeavor, as that missionary at the Chicago Jewish Festival demonstrated, but just because there are limits does not mean it is not a worthwhile practice.
One of the conversations that I had early in rabbinic school about how we connect to the wisdom of Torah has always stayed with me. While still in London, at Leo Baeck College, Professor Lisa Grant, Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, New York, visited for a week and opened the doorway to a deeper kind of engagement with Torah for me. Perhaps it was because, at that early stage of rabbinic studies, we were deeply engrossed in trying to understand what the text actually said, or perhaps it was because we were immersed in the early history of our people at that time. But that kind of intellectual and academic immersion, while important, had distanced me from what, for me, were the more significant questions – how does the Torah of our texts connect to our lives today?
Dr. Grant asked us to be mindful of two different ways to make those connections. Both were legitimate, but our choice of which strategy to employ in different learning settings could make a huge difference in how we helped others connect to the wisdom of our tradition. “Do we start with life, and then seek to connect those life experiences to Torah, or do we start with the text of the Torah, and then seek to connect that text to something in life?” she asked. Over and over again, when seeking to make Judaism come alive for those to whom the text of Torah is too foreign and, perhaps, too frightening a place to start, I’ve found the way in through the Torah of our lives.
When I sit down with a bar or bat mitzvah student to begin to study their Torah portion with them, I always emphasize the importance of teaching both kinds of Torah to the congregation. That’s what we’ve always done – even when we read hard-to-penetrate ancient midrashim, we find Rabbis of old who were seeking to share observations about human nature, or the kind of world they lived in, and connect these observations back to Torah. Revelation continues to unfold, over and over again, when we are able to make those connections come alive today. And so, with those students, I usually begin by trying to get to know them a little better – to find out what they are passionate about, what activities they do, what issues they care about or organizations they have volunteered with so that, when we open the Torah commentary and start to read, we can do so with an eye out for those connections to the life of the student.
What does life to Torah look like? Looking back on your life so far, can you think of a conversation that you had with someone, or someone who opened the door to a new experience for you that sent you in a whole new direction? Or, looking back, you recognize that there was a time in your life when you were heading one way and, just because of a particular interaction – maybe a ‘chance’ encounter – you now recognize that there was a moment when you changed track to be on the path you find yourself now? I can think of many such moments in my life: the friend who encouraged me to go to my first Reform Jewish student event; the woman who introduced me to the music of Debbie Friedman; the room mate who asked me the right questions in the right way that, eventually, enabled me to come out as a lesbian, first to myself and then to others…
In the Torah, these kinds of experiences are moments of angelic encounter: the man that Hagar meets in the desert who, when she tells what she is running from but does not know where she is running to, tells her what direction she must go in next; the man that Joseph encounters in the field when he’s seeking his brothers, who points him to where he can now find his brothers, without whom the rest of his story with all its ups and downs might never have unfolded; the man who wrestles all night with Jacob, helping him to come to terms with his past and accept a new sense of identity… these are all understood to be “angels” in rabbinic tradition.
Why does it make a difference to teach and share about these connections between life and text? There are many answers to that question. For me, connecting to an ancient wisdom text that is part of my faith heritage has the power to enrich the meaning of the everyday events of my life. It also gives me a language with which to acknowledge the innate holiness of what otherwise might be dismissed as ordinary. We can simply speak of important influences in our lives, life-altering moments, and changes that we made. Or we can speak of “angelic encounters” – labeling the energy that was present in a particular encounter or experience as powerfully connected to the path of our life experience. I know that, for me, I’m more likely to feel and notice the spiritual power of those experiences if I have language to label them as something special and noteworthy. I am more likely to recognize that there is Torah in the ordinary, everyday of my life.
This is but one example of how, beginning by noticing the Torah of our lives we can find ourselves in the human drama played out in the Torah of our texts. There are so many more. When we can bring these two Torahs together, we see the power of Jewish wisdom to help us navigate and make meaning of our lives.
Have you filled out your bracket yet? Yes, “Madness” is in the air as the most exciting two weeks of sports in America are about to begin: the NCAA Men’s (and Women’s) College Basketball Tournament. Roughly 50 million Americans (myself included) will take time out of our busy schedules to plot out 63 different matchups and enter our picks into office pools or online competitions. We will spend countless hours sneaking peaks at TVs or mobile broadcasts of the games during work and neglecting our kids at home for hours at a time on the weekends, leading to the inevitable stories about how many billions of dollars in productivity our economy has squandered. But why do we care so much about a bunch of college basketball games?
For starters, there is the chance of work-place glory and even some petty cash for winning one’s office pool. The self-proclaimed “experts” among us will analyze conference records, strength-of-schedule comparisons, and other analytical metrics, agonizing over each pick until we are convinced we have the perfect bracket. We will check our results daily, arguing at the water cooler over why our upset picks should have won. And then we will lose our office pool to the person who picks teams based on who has the cutest mascot! For those who yearn for more than just office bragging rights this year, Warren Buffett has upped the cash ante by offering $1 billion to anyone who can correctly pick all 63 games (spoiler alert: the odds are roughly 1 in 9 quintillion that you will do so, so don’t start spending that billion just yet).
For many others, the thrill of the NCAA Tournament is less about filling out brackets than about a celebration of all that is good about sports. While professional sports are filled with doping scandals and selfish athletes who play more for their next contract than the welfare of their teams, college basketball is different. As one blogger recently put it, “March Madness is the culmination of hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears. It is a group of unpaid athletes brimming with school pride and playing with emotional intensity that only comes with playing on the national stage.”
There is a sense of meritocracy in the Tournament; of hard work, effort, and sacrifice for the greater good being rewarded with team wins, since the best teams in college basketball are not necessarily those with the best individual players. The passion of the players and coaches in the Tournament is palpable, from the shouts of joy to the tears streaming down players’ faces as they realize that their year, and for some their career, is over. This passion somehow works its way through the television and into our own hearts as we cheer on our favorite teams or shriek with delight as this year’s Cinderella teams make buzzer-beating shots. I challenge you to watch the famous CBS video montage, “one shining moment,” at the end of the Tournament and not feel your heart race!
But I think there is a deeper reason why so many millions get engrossed in the NCAA Tournament. It offers us a bonanza of something we rarely get to experience: unpredictable and exciting results. So much of our lives today are on auto-pilot. We have our work routines, our home routines, our usual Starbucks stops, etc., that we thirst for what is new or novel. The randomness and unpredictability of the Tournament provide this in abundance. In the homogenized, gentrified world in which so many of us live, the Tournament’s inherent uncertainty offers us something we rarely find, especially in real-time.
The sad truth is that this is what Judaism is supposed to offer us. Our rituals and our religious calendar are supposed to give us breaks from our quotidian existences. Shabbat and other holidays are supposed to provide respites from, and a reorientation of, our normal work-weeks. Praying during the day, whether in formal services or extemporaneous prayers, take us out of our automated consciences and give us the opportunity to access the sublime. Unfortunately, we, as Jewish leaders, are failing in our efforts to transmit this crucial experiential legacy. We are not providing the kind of targum (translation) of how our texts and rituals have the potential to be transformative, to shake us from complacency and satisfy our desire for authenticity and creativity.
March Madness reminds us that we all need experiences that feel genuine, organic, and even miraculous. We crave these breaks from our ordinary lives, these chances to feel truly alive. The NCAA Tournament offers this to us for two weeks each year. The challenge for Jewish professionals is to find ways to transmit our heritage, our culture, our Torah in the same way. We have the potential for 52 weeks of Madness; it us up to us to deliver.
p.s. Florida is looking tough to beat this year, and don’t forget to pick at least one 12 seed to upset a 5 seed!
In this week’s Torah portion, God explains that God has called not only Betzalel and Oholiav to execute their craft on all the holy items that need to be built, but that “in the heart of all who are wise-hearted, I put wisdom so that they will make all that I have commanded.” (Shemot 31:6)
Many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes humans from animals: some have postulated it is our “higher emotions,” but it turns out animals have those (and people have recognized that for a long time); some have suggested it is our intellect – but if that is so, then it is intellect of degree, not kind, for animals are able to solve problems in all kinds of ways. Some have suggested it is language – but it turns out that many animals are able to use not only vocabulary, but syntax, and some even have names for one another. Some say it is morals – but clearly anyone who has ever had a dog knows that an animal knows when it has done wrong.
What I have never heard of an animal doing is expressing the drive to create – to create beauty through art, or to have a craft and make the utilitarian things we need beautiful.
The Torah calls certain individuals chochmat-halev “wise-hearted.” But all human beings have a certain measure of this drive. We all yearn for beauty, and many yearn to create things of beauty. What makes some individuals “wise-hearted?” Instead of simply enjoying the beauty, or perhaps relegated their yearnings to small gestures, they turn their lives into their craft, dedicating time to learning the skills it takes to create not just the occasional beautiful object – and then they send it out into the world, to be regarded by others, to be judged, and to be used.
And when we do this, when we choose a skill and hone it, turning it towards creation, we are b’tzelem elohim, acting in God’s image. For what was God’s creation if not a gesture of art? For a human, art is limited. If we are especially skilled, and work hard, and lucky, too, then perhaps our works will live on after us, at least for a time.
For God, creation is both temporary and permanent – in medieval times some in Arab lands there was a Muslim philosophy that the world was created and destroyed and created anew at every moment. And in the God’s-eye sense, that is true: the sunset that we saw tonight will never be seen again, the child grows to adulthood, species come into being and go extinct. And yet, the universe endures. In its beauty, for a time, God has our regard, and when we are wise-hearted, perhaps for a flicker of God’s eye, we have God’s.
Unless we’re talking about jury duty, it’s generally nice to be noticed as unique and special; to be chosen. Except when it’s not. “God, I know we’re the ‘chosen people,’” Tevye said, “But can’t you choose someone else once in a while?” The question of being chosen, what academics call “the election of Israel,” is central on my mind lately. On the one-hand, I believe in the unique call of the Jews as Jews, and yet, I believe in the universality of Jewish wisdom as a gift for all. There is a tension here. If Jewish wisdom is such a gift for mindful and meaningful living, is it not for everyone? But, if the Torah’s wisdom is for everyone, what makes it “Jewish”?
On the selective side are famous passages such as this one from the 12th Century:
God gave Israel two Torahs – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God gave them the Written Torah which includes 613 Commandments in order to fill them with good deeds and virtues. God gave them the Oral Torah to differentiate them from all other nations. Therefore it was not given in written form so the other nations will not be able to forge it and claim that they are the (also) Israel. - Bamidbar Rabbah, section 14.
And while we are unique, “chosen,” or better and more accurately, we “choose” to live in the values and rituals of Judaism, the enterprise of Judaism cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Heschel quotes Spanish Inquisition era Rabbi Joseph Yaabez, “If the non-Jews of a certain town are moral, the Jews born there will be so as well.”
The above tension between particularism and universalism is everywhere in Judaism. Every service, three times a day, we conclude with the two-paragraph Aleinu prayer. The first paragraph thanks God for the distinction of being Jewish, “God made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.” The second paragraph puts forth a universalist hope, that our God and the timeless truths of our tradition would someday be embraced by everyone, “Reign over all, soon and for all time… On that day the Lord shall be One and God’s name One.”
Rabbi A.J. Heschel says, “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations…No religion is an island. We are involved with one another…Today, religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral, and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.” – No Religion is an Island.
The Jewish stance of the past, even the not so distant past, was rightfully suspicious of deep connections to the outside. It was dangerous to become overly involved with the outside world. Today, that same isolationism which perhaps served us has the real potential of suffocating us. To live in a disconnected way in a world that is deeply connected, deeply transparent, is to deny reality. The times have changed, and we can change with it without a threat to the essential fabric of what it means to be Jewish.
I feel compelled to share the Torah I have come to love with Jews and non-Jews alike. It is my firm belief that the wisdom of Judaism can strengthen the lives of the Jews I live and work with. I also believe that the self-same wisdom is helpful for the non-Jews in my life. I readily share it without expectation that Jews will all keep kosher or keep the lesser known rite of not mixing linen and wool. Nor do I expect that non-Jews with whom I share Torah will magically become Jews. Preposterous. Instead, I expect that they come to understand my Jewish perspective, and see the value therein. Who is my Torah for? Ultimately, it is for me, but I like it so much I can’t help but try to share it.
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Every night, for years, when I put my son to bed, I enjoy the ritual (which I know will probably not last much longer) of lying down next to him and reading, and then, at lights out, I say, “Do you know how much I love you?” and he says ( these days, somewhat groaningly), “Yes….”
“How much do I love you?”
“More than the entire universe.”
But a few weeks ago, after the usual exchange, he asked me, “What if you had to choose between the whole universe and me?”
I have to admit, I didn’t really know what to say. He answered his own question, though: he continued, “you would have to choose the universe, because I can’t exist without the whole universe.”
I was reminded of this exchange recently when a colleague posted a question about how to explain the Akedah to a child. How do explain that we have a story in which God asks a father to sacrifice his child, and the father does so? A child that our story claims is beloved by the father?
It is unsatisfactory (and not true to the text) to say that Abraham actually failed the test. But what we can ask is what my child asked me, “What if you had to choose between the universe and me?” and realize that perhaps there is no answer, because without the universe, there is no saving even a remnant of it, and maybe that’s what the metaphor of the story is.
Imagine the uproar that would happen if a rabbi said that he or she composed a new Torah. The rabbi would face criticism across the board.
Recently one of our Rabbis Without Borders, Rabbi Zach Fredman shared a new “Torah” called The Maqam Project with some rabbis on a listserv. The negative reactions came swiftly. Not knowing that a “maqam” is a is an Arabic musical scale, similar to a jazz mode, which repeats a musical theme while allowing for and encouraging improvisation and has been used for centuries by Syrian Jews as a means of interpreting Torah, the rabbis on the listsev reviled Rabbi Fredman’s supposed “Torah.” Some ungraciously asked who was this guy? Was he even a rabbi?
Imagine their surprise when it turned out that Rabbi Fredman is reviving an ancient Judeo- Arabic tradition of Torah study. What he is doing may be new to us, but is actually quite old. Each weekly Torah potion has a melody that goes with its story line. Rabbi Fredman studied these melodies and then teamed up with another rabbi, James Stone Goodman, to create an interplay of poetry and music which explains the main themes in the weekly Torah portion.
Both the music, which has a distinctive Arabic sound and the spoken word, might sound strange to our Western ears. This is not how my Eastern European ancestors learned Torah. It is different, but it is also traditional Torah. What is old becomes new again.
The Maqam Project is border pushing in the Jewish world. It causes people like me, an American born and raised Ashkenazi Jew, to expand my understanding of what Torah is and how I can access it. I find it both unsettling and beautiful at the same time. I am thankful to have been given a new way to approach Torah.
Take a listen. I would be curious to hear your reactions.
“Do you know of a prayer for a surrogate?” The question came over Facebook Chat a few nights ago, sent by a young woman in my community named Tara. In the coming days, Tara will begin carrying an embryo for a couple who were not able to conceive on their own. For Tara, this has been a deep spiritual journey. She has two children of her own, and felt so blessed by easy and healthy pregnancies. And while cherishing her own beautiful sons, she felt overwhelmed by the deep pain and heartache that infertility causes to so many people. Tara knew she wanted to help.
In the Hebrew Bible, we meet many women who struggle with infertility. There’s Rachel, who watches her sister carry baby after baby, struggling herself to conceive her own beloved sons, Joseph and Benjamin. There’s Hannah, who is so deeply pained by her inability to bare a child, that when she prays with all of her heart, Eli the Cohen believes that her passion and her devotion is a sign of being drunk. Hannah sways back and forth, opening her mouth, and only releasing a voice that is loud enough for she herself to hear. This kavanah, or deep intention, is the model that we use for personal prayer today.
Possibly the most well known story of infertility is found in this week’s Torah portion—Vayera. After struggling for years to conceive, Sarah is told that she and Abraham will have a child in their old age – and she laughs, and thus the child is given the name Yitzhak. Our rabbis teach that her laughter carries with it a feeling of surprise and even doubt. And yet, I prefer to focus on the essential truth that exists within big, unbridled laughter—tremendous, heartfelt, contagious joy. Sarah would finally know the extraordinary joy of being a mother.
Today, I know so many women and men who desperately want to experience that very same joy.
In just a few short days, an embryo will be implanted within Tara’s uterus, formed by a loving mother and father who are unable to create a baby without Tara’s help. And so, for Tara, I have written this blessing:
Makor HaChayim, Source of Life,
Inspire me to become a holy vessel, blessed with the opportunity to carry this precious seed, providing nourishment and warmth within the deep embrace of my womb.
Infuse me with patience. Through each hour of each day, may I have the strength to feel the blessing of the moment, knowing that with each breath that we share, life is closer to being renewed.
Rekindle within me courage, for in holding this seed, I am not merely making a child—I am also creating a mother and a father. I am forming a family. And within that family, a whole universe of possibility dwells.
And at this time, especially, instill within me the power and potential of love, that I may remain tender and devoted to all those who are connected to my heart. As my body changes and grows, so may my capacity to embody love expand and unfold as well.
In the fortunate cases it is the grandparents, often it is the parents, and sometimes even a sibling who stands before the congregation and presents a tallit. Early in the service, the child celebrating becoming bar or bat mitzvah the tradition is literally handed down generation to generation. As the child takes the sacred object from their elders and wraps about their shoulders, the message of the day is clear. Just as I have done, you too shall do too.
Continuity has a power of its own. It is wondrous to see grandsons and sons stand side by side with fathers and grandfathers that are similarly wrapped. But even today rare is the grandmother or even the mother who covers the top of the beautiful outfit with a tallit. Yet, the girls in my community, with only the exception of those who affiliate Orthodox, not only wear a tallit on the day they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah but make it part of their regular religious garb. They are breaking new ground.
The tallit has become a symbol of not only of continuity but also of change.
On the rare occasions when I attended synagogue as a child, my father’s tallit was both a refuge and a source of entertainment. But when it came time to celebrate my coming of age, the mere fact that I would chant Torah (with my father saying the blessing with me—lest the agency be mine entirely) was so radical that we had to travel far from home to find a rabbi willing to allow it. A girl wearing a tallit was literally unthinkable.
At the start of the Jewish feminist movement, women and girls battled and largely won the right to take their place at the Torah. But when it came to adopting the ritual wear that historically goes with the privileges and opportunities of Torah reading, the issues were significantly more complex. In part, I suspect that there was a desire to push forward but not too much. Even as Jewish women asserted their power they did not want to ‘be men,’ as they were often accused of being. In addition to the historic prohibitions on women reading Torah, there are prohibitions against women taking on ‘the dress of men.’ Furthermore, 30 years ago the Reform movement, which played a significant role pioneering change, did not encourage ritual garb regardless of gender.
Today in most communities—even Orthodox ones—the place of women next to the Torah is no longer a question. But change is happening when it comes to tallit.
I bought my first tallit in my early 20s. It was large, woolen and woven like my fathers but had colored stripes instead of the traditional blues and blacks. It was as wildly different as the very fact that I dared wear such a thing. Today, as I shop with my daughter ahead of her being called to the Torah, I am struck by the array of feminine materials, cuts, colors and designs that she has to choose from in addition to the more historic types. No one would confuse a lace pink flowery tallit with the ‘dress of men.’ The modern bat mitzvah can choose a tallit that both expresses who she is as a person as well as her pride in her tradition.
Each time I attend bat mitzvah service in different synagogues of my community, I am struck by the passing on of the tallit. More than with the boys, this moment with the girl and her family encapsulates my hope for the next generation of Jews—regardless of gender. Wrap yourself in our tradition but make it your own and don’t be afraid of making change.
In just a couple weeks, with the help of God and the hospital staff, my family is going to undergo a noticeable change. In about two weeks my wife will deliver our second child. Our 2 1/2 year old son will for the first time not be the only child in the house but will need to contend with a baby brother. As someone who was an only child growing up I am fascinated by what will come next. What are sibling dynamics like? How will our older son adjust to his younger brother? What will our younger son learn from his older brother?
As we read the beginning stories of the Book of Genesis in synagogue, I can’t help but also think about the dynamics of siblings presented in the Torah. It seems like the track record for sibling success in the Bible is not so good. One can ponder Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau or Joseph and his brothers and find plenty of discord and disunity. It would seem reasonable to not turn to the Book of Genesis as a parenting book, especially on the parenting how-to’s of siblings.
Yet, parenting books can be as much about what to do as they can be about what not to do.The one lesson that stands out for me from the episodes we read is the danger of preferential treatment. Whether it is preferring the older sibling because he was your first child or preferring the younger because he will always be the baby, the Torah through these formative stories is sending a clear and resounding message: preferential parenting is wrong. The urge for preference must be resisted.
As we venture down the mysterious path of raising children we pay close attention to not only the lessons of what to do but also the lessons of what not to do and heed the warning of preferential treatment. While reading the stories of Biblical family dysfunction, I, for one, remain grateful for that lesson.