WORF: These are our stories. They tell us who we are.
BA’EL: …Are they true?
WORF: I have studied them all of my life, and find new truths in them every time.
– “Birthright,” Star Trek: The Next Generation
Here’s a radical thought: does the story of the Exodus and its miracles — including this week’s splitting of the Sea of Reeds — need to be true in order to be meaningful?
Biblical literalists, who take the Torah to be G?d’s word, see the text as the ultimate truth and the miracles as G?d’s handiwork. Modern critics see the Torah as a unique document compiled from numerous sources, and explain the miracles in terms of natural events. But both may be missing the point.
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OUR TORAH PORTION THIS WEEK begins with God’s famous exhortation to Abram, “Lech Lecha — Go for yourself from your land … I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”
What does that mean, to be a blessing? Rashi says it’s an investment in Abraham of God’s power to bless, to pass along the Divine influence for growth and attainment. According to the Etz Chayim chumash, it means “to serve as the exemplar by which a blessing is invoked.” Rabbi Samson Hirsch, however, sees it as a commandment: to receive the divine rewards, one must live so as to be a blessing to the world.
Perhaps it also means to live in such a way as see the Divine in every moment — to bear witness, however unlikely it may seem, to the action of God as context for our lives (to paraphrase R’ Jack Gabriel). To be a blessing is to sanctify everything within reach — and to learn to extend that reach by joining hands with others. After all, we can’t do it alone!
Neal & Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011: 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Among its other directives, Torah contains the seeds of its own begetting — each of us is instructed to write a Torah scroll for ourselves. In that spirit, I would paraphrase one of this week’s verses to say “Torah is not in heaven, for you to say, ‘Who will ascend and get it for us?’ It is not over the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea and get it for us?’ No, the matter is very near to you — two blocks south of Sonoma Plaza and hang a left on most Saturdays — to do it.”
That would, of course, include tomorrow. We’ll leave the light on for you.
Be well, happy autumn, and Shabbat shalom!
Neal & Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011, 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Netzavim-Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9
“What does that song mean?” I asked Ernie once about a particular song.
He thought for a bit and then replied that if I wanted to know what the words meant, he’d be glad to translate them for me. But if I was asking what the song meant, that was different. A song, he explained, carries much more meaning than just its words. For him, for example, a large part of a song’s meaning is about who first taught it to him — a relative? an elder? a friend? What instructions were given with that teaching? Can it be sung in the daytime or only at night? Can it be sung only at one particular season? Is it a public song or private? Can women sing it or only men? Is it spiritual or ‘just for fun?’ Are there dietary or behavioral restrictions placed upon the singer as he prepares to perform? Each time a song is sung, he went on to explain, it accumulates further meaning — from the people he is singing it with, the audience he is singing it to, the circumstances under which it is sung. If a song is brought out at a funeral, for example, the funeral lends a weight and history to the song that is felt each time it is subsequently sung. Even my own curiosity about the song, he smiled, adds to its meaning.
– Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way
(And yes, I excerpted this Friday, but it’s quite too good not to share in full.)
IN THE OHLONE WAY, AUTHOR Malcolm Margolin relates the following story-about-stories asking one of his Native American sources about a particular tribal song:
“He thought for a bit and then replied that if I wanted to know what the words meant, he’d be glad to translate them for me. But if I was asking what the song meant, that was different. A song, he explained, carries much more meaning than just its words. Read more »
YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO attend tonight’s Erev Shabbat service at Sonoma’s Congregation Shir Shalom, 252 W. Spain St., which service I am both grateful and privileged to lead. Services begin at 7:30 p.m. PDT and will be followed by an oneg Shabbat. (If you’d like to attend an informal Saturday morning Torah study, please RSVP.) Shabbat shalom!
THERE ONCE WAS A RABBI who was so lost in his studies that when the congregation called on him to deliver a sermon for that week’s Torah portion he didn’t know which one it was. Undaunted, he stepped to the bimah and said:
“A sermon should be true, from the heart, and based on the weekly Torah portion. I do not know which portion is this week’s reading from our holy Torah. This is true, I am sorry from my heart, but it is all that I can say about the portion. Amen.”
This week’s portion is Eikev. It means “heel” and “because.” So “because” we’ve all had a tough week, you are cordially invited to help “heel” yourself by studying Torah with us tomorrow morning. This is true, it is from my heart, and I hope to say more about it when I see you.
Neal & Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, August 20, 2011, 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3
THIS WEEK BEGINS THE TALE of Moses, and his five-week testimonial to the nascent nation of Israel.
Unlike the Torah’s first four books, tradition ascribes Deuteronomy strictly to Moses’ hand. Like the second creation story in Genesis, the Moses-eye view of the Egyptian Experience and Sinai Event differs somewhat from the first account in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers: most famously, in the wording of the Fourth Commandment and the “guard/remember Shabbat” dichotomy. I like to think that’s deliberate, to encourage us to think instead of blindly obey. It’s certainly part of a pattern.
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ETHNOTHEOLEGALITY. (IF YOU WANT TO get more specific, then Levantine ethnotheolegality. Or pedantically: a Levantine people’s god’s code.)
THAT’S THE TITLE OF A provocative but understated op-ed today on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, and it’s a point of view with which I find myself agreeing: that if one sees Judaism as only an excuse for right action, and ignores its religious and intellectual aspects, one is shortchanging both oneself and any interesting sort of Jewish future. (“Tikkun olam” = “rectifying/repairing the world,” a qabalistic doctrine which has been a big focus for Jewish leadership and study since the 1970s.)
This shortchagement is not new; people (including me) are always trying to “define” Judaism: is it a Faith? A Folk Tradition? A People? An Intellectual Puzzle? A Way Of Life? The answer, of course, is that it is all of these and more. And one of its most important qualities is that it fosters, in the diligent, a different way of thinking than the Aristotelian two-value logic on which most of Western Culture is based — a way of thinking that seems to me better suited to the complexities, complications and contradictions of modern life.
Mr. Alperson is more worried than I am about assimilation (after all, he’s a Jewish Professional), but his piece is definitely worth a read: http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/07/27/3088736/op-ed-judaism-is-more-than-tikkun-olam. (Also referred by the always-interesting Jewish Ideas Daily website: a rousing cry to study the Mishna independently of the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmuds which are derived from it (http://thetalmudblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/protestant-mishnah/). It’s still a good world, where websites and debates like this can exist.)
FOR MY NEXT TRICK, I will attempt to adapt 1st-century Judaism for 21st-century Americans.
Yesterday, the 17th of Tammuz, marked the 1,941st anniversary of the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Romans (and the 2,597th anniversary of the same action by the Babylonians). For traditional Jews, 17 Tammuz begins the annual semi-mourning period of the Three Weeks, which culiminate in a commemoration of the Temple’s destruction on the 9th of Av, colloquially known as Tisha B’Av (this year, August 9).
For untraditional Jews, it’s a time of wondering why traditional Jews are so upset over something that happened so many years ago — and deprived us of nothing more than the old-time religion of animal sacrifice. But let’s look past the sheen of nationalist memory and peer into the realm of psychological function.
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or, There and Back Again Without Leaving
(BECAUSE OF WORDPRESS, I’M REPUBLISHING this 2002 piece — it works better as a “post” than as a “page” — and although my kippa-wearing has become a bit less pronounced of late it still reflects my approach to finding a place in Judaism. If you’re not hot for apologetics or manifesti, you have my permission to read something else.)
Despite that I’ve worn a yarmulke most of the time since 2000, I don’t define myself as Orthodox. Or Reform. Or, for that matter, as Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal or otherwise adjectivally Jewish.
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