Posts Tagged ‘ Learning Jewishly ’

“Judaism is more than ‘tikkun olam’”

2011.08.01
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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.)

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Slake The Bitterness

2011.07.20
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FOR MY NEXT TRICK, I will attempt to adapt 1st-century Judaism for 21st-century Americans.

Fig. 1.

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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“Judaism As Art”

2011.07.14
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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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5Thoughts: How To Lead Services

2011.07.14
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0. THE FOLLOWING MAY BE PARTICULAR to Jewish worship services, which are the only sort I’ve led (not counting five weddings and various improvised blessings/moment-summonings). But I’ve tried to adapt the advice for anyone whose worship tradition includes structure and text, and who finds oneself in the liturgical spotlight. Hope it helps; I learned it all the hard way.

1. Know your material. This may sound fairly obvious, but I mean it in a deeper sense: The service-as-conducted is a living breathing entity whose skeleton is the service-as-written. Know the latter like you know your own breathing. At least know how and why it’s structured — what each piece hopes to achieve, and how it leads to the next — and, most importantly, what page everything’s on. (PostIts are a big help here, as is having your own siddur (prayerbook) to notate.) Likewise, see in advance to the functioning of candles, wine, microphones, guitar strings, etc.; there’s nothing like a last-minute surprise on a solemn occasion (ah, but see thought #4). (And if you’re feeling terribly insecure, keep in mind that for group readings you really only need to emphasize the first five words. It takes that long for people to catch on and start drowning you out.)
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Torah Study: Spelling It Out In Balak And White

2011.07.09
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(I’m leading services today, but here’s the dvar Torah I’m delivering this morning (and posted yesterday).)

THERE’S AN OLD SAYING: “IF you don’t look closely at every detail, you miss most of the jokes.” Although there are few obvious jokes in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, an admitted burlesque about a Jew-hating king and his bumbling wizard, we are missing one of the more interesting details.

In a classic Torah service, we divide the portion into seven pieces, or aliyot, each one framed by blessings. This gives us a different relationship to the text than if we just read the story straight through. Among other things, it gives us time to reflect; for the words to reach their mark; for repetitions and patterns to show us something new.
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OUR WEEKLY TORAH STUDY SHIFTS this week, as I am honored and privileged to lead Shabbat services tomorrow morning (Sat., 7/9/11) at Sonoma’s Congregation Shir Shalom. We will begin by looking at one of the Book of Numbers’ most action-packed portions: the tale of Bilaam the Evil Wizard. (Just typing “Evil Wizard” is a...

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Torah Study: Chukat and the Passing of the Cohort

2011.07.01
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WHEN JERRY GARCIA AND GENE Roddenberry died, I shed actual tears. Although I didn’t know either of them personally, they had both played important roles in my life — Jerry taught me to dance, Gene taught me to dream — and because of their role in the culture at large, their deaths were like the shutting of a communal door.

There’s a similar circumstance in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, which notes — among other incidents — the deaths of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, themselves beloved by their community. Think what it must have been like for the Israelites: smacked out of Egypt by the back of God’s miracle-hand, given a new constitution beneath a thundering mountain, then doomed by ingratitude to wander the desert for 40 years. Moses, Aaron and Miriam were all the leadership they knew: Moses the mysterious, whose face glows when he talks to God; Aaron, who loved peace so much he’d even tell fibs to achieve it; Miriam, the wise woman whose portable well enabled life in the desert.
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Game of Life: Rules

2011.06.13
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THE UNIVERSE IS FULL OF “Learn Here” stickers, each with a different adhesive strength. Collect enough and you win.

PS to my friend, Lillian, who says, “Define ‘enough’” — if you’re still collecting, you haven’t won yet.

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Torah Study: Naso, Nazir, and the Quest For What’s Had

2011.06.03
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Neal & Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, June 4, 2011, 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Naso (Deuteronomy 4:21-7:89)
Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25

WHAT DO A SPA, MEDITATION, prayer, music and this week’s Torah portion have in common?

One answer: They all describe ways of getting closer to God.

Among other topics (e.g., gifts, jealousy and leadership) our portion tells us about the “nazir:” a man or woman who wants to dedicate themselves more intensely to God. There are many reasons to feel distant from God, hence many reasons for wanting to draw near, but the nazir’s outward response is uniform: no haircuts, wine, or grape juice or grapes (even raisins!) for the duration of the nazirship. That duration ends when the nazir brings a sacrifice to the Temple — but since there’s currently no Temple, nazirship is an unobtainable ideal.

Parenthetically, of course, each one of us is already as close to God as we can possibly be. The trick of mystics and other self-actualizers is simply to notice it.

May your Shabbat be filled with unexpected and pleasant connections!

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Torah Study: Judaeo Habilis

2011.05.20
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Neal& Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, May 21, 2011 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Bechukotai (Deuteronomy 26:3-27:34[end])
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

LET’S BE HONEST: THIS WEEK’S Torah portion is not a favorite of many, containing as it does a long string of violent curses brought down on the hearts and homes of those who reject Torah.

It’s grim stuff, even for the rabbis who ordained that this part be read quickly and quietly. And it makes us uncomfortable on several levels: the specificity, the cruelty, the seemingly primitive tit-for-tat which embodies, for many of us, the worst aspects of religion. It’s tempting to ignore, delete, or gloss over this bit of text and read only the “good parts” (whatever that may be to each of us). Read more »

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Torah Study: Emor The Merrier

2011.05.06
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Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23); Ezekiel 44:15-31
Saturday, May 7, 2011 – 10 am to noonish
Neal & Ann’s Home (Call 933.9430 for directions)

“It ain’t the matzah, it’s the motion.”

This phrase has been on my mind lately, now that we’ve passed from Passover into the Omer period leading up to Shavuot (marking the Sinai Event). We count off the days and nights in between, perhaps in part to remind ourselves that that freedom is a journey, not a destination; a process, not an ending.

This week’s Torah portion reflects that in a small way. We’re given all the major festivals — Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot — of which all but Rosh Hashana receive the names by which we still call them. Isn’t that odd? The “Jewish New Year,” one of the two occasions when modern Jews of all stripes feel compelled to attend synagogue services, is noted as “the first day of the seventh month … of blowing the shofar.” Its main importance seems to be a noisy, soul-waking prelude to Yom Kippur services.

Speaking of services, we also see some of the details of the Old Time Religion: e.g., how the ancient priests mourned their dead, how to keep the Menorah burning, and the mysterious meal Torah calls the “lechem panim — variously translated as “show bread” or “bread of surfaces.”

This food is enigmatic even to the commentators. Some say it’s a remembrance of the manna; others see it as a symbol of prosperity balancing the Menorah (which sits opposite it inside the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, and symbolizes Torah wisdom). Pirke Avot, the book of rabbinic proverbs, says: “No bread, no Torah; no Torah, no bread,” tells us. History doesn’t record whether that saying was inspired by the showbread, but both he and the Torah seem to agree. Perhaps it also means that there can be no soul without a body; no content without form; no Torah without someone to study it.

And speaking of Pirke Avot and the road from Peasach to Shavuot: It’s customary to study a chapter of Pirke Avot on the intervening Shabbat afternoons, so time permitting we’ll dip into this well of rabbinic and prerabbinic wisdom and see what surfaces.

Shabbat shalom,

Neal.

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Study Torah, Become Holy (A Little)

2011.04.29
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France Street Torah Study
Saturday, April 30, 2011 – 10 am to noonish
Torah Portion: Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenazim); Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Sephardim)
Neal & Ann’s Living Room (email scoop at sonic dot net for directions)

Torah is many things to many people, or even many things to the same person depending upon which part he or she is studying. It’s simultaneously a history, law code, spiritual guide, extended mythology, moral platform, conceptual trampoline. This week, our topic du Torah is “holiness” — or to literally translate our portion’s title, “Holinesses.”

Simply put, our text concerns practical rules for spiritual living. We see little things, like rising in the presence of the aged and/or learned; medium things, like not stealing or lying; and big things, like “Love your neighbor as yourself” — the most repeated commandment in the Torah, perhaps because it’s so counterintuitive.

Richard Elliott Friedman, in his “Commentary on the Torah,” says this: “… If one had to choose only one chapter out of the Torah to make known, it might well be this one.” He further notes that in this case, the medium may also be the message: “The strange mixing of so many different kinds of commandments may convey that every commandment is important. Even if we are naturally inclined to regard some commandments as more important than others, and some commandments as most important of all, this tapestry presses us to see what is important and valuable in every commandment, even commandments that one may question.”

(Writing this out just now, I found myself typing “commendment” for “commandment.” It’s possible that I’m typing with a Yiddish accent, but don’t the mitzvot — those customary and spontaneous acts which connect our world with the Divine through a series of micro-redemptions — commend us to God, at least in theory?)

Questioning commandments, or anything, is an important part of Judaism. But to question, you must first know. ;-) Come and learn a little this Shabbat in a safe place for questions. (We can’t guarantee the answers, though!) If time permits, in addition to Kedoshim we will also study the second chapter of the rabbinical wisdom text, Pirke Avot. This thousand-year-old collection of pithy sayings, containing such gems as Hillel’s “If not now, when?” is traditionally studied chapter-by-chapter on the Shabbats between Pesach and Shavuot (this year, June 7-8). If not us, who?

Be well, and Shabbat shalom,

Neal

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