Posts Tagged ‘ Learning Jewishly ’

Song of the Universe

2010.05.18
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TONIGHT IS SHAVUOT, WHICH CELEBRATES the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai some 3,322 years ago. Whether one believes the Torah’s own account is inconsequential; what we celebrate is the living text (rather, Living Text) itself and its indivisibility from the Jewish soul. (It’s not just about Mel Brooks and rye bread, folks.) Jews the world over will be cracking the books for an allnighter of mind-stretching scope, G?d willing. For the hardcore, that means a survey of the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Prophets, Writings), Talmud (Mishna and Gemara), Law Codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch), Commentaries (Midrash) and a smidgen of qabala (Zohar), learning in pairs until dawn (or if unable, in bed until sleep).

Locally, that means a study party at our rabbi’s house tonight between 9 and midnight (if you don’t know where that is, shoot one to scoopatsonicdotnet and I’ll tell you). Everyone is invited to bring a personal piece of Torah to share; I’ll attempt to convey the thousand-year grandeur of the Talmudic intellectual tradition in fifteen minutes, and also acquaint everyone with a little-known text (at least until recently, at least to me) called Perek Shirah.

Perek Shirah (“Verses of Song”) is Torah writ large — 84 verses worth of Universe As Teacher. The text is at least 2,000 years old, according to its Jewish Encyclopedia article, and of uncertain authorship. Each verse (Psalms or Prophets, but mostly Psalms) illustrates how Torah is transmitted through a particular element, plant or animal. Its preface quotes the Talmud (Eruvin 100b), and fairly summarizes the work’s intent: “R. Yochanan said: ‘If these things were not prescribed in the Torah, we could learn decency from the cat; the ant would preach against robbery, and the dove against incest.’

By my own level of scholarship, Perek Shirah is somewhat over my head — which only interests me further. A free copy may be downloaded from three different websites (it’s the same 208k PDF):

http://www.archive.org/details/AkivaPerekShirahperekshirahebengslifkinpdf
http://lazerbrody.typepad.com/lazer_beams/files/perek20shirah20booklet.pdf
http://www.zootorah.com/books/Perek%20Shirah%20booklet.pdf

Chag sameach (happy holiday)!

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4:20 Torah (not what you think)

2010.05.14
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France Street Torah Study
Saturday, May 15, 2010 – 10 am to noonish
Home of Neal and Ann (707.933.9430 for directions)
Parsha Bamidbar: Numbers 1:1-4:20; Haftorah Hosea 2:1-22

THIS SHABBAT, AT LEAST IN Sonoma, at least on France Street, brings us a bit of a pickle — really more of a relish plate.

Our weekly Torah portion is Bamidbar, the beginning of Numbers: four chapters and twenty verses full of marching orders, duty rosters and difficult-to-pronounce names. While I am the last person in the world to grouse about our holy Torah, I will admit that some bits are more challenging than others to interpret with apparent relevance to our lives. (Leviticus, say.)

Since this will be the Shabbat before Shavuot (see announcement below), our textual choices include the Book of Ruth (traditionally read /on/ Shavuot) and Pirke Avot (a collection of rabbinical proverbs read on the Shabbat afternoons between Pesach and Shavuot; some say Pesach and Rosh Hashanah). We can study these instead of or in addition to Bamidbar (and either speed-reading or synopsizing the latter).

Come to Torah study. And exercise your power of choice.

Shabbat shalom,

Neal

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Nutshell Rabbinics

2010.05.05
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“HERE’S HOW THE TORAH WORKS, at least from a classical perspective: What’s important, really important, is not just the text — it’s your relationship to the text. Which means you get to say what Torah means, but within parameters defined by people who’ve been studying it longer than you have. And who will either say ‘Good job,’ or ‘What were you thinking?’”

(From a conversation with the wife, this represents my understanding to date of the Jewish understanding of Torah practicum. I naturally invite those who know more than I to comment and correct as needed — with thanks.)

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Torah: Learn A Little!

2010.04.30
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REMEMBER THE SATURDAY MORNING TORAH study Ann started back in 2001? Well, we’re still doing it, and if you’d like to do it too — and you’re going to be in Sonoma between 10 a.m. and noon tomorrow — you are hereby invited to our humble home. (Email me at scoop at sonic dot net for directions.)

Torah Portion: Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

This week’s portion mostly offers advice to the kohanim, or priests (hey, it’s Leviticus, right?). Among other things, Torah tells the kohanim must be as physically unblemished as the animals they offer to God (a nice metaphor for leadership, that) and reminds us of the importance of the six major Jewish festivals: Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

I don’t know how the latter passages affect others, but I always get a little thrill from reading in the Torah about something that we’re still doing. Something there is about holding a torch lighted long ago, by people I never met but with whom I am connected in some tenuous but undeniable way. The torch still burns — how does it light your footsteps? Let’s find out together Saturday morning!

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Torah Word: Kedoshim

2010.04.23
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Torah Portion: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim Leviticus 16:1-20:27
Haftorah: Amos 9:7-15

“Kedoshim t’hyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheicha — Be holy, for I am holy, Adonai your God.” (Leviticus 19:2)

The second half of this week’s double portion takes a breather from Leviticus’ endless sacrificial and ritual minutiae and addresses the topic pondered by philosophers the world and centuries ’round: How shall we live?

Torah tells us to be “holy,” which in the original Hebrew carries the sense of set apart/dedicated/specified to a particular intention. That’s easy for God — after all, God’s uniqueness and absolute indefinability makes God’s holiness something of a byproduct. For us, it’s hard enough to concentrate on one thing for more than an hour let alone our entire lives.

But “Kedoshim t’hyu” doesn’t only translate as “be holy.” The prefix “t” connotes assurance: our holiness isn’t really God’s desire or insistence so much as God’s promise — “Do this, and that will follow.” By following Torah — which also means wrestling with Torah until you see where it’s taking you — we enter a way of life which ensures life’s own continuation: a way of honesty, compassion, intelligence and closeness to the One.

Have an amAzing Shabbat!

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This Week In Torah: Vayak’hel/Pekudei

2010.03.08
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VAYAK’HEL/PEKUDEI (Exodus 35:1-40:38; haftarot I Kings 7:51-8:21 and, because Nisan starts on Tuesday making this a special Rosh Chodesh Shabbat, Ezekiel 45:16-46:18) WRAPS UP THE BOOK of Exodus by building the Tabernacle: the traveling God-tent whose structure and contents are so lovingly detailed in the previous four portions. After making certain that all the parts are laid out and accounted for, Moses proceeds to assemble the people’s manifold contributions into a single coherent whole — after which “the kavod (honor, glory, gravitas) of Adonai filled the Tabernacle.”

At the beginning of Vayakhel, God asks Moses to assemble “the generous-hearted … the wise-hearted … all of the Israelite community” — the distinction being that the generous provide the materials and the wise shape them into meaning. Earlier commentators might see this “those who can, do — those who can’t, contribute” metaphor as a prooftext for community support of Torah scholars (or one’s synagogue!). But another meaning might be that building the sacred — especially sacred community — requires each member to provide the raw ingredients and wrestle them into place; to be and to become; bumping along together, shaping each other and being shaped into something that (we hope) looks a little more like God than it did before.

Shavua tov, gut woch and have a nice week,

Reb Neal (from our synagogue e-letter)

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School’s Out

2009.06.12
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TODAY IS THE WORST DAY (or one of the worst days) in any given year: it’s the last day I’ll be teaching religious school until September, which means I won’t see “my kids” until then — and I’ll be slightly stupider without someone questioning my basic Jewish assumptions every couple of weeks.

I don’t know what motivated the people who taught me, but what motivates me is the conviction that, at 12 years old, the human being is halfway between the wonder of youth and the skepticism of age: old enough to begin thinking critically and asking interesting questions, and young enough to still enjoy curiosity. When I was that age, my teachers told me not to ask interesting questions (apparently not knowing that Judiasm is all about interesting questions): thereby driving me on 23-year post-Bar Mitzvah quest for a spiritual path that did. Mind you, this world offers a variety of beautiful approaches to finding God Or A Reasonable Approximation, but I don’t want my kids to have to go to as much trouble as I did. (Of course, if they do, I expect to hear all about it — they’re all smart and love a good argument.)

And so, every year, I teach them a bit of history, a little Torah, some customs; I especially try to teach them that this rich heritage is theirs, and that it isn’t limited to a bunch of rules and some dusty bookshelves: that it’s alive, and growing, and that they’ll eventually pass it on to their own children. And that they’ll want to — not because someone said so, and not only because a moral compass (or good manners) and sense of relation are human universals (either to stand on or to kick off against).

But because we’re all here so briefly, we need all the help we can give each other. And because being a Jew, like being anybody, matters.

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Hiding the Hidden

2008.01.21
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Last week, we read in Parsha Beshallach about the departure from Egypt (Heb. “Mitzrayim”, or “narrows,” which the mystical tradition identifies with the forces of constraint and bad-habitry). Among the other nifty details is this one, from Exodus 13:21: “And YHVH went before them by day in pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.”

This is traditionally seen as a cloud shot through with flame — one phenomenon (or metaphor-target) with two aspects. At our post-Shabbat Dinner chevrusa, Ann & I proposed this:

- When things go well, it’s easy to see the Path. When they don’t, we need a reminder that it’s there at all.

- The cloud also figures in this week’s portion, Yitro, where it surrounds Mt. Sinai prior to the Ten Statements. Perhaps this is one of Torah’s (not-so-)subtle Hints that, as Heraclitus put it (init caps added by me]: “The Nature of things is in the habit of concealing Itself.” In other words, that G!d can only manifest in hiddenness — in the mystery of direct experience.

I think this is one of the many, many things ungotten by Christopher Hitchens, Pat Robertson and other dogmatists: “If you can figure God out, what you’ve figured out isn’t God.” Buncha weenies — cluttering up the Godscape with conditions and qualifications, as though the primate brain has an exclusive on Truth…

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Working Definition

2007.12.21
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God 1 v. the Omnipresent Center SEE Copenhagen interpretation, quantum consciousness 2 conj. adv. The Connector of Space and Sustainer of Time, One, Alive, and Intent 3 n domesticated primates’ ultimate attribution of excuse, tragedy or inspiration

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Mapping God

2007.07.22
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Like any Torah Nerd, I’ve never met a commentary I didn’t like — the more abstruse and seriously-taking the better — but I’ve always had difficulty with the traditional view of God As Punisher and Rewarder.
Perhaps that stems from an inherent distrust of authority, honestly earned by dint of entering my formative years about the time Nixon was talking to the White House portrait gallery. But whatever the reason, the Deuteronomic Theology has never struck me as an accurate model for my own devotions; I’m much more of an “I can’t figure it out, so I’ll enjoy what I can while I’m here, help others do the same, and try to do my best” Ecclesiastician.
But what if we take “God of Justice” as a culture-specific metaphor for, or understanding of, the Universal Law of Inescapable Returns — otherwise known as Karma Popula, What-Goes-Around-Comes-Around, Don’t Excrete Where You Eat, et al?
And what if the Torah’s take on this most basic of closed-system principles is a logical consequence of the Torah’s concept of a personal God — One we can cut a deal with, speak to, and Who has a deep and abiding interest in our welfare and actions?
After all, if we posit a personal relationship with the Source of Existence, it’s easy to take things personally when they don’t go our way — when they’re out of our control, when we ask, “What did I do to deserve this?”
One cannot guess the mind of God, but certain actions (and patterns of actions) remit almost guaranteed consequences — and when we know this, the God of Blame becoems the God of Responsibility.

“Neither the security of the wicked nor the afflictions of the righteous are within the grasp of our understanding.” — Pirke Avot

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Rockin’ at the Beit Tefilah

2001.04.03
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from a pre-Blogger blog

What happens when you turn back the clock 2,000 years to add creativity to Jewish worship? Erev at the Improv, that’s what — an experiment in structured liturgical spontaneity which, happily, was enthusiastically embraced by the 30 or so people attending this evening’s service. (SIx or seven of them also embraced me afterward, in fact.) I’m absolutely blown away by this, still, at this writing.
Simplistic background: Around the beginning of rabbinical Judaism, we didn’t have standardized siddurim (prayer books) containing a bunch of standardized prayers. What we had, rather, was a standardized structure on which, jazzlike, prayer leaders would improvise a service — e.g., a Friday evening service in Alexandria, say, and one in Rome or Jerusalem would all have two blessings before the Sh’ma prayer — one for creation of the world, the other for the revelation of Torah — but the specific wording of the blessings might be different. Over many years, though, and partially motivated by political conflicts between rival Jewish communities, favorite prayers — “The Top 40,” if you will — were collected and edited into the modern siddurim we use today.

So… armed with this knowledge, acquired from a recent Ritual Committee meeting; inspired by a congregational call for more creative communal worship, and enthusiastically encouraged by our very cool Rabbi, I assembled and wrote a six-page service using structured improvisation* — just like the Good Old Days.

The evening had one rule: Nobody could say anything unless they phrased as a blessing: a sentence beginning with “Baruch atah Adonai (Blessed are You, O G-d), Who…”

And the results were wonderful. It took about five minutes for everyone to catch on to the basic idea, but once that happened, yeehaw! People were really getting into it — Jewishly speaking from the gut about what they found most important in life. “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has let me feel my granddaughter’s hand in mine.” “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has given us new things to find every time we study Torah.” “Baruch atah Adonai, Who has given me a community to support me in my time of need.” And so on into the evening — a steady flow of “Baruch atah Adonai,” punctuated by reflective silence.

Three post-service comments stood out: “I didn’t know any of this was supposed to mean anything.” “What I liked was that it was creative, but completely Jewish.” “Can we do this again?”

And so we shall — on May 11. Wheee.

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