Category Archives: Judaism

When God Speaks: Prophecy in Jewish Thought & Theology

Dear Josep,

One of the most interesting responses I got to my post about the Jewish view of Jesus was from a devout Protestant I know. She said most of it didn’t surprise her, but that she was “shocked… like, can’t stop thinking about it shocked… that Jews believe that prophecy stopped.” Do we believe, she wanted to know, that the voice of God has manifested in other ways since then? Or that He stopped speaking altogether?

I gave her a brief answer on FB, but I’m going to use today’s post to answer her in full.

The question stems from of one of those misunderstandings between Judaism and Christianity, where a certain word means one thing to one religion, and another thing entirely to the other.

What Is Prophecy?

In Judaism, prophecy is a direct dream or vision in which God Himself appears to the prophet and speaks to him (or her. Several prophetesses are mentioned in the Bible). We believe that Moses was the only one who spoke with God really directly–like, he would just be hanging out, and God’s voice would speak in his ear, he would answer, and God would answer back conversationally. All the other prophets, we believe, experienced prophecy through a vision, dream, or the presence of an angel.

Now that I mention it–angels are another one of those words that we understand entirely differently from Christians. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, מלאך, means “messenger.” We don’t believe that angels are the souls of deceased humans, nor do we believe that they have a will of their own. Only humans have free will according to Judaism. We believe that angels are sort of “channels” through which God carries out His will in the world. They’re sort of extensions of Him in a sense.

It’s all very mystical and strange and many of us don’t understand it.

But the most common way we encounter angels in the Bible is when a prophet has a vision about them, and in that case they usually appear in the form of a person–but not always. Ezekiel describes them as these very odd-looking creatures with multiple wings and “wheels” and stuff. (See Ezekiel 1.)

From what I understand, the definition of prophecy in Christianity (at least Protestantism) is much broader than this definition.

So How Do We Identify True Prophecy?

If prophecy is a dream or vision in which God appears–how do we know whether a dream we had that predicted the future, or even a dream in which God or an angel appears to us, is just a dream and not a prophecy?

What about mentally ill people who claim to see God in visions or that they are the Messiah?

It’s a very perplexing issue!

Well thank God for Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.

In the Guide and other writings, Maimonides explains that a person can only be granted prophecy if he has attained a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual perfection. And he must prove his prophetic abilities, not by performing miracles (since these can be done through illusion), but by making accurate and detailed predictions of the future. Every single detail the potential prophet says must be true in order for us to believe that person to be a prophet. If even a small detail is wrong, he is a false prophet.

Also, Maimonides adds, if the person tells us to add or remove any of the commandments, we can know immediately that the person is a false prophet.

What Was the Purpose of Prophecy–and Why Did It Stop?

Prophecy was a kind of “direct intervention.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were prophets because God needed to guide them in a world that was still completely pagan. Moses was a prophet because his job was to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and teach them the entire Torah. We believe that much of the Oral Law comes from clarifications that God gave to Moses regarding what’s written in the Torah.

Many of our sages liken the history of the Jewish people to the life of a child. When a baby is born, he is completely dependent on his mother to keep him warm, fed, and safe. As he grows up, he gradually needs his parents less and less, gaining more and more independence from them.

So it was with us. Initially, all our leaders were prophets. After Moses came Joshua, and then the Judges. We needed a very direct connection to God to know what to do. Eventually we shifted over to a non-prophet leader: a king. The kings of Israel and Judah were guided by prophets and sometimes experienced prophecy themselves, but their primary role was political, not spiritual.

Towards the end of the First Temple period, the role of the prophets shifted from a more gentle guidance to rebuke and warning. The Israelites were not following the commandments and were worshiping idols, and God sent prophets like Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah to warn them to turn back to the path of righteousness or they would be severely punished. It was during this period that we received the prophecies about the future and the Messiah who would eventually come after the destruction.

But those were the last direct words God delivered to us. Once we entered the exile, God stopped speaking to us through prophecy.

We don’t really know why. But we believe that God set it up this way on purpose–for us to take a more and more active role in our ultimate mission of “fixing” humanity.

In other words, God shifted the responsibility from Himself (with the prophets representing Him directly) to us.

“It Is Not in Heaven”

There is a very strange story in the Talmud that, I think, sheds light on this shift of responsibility.

Goes like this: There’s a debate going on in the Sanhedrin (what else is new) about the spiritual/ritual purity status of an oven owned by a guy called Akhnai. So most of the rabbis in the Sanhedrin argue that the oven is impure, but one guy, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, insists that it’s pure. Now, the way the Sanhedrin worked is that they ruled by majority. So no matter how senior or wise Rabbi Eliezer was, if he didn’t manage to convince his colleagues that he was correct, he be overruled.

When he failed to convince the other rabbis that he was correct, he performed a series of small miracles to try and prove his point: making a carob tree uproot itself, making a stream of water flow backwards, and the walls of the building begin to collapse on the Sanhedrin. When his colleagues remained unmoved, he shouted: “If the law is as I say–the Heavens will prove my claim!”

In response, a voice sounded from Heaven and said: “Why do you not listen to Rabbi Eliezer, as the law is as he says?!”

Rabbi Joshua then jumped to his feet and shouted: “It is not in Heaven!

The Talmud then goes on to explain: “What does ‘It is not in Heaven’ [a quote from Deuteronomy 30] mean? Rabbi Jeremiah says: Since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, we no longer follow a voice from Heaven, since the Torah itself says [in Exodus 23]: ‘The majority rules.'”

And then the Talmud says that Elijah the Prophet was asked what God said in response to the incident. Elijah answered: “He smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!'”

When I first learned about this story I thought it was ridiculous. GOD HIMSELF is supporting Rabbi Eliezer’s position!!! Isn’t the entire point of the Torah to fulfill God’s will?! If GOD HIMSELF supports a certain ruling, how can you oppose it?!

But that’s the thing.

God’s will is that we follow the precedents and rules He originally set up. Since the destruction of the First Temple, it is no longer up to God to determine how Jewish law will be upheld. He made it our responsibility.

Even if we’re objectively wrong.

Because this isn’t about objective truth. It’s about the spirit of the law. More than faith, more than inspiration, more than anything else, Judaism is about tradition. (Cue Fiddler on the Roof. 😛 ) That link with our past, that responsibility to our ancestors and our descendants, is more important than the objective details.

It’s kind of a difficult concept to swallow. Still, over the years I have come to appreciate the wisdom of this story.

But Does God Still Speak?

Of course He does.

Just not quite that directly.

We believe that God speaks to us through history; through the events in the world and in our lives, from the establishment of the State of Israel to your favorite flower blooming on the side of the road.

We believe He speaks all the time. It is us who must learn how to listen and interpret the messages for ourselves–but with humility. We are skeptical of anyone who is 100% sure that “God spoke to them” and that know with certainty what He said.

I think this is a function of our “maturity” as a people. Apparently, we no longer need this kind of direct guidance. Instead, we have spiritual leaders–the rabbis and sages who interpret the Law. This system was set in place back in the days of Moses, apparently in anticipation that we would eventually reach this point. It reached its maturity in the early Talmudic period, when the Sages consolidated the system for interpreting the Law and applying it to new situations that arise.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook wrote an essay called “A Sage Is Preferable to a Prophet,” where he puts forth the argument that in our day, it is better for us to have a sage, who guides us to gently reach our own conclusions, than to have a prophet.

It’s kind of the difference between a counselor and a policeman.

Will Prophecy Be Restored?

Jews do believe that prophecy will be restored with the coming of the Messiah, who will, himself, be a prophet.

Until then, we continue to rely on the self-admittedly flawed system of rabbinic rulings, and try to figure out, to the best of our ability, how to do what God wants from us.

With love,

Daniella

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

What Do Jews REALLY Think About Jesus?!

Dear Josep,

With Holy Week beginning today and Passover beginning tomorrow night, this is a time of year that brings up not only joy and festivity, but also some complexity with regard to Jewish-Christian relations. In the past, Easter was a deadly time to be Jewish. All the focus on Jesus’s death stirred up a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment, because until very recently, Christians believed we were responsible for his death. Many of the worst anti-Jewish riots occurred around Easter time.

Eitan and I have both had the experience of meeting a Christian who has never met a Jew before. (I’m sure this is news to you. 😛 ) Especially if that Christian is a Protestant who grew up in a very traditional community, the first question we get, almost always, is:

So what do you think about Jesus?

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

We stifle a sigh and try to figure out how to answer that question as tactfully as possible.

Look–I get it. To most Christians, Jesus is God, except he’s the “personal connection” part that feels like your buddy and friend and father and confidante. For many of the people who ask me this question, their lives and the lives of their entire community revolve around Jesus. It’s very difficult for them to fathom how somebody could possibly live a deeply religious life with no Jesus.

Well… here is my complete and honest answer.

Truth Is–We Don’t Think Much About Him at All.

If a practicing Muslim walked up to a religious Christian and asked: “What do you think about Mohammed?”, many Christians would probably answer something along the lines of, “Uh… you mean that guy people got shot in France for drawing cartoons of?”

Mohammed is not even in their frame of religious reference. He’s not a figure involved in their practice, prayers, or religious contemplation.

That’s how it is for Jews vis-a-vis Jesus. He’s just not relevant to us.

We Think He Was Just a Guy

So there are a few things Christians believe about Jesus that Jews completely reject.

The first is that he was the Messiah and a prophet.

Both of these things are believed, to some extent, by Muslims as well as Christians. So give each other a high five. We Jews are gonna just… stay out of that party.

The reason we don’t believe he was the Messiah is pretty straightforward: he didn’t fill a single one of our traditional criteria. Our readings of the messianic prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc. are very different from the Christian interpretations. See here for the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

We don’t believe he was a prophet for two reasons: one, we believe prophecy officially ended after the First Exile and that there have been no real prophets since; two, Jeremiah explicitly warns that anyone who tells us to defy the teachings of the Torah is a false prophet, and… well. (It may be arguable that Jesus never did tell anyone to defy the Torah, and that it was only Paul who did. Paul is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

If this was the only difference, however, Christianity would still be a messianic subgroup of Judaism, as it was at first. It was only when the theological stuff started to get weird (*cough*Paul*cough*) that Christianity split off and became its own religion.

So the second thing we reject is the concept of the Trinity, and of Jesus being the son of God.

This theological concept is totally beyond the pale of Jewish belief. We believe in one invisible, omniscient, omnipresent God. Not in one God who is divided into three “parts” and certainly not a God who ever manifested Himself in a human being. That’s just… no.

Thanks, but We’ll Atone for Our Own Sins

The third thing Jews reject about the Christian idea of Jesus is this idea that he was the “sacrificial lamb” who died to atone for the Original Sin and all subsequent sins of humanity, replacing the need for animal sacrifices for atonement.

First of all–we have a very different concept of what the Original Sin was and what it means for humanity. You can read more about that here. In short: we don’t believe anyone is born “tainted” with it and we don’t believe atonement for it is necessary. We believe people are judged by God according to the choices they make during their lives, not according to an ill-advised bite of fruit taken by an ancestor thousands of years ago.

Second of all–we already have a way to atone for our sins. It’s called teshuva, and it is a deeply personal process that only the sinner can do for himself. You can read more teshuva about here.

Third of all–atonement sacrifices were only one kind of animal sacrifice, and as far as we’re concerned, those are still “on.” Most of us (Orthodox Jews) believe that when the Temple is restored we’re going to go right ahead and do those again. Replacing them with a dude who was actually God and sacrificed himself was definitely never on the agenda.

So If He Was Just a Guy–What Kind of a Guy Was He?

Right. So here’s where things can get a little hairy.

Jewish opinions on this range from the most generous: “He was a kind teacher who was misguided in his teachings, but they brought the world to an awareness of One God, more or less, and for that we can be grateful” to “He was a horrible person who defied his rabbis and tricked hundreds of people.”

The latter opinion I read in an essay in a collection of Jewish responses to missionaries, and I found it rather harsh. I tend to lean towards the liberal side, but… again, I don’t really spend a lot of time and effort thinking about this. I don’t actually care what kind of a guy he was. He’s not relevant to my life.

Why Jews Get Prickly When Christians Ask Us This Question

I really believe that most people who ask this question are genuinely curious and have the best of intentions. I’m even willing to forgive the gentle missionizing I’ve gotten here or there–“You really should read the New Testament, I think it will be very meaningful for you” type things. I know this comes from a genuine concern for my soul, as according to traditional Christian theology, I’m going to end up in Hell for all eternity after I die for believing all the things stated above. They don’t want that to happen to me. I really do appreciate the concern.

But.

Let’s be frank: it was not so very long ago that Christians were burning us at the stake “out of concern for our souls.” Like, yes, I do believe many of them were genuinely concerned and acting out of what they thought was kindness, but… my appreciation has limits, mmkay?

In medieval Europe Jews were forced to sit in our own synagogues and listen to preachers lecturing about Jesus and salvation as part of a general strategy to get Jews to convert. Those days are over. If anyone, however well-meaning, starts aggressively proselytizing me, I am going to walk away. Because it’s the 21st century and I can do that now without getting my throat slit.

Therefore, if I just met someone, and they ask me what I think about Jesus, I will be on edge. I never know what their next question or statement is going to be. It’s not at all unlikely that it will contain some subtle or not-so-subtle attempt at soul-saving. And that’s gonna be awkward for everybody.

Speaking of which, a note to our readers: any comments to that effect will be deleted. You’re not going to change my mind about Jesus. Ever. Don’t waste your time.

“Jews for Jesus”

There is an unfortunate movement you may have heard of that calls itself “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Judaism.”

I prefer to call them, “Christians Posing as Jews.”

This group claims to be Jews who merely accept Jesus as the Messiah. They use Jewish lingo, Jewish symbolism, and Jewish rituals. But in practice, these people are not Jews, they are Christians. Many of them are not ethnically or halakhically Jewish and have no religious Jewish background. They claim outwardly to believe only that Jesus was the Messiah, but their beliefs about him are actually consistent with Christianity. They are aggressive missionizers and prey on lonely Jews with little knowledge. I know a few people who got involved with them and had a very difficult time getting out.

It may surprise you to hear me speak so harshly about a religious group. While I may have my disagreements with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, et al, I don’t have a problem with people who practice their faiths in earnest.

But you know me; if there’s one thing I have zero tolerance for, it’s dishonesty.

These people claim to be a stream of Judaism. They are not. They are, at best, a group of people who think they are following Judaism but are actually Christians. At worst, they are a deceitful stream of Christianity that is trying to save Jewish souls by pretending that Christianity and Judaism are not mutually exclusive.

I am not cool with that.

What I am cool with, is Christians celebrating their own faith and traditions. So on that note, a blessed Holy Week to you and all who celebrate, and Chag Sameach to all our Jewish readers!

Love,

Daniella

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, Pt. 3!

Yes, ladies and gents, it’s time for yet another Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet!

Every so often I like to collect some interesting, funny, or strange search terms that led people to my blog and respond to them in a post. In case you missed them, here is Part I, and here’s Part II. Enjoy!

“what are the jewish people with the furry circle hats called”

Those would be the Hassidim. The furry hats are called “streimels,” and are usually only worn on Shabbat and holidays. More about Hassidism here, and more about stuff Jews put on their heads here.

“why is jerusalem most treasured”

Well, I see you found my post called Why Jerusalem Matters, which answers that question pretty well–at least, why Jerusalem is so treasured by the Jewish people. The short answer is that it was home to our Holy Temple, which was the focal point of our religion in Biblical times.

Jerusalem bears significance for Christians in the context of Jesus’s life, death, and (according to their beliefs) resurrection. It is important to Muslims because of the Dome of the Rock, where, they believe, Mohammed ascended to Heaven.

“facts about zionism odd practises” / “weird zionist jewish traditions”

Well, Zionism doesn’t really have “practices” or “traditions” because it’s not a religion or culture, it’s a form of nationalism. These days it is often used by antisemites when what they really mean is Judaism. Because apparently these days it is frowned upon to hate someone for their religion, but it is totally A-okay to hate someone for their politics. (…???)

So let me make this clear: Zionism is nothing more than the belief that the Jewish people has a right to self-determination in its ancestral homeland. You can be Jewish without being a Zionist, and you can be Zionist without being Jewish.

There are some Israeli national traditions, but I don’t think any of them are particularly weird. I mean, there’s the fact that they like to have ceremonies for everything, and the thing about reading bad poetry at every event, but that’s for another time.

“what do you say in hebrew against haman and hitler”

Oh I know I know! Jews often add “yimach shmo,” which literally means “may his name be obliterated,” after saying the name of an evil person. As a kid I thought you weren’t even allowed to mention Hitler’s name without adding yimach shmo.

“can religious people be good at sex”

*cough*

Yes.

Better than secular people, according to research.

Next!

“jewish sexuality sheet”

OH DON’T GET ME STARTED.

Okay, you got me started.

As I explain here, there is a prevalent myth that Jewish couples have sex through a hole in the sheet, and it is absolutely, 100% false.

Jewish tradition views sex as a powerful force that can be either incredibly positive and sacred or incredibly destructive, depending on how it is used. The positive aspect isn’t just about childbearing, either. In the proper context, sex creates intimacy and enhances the sacred bond between a man and his wife. It’s not that different from the way we enjoy delicious feasts during the Sabbath and the holidays. We believe that the pleasures of this world, channeled for holiness, themselves become holy.

“things jews like”

Piña coladas and getting caught in the rain?

Okay, seriously though: Jews are people (contrary to what certain headlines on CNN may imply) and as such we have as wide-ranging tastes as any other group of people.

Still, if one must generalize, we do appear to have these loves in common:

  • Arguing
  • Eating
  • Complaining
  • Trying to save the world
  • Dark humor

“jewish custom open book random”

So there is a kabbalistic thing about opening the Tanakh to a random page to help make decisions or determine things. It’s called “Goral HaGra,” the “Lot of the Gaon of Vilna.” The method involves opening the Tanakh to a random page and following the last verse on the page; or, if it doesn’t answer the question, taking the last letter of the verse, and looking for another verse that begins with that letter on the same page.

The story goes that Rabbi Aryeh Levine used this method to identify the remains of 12 soldiers who were killed during the War of Independence. They were 12 of the 35 soldiers who were sent to reinforce Gush Etzion, and were astronomically outnumbered and massacred by the Arab army. They were buried hurriedly because of the conditions of the war, and later, when they were exhumed and moved to a more respectable gravesite, some of them were impossible to identify. (This was before the days of DNA identification!) The families asked the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, what to do, and he recommended Goral HaGra. Rabbi Ariyeh Levine, a well-known and beloved rabbi in Jerusalem, was assigned the task.

I wouldn’t exactly rely on it when deciding, like, what stocks to invest in, or something. But all things being equal, I guess it beats asking an 8 ball?

There is also the following Chabad custom: to “ask the Rebbe a question” by writing him a letter, folding it up, giving to charity, and sticking the letter randomly into a book of his letters. They then open the book and read the letter on the page where their letter landed.

“most weird ritual in jews”

I have to choose one?

Hmmm.

I mean… this is a very subjective question. I was raised with all these rituals, so there are things that seem totally normal to me that are really weird for other people. I guess if I had to choose one, I’d point to taking the Four Species during Succot. That one is pretty weird.

“how to wrap a pashmina on head jewish”

Well, all right.

(Here’s the post I tried and failed to link to in the video: A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear)

“hourly miracles that are keeping israel safe”

I don’t know about revealed ones, but hundreds of hidden miracles are keeping Israel safe every minute of every day! Nothing else explains why we’re still here!

“i love shmita”

Oh. That’s cool. Honestly I have mixed feelings about shmita. Like, there are aspects to it that are awesome and all, but some that are a pain in the butt or downright scary.

“im not ok letter”

Oy. I hope you’re okay now.

“how to indotruce topic o holocaust to children”

I do indeed have a post that answers this question! Here it is. I hope you found it useful.

“blessings from hair judaism”

Blessings… from… hair.

…Nope. I got nothin’. Sorry.

“basically anyone israel doesn’t like is an amalekite”

Mmmmmno. There are people who toss around the word “Amalek” the way people toss around the word “Nazi” to describe anyone they don’t like, and I think this is a very dangerous and destructive overuse of both terms.
Amalek, as a nation, is extinct. But we believe that the spiritual heirs of Amalek live on. These are not just anyone we don’t like; they are people who subscribe to the worldview that is the antithesis of everything Judaism stands for: equality, justice, and compassion. I go into more detail in this post.

“rrurh pitorri de morais”

What language is that even?

When I Googled “Rrurh” I found an entry from a Google book that had mistakenly digitized the word “truth” as “rrurh.” There’s a river in Germany called Ruhr?

Perhaps it’s supposed to be a Spanish name? The “de Morais” part sounds right, “Pitorri” sounds a bit Italian maybe?

Maybe Rrurh is the German child of an Italian immigrant who married a Spanish woman?

I’m gonna write a whole novel about this.

“israeli soldiers get book of psalms”

Actually they get a whole Tanakh (which includes the book of Psalms).

When Jewish soldiers are sworn in to the IDF, they receive a Tanakh as a gift from the state. Non-Jewish soldiers receive a holy book of their choosing (usually a Qur’an for Muslims and a Christian Bible for Christians; Druze soldiers receive a medallion, because their holy book is secret!).

At least when I was a sixth-grader, we received a Tanakh as a gift from the state for graduating elementary school. I guess they expect us to lose it in the six years between?

Any other questions?! Do feel free to ask!

How to Deal with Offensive Rabbinic Texts–and Not Be a Jerk About It

Dear Josep,

The other day my friend Yehoshua sent me a question that he thought might be a good discussion for the blog. He says [my explanations in brackets]:

“A friend of mine shared a video of some women mocking a charedi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbi who was giving a daf yomi shiur [Talmud class]. The sugya [topic of discussion] was in Ketubot 75a, and was discussing physical deformities, which if not disclosed prior to marriage would be grounds for divorce without a ketuba [meaning the husband wouldn’t need to hold to the marriage contract and pay the wife the money he committed to paying her in the event of divorce]. At some point, the Gemara starts discussing women’s breasts: how much of a gap between them would be considered a physical deformity, and then continues to discuss if a woman’s breasts are significantly different in size from other women’s. In this video photos of naked women with clearly Photoshopped breasts were displayed next to the rabbi’s head while he was discussing the passage. I found this to be extremely offensive, while at the same time I understood why whoever created the video was offended by the rabbi and chazal [the Sages]. How do you explain the Gemara to a non-believer who encounters these types of passages? How do you respond when someone creates an offensive video that mocks a passage in your holy texts, which on the surface is actually offensive? I’d appreciate your input on this.”

So there are two issues here, and I will address them separately.

#1: How to Criticize Someone’s Religion Without Being a Jerk

The first issue is that someone made this video with the sole purpose of offending and shaming, and not with the purpose of starting a conversation.

Look, whoever made this video: I understand that you found this class ridiculous and offensive. But mocking and offending people who think differently from you is not a mature or productive way of critiquing their ideas. Only cowards use shaming and ridicule to prove a point. All you are doing is making yourself look like a jerk.

If you want anyone to actually take you seriously and respect you and your opinions, you’re going to have to be willing to engage in a respectful conversation. That means:

  1. Not automatically assuming that you are superior to the person you are criticizing. Because you aren’t. And even if you were, being condescending only reflects badly on you and makes everyone less likely to respect you.
  2. Being genuinely open to hearing the other side. Start from the assumption that they have something valuable to say. Be curious. You might learn something.
  3. Criticizing the idea, not the person or people who stand behind it.
  4. Not discounting the value of an entire religion, religious text, or system of ideas because of one aspect of it you don’t like. It’s called, “not seeing the world in black and white,” also known as “thinking like a mature adult.”
  5. Not using wording or imagery that is offensive to the person with whom you are engaging. The message that conveys is that it’s not okay for their religious texts to offend you, but it’s okay for you to offend them. I believe we call that, “being a hypocrite.”

Now. Let’s pretend what happened here was that someone wrote my friend Yehoshua an e-mail that read:

Dear Yehoshua,

I came across a video of a rabbi teaching a class about a passage in the Talmud that discusses women’s bodies in a way I found very offensive. It disturbs me very much to think that the religion you practice is based on texts that discuss women’s bodies this way. Assuming, based on what I know of you, that you are a person who respects women, I wonder how you can reconcile your respect for women with the ideas discussed in this text.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Thanks,

Skeptical Secular Person

#2: Dealing with Offensive Passages in Rabbinic Texts

I discussed my thoughts on Torah passages that I find hard to swallow in my post, “Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can.” The thing is, there I was discussing texts that we believe come straight from God. When we’re talking about rabbinic teachings, the belief that “God knew what He was doing, even if I don’t understand, and maybe part of the purpose was to make me question and struggle with this” doesn’t apply that well. One can argue that God gave the authority to the Sages to make rulings (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) and therefore whatever they say is basically the same as what He said, but the distinction between Torah law (d’orayta in Aramaic) and rabbinic law (d’rabbanan) is one that is recognized in halakha. While we do see following mitzvot d’rabbanan in general as being a mitzvah d’orayta, there is more wiggle room within their application. One of the important principles of halakha is “safek d’orayta l’ḥumra, safek d’rabbanan l’kula“–when there is a question or uncertainty in halakha, if the matter concerns a Torah law, the tendency is to take the more stringent view, whereas our tendency in the case of a rabbinic law is to be more lenient.

Anyway. There are a few things I think it’s important to take into account when approaching problematic passages like the one mentioned in the video.

1) Historical Context

These passages were written hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Respect for women was not at its pinnacle in that day. You have to understand that up until extremely recently, marriage was primarily a financial transaction. The Jewish institution of marriage was progressive for its time in that it acknowledged women as being more than just property, granting them certain rights. But it wasn’t what we think of as the ideal, egalitarian marriages today. In most cases, the bride and groom were not friends or acquaintances before they were betrothed. In many cases they only saw each other briefly before the wedding. For their purposes, this passage in the Talmud discusses a financial transaction under false pretenses. Being physically healthy/not deformed was important information in that context, and hiding a deformity was considered dishonest conduct. The discussion here is to draw the perimeters around what qualifies as a deformity so that a man wouldn’t just randomly decide that he doesn’t like how his wife looks and claim that she is deformed so he could divorce her without giving her compensation.

This doesn’t make it okay. It doesn’t mean the passage isn’t sexist and objectifying. It is. It just means that you can start from the assumption that they were doing the best they could with what they had at the time. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is rife with antisemitic tropes. Shakespeare had most likely never met a Jew in his life; he was reflecting an idea within his society of what Jews were. He even made the character of Shylock somewhat complex with his “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” That doesn’t make it okay and it doesn’t make the play less antisemitic. But it makes me more understanding and forgiving of Shakespeare for doing the best he could with what he had.

2) The Nature of Talmudic Discourse

Remember how I mentioned that the word “Talmudic” has two definitions in the English dictionary–one being “of or relating to the Talmud” and the other being “characterized by or making extremely fine distinctions; overly detailed or subtle; hairsplitting”?

Not to mention, "prone to causing fistfights between old bearded men." Detail from a painting by Austrian painter Carl Schleicher (1825-1903) {PD}
Not to mention, “prone to causing fistfights between old bearded men.”
Detail from “A Controversy Whatsoever in the Talmud” by Carl Schleicher (1825-1903) {PD}

If the Sages are arguing over exactly how many degrees  below the horizon (and from which vantage point, and from what elevation!) the sun must be to count as “sunset” … why shouldn’t they be arguing over what might be considered a deformity at the same level of detail? No topic is off-limits for discussion in halakha. The major issue we have with this passage is that it’s an intimate discussion of a woman’s body in a way that is objectifying. But the Talmud is full of dispassionate discussions of various parts and functions of human anatomy and physiology–male and female–because halakha permeates absolutely every aspect of life and every detail is important.

Moreover, sometimes the Talmud brings ridiculous and extreme examples that no one in their right minds would actually believe could happen. Sometimes this is a rhetorical device by which the Sages sort of “frame the perimeters” of a halakha. Sometimes it’s there to make a different point altogether, or address another kind of situation in a roundabout way. I highly doubt that anyone ever in the history of Judaism walked up to a rabbinic judge and held a ruler up to his wife’s chest to get out of paying her for a divorce, and I doubt that the rabbis who sat around debating this actually thought they’d ever see such a thing happen.

3) The Talmud Is Not the Final Word

Jewish law did not start with the Talmud, and it doesn’t end with the Talmud either. In fact, the compilation of the Talmud itself was a capitulation. There was originally a prohibition to write down the Oral Torah, precisely because the Oral Law was supposed to be a continuous discussion between teacher and student–not doctrine set in stone. (If you have no idea what I mean by Oral Torah, click here.) The way the modern application of halakha works is that it filters down from the Torah, through the Talmud, then through the rabbinical authorities of each age, right down to the rabbis making halakhic decisions right this very second. The final word in halakha ideally belongs to a living person.

Inevitably, there were ideas that came up in the past 2,000 years that didn’t pass the test of time, but are still preserved in our ancient writings. The Talmud also says that a women burning her husband’s food can be grounds for divorce. Obviously, that is not applied today. It is only one of many ideas in the Talmud that are not applicable in modern halakha (according to mainstream Orthodox Judaism).

One might ask what value there is in preserving these problematic passages, and why we don’t discard them. Or even if we don’t discard them–why are we still discussing and teaching them, if they are rejected by most halakhic authorities today? It’s a good question, and I think the answer is that we don’t like to get rid of things. 😛 Especially not rabbinic writings, because we see them as having inherent value, even if we find elements of them problematic or offensive today. This passage in general is a discussion about a financial transaction under false pretenses, and there is a lot of important information and ideas in it even if some of them make our stomachs turn. As to whether we should be teaching them, that’s a judgement call on the part of the particular school or teacher.

The bottom line is, these kinds of passages make most modern Orthodox Jews uncomfortable too. Some respond to them with apologetics; some just ignore them; and some, like myself, face them, struggle with them, and ultimately accept them as part of an imperfect system that we believe is the best we’ve got. Some, unfortunately, use them as a basis for their own backwards, sexist, racist etc. worldviews. Like anything, it depends a lot more on the person reading than on the text itself.

Yeah, I know that makes this issue about as clear as mud. Welcome to Judaism. 😛

Love,

Daniella


Do you have any questions or thoughts you’d like me to address in a letter to Josep? Feel free to ask in the comments, use the contact form, or just shoot me an e-mail at letterstojosep[at]gmail[dot]com.

The Battleground of Good and Evil: Human Nature in Judaism and Christianity

Prefer to listen? I read this letter for the Jewish Geography podcast:


 

Dear Josep,

One of the major philosophical differences I have noted between Christianity and Judaism is our concept of the nature of man, what he is capable of, and what he needs in order to elevate himself above the darker aspects of his nature.

When I first encountered this difference I was skeptical. I was educated from a strong Jewish perspective, so I was aware that anything anybody said about Christianity was sure to cast it in a negative light. Therefore, I thought that maybe those who had taught me about this aspect of Christianity had been exaggerating it. But the more I learned about the fundamental principles of Christianity, the more I realized that this difference does exist; and that maybe the fact that I see it as a negative aspect attests to how deeply ingrained the opposite idea is in my belief system.

The root of the disagreement is in how we interpret the results of what Christians call the Original Sin, the sin of Adam and Eve.

It was definitely not an apple. According to Jewish tradition, God did not reveal what type of tree it was so it would not be shunned on earth, but rumor among the Sages has it that it was a fig tree.
A 15th-century depiction. For the record, Jews do not believe it was an apple tree. According to Jewish tradition, God did not reveal what type of tree it was so it would not be shunned on earth, and there are (of course…) a variety of opinions as to what type of tree it was. Some say grapevine; some say fig; some say a stalk of wheat; and some say citron (yes, that fruit we use during Succot).

Both Christians and Jews agree that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it fundamentally changed the nature of man, his purpose and goals, and the nature of the world in which he lived. We also both believe that the sin caused some kind of intermingling, or “tainting,” of humankind with evil. But what Christians believe this means is that man can never redeem himself from his inherent evil; that it is part of his essence, from which he can never escape on his own. The only way to redeem oneself from it, Christianity says, is “salvation through Christ.” That is, that God manifested Himself in His son–Jesus–who then suffered and died on the cross to atone for that original sin. All you have to do to redeem yourself from evil, then, is to accept Jesus. (Obviously, different streams of Christianity have different ideas about exactly how to do that and what it means, but that’s the basic idea.) That way, God will grant you salvation and grace.

It took me years and a lot of reading to fully wrap my head around that concept, because it is just so foreign to me.

So here’s what Jews believe about the sin of Adam and Eve.

The Tree of Knowledge is actually not exactly an accurate translation of what the tree is called in Genesis. In the text, it is called “עץ הדעת טוב ורע,” “the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” But the word for “knowledge,” “דעת,” does not simply mean “knowledge” as in wisdom, awareness, understanding, or the retention of information. “דעת” implies a deep intermingling, synthesis, and connection. When the Torah says a man “knew” his wife and then she became pregnant, it’s not just a euphemism; “knowledge” in that context is describing a deep connection. A more accurate translation of the name of the tree, then, would be “the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.”

So the effect of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil was not simply to give man “knowledge,” but to cause an intertwining of good and evil within man. Before eating from the fruit of the Tree, evil did not exist within man. It was embodied in the snake, which was an external source of doubt and rebellion against God.

In Judaism we have a concept of the “good inclination” and the “evil inclination”–yetzer tov and yetzer ra respectively. This is what we call these opposite forces that exist within us, the yetzer tov pulling us to strive for Godliness, and the yetzer ra pulling us towards our base desires. We believe that man lives with a constant conflict between these inclinations. The real essence of our soul, our higher self, is really the yetzer tov; that is how God originally created us. The yetzer ra was the result of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree. It was no longer externalized as the snake. It became an integral part of the nature of Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit.

Our goal, our purpose, in life and in the world, is to overcome the yetzer ra–first within ourselves, and then outside ourselves, in the world at large. We believe that man is capable of this–that indeed, this is the mission God endowed us as people and especially as Jews. We do not need God’s salvation to overcome the evil within us, Judaism says. It is a constant struggle, but we believe that our job is to do it ourselves.

That said, God does help us out in a number of ways. The most important way, according to Judaism, was the giving of the Torah. The Torah is essentially a guidebook on overcoming the yetzer ra on a personal and societal level, and that is really the purpose of the mitzvot–to help us attain that goal. That is why the Torah is represented in the Garden of Eden, and later symbolically referred to, as the Tree of Life. The “fruits” of the Torah–the mitzvot–are the antidote to the fruits of the Tree of the Synthesis of Good and Evil.

"For a tree of life is she to those who cling to her, and those who hold on to her will be happy" (Proverbs 3:18)
“For a tree of life is she to those who cling to her, and those who hold on to her shall be happy” (Proverbs 3:18)

Jews and Christians agree that there were additional punishments God gave Adam and Eve because of their sin. He banished them from the Garden of Eden; he made them mortal; he cursed both Adam and Eve with the difficulty of labor–Adam, laboring for bread, and Eve, laboring for children. My interpretation of the significance of these punishments is that they were direct consequences of the synthesis of good and evil within man. God created the world in order to bestow His goodness upon it. But now, because good and evil were hopelessly intertwined, man would have to work hard to overcome the evil and attain the Godliness that he was created to receive. He could no longer sit in paradise and bask in God’s light. He needed to search for it and work for it, in a world where it was no longer obvious and tangible.

While this sounds like quite a bummer, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points something out in his work, “A World of Love,” that reveals the unique power of a world in which good and evil can mingle. In the spiritual world, he says, proximity is determined by similarity. That is, if we wish to become close to God spiritually, we must become more like Him. The less we are like Him, the farther away from Him we are. By that understanding, in the spiritual world, nothing could possibly be farther away from good than evil. They are completely opposite and therefore can never engage with one another.

But spiritual matter can be anchored to physical matter–such as a soul to a body. And in the physical world, things that are evil can exist in very close proximity to things that are good. In that sense, then, this world, in which good and evil intermingle, is the only place where good can overcome evil. Our world is sort of a battleground between these two opposite forces, and we, human beings, are the soldiers on either side; it is up to us to choose which side. This battle wages within our hearts, but as you can clearly see, it also wages fiercely outside us, between different groups of humans who are making different choices about how to relate to the good and evil within themselves.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas more deeply, I highly recommend giving “A World of Love” a slow and careful read. It can be read online in its entirety here, or you can buy a copy of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “If You Were God,” which includes this essay along with “If You Were God” (which I have referenced before and is also mind-blowing) and “Immortality of the Soul.”

But for now, back to human nature according to Judaism and Christianity.

The reason I was inspired to write about this was a little post on Brain Pickings about Dr. Viktor Frankl. Now, if you have never heard of this man or his iconic work, “Man’s Search for Meaning“… well then I don’t even know what to do with you because if anyone on earth should have read that book it’s you! Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles Dr. Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camp with a focus on his observations regarding the effect of the inmates’ attitudes on their survival, and goes on to describe the psychotherapeutic method he developed as a result of his observations, which he called “logotherapy.” His overarching idea is that more than anything else, man strives for a sense of purpose and meaning to his life, and that when he feels that his life has meaning, he can withstand even the most horrific conditions. And no one is more qualified than a survivor of Auschwitz to attest to that.

…Seriously. If you haven’t read it, get on that, pronto. It’s pretty short.

Anyway, the post on Brain Pickings brought a five-minute video excerpted from a lecture of Dr. Frankl’s, in which he says, “If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him… we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way–because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.”

No wonder the Nazis tried to get rid of him. What a quintessentially Jewish idea.

Humans are not static; we are constantly evolving. You can’t give a precise measurement of a person’s goodness or potential, because these things are in constant flux. And when we believe in each other and in ourselves, believe that we are all capable of being better than we currently are, we create a supportive reality for ourselves to actually attain that potential. In essence, he is saying that the higher our expectations and hopes for ourselves, the higher we can reach.

That is why I find the Christian concept of the Original Sin and the inherent sinfulness of man so discouraging. Because in a sense, Christianity is telling us that we cannot make ourselves more than we are; only God can do that. And I much prefer to believe that I have the ability to overcome my darker nature and become a better person. But I can see something comforting in the Christian idea, too. When you don’t have the capacity to redeem yourself of sin, you don’t have that responsibility, either. You can (and indeed, must) hand it over to the priest, or to Jesus, or to God. We Jews don’t have that option. We have to take full responsibility for ourselves and our natures. A rabbi can only council us, he can’t absolve us of sin. God will only cleanse us of sin if we are willing to change ourselves, as I explained in my letter on teshuva. We must constantly struggle, believing that we have the capacity to overcome. This (among many other things!) makes Judaism a much more challenging and demanding approach to life. And obviously I am totally biased, but in my view–it’s well worth it. The reward of achieving something you have worked for is sweeter than any gift someone could give you.

Much love,

Daniella


ETA: Josep wishes to register his indignation at the very suggestion made in this post that he may not have read Man’s Search for Meaning. 😉 It was assigned as required reading when he was in middle school, around the time they took him to see Schindler’s List, and he remembers it as an extremely emotionally harrowing read.

Happily Ever After: The Jewish Messiah

Dear Josep,

So as we rise from the floor this afternoon and begin to ease ourselves out of deep mourning for the Temple, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look to the future, and write about what it is that we are praying for and hoping for when we talk about rebuilding it.

Let’s start from the beginning: what does “messiah” mean? It comes from the Hebrew word משיח, meshiaḥ, which means “anointed.” Back in the days of the Bible, you didn’t “crown” a king, you “anointed” him with oil. King Saul, the first King of Israel, was anointed this way, as was King David. So the Messiah will be a king–a human king–from the line of King David, who will reestablish the Kingdom of Israel in the Holy Land.

The same prophets who predicted the destruction of the Temple (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah were the big three, but there were more) also foretold the coming of the Messiah. They described him as an individual with great wisdom and sensitivity, who will bring universal peace and justice. They described him rebuilding the Temple–one that will stand forever, and not be destroyed like the previous two. They described the Messiah ushering in a new era, where all of humankind will know God and be aware of Him, and recognize the Jews as His chosen people. The Messiah will facilitate an “ingathering of the exiles”; Jews from all over the world will return to our homeland to establish the renewed Kingdom of Israel. We will stop being a hated and persecuted minority we still are today, and will reestablish our role as a nation of priests, who will be teachers and spiritual leaders for the rest of humanity. And people from all over the world will come to see the Temple–“a house of prayer for all nations”–and serve God there. Some scholars believe that the redemption will come about through miraculous means; others, including Maimonides, believe that it will happen in accordance with the laws of nature. Humanity will be at a completely different spiritual level, and the near tangible presence of God will again be felt at the Temple, where the human and the Divine will embrace. Prophecy–which, according to Jewish belief, stopped existing after the destruction of the first Temple–will return, with the Messiah being the first new prophet. And the world will be a place of harmony, peace, and love.

Cue doves, rainbows, and Handel's "Hallelujah."
Cue doves, rainbows, and laughing children.

Now, reading this description, it’s fairly clear why Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Simple: none of this happened. Not in his lifetime, and not in the 2,000 years since. He did not fulfill any of these prophesies. Now, Christian scholars would obviously disagree with me; they would interpret the same texts differently, and say that all this will come true when Jesus returns in a “second coming.” But none of the prophets mentioned anything about the Messiah dying and then disappearing for a few millennia before coming back and fulfilling the prophesies. And then y’all started with the Trinity business…. and the thing about him dying for our sins… and that stuff is totally off the map of Jewish beliefs, so… yeah. The Jewish Messiah is not supposed to be Divine. He’s supposed to be a human king and a prophet, just like David and Saul. And there is no connection between him and atonement. That all goes down on Yom Kippur. But we’ll be talking about repentance and atonement next month. 😉

Anyway. I think it is also fairly obvious from the above description why religious Zionists (such as myself) believe that the establishment of the State of Israel is a step along the way to the fulfillment of those prophesies. We have seen an “ingathering of the exiles”; we have seen the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for the first time in 2,000 years; we have seen the miraculous reunification of the city of Jerusalem; we have seen the land turn from a desolate wasteland into a thriving, fertile land flowing with milk and honey. We have even seen the Hebrew language, once a stagnant, archaic language reserved mostly for Jewish scholarship (not unlike today’s Latin), turn into a living, breathing vernacular. These phenomena are baffling to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s impossible. And yet, it happened.

Still, going from the return of the Jews to their ancestral land–a phenomenon described as “spooky” by Nobel Prize laureate and physicist Leon Lederman–to a vision of all humanity living in peace and harmony and uniting around a single idea and belief in God is… quite a stretch.

Personally, I think of the Messianic Era as the culmination of everything we as humans are striving for… and towards which have already been advancing at breakneck pace, even though it may not feel like it. Because of how “plugged in” we are and how fast news spreads, violence, bloodshed and turmoil seem worse than ever before, but the fact is that they aren’t. There is actually much less violence in the world today than there was a hundred, certainly two hundred years ago. Though the Middle East is falling to pieces and some crazy stuff is going down, it’s a mere blip in the general trend, which is of a sharp decline in violence and oppression. We are so horrified by beheading and drowning videos, not because that type of cruelty is unprecedented, but because it has become so uncommon that we are not used to it. Think about it. Executions–beheadings, hangings, etc.–were a popular form of public entertainment less than two hundred years ago. And that’s without getting into the kinds of horrific things people used to do to each other in the Middle Ages and in the Roman Empire.

So, while we are very, very far from the “beating our swords into plowshares” thing, I don’t think it’s completely crazy to believe that sometime in the future, humanity will refine and improve itself to a point where the Messianic visions will no longer be visions, but reality. I believe that that’s why we are here. That God wants us to bring the world to that point through free choice and free will. And I believe that it is possible… and that we are on our way there.

"Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - “Slichot” Prayer (2)" by http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05 - http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/8005892765/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Flickr – Government Press Office (GPO) – “Slichot” Prayer (2)” by http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/8005892765/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I know it’s a pretty starry-eyed thing to be saying these days, especially from over here under the shadow of Daesh and a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. You know me… to my sorrow, I’m not the world’s most positive person, and sometimes (often) I despair, too. But if a nation could emerge from under the shadow of the Holocaust and turn this hunk of desert into a vibrant oasis of democracy and innovation after dreaming of Jerusalem for 2,000 years… who knows, Josep, who knows.

Love,

Daniella

Jewish by Choice: The Ins and Outs of Halakhic Conversion

Prefer to listen? This letter was featured on this episode of the Jewish Geography Podcast:


Dear Josep,

So, this blog’s been quite a downer the past couple of weeks. What can I say, it’s that time of year! We are in the midst of the Nine Days, leading up to the fast of Tisha B’Av, and I tend to experience these days as being… I dunno. Things just don’t seem to go right. Everything seems gloomier and more bleak. (…This may explain some things about a conversation we had recently, BTW. 😛 ) I don’t know if other Jews experience it this way.

Anyway, I thought I’d brighten things up a bit with a… less depressing topic 😛 I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who was adopted as a baby and was raised in a Reform Jewish family in the USA. When she participated in Jewish events at college, she was dismayed to find that the Orthodox Jewish rabbis there welcomed her as a “good friend to the Jews,” but not as an actual Jew. I expressed that I was sorry to hear that she felt they were looking down on her, and described how Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law makes things tricky; that it’s hard to hold the paradox of believing 100% in the authority of Jewish law, but also believing 100% in one’s right to define oneself, and 100% honoring one’s upbringing as a Jew.

She expressed interest in hearing more about the halakha on the matter, and I thought, “I feel a letter to Josep coming on…..” 😉 I did touch, very briefly, on the topic of Orthodox/halakhic conversion to Judaism on my post about the mikveh, but conversion definitely deserves its own letter.

So, let’s take it from the top:

Who Is A Jew by Birth?

This is the subject of much controversy, especially relevant in a country where your eligibility to citizenship depends on whether you are officially defined as a Jew. The Law of Return, which defines who is considered Jewish for Israeli citizenship purposes, is not a halakhic definition. You can become an Israeli citizen if you have a Jewish parent or grandparent, or if you are married to someone who falls under that definition. You cannot become an Israeli citizen if you were born to a Jewish parent or grandparent, but voluntarily changed your religion.

The halakhic definition for a Jew by birth is someone who was born to a Jewish mother. According to halakha, it does not matter if you convert to another religion–once you are Jewish, you are a Jew forever. But in order to be considered a Jew, you must either be born to a Jewish mother, or convert.

While I know it’s not very politically correct, I see it as great wisdom (Divine or rabbinic, whichever you think the law came from) to invest the responsibility of carrying on Jewish heritage specifically in the hands of mothers. You see very clearly in crypto-Jewish families that it was the women who passed on the traditions and raised their children as secret Jews. Think about it: almost all of those strange remnants of Jewish traditions you find in crypto-Jewish families are practices upheld primarily by women. Practices to do with cooking, like checking eggs for blood, burning a small amount of dough when baking bread, separating milk and meat, etc.; sweeping towards the center of the room; lighting Shabbat candles in secret–these are all part of a woman’s domain historically. It is not the only time the Torah acknowledges women as having more of a natural tendency to be faithful to God and the Torah.

This Awesome Stuff Is Mine

There is a cartoon on The Oatmeal called “How to Suck at Your Religion.” While I’m not a particular fan of the condescending attitude or the crude humor, it has some good points, and there is one part that is relevant to our discussion: “This is why I’m a fan of Buddhists and Jews. Their attitude is more like ‘I’m Jewish and this s*** is awesome. I don’t give a raging crap if you’re joining or not. In fact, you’re not allowed in. This awesome s*** is mine.’

LOL. Well, some might feel the opposite about the exact same thing, and claim that we are elitist snobs who think we are in some kind of special club that nobody can join. But that’s not true. You can join. We just don’t see any reason you should. 😛 We believe that all nations and religions have their own place in the world and their own special mission, and we have no problem with them as long as they observe the 7 Noahide Laws, which are the most basic laws of moral conduct (banning murder, sexual immorality, cruelty to animals, theft, idolatry, and cursing God, and requiring establishing a justice system to uphold the previous six). We don’t believe that keeping the Torah and all the obligations required of us as Jews is relevant to most of humanity, and we don’t think it makes sense to take on all these extra obligations when they are not required of you. Moreover, we’d rather not make someone into a Jew, only to have him not keep the Torah. So unlike the other major religions, we do not actively encourage conversion; we actually discourage it.

Basically, according to Orthodox law, you can only convert to Judaism if you absolutely cannot see yourself living any other way. And we have a specific policy to discourage converts–we call it “dissuasion”–which often manifests in making things more difficult than they have to be. You have to really, really want it.

What Does a Halakhic Conversion Entail?

First of all, living as a halakhically observant Jew, as I certainly hope you have gathered by now 😛 requires a lot of knowledge. You have to know how to properly observe Shabbat, getting into the minute details of the actions that are and are not forbidden. You have to know how to properly observe kashrut (about which I had to write three blog posts to list the very basics!). You have to know how to pray, what blessings to say on what, how to observe each of our bajillion holidays… the list goes on and on. My husband was not raised Orthodox, and he can attest to the difficult learning curve he went through after deciding to become religious. So the first thing you need to do when contemplating conversion, is study.

lot.

The duration of studying for conversion depends on the individual. For some, it can take a few months; for some, more than a year or even two. But it’s not enough to study in classes; you have to be immersed in a Jewish community and learn through practice, by seeing and experiencing life as a halakhically observant Jew. So potential converts usually have “adoptive families” in the community that take them in, host them for Shabbat and holidays, and generally teach them organically the way a child learns to observe the mitzvot from his family.

When the potential convert reaches a level of knowledge that would allow her to observe halakha fully, she appears before a panel of rabbinic judges, a beit din, who “drill” her on her knowledge of Judaism and halakha. If they rule that she is knowledgeable and sincere, she then goes to immerse in the mikveh, after which she is considered a full Jew.

I used “she” in the previous paragraph even though it applies to men as well, because for men, there is an extra step. Before immersing in the mikveh, male converts also must undergo circumcision. Obviously, this is not as simple a procedure as it is for an eight-day-old baby; it is done in a medical setting with local anesthesia. Well, you ask, what about men who were already circumcised? After all, many non-Jewish parents choose to circumcise their sons for medical or aesthetic reasons. The problem is that the circumcision must be performed by a Jew, with the intent of fulfilling the mitzvah. So if the original intent of the circumcision was medical or aesthetic, the male convert undergoes a ritual procedure of drawing a drop of blood from the area. This spiritually “repurposes” the procedure as a mitzvah.

What About Children?

The rule about the maternal line determining whether a child is a Jew applies at the moment of birth. So if a woman converts while pregnant, the child she gives birth to as a Jew is considered Jewish. However, if she converts after she has already had children, even tiny babies, they must undergo conversion, too. But because a child is not obligated in the mitzvot yet, there is no requirement to appear before a beit din. Moreover, a Jewish conversion has to be completely voluntary, but a child is not considered by halakha to have moral agency until he or she comes of age (bar/bat mitzvah–13 for a boy, 12 for a girl). So the conversion of a child is basically this: he or she is ritually immersed in the mikveh, and raised as a Jew. But when bar or bat mitzvah, he or she can choose whether s/he wants to “accept the yoke of Torah” or not. If the child decides s/he is Jewish, the symbolic conversion as a child stays in effect and the child is considered completely Jewish. If s/he doesn’t want to be Jewish, the conversion is retroactively annulled.

boy-801504
“I hereby accept upon myself the insanity that my parents accepted for me. And I’m lovin’ it.”

In terms of adoption, a child who was not born to a Jewish biological mother is not considered Jewish by halakha, even if s/he is adopted and raised by a committed Jewish family. So in this case s/he needs to undergo conversion, as above.

Gray Areas

I heard of a case recently where an entire family of ultra-Orthodox Jews found out that they were not actually halakhically Jewish because their maternal ancestor had not undergone what their rabbinic authority considered a proper conversion. Since it was clear that they intended to keep halakha and had adequate knowledge of it, they did not have to appear before a beit din, they just immersed in the mikveh.

In cases where there is some doubt about whether a conversion was performed properly, the person may choose to undergo a giur l’chumra, a “conversion for the sake of stringency.” It would basically be a condensed version of the conversion process, without the “dissuasion.”

What about Conservative and Reform Conversions?

The Conservative movement has a similar process of conversion, and in the past, since many times the people who sat on the Conservative batei din (rabbinic panels) kept Shabbat and kosher to Orthodox standards, some Orthodox authorities considered those conversions to be valid. Nowadays it’s trickier, and usually if someone underwent a Conservative conversion and wants to become Orthodox, he or she may choose to undergo another conversion under Orthodox supervision.

Reform conversions are different, varying from community to community on the exact procedure. They are generally not recognized by the Conservative movement, and are definitely not recognized by the Orthodox.

All Is Not Rosy

I have to add, from first-hand accounts, that the rabbinic courts can make life very, very difficult for converts or for adoptive parents, and unnecessarily so. There are sometimes a lot of ugly politics, and this problem is tenfold in Israel, where the Rabbinate holds the authority over marriage, divorce and conversion, and can be picky about whose conversions they accept as valid. (Marriages among people of other religions are handled by their religious authorities.) If the Rabbinate does not consider you Jewish, you can’t marry a Jew in Israel. Couples like this often travel to Cyprus or elsewhere to get married.

On the one hand, I believe that the Rabbinate has good intentions and is trying to prevent major rifts in the Jewish people. On the other hand, I believe that given that Israel is a secular state, there should be an option for civil marriage for people who do not wish to go through the Rabbinate. I don’t think that the situation as it is now prevents intermarriage or other unions that the Rabbinate disapproves of; I think all it does is make people hate the Rabbinate and the religion they represent. And I already went on a rant about my views on gay marriage in a secular state, so I don’t have to run off on that tangent here.

The issue of who is considered halakhically Jewish, especially in a world where a majority of Jews do not follow halakha and accept a more liberal definition of Judaism, is a very sensitive and sticky issue for all involved. The point of conflict for the friend who I mentioned at the top of the post is that she was born to a non-Jewish biological mother, and adopted by a Reform family that did not believe there was any need to convert her. So her family, her community, and of course she herself define her as Jewish, but halakha does not. I can only imagine how infuriating and demeaning it must feel to have somebody tell you that according to their beliefs, you are not what you have always known you are. 🙁 I wish there were a more comfortable middle ground.

…Ugh, I can’t end on another a sad note! I think we need a puppy.

pug-755533

There.

Love,

Daniella

Counting Up: The Omer and Lag B’Omer

Dear Josep,

This part of the year is chock full of notable events on the Jewish calendar. The next one coming up is Lag B’Omer, which is pretty much the most obscure holiday we have. But before we get into that, let’s back up a minute and talk about the Omer.

What is the Omer? Well, the word itself refers to a certain offering that was brought to the Temple at this time of year (omer ha’tenufah, “the sheaf of waving”). But it also lent its name to something we call “the counting of the Omer” (sefirat ha’omer).

Remember how we mentioned that the Exodus was basically the birthday of the nation of Israel? Sometimes it is also compared to the “betrothal” between God and the Israelites. The betrothal, or engagement, is an initial commitment that takes place before the eternal commitment of a marriage, right? So if the Exodus was the “betrothal”, the giving of the Torah–the seal of the eternal bond between us and God–is the “wedding”.

When a bride and groom are looking forward to their wedding, they often count the days left until the big day. That’s exactly what counting the Omer is–only when we count the Omer, we count up, instead of down.

“And you shall count from the day after the day of rest, from they day that you bring the omer ha’tenufa, seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days”  — Leviticus 23:15-16

It just so happens that I got married on the 47th day of the Omer–the 3rd of Sivan, 3 days before Shavuot. So that year that feeling of counting up in anticipation was very tangible for me! (Not to mention that one of my sons was born on the 49th day and another on the 48th three years later. A lot to count up to each year! 😉 )

The “day of rest” referred to in the above passage is the first day of Passover. So we begin the night after. Since this is a mitzvah, we make a blessing first, and then count the first day: “Today is one day of the Omer.” “Today is two days of the Omer,” etc. Note that the passage says to count both seven weeks, and fifty days; so we mention both when we count. For instance, today is day 25, so last night the formula went as follows: “Today is twenty and five days, that are three weeks and four days of the Omer.”

So why are we counting up instead of down?

Good question. 😛

According to the Kabbalah, there 10 ways that God expresses Himself in the universe. These attributes or emanations are called sefirot. Does that word sound familiar? 😉 They are, from highest to lowest: Keter/Da’at (crown/knowledge), Binah (understanding), Chokhma (wisdom), Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (might, discipline), Tiferet (beauty, glory), Netzach (eternity or mastery), Hod (splendor), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (sovereignty). These sefirot are arranged in a certain order, from the lowest and most material, to the highest and most spiritual. The lower seven are the ones that are expressed in our world.

The "sefirot" tree according to the Kabbalah. If you think this is complicated, you ain't seen nothin'.
The “sefirot” tree according to the Kabbalah. This one has eleven because it separates “keter” and “da’at” which are usually thought of as one. If you think this is complicated, you ain’t seen nothin’.

This is not the time or place to expound upon each one of these attributes, how they are expressed in the world and how we can recognize God through them. Kabbalah is a whole world unto itself and I don’t know much about it.

Anyway, each day of the Omer is associated with a different combination of sefirot. The first week is Chesed, lovingkindness, so the first day is “the chesed within the chesed“, the second day is “the gevurah (might/discipline) within the chesed“, etc.

The point of this is that it is an opportunity to examine the way each of these attributes is expressed through us. So for instance, today is “the netzach within the netzach“. Netzach can be interpreted as “eternity”, or “mastery”, or “endurance”. So on this day we can think about our endurance, our consistency, our fortitude, and try to improve these qualities within ourselves.

So let’s return to the question: why are we counting up? Because the idea is that with each day that passes from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai, we rise up a spiritual level. Today, we are on “level twenty-five”–halfway there! Tomorrow, we will be on “level twenty-six”. When we reach “level fifty”, we will be ready to re-accept the Torah. Using the “chart” of the sefirot is one way that we can help ourselves ascend the spiritual ladder that is the Omer.

Now. All this is very exciting and you’d think that this would be a joyous time of year. Right?

Well…

Around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a rabbi called Rabbi Akiva. He is mentioned often in the Talmud as one of the greatest and most influential teachers of his time. He had thousands of students. And at one time, there was a terrible plague that killed of 24,000 of his students during the first 33 days of the Omer. The Gemara states that this plague was wrought upon the students “because they did not honor one another”. For this reason, during the first 33 days of the Omer, it is customary to be in a sort of symbolic public state of mourning. We don’t cut our hair, don’t shave beards, don’t buy new clothing and don’t have weddings.

Now… one might ask, why all the fuss and bother over a bunch of students who died two thousand years ago? Haven’t there been worse disasters in our history that might be more deserving of public displays of mourning? Heck, if we commemorated every major disaster in our history we’d be in mourning every single day of the year.

Well, it’s a good question. And you know how we Jews sometimes like a good question better than we like a good answer? 😉 The answer is not very neat and easy to explain. People can take it in all kinds of different directions. One article I read went through the historical details of exactly what happened with the hypothesis that these students had the potential to reverse the destruction of the Temple and bring on the era of the Messiah, but that because they didn’t honor one another, they failed to do so and created an extremely unfortunate turning point in our history. This is the best explanation I have heard, and it’s worth taking a look at the article; lengthy, but worth it. 😉

So what is Lag B’Omer then? “Lag” is simply the number 33. Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, so 33 is ל”ג, which, sounded out, says “lag”. The 33rd day commemorates three things:

1) The end of the aforementioned plague;

2) The death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom the Zohar (the book of the Kabbalah) is traditionally attributed, so it’s a big day for Kabbalists;

3) The rebellion of Bar Kochva against the Romans (after the destruction of the Second Temple) began that day. (The rebellion eventually failed, but… the same way we feel pride about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which also eventually failed, we also feel pride about Bar Kochva’s uprising.) To communicate the beginning of the rebellion, Bar Kochva’s men lit bonfires to be seen by their colleagues…

And that is why Lag B’Omer is the most polluted day of the year in Israel.

Firing up Lag B'Omer in Tel Aviv. צילום: אורן פלס [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Firing up Lag B’Omer in Tel Aviv. These people are serious.
צילום: אורן פלס [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Because it has become a custom to light bonfires in honor of Bar Kochva that night. Now, Israelis love bonfires. It’s a big part of traditional kibbutz culture, and fits right in with the general Israeli love of being outside. (And didn’t I mention that Jews have a thing for fire? 😛 ) So this custom is a big hit even among totally secular Israelis.

Lag B’Omer is next week, so all the kids are hard at work collecting bonfire wood, hoarding it, and guarding it ferociously from other kids. When I was an older kid/young teen, I enjoyed going to bonfires with my friends, roasting meat and marshmallows in the flames and staying up late hanging around the fire.

But then I grew up, got sick of dealing with all the smoke, and became a curmudgeon along with my asthmatic husband 😛 so this is the only night of the year we keep all our windows closed and the air conditioner on all night. :-/

Love,

Daniella

Stranger in a Familiar Land

Dear Josep,

So we are back in Israel as of yesterday afternoon, and still trying to get over the jet lag and exhaustion from around 36 hours of travel (I know, boo hoo. Try doing it with three restless kids!) and get our act together because Passover–the Jewish holiday requiring the most intense preparation–is next Friday night. (Ahhhhhh!)

Being in the States was many things for many different reasons, but one thing that I felt there this time was… strange. Back when I was a kid and still a new immigrant, going back to the USA was a huge relief. When surrounded by people speaking Hebrew, I didn’t even realize how much I was straining to understand even when I wasn’t trying. It was only when I was surrounded with English again that I realized how much easier that was. And as you mentioned, Americans are so nice and upbeat when interacting with strangers. This used to be so refreshing for me.

This time, though, it was kind of exhausting. Israelis have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to friendliness and politeness. They don’t mind if I walk around as my usual pensive, antisocial self. 😛 I have the unfortunate combination of being both extremely curious about people different from me, and extremely shy, if not somewhat socially anxious, so I usually end up wondering about them and making up stories about them instead of striking up conversations. (This is where Eitan comes in handy. He “interviews” people for me, and I listen. 😉 )

Moreover, I felt extremely self-conscious in my long skirts and covered hair, next to my boys with their kippot and payot. I am no longer used to being a Jew in a primarily non-Jewish place. This may sound strange, but it adds pressure, because it means I become a representative of the Jewish people to the world. We are supposed to be “a light unto the nations”. It makes it that much more important to me to present myself as being kind, respectful, and generally a good human being. This is pretty challenging when you have three energetic little boys who are not used to, uh, non-Israeli standards of behavior. 😛 By Israeli standards, my kids are pretty well-behaved, but by American standards–let alone European standards–they can be a nightmare. (…I don’t know what your standards are, that you think my kids are so great, but you’ve always been an odd bird. 😛 )

This is not just my own quirk, either. There’s a mitzvah known as kiddush Hashem, “sanctification of the Name”, that specifically involves presenting yourself as a positive example of the Jewish people to the world. Throughout history, the whole Jewish nation has always been judged by the actions of the few–usually for the worse :-/ and that can be dangerous to all of us.

Practically speaking, when in the US, I experience this “ambassadorship” fairly often. Most Americans have a vague idea of what Jews are and know to categorize us that way, and we had quite a few “Shalom”s and other friendly comments indicating recognition. Other Jews tend to feel an automatic kinship with strangers they recognize as Jews, so we had some of those approach us, too. At one supermarket checkout counter, an African-American lady asked what our religion was and when we told her we are Jewish, she said “I have so many questions for you”. We asked for her information and promised to be in touch. (My father-in-law took this upon himself and said he’s going to send her a link to this blog. If you’re reading, say hi!)

This made me want to wear Jewish symbols outwardly so people would know what they were looking at. I’ve been wearing that gold Chai necklace of my grandmother’s pretty much every day since she was diagnosed (there’s a picture of it in this entry about Jewish symbols), but not everyone recognizes the Chai. Of course, the USA is pretty much the only place in the Diaspora where I could even consider proudly displaying a Jewish symbol. (This is what happens when you do that in France. 🙁 )

I often feel the same way about being an Israeli. I sometimes get friend requests on Facebook from random people in all kinds of random countries, and when I ask them to what I owe the pleasure, often it’s because they love and support Israel.

I am willing and proud to take on this role, but especially during these tough political times, it can be a heavy responsibility. As soon as I set foot on Israeli soil, I felt it lift from my shoulders somewhat. Here, I still represent something–observant Jewish women, American olim (immigrants), settlers, what have you, but that’s less pressure than the entire Jewish people and the whole state of Israel. Sometimes I wish I could just blend into the crowd. But I’m always going to stand out… not only because of my religion, nationality, and personal choices, but also because of my unusually high sensitivity and empathy, and sometimes it can be a burden.

We thought of you as we flew over Barcelona on our way back to Israel. I told H we were flying over Spain, and he said, “So Josep might see the airplane!” I chuckled and said you probably wouldn’t, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know it was us 😉

Lots of love,

Daniella

***

Blog readers: Yes, I still have an announcement, but give me a little more time to get settled 😉 In the meantime, have you ever felt that you are representing something to the world? What did that feel like?

Little Gifts

Dear Josep,

I’ve been thinking about sharing this song with you since it came out, around a year ago. It really captures the character of a Friday in Israel.

As you know, I am in the USA now, spending time with family. It’s a wonderful and crazy trip, and also pretty difficult. I don’t get to see my grandparents very often, and especially since my maternal grandmother was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, the trip has felt like a neverending series of joyful reunions only to be followed up with extremely painful goodbyes. Rabbi Judah the Levi (an 11th century Sephardic poet) writes, “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west…” and while I do feel that way and miss Israel dearly, I’m realizing that my heart is actually scattered in pieces all over the globe, many of whom are here. And being reunited with those pieces does bring joy, but it also emphasizes how much those pieces are missing in day to day life.

So… this song really speaks to me today. The music and performance are by Rami Kleinstein, and the lyrics were written by Noam Horev. Below is my translation.

Little Gifts

It’s another Friday
I breathe in the air
The light and the shadow are playing tag again
The table is set
Pictures of childhood on the wall
White processions return from the synagogue

And that scent
That scratches at my heart
It creeps in
And opens doors
To a small joy,
To that old song
That’s been passed down to us through the generations

Little gifts
Someone has sent me little gifts
Shards of intention,
Circles of faith
Little gifts
Someone has sent me little gifts
Like the strength to accept
What isn’t, and what is
What else could I ask for?

It’s another Friday
A porch and a newspaper
The sun, like our worry, is slowly erased
Simple melodies
Drift in through the window
And no storm could hide the quiet here

Little gifts
Someone has sent me little gifts
Shards of intention,
Circles of faith
Little gifts
Someone has sent me little gifts
Like the strength to accept
What isn’t, and what is
What else could I ask for?

“For You have chosen us
And made us holy
Blessed are You, God
Who sanctifies the Sabbath”*

And that scent
That scratches at my heart
It creeps in
And opens doors
To small joy,
To that old song
That’s been passed down through the generations

Little gifts
Someone has sent me little gifts
Shards of intention,
Circles of faith
Little gifts
Someone has sent me little gifts
Like the strength to accept
What isn’t, and what is
What else could I ask for?

Little gifts

*This is from the kiddush recited on the Sabbath.

Shabbat Shalom 🙂

Daniella