Blog: Judaism

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

B'reishit: generations

D'var torah given in the minyan yesterday morning.

Ten generations.

At the beginning of this parsha, God created humanity as the pinnacle of creation, and declared it tov meod -- very good. Before even the first Shabbat, Adam had transgressed the divine will and been expelled from the garden, but that didn't merit further destruction. Adam and Chava produced children and their descendants began to fill the earth, as commanded. It might not have been tov meodany more, but it was apparently still ok with God.

Ten generations later, at the end of this same parsha, things have descended to the point where God is ready to blot it all out. The world had become corrupt and lawless, filled with wickedness and violence.

Ten generations isn't a lot. Many of us are blessed to have known three or four generations of our families, maybe more. As a child I met a great-grandparent and my niece now has a child -- that's six. It's hard to imagine that the distance from my grandparents to my grand-niece spans half the distance from tov meod to unredeemable evil.

And yet... it's been roughly ten generations since the founding of the United States. The US didn't start out as tov meod -- slavery was normal, native peoples were badly mistreated, and sexism and racism were the way of the world. But the people of that generation also pursued values we would call at least tov: basic freedoms of speech and assembly and religion and personal autonomy, protections from government abuses, and fostering a society where people could live securely and pursue happiness.

Ten generations later, how are we doing? We've made progress in some areas, but we've also done a lot of harm. We've pursued the destruction of the planet we were given to care for, there is widespread corruption and injustice from local jurisdictions all the way up to the international level, crusaders on both the left and the right seek to blot out perspectives they disagree with, and we've become a polarized, combative, and intolerant society. I'm going to focus on this last one, both because it's the one we can do the most about at an individual level and because I want to avoid the appearance of political advocacy in a tax-exempt synagogue right before an election.

Within just a single generation, we've become more polarized, more isolated in our bubbles, and more certain that we are right and anybody who doesn't agree with us completely is evil. We could blame social media for filtering what we see, but aren't we complicit? There was Internet before Twitter and there was mass media before the Internet, and we've always tended to gravitate toward people like us, haven't we? And yet, we used to more easily have civil conversations with people we disagreed with; we used to be better at respectful discourse and its give-and-take. Going farther back, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed with each other on almost everything, yet they found common ground in the study hall, maintained friendships, and intermarried. They taught each other's positions, not just their own, to their students. They disagreed, vehemently, without being disagreeable.

Very few issues in our society are cut-and-dried. We can't stay in echo chambers, only hearing perspectives we already agree with, and expect to get anywhere. We need to be open to diversity. Diversity means people and ideas that aren't exactly like us. Diversity means complexity. It means setting aside the goal of "winning" in favor of the goal of understanding the human beings we're interacting with. It means having civil conversations that are nuanced and complex. It means being open to new ideas. It means asking questions rather than jumping to the conclusions that would be most convenient for us, like "he's a bigot" or "she hates America" or "you're not capable of understanding". The results won't align completely with any side's talking points, but they just might help us move forward together constructively.

Try it. Try having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you on something. It doesn't have to be something extreme and emotional.
Try asking the person to explain the reasoning.
Try asking questions.
Try to understand, and resist the urge to prepare your counter-arguments while half-listening for keywords to pounce on.
Assume your conversational partner is as principled, ethical, and thoughtful as you are.
Assume good intentions.
See how long you can keep it up. Then ask yourself: based on what I've learned, do I need to re-evaluate anything in my own thinking?

It's hard, isn't it? But what's the alternative? Can we afford to continue our descent? What comes after "uncivil"? How many generations do we have before our society is unredeemable?

Ten generations of social decay, hatred, and violence led from Adam to Noach. But that wasn't the end. After the flood, another ten generations led from Noach to Avraham. After sinking to the depths of evil, society climbed back toward tov.

Our society hasn't sunk as far as Noach's generation -- yet. We do not need to reach bottom, when only the divine promise prevents the heavens and the depths opening up again, in order to start climbing back up. At Yom Kippur we confessed to many sins including sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and we also said that we can return from our errors. We can turn from ways that are uncivil or worse – individually, one interaction at a time. We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free from trying. Let's see how far we can get together.

Holidays

My synagogue has gone through some changes in the last couple years, on top of the changes forced on all of us by the pandemic. Last year we hired a new rabbi and this year we hired a new cantor, and in-person services are more of a thing than they were, so lots of stuff is new together.

The rabbi and the cantor work well together. I already knew this from the morning minyan, but it also carried over to the formal high-holy-day services with all their extra stuff. Later, when all the holidays are over (they aren't yet), I want to ask the rabbi about some of the choices he made, but it was generally fine. It was nice to be together again.

I was asked to read torah, even though I said I'd pretty much have to memorize it because of the vision issues that are why I stopped reading torah on Shabbat. The readings for Rosh Hashana aren't that long, so I could memorize it, and anyway I don't know the special trope for the day so I was going to have to learn the music by rote anyway. That all went fine. I had the last aliyah and I noticed that other people were translating after their readings, so I followed suit on the spur of the moment. Later I realized that most of the others were reading translations, not doing it on the fly. (I'm not fluent in Hebrew, but I knew this part.) Ironically, I did need to look at the scroll for that part and there were some stumbles as a result, but on Yom Kippur several people stopped me to tell me how much they liked my RH reading, with specific compliments. Wow.

We have programming all day on Yom Kippur so you don't have to leave if you don't want to. The "learning" slot had two class options, fewer than in the past but I think this worked together. I went to a very good class on the Vidui (confessional) prayer, taught by someone who used to be our associate rabbi 15-20 years ago. (He moved away for another pulpit and returned to Pittsburgh a couple years ago, taking an educational position rather than a pulpit.) We did a close reading of the text compared to the translation in our prayerbook and talked a lot about the word aval.

In some years I've gotten to the end of Yom Kippur on a high, feeling scrubbed clean and energized and stuff. That didn't happen this year. I think some of that is due to some liturgical choices they made. I wonder how much of it is due to having finally been to a traditional Yom Kippur service (last two years) and now I'm more keenly aware of the differences.

For festivals we combine with another congregation and Sukkot was there not here. "There" is a two-mile walk each way for me, so I went to Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation that also has an occasional musical Shabbat evening service that I've gone to. The people there were very welcoming, the service was complete and yet efficient, and the leaders and speakers were good. I was surprised to be offered an honor (carrying the first torah scroll). I had pleasant conversations with several people I didn't know at the kiddush after. I wonder if I should try to go there next Yom Kippur.

We've been able to have most of our meals in the sukkah this week, though a couple got rained out. This late in the year I didn't have expectations.

As 5782 draws to a close...

There years ago there was a pile of bad behavior at Stack Overflow Inc. This week, one of the people involved, who no longer works for them, posted Reflections on years of guilt, through the lens of Teshuva. How unexpected and refreshing! Some excerpts:

To Monica, who I hope still thinks of me as a friend: I failed you because I couldn’t stop a horrible train of bad decisions without exposing things about myself that could have ended my family if they came out in the wrong way, and the health insurance I desperately needed. I was also worried that those who knew these things about me were increasingly strained in their restraint and that things coming out was a possibility; I had very real reason to believe more people would speak out. You did not deserve to be let go the way that you were and I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop it. You really didn’t understand what everyone was taking issue with, and I didn’t get you the space necessary for that to happen. Clarity now exists around this, but it came at your expense, and my failure to act enabled that. Monica Cellio isn’t a bigot, she’s a pillar that I stepped on instead of building up more.

To coworkers that I steered away from helping Monica: I had the most terrible of best intentions, keeping you out of harm’s way. I realize that I took away your choice to do something better than the person I was capable of being due to … constraints. While it was coming top-down, I should have refused to let it go any further. Resigning wasn’t an option I could take. I didn’t feel like I could even privately question anything anymore. What’s bad for a manager is twice as bad for those that report to them; I won’t make that mistake again. My piece in the puzzle should have broken by design.

To coworkers that were let go due to retrenching — I didn’t know it was coming, but I sure as hell didn’t fight the thing that was running you over once I saw it running you over. I’m not proud of my silence that day and you deserved something way kinder than what you got.

I had thought of Tim as a friend in the past. Then that happened and I didn't. I feel like we now have a basis for rebuilding.

Welcome to Elul

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashana. It started about a week ago. The season of repentance and introspection that characterizes the high holy days doesn't begin on Rosh Hashana; it begins earlier, in Elul. (The actual work of making amends and improving ourselves is year-round, of course.)

Even better than making amends is acting in a way to reduce the amount needed. In that nanosecond between seeing or hearing something and jumping to the "obvious" conclusion and acting on it, we can sometimes stop to consider other explanations. There's a lot of hair-trigger absolutist judging happening in our world today, and a small anecdote I saw on Twitter during this season struck me so I'm sharing it.

I almost yelled at a woman looking at an iPhone during Kol Nidre, but I just said "This is one of the most beautiful prayers you'll ever hear." She saw me looking, and explained she was checking her blood sugar. I wished her a healthier New Year. I finally conquered my snark! - @LibbyCone

Even when we think we know all the context, we might not know all the context.

"Not for lightweights"

Not for Lightweights by Gordon Atkinson (Real Live Preacher) just showed up in my feed. (It looks like a repost; not sure when he wrote it.) He talks about using a sabbatical from his job as a pastor to explore other churches, some quite different from his own. In this post he talks about going to a Byzantine Orthodox service. What he wrote resonated for me:

Pews? We don’t need no stinking pews! Providing seats for worshipers is SO 14th century. Gorgeous Byzantine art, commissioned from a famous artist in Bulgaria. Fully robed priests with censors (those swinging incense thingies). Long, complex readings and chants that went on and on and on. And every one of them packed full of complex, theological ideas. It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation. And just to make sure it wasn’t too easy for us, everything was read in a monotone voice and at the speed of an auctioneer. [...]

After 50 minutes Shelby leaned over and asked how much longer the service would be. I was trying to keep from locking my knees because my thighs had gotten numb. I showed her the book [which was a summary/guide, not complete text]. We were on page 15. I flipped through the remaining 25 pages to show her how much more there was. Her mouth fell open. [...]

In a day when user-friendly is the byword of everything from churches to software, here was worship that asked something of me. No, DEMANDED something of me.

When I started attending synagogue services, I sometimes found myself at Orthodox or Conservative services. I could barely read Hebrew, and what I could read, I read very slowly. I sure wasn't keeping up. When I got lost, I would find the next kaddish in the book and listen for it to get back on track. (Kaddish shows up a lot of times in a traditional service.) Some things I knew well enough to say; most went over my head. Each time I went I learned a little more. I am still not fluent in the traditional service, though I like to think I would be had I joined a traditional congregation instead of a Reform one.

The Reform movement, for all the good it does in other areas, fails profoundly in supporting prayer growth. That's because the norm is to aim for the lowest common denominator. It's not just that they removed a lot of stuff from the service; it's that what they kept they still simplify. If you're lucky the simplification is just to read a prayer in English, but it's more likely to be a song containing a single phrase from the prayer or, too often, a loosely-related creative English reading. They do this in the name of being welcoming, to make sure everybody there can have a comfortable experience, to make sure no one has to work.

We lose so much by doing this. By trying to make everybody completely comfortable, we impede growth. Growth means going beyond what you already know. It means stretching. It means being temporarily less comfortable.

I'm not saying I want to spend three hours every Shabbat morning listening to rapidly-mumbled Hebrew I don't understand (even though we get to sit for a lot of it). But I want to grow. I want to increase my fluency. And I want to plumb the depths of our actual tradition before ditching that in favor of some modern English poetry that too often misses the mark. There is so much to learn, and every time my congregation replaces a Hebrew prayer with something else, I feel the loss of support from my community in doing that growth.

My Shabbat morning minyan has more traditional content than the norm for Reform, and it was hard-won. Our previous rabbi built that community competence over three decades; when we got a new rabbi who sometimes switched to English for parts we actually know, I took him aside and said "please don't take away the parts we worked for" (and he listened). So far, maybe because he's comparatively new, he hasn't pushed us add more, and sometimes new songs take away some parts and then catch on and now we're singing one line where we used to do a prayer and we've lost another one. And maybe it's a very nice song but it's still a move away from engaging with the prayerbook's traditional content. While I enjoy singing and learning new music, I feel the loss when this happens without some offsetting increase.

I could, I assume, get the growth I seek by going to a traditional synagogue every Shabbat -- it might take years, but just as I went from sounding out basic prayers to reading and comprehending them at speed through repetition and concentration, I assume it would happen there too. I wish I had a path for that growth within my current community. I wish it were considered more acceptable to ask people to work a little, to stretch gradually. If we're there for God -- and I acknowledge that not everybody is -- then we should want to try to do more, shouldn't we?

Upcoming class on principles of Jewish civil law

I've taken classes from Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) before and even written about some of them. The session on self-driving cars and priorities in saving lives still sticks with me (and was relevant in the Hadar class on medical triage). I've just signed up for Beyond Right: The Values that Shape Judaism's Civil Code, which has the following description (stashing here for my future reference in case that link stops working):

Talmudic analysis and mind-bending logic have long been a hallmark of Jewish scholarship. But buried beneath much of the discussion and legalese are core Jewish values that fuel so much of the debate. This course examines a number of key legal issues that disclose fundamental ethical considerations that serve as the engine of Jewish civil law.

  1. Beyond Good Neighbors: Most laws are designed to protect the rights of people and their property. But Judaism’s civil code is driven by a different goal. Explore how laws of damages and disputes support a uniquely Jewish view of the human mission.

  2. Beyond Restitution: In seeking to restore the rights of plaintiffs, Jewish courts actively assist offenders in achieving full repentance too. Why? Discover the advantage of properly undoing damage over mere compensation.

  3. Beyond Taking Offense: You may feel a moral urge to speak up against an offensive action. But might you have a legal responsibility to deter someone from certain behaviors? Judaism says: Yes. In this lesson, we discuss why and when.

  4. Beyond Personal Freedom: With 613 commandments in the Torah and myriad rules expounded in the Talmud, can Judaism ever be called “liberating”? Let’s delve into the Exodus, the covenant, and the ways in which laws can lead to the purest human freedom.

  5. Beyond Lawful Ownership: Is the claim of ownership anything more than a subjective social agreement? A foundation of Chassidic thought is that material possessions contain spiritual energy that is specific to their owners. Let’s consider the owner’s rights and responsibilities through this lens.

  6. Beyond Presumption of Innocence: While a presumption of innocence can protect defendants from liability, it is not quite a declaration of uprightness. Jewish law goes so far as to presume every person’s core goodness. See how this view can lead us to a truly upright world.

Lesson 5 seems a little out of place, just from that description, but we'll see how it plays out.

JLI produces classes but doesn't conduct them directly. I'll be attending a locally-taught class using their materials and syllabus (same teacher as the previous classes I've taken). Past classes have been discussion-heavy and this class offers a Zoom option, so I'm not sure how that'll be managed. We'll see. (My understanding is that people can attend our session via Zoom, not that there will be a separate Zoom-only session.)

Seder-inspired questions

An online Jewish community I'm fond of has some unanswered questions that came out of Pesach this year. Can you answer any of them, dear readers?

  • Why do we designate specific matzot for seder rituals? We break the middle matzah; we eat first from the top one and use the bottom one specifically for the Hillel sandwich. Why? What's the symbolism? (I'm aware of the interpretation that the three matzot symbolize the three "groups" of Jews -- kohein, levi, yisrael -- but that doesn't explain these positional associations.)

  • If your house is always kosher for Pesach, do you have to search for chameitz? That is, is the command to search for chameitz, period, or is it to search for any chameitz that might be in your house, and if you know there isn't any you skip it?

  • Why does making matzah require specific intent but building a sukkah doesn't? When making matzah (today I learned), it's not enough to follow the rules for production; you have to have the specific intent of making matzah for Pesach, or apparently it doesn't count. This "intent" rule applies to some other commandments too. But it doesn't apply to building a sukkah; you can even use a "found sukkah", something that happens to fulfill all the requirements that you didn't build yourself, to fulfill the obligation. Why the difference?

I tried searching for answers for these but was not successful. I have readers who know way more than I do (and who can read Hebrew sources better than I can). Can you help?

A conversation on erev Pesach

Them: Do you have room at your seder for two more?

Me: Of course.

Them: We don't want to impose.

Me: We'd love the company.

Them: Are you sure? We don't want you to have to cook extra at the last minute.

Me: "Let all who are hungry come and eat." Also, I cook on the assumption that Eliyahu and his entourage will appear at the door. It's fine.

(And if Eliyahu doesn't show up, I have food for lunch the next day.)

Ki Tisa: haftarah

Shabbat's torah portion was Ki Tisa, which includes the episode of the golden calf. For those who don't know, each torah portion has an associated haftarah from some other part of the Hebrew bible that is thematically connected (because Roman persecution, originally). The haftarah for Ki Tisa is the passage from 1 Kings 18 about Eliyahu and the prophets of Ba'al on Mount Carmel.

I gave approximately the following introduction before reading the haftarah on Saturday.


There is a famous story in the talmud where one rabbi is arguing against all of the others on a point of law. When he can't convince them with logic, he starts calling on miraculous testimony: if I'm right let that tree prove it, he says, and the tree gets up and walks across the courtyard. The rabbis respond: we don't learn law from trees. Ok, if I'm right then let that stream prove it, and the stream runs backwards. We don't learn law from streams, they answer. Finally a voice from heaven confirms he's right -- and the rabbis answer, lo bashamayim hi, the torah is not in heaven. That is, God gave us the torah and the responsibility to interpret it, and we don't listen to heavenly voices.

The story is funny (and on Saturday most people laughed). Or rather, it's funny if you stop there, which most tellings do. But if you keep reading, the story takes a darker turn; this argument leads to much death and destruction. And if you back up to the mishna that prompted all this discussion in the g'mara, you'll find there's a larger point to the story. It's not really about an oven.

The story of Eliyahu on Mount Carmel makes me think of this talmudic story. We love the Eliyahu story, full of daring and chutzpah and the defeat of Ba'al and the people finally seeming to acknowledge God. It's a great story! But when we read haftarot, excerpts from the rest of Tanakh, it's easy to miss context.

The next thing that happens after this is that Eliyahu kills the 450 prophets of Ba'al, the bad king's bad wife threatens him, and he flees into the wilderness and a different haftarah. Eliyahu's in the wilderness, God sends a messenger to feed him so he won't die, and he finds his way to the cave where God asks him: why are you here, Eliyahu? Eliyahu answers that he has been zealous for God, the people have rejected God and slain all the prophets, and they want to kill him too. God then sends an earthquake (but God was not in the earthquake), a fire (but God wasn't there either), and a wind (ditto), and finally Eliyahu finds God in the still small voice.

God then asks again, why are you here Eliyahu? And Eliyahu gives the exact same answer, word for word. God tells him to go back and appoint Elisha as his successor (among other things).

Eliyahu doesn't exit the story at this point; he's still around as a prophet. But it feels to me like this encounter was a pivotal moment, set in motion by the showdown with Ba'al. It feels to me like Eliyahu was supposed to learn something from the encounter, about how the still small voice can be more powerful than the earthquake and fire -- that these encounters were supposed to change Eliyahu. I would expect a changed Eliyahu to give a different answer the second time God asked the question. It feels like a missed opportunity for a stronger relationship with God -- like Eliyahu failed a test.

I still love the story of Mount Carmel, but knowing what comes after casts the story in a different light for me, like reading on in the talmud changed my understanding of the rabbis and the voice from heaven.

Trope Trainer

Trope Trainer is a software package for working with Hebrew cantillation (trope). You can use it to view, listen to, or print the weekly Torah reading (or parts thereof), weekday readings, holiday readings, etc. As the "trainer" in the name implies, one of its purposes is to teach the cantillation system -- or, I should say, systems, because there are regional and other variations.

I didn't use it for that because I already know (my community's) cantillation system; while occasional curiosity might lead me to ask it "hey, how does the Lithuanian tradition chant this?", in practice I haven't. No, what I use Trope Trainer for is to print legible copies with the vowel markers and trope markers. These are useful for practicing and, when I know in advance so I can print it, for checking the reader during the service, because the scroll used for readings does not have vowels and trope marks. (There is always somebody following along during a Torah reading to correct the reader in case of mistakes.)

Back in August, somebody in my minyan asked me to be his checker the following Shabbat, so I launched the program to print a copy. But the program was stuck at "checking for updates", a state that had previously passed so quickly that I wasn't used to seeing it. If I cancelled, the program crashed. Repeatedly. A little digging revealed the probable cause: the company went out of business and their domain isn't there any more. Presumably the software is checking a now-dead URL and the programmers didn't handle failures. (There are other reasons the service might not be available, so this isn't just "didn't consider the company might die".) Read more…