Next week I'm teaching in our synagogue Ritual Committee about issues relating to the use of electronics on Shabbat, particularly in connection with conducting services. Since I'm gathering source material I thought I would post for everyone the raw material from the Conservative movement.
There are certain basic concepts of halacha (Jewish law) that are important backdrop:
Some sources: RabbI Nevins, Rabbi Heller, and Rabbi Reisner are the most contemporary papers in terms of the technology they reference, though some of the older analysis is applicable still.
Though not on the specific issue of Shabbat, essential reading about what does or does not make an electronic minyan is Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, "Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet" (2001).
You’ve probably heard over and over that Chanukkah is a “minor” holy day. Something we make a big deal about especially in modern America – something especially for Jewish children in a Christmas-saturated environment.
It’s true, Chanukkah is no Passover. But in fact, it’s not a new thing, this question about how significant Chanukkah really is. In fact, the Jewish religious authorities in the time of the Talmud were anti-Chanukkah. At a time when Jews were under the thumb of Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian emperors, the rabbis were none too keen on celebrating an uprising against imperial power. They managed to wrestle Chanukkah down to just a couple of paragraphs in the sprawling Talmud and left pretty much a single story about divine light, the cruse of oil in the Temple that lasted eight days.
In fact, Chanukkah has always been about the relationship of Jews and Judaism to the majority culture, its values and its forces. That’s in fact what the original events were all about. So it’s worth taking an adult look at the Chanukkah story.
The events of Chanukkah took place in the period of about 180-160 B.C.E. This was about 150 years after the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon, who brought the Land of Israel into the cultural and political world of Hellenism.
In many ways, Hellenism was the American culture of its time. There was a language, Greek, that spread to become a common language through much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Hellenism was a dominant world culture. Its positive elements included philosophy, art, and international trade. All of these linked people together across a large proportion of the world, and brought prosperity and material advancement. The negative side of Hellenism included a worship of the physical body and a focus on beauty and strength above other values. Pagan values that at their worst crushed human values.
The Jews in the Land of Israel, as well as those in exile all around the Mediterranean Sea, were deeply influenced by Hellenism. Each regional Jewish community faced the question of how much to adapt to Hellenism, whether to assimilate completely in part, or whether to remain separate. Some Jews were ready to give up Judaism entirely as archaic and irrelevant. Most tried to integrate the new culture and ideas, and many leaders tried to enrich Judaism with the best of Hellenism.
It wasn’t a one-way street. Because the Hellenists valued learning and culture in general, some non-Jews learned about Judaism and decided that it was a kind of pure philosophy, a truth without all the trappings of pagan gods and rituals. About a century after Alexander the Great, who himself had been a student of Aristotle, the Torah was translated into Greek. According to a legend written around the same time as the story of Chanukkah, a Hellenistic emperor in fact commissioned a Greek version of the Torah. He thought his library would not be complete without it. He invited scholars from Jerusalem to be his guest in Egypt, threw them a kosher banquet, and treated them like respected Greek philosophers!
Meanwhile at the Temple in Jerusalem, there was corruption among the kohanim, the priestly leadership of the Jews. The Temple was not only a religious center, but a power and financial center as well because of the gifts and offerings that people would bring. Ambitious people among the priests were vying for authority over the Temple. Some tried to curry favor with different imperial officials, by offering political support or outright bribes.
Just like today, the Land of Israel was situated geographically at a military and economic crossroads. Just before the events of the Chanukkah story, the land changed hands. When Alexander died, his empire had been split in half, ruled from capitals in Egypt and in Syria. Initially the Egypt-based rulers controlled Judea, and they were on the whole tolerant of the Jews. But then the Seleucids, the “Syrian-Greeks” we know from the Chanukkah story, took over. Even then, the situation of the Jews did not change right away.
A new and crazy emperor, Antiochus IV, came to power in Syria. He believed that he was himself a god. He ordered the takeover of the Temple in Jerusalem and banned key Jewish practices. Some of the historical sources say that he took advantage of the weakness of both Jewish society and the officials beneath him. Others say that the Jewish assimilationists actively invited his intervention and his decrees.
The group we know as the Maccabees came to lead the revolt against Antiochus. They were themselves kohanim, but separate from the corrupt priests of Jerusalem. Their family name was Chashmonai (“Hasmoneans”); their patriarch was Matityahu (Mattathias) and his sons included Yehudah (Judah).
They believed in Jewish distinctiveness, but they also believed in some modern adaptation to Hellenism. So for instance, during their three-year revolt that begin in 165 B.C.E., they made certain decisions that were not so traditionally Jewish. They decided fighting on Shabbat was permitted in order to save lives. Their battle plan had some of the same features that the modern Israel Defense Forces would use in 1948 and 1967.
When they finally drove out Antiochus' forces, the Maccabees led both a traditional religious revival and a new approach to Jewish culture and power. They instituted a new annual festival, Chanukkah, but based it on the Sukkot festival that had gone unmarked in the Temple in the prior years. (That's initially why Chanukkah is eight days; the story of the oil came hundreds of years later.) They installed themselves as kings, even though they were not descendants of King David. Their leaders were known by both Hebrew and Greek names.
For me, celebrating Chanukkah reminds me that these issues of politics, value priorities, war, corruption based on money, and majority-minority relations are not new things. The candles remind me that light has to be shed on these matters, all the time.
The candles, against the darkness, are a symbol of the dedication and integrity it takes to keep our eyes open and to find and hold our moral center of gravity. The candles also remind me that Judaism could have been extinguished, could have burned out against all the political, military, economic, and cultural forces of that time. But it was not –Judaism bounced back, renewed and even began to reinvent itself.
In recent years, I’ve come to understand that the real miracle is that someone thought to store away a cruse of oil in the first place. Not in a literal sense. Someone knew there could be a time when the light of Judaism entirely, or our individual lights, would seem like they are running out. Someone knew we would encounter times individually when we feel that the tank is just completely empty, and we would need a reminder that we are still here, and that there is more light to find.
Our ancestors didn't run away from the challenges of identity and moral compass that they faced. By standing up, and passing down their story, they hid away a spark that we can find and then expand. Into the dedication we need, to do what's right and to define our place as Jews in the wide world.
So Chanukkah is not just a children’s story. It resonates for us in America today for all the same reasons it has resonated since the days of the Maccabees. Maybe it’s not Passover, but Chanukkah is hardly minor.
Chag Urim Same'ach – A Joyous Festival of Lights!
This was my Dvar Torah for (Zoom) services on June 6, 2020. I'm making reference here to the Bar Mitzvah of Seth Brown.
I want to thank the Browns again for this simcha and as I told them, usually my words of Torah are light on days like this, but sometimes the world thrusts events at us that call for some Torah that can’t wait. So I will take a few minutes for words of Torah after the week we have had. I am going to speak quietly and with humility, not pretending to be possessed of every insight about race in America or to be a tzaddik myself in this area. I will add some more to this at our program on Monday evening.
And this is Torah from a particular point of view, the Torah of this particular Jew who is white and has many privileges, who has been thinking most of all about the black people who are closest to me, namely my own cousins and members of this Temple community, some of whom are children. I have been thinking about how I see the world and change in the world, because of where I come from. My formative experiences center on the mid- to late-1970s. Saturday night TV in that time in my house was The Jeffersons, Bridget Loves Bernie, Mary Tyler Moore – the television of a world moving toward integration of every kind – and I was a Sesame Street child, who took for granted Gordon and Susan and Bob and Luis and Maria. In there was the struggle for Soviet Jewry, which was everywhere in my Jewish world, and seemed like the same thing.
And one of the records always playing in my home was Marlo Thomas’s “ Free to Be You and Me.” Here’s the verse that for a long time was my anthem: “There’s a land that I see where the children are free, and I say it ain’t far to that land from where we are.”
I was taught to see that better world not too far away, to know it wasn’t here but to believe it was being created by people like my parents and their friends and my teachers and by me and my friends. The question I never had until a few years ago is how far is that land, really, from where we are. If it has taken so long to get there since the mid-1970s, is that because it is in fact farther than I thought, or is it close enough to see but there is a river in between with dangerous rapids and we have not built the bridge, is it close enough but we have for some reason refused to pay the money to clear the road that would get us there straight and fast.
Or to say it like the Torah would, as we are in the book of Numbers -- why is such a short walk from Egypt to the promised land taking forty years.
So what is the basic spiritual outlook of someone trying to get us to that land?
In the Talmud (Yerushalmi Nedarim) two rabbis debate: If you had to sum up the Torah, basically, how would you do it? Rabbi Akiva says that the most important principle of the Torah is in Leviticus, “Love your neighbor like yourself” (19:18). Ben Azzai, who was a younger scholar, said it’s a different verse, from back in Genesis: “This is the book of the story of humanity: In the day God created the human, in the likeness of God God created him" (5:1).
Rabbi Akiva says: It’s all about of love of other people, and the action that flows from that love. The major thing is to stretch yourself – first to the limit of the comfort zone you have with people who are like you, and then a bit beyond that. Get to the person who is near you, and figure out how they are not basically different from you but basically like you. There is effort to care, the effort is to look for something in common, and the effort is actually to do something helpful or caring.
Ben Azzai says, basically, Okay Boomer. Flower child. Love is great, but if you’re really loving you’re going to reach a limit pretty soon. We can only love so many people. It’s exhausting and there’s going to be resistance because of that. At some point you’ll make your neighborhood of concern bigger, sure, and then you’ll stop and you’ll decide that the other people aren’t your neighbor. You’ll say that you can’t find anything like yourself, you tried but you couldn’t. You’ll start coming up with reasons not to love certain people.
No, says Ben Azzai, we need a bigger frame. This is the book of the story of all humanity. If you’re going to stretch, stretch your imagination to include all people. In the Torah, a book is a place to keep records. A book is bigger than our hearts. It’s where the data is, whether we have an emotional attachment to it or not. And we know that a book is also stories, and stories take us farther than neighbors can and stories get us talking about them. Books and stories are going to take us to neighborhoods we’re just not going to get to otherwise even in our own towns, to prisons we’re never going to visit ourselves. Get some data, learn some history. Learn where your neighborhood itself comes from, who built it.
Rabbi Akiva would say back: You young people, you think you share enough brilliant articles on Facebook you’ll change the world. The brain might see farther than the heart, but it is weaker. If you learn more than you can do, you are in danger of overwhelm, and of not being able to see an ending that’s different from the terrible stories that have been told so far. At some point you have to decide to care, or you have to decide to act, and you can only do that by knowing someone new or by knowing someone familiar in a new way. So work on stretching what like-yourself means to you. And when you made your neighborhood a bit bigger, now try to love all the neighborhoods in your city. This is how it really works. Most people need relationships to change. We don’t have a book with the right ending yet, because no one has written it, and the only way to write it is to love our way there.
Who’s right – I find something compelling in both approaches and both critiques. I wish I knew if one was more right. But be one of them, commit to at least one of these middot, these qualities, and get someone to hold you accountable. If you’re an Akiva, get yourself an Akiva-guide and also a Ben Azzai to challenge you, and vice versa. Please please, I beg you here, please hold me accountable.
I would like to think that this week’s protests happened because we have all been living for weeks in a daily reality of being more attuned than usual to life and death. The germ that is killing is literally novel, that’s its very name, and we have been hiding because that’s what is necessary. The way George Floyd was killed – from that we have been hiding too long. We have been saving lives for months now, lives we know and lives of strangers we can’t see, all of a sudden we’ve been doing it, and at great personal discomfort and sacrifice. When it comes to black lives, why can’t we do the same.
I just finished these thoughts. They are a combination of commentaries, reflection pieces, discussion prompts related to the Seder text, the Pesach Haggadah. You could read them before or after a Seder, or even during. Wishing everyone a good festival and a Zissen (sweet) Pesach.
Again, I'm behind in my post though not my studies...
The second chapter of the Talmud begins with a discussion of the concept of kavvanah, which means "intention." The specific issue is whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Sh'ma by mechanically vocalizing the sounds, or whether kavvanah is required. The Talmud begins by positing: yes.
There is an entertaining part of the discussion, in which an example is suggested: A person is proofreading a Torah scroll at the time when one is supposed to recite the morning Sh'ma, and happens to be proofreading Deuteronomy chapter 6. Does this count? You know you're reading these words, you know it's the Torah -- but you have the purpose of proofreading, not the purpose of affirming the oneness or uniqueness of God.
More to the point, the rabbis discuss the meaning of the word "Sh'ma" itself -- does it mean the physical act of hearing, or the concept of hearing and receiving, i.e. understanding. So there is a debate about whether the essential thing is to say the Sh'ma audibly to one's own ears, or in a language that one understands whether or not it's Hebrew.
What distills from the exploration is that kavvanah could have four possible meanings:
#2 and #3 are usually the debate within traditional Judaism, about how deep kavvanah has to go -- but at least an awareness of the mitzvah/command dimension is needed. In my next post I'll go into #4, which I was surprised to find in the Talmud -- kavvanah possibly detached from the mitzvah act.
I am almost up-to-date in my studies, but a bit behind in posting reflections. The first chapter of Massechet Berachot ends with a discussion of two kinds of things that are linked despite being experienced or named differently. One is the series of persecutions and exiles of the Jews. The other is the names of biblical figures.
The Talmud discusses the issue that new experiences of persecution might drive older ones from Jewish memory or salience -- the exile to Babylonia might replace the slavery in Egypt as the focal point of memory, mourning, or even inspiration. There is a sense in the text that we have to integrate all of them, possibly into the original Exodus consciousness.
The rabbis look for insight into that by noticing that some of the renamed people in the Torah have their names permanently changed, but some like Yaakov/Yisrael seem to keep both names. Even for someone like Avraham, the name Avram is remembered later, which the Talmud says is to remind us of the moments that occasioned the spiritual transformation that made him into Avraham and Sarai into Sarah.
I wonder if this is meant to be the final comment on the Sh'ma itself, the foundation of the whole chapter -- oneness of the divine. Transformations in the world, transformations of us spiritually, historical progress and setback and backsliding, personal progress and backsliding -- these all have to be integrated. When we recite Sh'ma, it's to remind us to bring all of these things together, or to guard against burying some of them or forgetting. Or it's just to remind us of the mystery that someone all of these are one in the mystery of the workings of divine energy in our human universe.
A reflection on myself the Talmud student, after a chapter: When I began, I would have said and still say that I'm not really a Talmud person. For years I hardly cracked a volume, and only recently have I found myself doing so more often. I'd have assumed that I had learned maybe 1 percent of the Talmud ever. Now I realize that before I started this, I probably already had, I don't know, 3 percent, which isn't a lot but almost 1/30th!
And I also realized that even though I hadn't studied this chapter in sequence as a single chapter, a lot of it was familiar. It was thrilling to see things in their original composition and order, and to share knowing virtual glances with other people doing the same. I actually didn't have to rely nearly as much as I thought on translations, and the basic argumentation structure was fairly familiar to me. I know when we get into other technical areas beyond theology and prayer I'll need the study aids much more.
My goal right now is just to know what's where. I'm not a great memorizer -- but so far, I could probably without much effort rattle off a lot about what's in the first chapter of Berachot. We'll see if it sticks. But if it does, it's because of the genius of the rabbis and editors, and the community who are subtly learning in sync.
When I was studying Berachot 12, I had a mini-experience that is exactly what Torah study should be.
On 12b, Rabbah bar Chinana Sava taught in the name of Rav that anyone who could have prayed for compassion/mercy (rachamim) for another but didn't is called a sinner. I was thinking about this for some reason while I was standing on the curb outside Logan Airport waiting for about 15 minutes for a van to pick me up. I started thinking that this teaching is a kind of logical impossibility. How is it even possible that there is such a thing as a person who can't pray for another person? Also, how is it even possible for me to pray for every person who might need a prayer for mercy? The teaching seemed either over- or under-inclusive.
So I was looking around at all the people getting out of the airport, getting into cars or buses, and thinking, "Okay, I pray for that one and I pray for that one and I pray for that one..." and as I was walking back and forth for about the third time, I passed a young woman who looked like she was of college age sitting on a bench. And I happened to look down and see that she had an immobilizing boot on one of her feet.
So I said to myself, "Wow, the exact moment I'm reflecting on this teaching and here is someone who could really use a prayer for mercy and healing. I pray for her." Of course she was sitting right there, and saying that prayer to myself felt a little silly and a lot incomplete. Maybe she needs help with her suitcase! But that would be weird, she is just sitting there. Anyway, it turned out we were getting on the same van, so here was a random person I was connected to -- in that moment, the exact quarter-hour I was thinking about this particular teaching.
I offered to help her with the suitcase. Which she didn't need, but appreciated that. We chatted a little bit on the van.
I still am not sure what the teaching means. Yosef Chayim of Baghdad asks: In what situation would a person be unable to pray for someone else? He muses that a person might be so overcome with concern for another that he can't compose himself to pray. Or he might be in so much of his own suffering that he can't pray for someone else. But he wonders why the Talmud itself doesn't suggest these, and leaves the category of "unable to pray for another" undefined and possibly empty on purpose.
My teacher Rabbi Joseph Lukinsky z"l taught us that when we study the week's Torah reading, there are two approaches. The usual one is to look for something in it that is relevant to our lives or our world. The other way, he said, is to make whatever happens to be in that week's Torah relevant -- to look for some connection. In this case, Daf Yomi brought me a teaching, and made me realize that something I would have usually seen as an empty experience -- waiting for a pickup at the airport -- was a spiritual prompt.
I'm not necessarily going to have something to write about every daf (page), but here is something from a couple days ago.
Daf 7 opens with a discussion of God's own prayer. The Talmud says that God prays that God's own mercy will overcome God's anger. It's a fascinating depiction of God -- as a being who prays and who needs to pray, who needs to summon will to direct God's own energies. Who would have thought?
I don't find it useful at all to think of God literally the way the Talmud describes. Instead, I take this teaching to be talking about a spiritual experience a person might have. The divine is describe here as not static, but with energies that are expressed differently in response to human actions. A person might experience affirmation or support, or judgment or suffering, as energies of God and not only as personal, internal emotions. These basic experiences of approval or judgment can be experienced as aspects of divine energy. Indeed, to believe that the divine is "one" means that all of these must be rooted in the same divinity.
The Talmud reminds us that what the Torah calls God's anger is a response to wrongdoing; it's not gratuitous or random. I'd say then that the Talmud is describing the anger of our conscience or our spiritual aspect when we recognize or are helped (forced?) to recognize when we have done something that is very wrong.
But the prayer of God is that this emotion or experience not be the end of the matter. The Talmud says here that divine anger is very short. Infinitesimal in time from the divine point of view. The prayer attributed here to God is that when we experience divine judgment, we move quickly from that, toward an equally dramatic perception of divine energy helping us toward righting ourselves, toward teshuvah.
I have to say that I have a bias in my own Talmud study toward passages that seem to be structured a certain way. That seem quilted, where you can make out some kind of logic to the patterning. This page does not have that. It's a skip from one topic to another.
There is a section about demons, and the desire to perceive them (or not!) -- there are certain magical-ish things you can do to see the footprints of them. The rabbis caution against this, because the perception of demons can cause spiritual harm or physical harm. They do posit that demons outnumber humans by a large margin and we are constantly bumping into them.
So all I've really got is the passage that opens and closes the page. The opening teaching, continued from the last page, is about a person who enters the place of prayer with another person. If you cut that person off, your prayer goes awry. At the end of the page, the situation is that you encounter a person who you know makes a real effort to ask about your welfare -- you ought to try hard to ask that person first, and not take their interest in you for granted.