Friday, July 28, 2017

The Language(s) of Torah

This week we begin reading the Torah’s final book, Deuteronomy. Moses is now 120 years old and must relinquish his leadership to Joshua. Soon he will die and be buried on Mount Nebo. Beforehand he reminds the Israelites about the many rules they must follow. He recounts the adventures of their forty years of wandering the wilderness. This is Deuteronomy’s plot. “I am about to leave you. Don’t forget to…”

The Torah states: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 1)

The rabbis ask: How did he begin to teach? Being rabbis they answer their own question and state, “Moses began to explain the Torah in the seventy languages of the ancient world.”

Didn’t the Israelites all speak the same language? Didn’t they speak Hebrew? Of course they did. So why would Moses need to explain the Torah in every language the rabbis believed to exist? It is because the Torah has universal import.

Too often we focus our Jewish learning on the mastery of the Hebrew language. Too often we mistake the Torah’s language for its essence. While Hebrew is of course important it does not always unlock the secrets; it cannot always unravel the mysteries. This is why even Moses taught the Torah in many languages.

The lesson is clear. The most important thing about Torah is its teachings. These must be translated into every language. Moreover these teachings must be interpreted according to everyone’s ability.

Torah was never meant to belong to a privileged few. It is meant for all. It is meant for the world.

It begins with the language we speak.

Monday, July 24, 2017

My Son's Graduation Viewed Through the Torah

For Jews, our most sacred object is the Torah scroll. Every synagogue has at least one. We stand when the scroll is taken from the Ark. We chant its verses at services. We study its words, week in and week out, poring over its stories and rules in search of meaning.

The scroll itself is made from large pieces of parchment that are sewn together so that there is barely a pause within the Bible’s first five books. For Jews, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are rolled into one. The Torah’s Hebrew lettering is written in highly stylized calligraphy that takes a scribe one year to complete. Even in today’s digital world, the Torah scroll continues to be crafted by hand.

One formula for the manufacture of the ink used to calligraphy the letters on this scroll requires that the nut, which a female gall wasp produces when she lays her eggs in an oak tree, be ground and cooked. Added to this mixture is the gum from an acacia tree and copper sulfate, which is then slowly cooked for approximately a year. The ink is most prized and a small bottle is very expensive.

Once the scribe calligraphs these black letters to the parchment, it will last for 1000 years. That is the black ink inscribed on a Torah scroll....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Advice for Our Leaders

We read this week: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying…” (Numbers 30:2)

It is rare that the Torah addresses the leaders rather than the people as a whole. In most instances the Torah states instead, “Moses spoke to the people, saying…” (Numbers 31:1) Why in this instance would Moses speak to the tribal heads rather than the people?

Perhaps the secret can be discerned in the laws detailed in this chapter. Here we read about the concept of making vows. The Hatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in 19th century Germany, asks this very same question. He suggests the law is directed at leaders because people in public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. It is as if to say, “Be on guard of the words and promises you make—most especially if you are a leader.”

I would like to suggest a different reason.

Soon we will mark Tisha B’Av, the day in which we commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. This fast day marks the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, until the modern period and its Holocaust. The loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of so many Jews is still remembered even at Jewish weddings by the breaking of the glass.

It was of course the Romans, and prior to that the Babylonians, who destroyed the first and second Temples, but yet the rabbis engaged in what was sometimes wrenching introspection in order to uncover how the Jewish people might have been at fault for their own demise. They more often than not suggest that it was because of baseless hatred of one Jew for another. The seeds of our destruction were sown by how we screamed and yelled at each other.

The rabbis of course believed in argument and especially passionate debate. They taught that truth can only emerge when we openly argue and debate with one another. We read: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven, its end will continue; but that which is not for the sake of heaven, its end will not continue. What is a debate for the sake of heaven? The debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. And a debate that is not for the sake of heaven? The debate of Korah and his entire band of rebels.” (Avot 5:17)

There is a fine line between a positive and negative argument. It rests in how we approach those with whom we disagree. The rabbis offer us an important insight. While we might be strengthened by debate, we are weakened by tribal divisions. When we debate we must ask, are we arguing so that truth might emerge? Or are we arguing instead to draw divisions between us?

This is why Moses speaks to the tribal heads.

Our very survival depends on how our leaders argue and debate. It rests in how leaders speak to one another.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Give the Keys Away

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches in particular are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And when I visited the church a few days ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently it is feared that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what were allowed to do and not to do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is the attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency.

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray. (And I found one such spot to offer the prayers requested of me.)

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so this summer I found myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently the situation I admired was not always the case. In the 12th century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to suggest that we should give up political sovereignty over Jerusalem. What I do mean to say is that spiritual truths are gained and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control, when don’t say so much, “I am in charge and you’re not. You can do this and you can’t do that.” If we are true to our faith we should say, “This house belongs to God alone.”

Doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sailing on Dreams

Today, I am grateful to have rediscovered a twofold blessing.

First of all I am thankful to my congregation and its leaders for recognizing that its rabbi must renew his learning and refresh his spirit every year. I do so by attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual rabbinic conference. I am here in Jerusalem. It is a blessing to learn with some of the Jewish people’s leading scholars and to sit among colleagues who share my commitment to learning and devotion to questioning.

It is as well a blessing to find myself again in the city of Jerusalem. I live in an unprecedented age. Despite this country’s many difficulties, challenges and frustrations few Jewish generations have been privileged to live in, or alongside, a sovereign Jewish nation. In some ways Israel is just a country, and like every other nation a home to its citizens. In other ways this place is about our reengagement with a dream.

For millennia we only dreamed about returning to the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel. And now with relative ease I travel back and forth. Few generations have had such an opportunity. Through the vast majority of our history most longed for this place but few touched it. Until now! This is a privilege that must never be taken for granted.

Walking Jerusalem’s streets I become reacquainted with my blessings....