Friday, December 7, 2007

Miketz: Joseph engineers a cliff-hanger

The Joseph story continues in this week’s parashah, which ends in suspense. It begins with Pharaoh’s two dreams; in the first, seven lean cows devour seven fat cows, while in the second, seven sparse ears of grain swallow up seven full ears. None of the magicians and wise men of Egypt can interpret the dreams, but the royal cup-bearer remembers how Joseph had interpreted dreams in prison. Joseph is still in prison, but very soon he is in charge of all Egypt.

Because we all know this story so well, it is hard to imagine, or remember, hearing it for the first time. Partly because of its very familiarity, we tend to accept all aspects of the story uncritically.

But is familiarity really the issue? The extreme economy of the narration, which within Genesis is matched only by that of the Akedah, seems to demand our full acceptance. It gives us very little with which to disagree.

This contrasts with the comparatively fanciful quality of some of the episodes in Genesis, and stands in much more striking contrast to much other ancient literature. Some other ancient narratives seem to use copious detail to provide verisimilitude. Biblical style, instead of attempting to overwhelm us with detail, tends to strip away almost everything that we might want to know, and persuades us to believe the narrative, or at least to suspend disbelief, through its sheer minimalism.

This minimalism has not, however, done anything to control our desire to know more. Within Jewish tradition it is the very source of midrash, post-Biblical elaboration that supplements the narrative, fills in blanks, and sometimes changes the meaning based on very slight evidence in the text.

Although the Joseph cycle provides a wealth of opportunities for midrashic elaboration, this section of it remains compelling exactly as it stands. Our focus, after Joseph rises to power in Egypt, is on the elaborate and somewhat cruel game that he plays with his brothers—and with his father, Jacob.

Although we are told that the name Joseph gives his first son, Manasseh, means “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” (41:51), the cat-and-mouse game that he plays with his brothers shows that he has forgotten nothing. Many of the explanations that the Bible gives of names are fanciful, but this one is clearly misleading. There are some noteworthy details: when he decides to hold one brother hostage, he chooses Simeon, the most bloodthirsty and violent, and he plants his wine cup in the baggage of Benjamin, who has succeeded him as Jacob’s favorite. Benjamin also receives an extra portion at the dinner at which the brothers are mysteriously served in order of their seniority.

This section also gives us a picture of Joseph as highly Egyptianized. He has received an Egyptian name and taken an Egyptian wife who is, furthermore, the daughter of an Egyptian priest (and yet their children become the progenitors of two of the twelve tribes of Israel). Perhaps because of his Egyptian dress and manner, but also perhaps because of the way his experiences have changed him, his brothers do not recognize him.

He, however, recognizes them, and although his initial communication with them is through an interpreter, he is able to understand their private conversation. He hasn’t forgotten his roots; he’s faithful to his ancestry, a theme that will be even more striking with Moses, whose infancy is spent in Pharaoh’s court.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Vayeshev: You call this wisdom?

Vayeshev contains the beginning of what is almost universally called “the Joseph cycle.” This term recognizes the extraordinary literary quality and unity of the narrative that begins here. In contrast to most of the narrative of Genesis, characterized by disorder, inconsistency, and confusion, the Joseph story is orderly and polished. Although it is not free of interruptions, they are few and do not seriously impair the narration.

Jewish tradition refers to Joseph as Yosef ha-Tzaddik: Joseph the Wise. Even though the Bible stories that we often teach to our children emphasize the wisdom of Solomon, it is hard to argue that Solomon epitomizes wisdom. There is the episode of the disputed infant in I Kings 3, which follows immediately after Solomon’s prayer (in a dream) for wisdom, but that incident reflects cleverness rather than wisdom.

The Bible itself refers several more times to Solomon’s wisdom, generally in connection with the long period of peace that Israel enjoyed during his reign and with the resultant prosperity, but it also depicts Solomon himself as profligate and self-indulgent, not at all in keeping with the tone of the so-called “wisdom books” of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. (Although there is a tradition that identifies Qohelet, the self-ascribed author of Ecclesiastes, as Solomon and calls the book “The Wisdom of Solomon,” there is no historical or textual basis for such an attribution.) Biblical and extra-Biblical “wisdom literature” teach a different philosophical stance.

Rather, Solomon’s reputation for wisdom derives predominantly from his patronage of wisdom, in particular the kind of wisdom that was developing in the circles of scribes who constituted his civil service. In other words, it is based on the success of their statecraft.

It is Joseph, of course, who provides the model of a skillful civil servant. His brilliance as an administrator is obvious even when he is in Potiphar’s service; there is some sense that his talents are wasted there and it is not completely surprising that he ends up in charge of all Egypt.

In the beginning of the story, however, Joseph does not seem especially wise. In fact, it would be apt to describe him not as “Joseph the Wise,” but as “Joseph the Brat.” On the surface, the Biblical narrative encourages us to accept the favoritism that Jacob shows him, just as it invited us to agree that Isaac was more worthy than Ishmael, Jacob more than Esau.

And yet we inevitably dislike his prattling about the meaning of the first two dreams. How might the story have gone if he had not antagonized his brothers in this way?

The dream episode nonetheless illustrates an aspect of Joseph’s wisdom that rabbinic interpretation treats as more important than his administrative skill. It is not his ability to interpret dreams as such that matters—dream interpretation seems to have been a major industry in the ancient world, albeit not especially among the people of Israel—but that he attributes the interpretations to God.

That, however, is a characteristic of his interpretations in Egypt, not in this episode. He hasn’t yet achieved true wisdom.

Jewish tradition is largely unfavorable to dream interpretation and fortune telling. The Bible portrays it favorably in the cases of Joseph and Daniel, but they act in foreign lands and for foreign rulers. Even when it’s clear that the interpretation really comes from God, the message seems to be “This isn’t for us.”

Friday, November 16, 2007

Vayetze: Learning from Jacob's dream

Everyone remembers the story of Jacob’s dream, with which this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, begins. In accord with Isaac’s instructions, Jacob is on the way to Haran to seek a wife from among the daughters of Laban. He stops for the night at “a certain place” and has a dream in which he sees a stairway—or a ramp or ladder—between earth and heaven, on which angels ascend and descend.

This is an easy story to teach because it invites such ready visualization, even though we have no indication from the Torah of what the angels (“messengers of God,” malakhei Elohim) really look like. Beyond that, however, what lessons should we draw from it?

Some modern scholars detach it from the rest of Jacob’s story and focuses on his naming the place Bethel, “house of God.” They read it as a later writer’s attempt to identify Bethel with the God of the patriarchs instead of with a Canaanite god called El with which it might previously have been associated.

Jewish tradition, especially mystical tradition, is more interested in Jacob’s experience of God. His response, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (28:17) has become a touchstone for the possibility of encountering God in our own lives and a reminder to seek the presence of God everywhere.

The rest of Jacob’s response suggests another interpretation. Jacob proceeds to a highly improper prayer: he vows that if God protects him, gives him food and clothing, and if he returns home safely, then he will worship God (28:20).

In contrast, God’s promise to him, in the dream, was unconditional. It is possible to criticize Jacob for a lack of faith, and we can hardly imagine a similarly conditional vow on the part of Abraham. Rabbi Plaut notes that the vow is a realistic one, coming from his experience rather than from philosophy.

The rest of the parashah reminds us that Jacob’s experience is one of deception, previously as the perpetrator (with his mother Rebekah) and now as the victim, at the hands of Laban. With his own experience as a trickster, he cannot, even in the face of a direct experience of God, believe in the certainty of the covenant that God offers, and thus his acceptance of it is contingent on God’s performance.

The “bed trick” in which Leah is substituted for Rachel is the stuff of high drama. Jewish tradition has generally not accepted Laban’s reasoning, and most traditional texts retaliate by placing the name of Rachel, the younger but preferred sister, before that of Leah. Some Reform prayerbooks are an exception: when they list the matriarchs, Leah is named first.

The parashah ends with the departure of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and all their children, servants, and flocks from Haran. Their hasty, secretive departure is brought about by a second appearance of God in a dream, saying to Jacob, “I am the God of Beth-el… now arise and leave this land and return to your native land” (31:13).

It entails yet another deception. Rachel steals her father’s household gods (we know that these teraphim existed in Israel into the period of the kings; when David flees from Saul in I Samuel 19, Michal, his wife and Saul’s daughter, places such an idol in the bed to delay the detection of his escape). Jacob thoughtlessly vows to kill the culprit, but Rachel’s deception isn’t detected and this vow, unlike his earlier conditional promise or God’s unconditional promises, is not fulfilled.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Toldot: Jacob the yeshivah bocher

This week’s portion, Toledot, describes “the line” or “the story” of Isaac—that is to say, the line of his descendants. In other words, the birth of Esau and Jacob.

Certain elements of the story are oddly familiar. Like Sarah, Rebekah is barren; we’ll learn that she is like Sarah in other ways as well. And the episode in Gerar at the beginning of chapter 26, in which Isaac passes Rebekah off as his sister, is an almost exact double of one involving Abraham and Sarah, which itself doubles one that takes place with them in Egypt. This version of the story has an interesting wrinkle: there is a famine in the land, but God tells Isaac, “Do not go down to Egypt” (26:2).

The themes of sibling rivalry and of unequal treatment of siblings that were implicit in the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael are more explicit here, because Esau and Jacob are sons of the same mother, in fact twins.

Jewish tradition has struggled with the fact that Jacob obtains Isaac’s paternal blessing through trickery. It expands on the paucity of information given in the text to argue that he was inherently more deserving, or at least preferable to have as the ancestor of our people.

For example, the ease with which he obtains the birthright from Esau in exchange for some lentil stew is often cited to characterize Esau as a person of base and uncontrollable appetites. The text itself suggests a connection between Esau’s ruddiness and the nation of Edom; the names of both Esau and Edom have been used as euphemisms for entire nations that oppressed the Jewish people, especially the Roman empire.

The characterization of Esau as undeserving to be a Jewish patriarch is not too different from the traditional response to another problem involving siblings, the question of why Abel’s sacrifice is preferred over Cain’s. Although modern readers may draw inferences from the differences in the sacrifices themselves, many traditional commentators argued simply that Abel was somehow better.

In the case of Esau and Jacob, much has been made of a single verse: “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp” (25:27). The JPS translation, although it probably succeeds in conveying the intended meaning, obscures the literal sense, on which a great deal of midrash has been built.

A more literal reading would be, “a mild man, dwelling in tents,” with tents in the plural. Because a single tent would be sufficient for sleeping, early commentators concluded that Jacob used a second tent as a place of study, a beit midrash, and thereby turned him into the paragon of a yeshivah bocher, even arguing, irrelevantly and without foundation, that Esau was illiterate.

The Biblical text wants us to join it in favoring Jacob over Esau. Furthermore, as teachers we naturally appreciate “mild” students who prefer to stay in the tent of study (the classroom) and are easy to teach. But we’re equally responsible for teaching the students who would rather be outdoors perfecting manual skills, as well as those not-so-mild students who may gravitate to study but who challenge our ideas.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The life and death of Sarah

This week’s parashah is confusingly called “The Life of Sarah.” What makes this confusing is that it begins with Sarah’s death, and turns immediately to the negotiations about her burial, saying nothing about her life.

Imagine that you were called on to deliver a eulogy for Sarah. What would you say? Although Jewish tradition considers Sarah a paragon of both beauty and piety, much of what we know about her from the Torah is neither beautiful nor, by our standards, pious.

The episode that follows the burial of Sarah gives some apparently unwitting clues. It concerns the mission of Abraham’s servant, presumably Eliezer, to obtain a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kinfolk back in Haran.

Although this story is most often cited as a proof text opposing intermarriage, its structure suggests other lessons. To a modern reader, the way that the servant’s prayer is promptly and completely answered seems too pat, but to the Biblical mind it must have seemed entirely appropriate. He asks for a sign that he’s choosing the right woman, and God immediately provides exactly the sign that he requested.

But will Rebekah agree to this? Will anyone agree to it? Again, the modern mind recoils from the idea that a young woman would promise to go with a stranger who promises her a husband in another country, or that her family would consent.
Yet within the context of the story, it is seen as perfectly reasonable.

To be fair, it wasn’t so very uncommon, in the America of the nineteenth century or the first part of the twentieth, for an immigrant family to send back to the “old country” for a bride for a son, which is more or less what happens here. But the way it happens tell us a lot about Rebekah.

First, she’s decisive. Second, she’s adventurous. One of our resource books on teaching Torah suggests having students stage a debate between Abraham and Sarah about whether to go to Canaan. But Sarah was already married to Abraham, so Rebekah is even more courageous.

Rebekah seems to be like Sarah in other ways, and there’s a hint of this in the parashah, which tells us, “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (24:67).

The servant’s prayer is one of the earliest examples of petitionary prayer in the Bible. It seems somewhat meretricious, especially because it asks for an external sign. But in context it’s entirely proper, because the servant is praying for God’s help in accomplishing what Abraham believes God wants.

Friday, October 26, 2007

There's more

There are some parashot about which students are likely to say, “Nothing happens.”
This isn’t one of them. In a class that studies the Bible as a series of episodes, we might easily spend a month on this parashah. Among major episodes, it includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the announcement of the birth of Isaac, the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, and the akedah. It also contains the second of three incidents in Genesis in which a wife is passed off as a sister.

In a class that follows the model of weekly Torah study, we’d have to choose one episode.

Both the birth of Isaac and the dismissal of Hagar and Ishamel, and the akedah, are fresh in our minds because of the Rosh Hashanah readings. Aspects of these episodes are troubling and difficult to teach to children, so we might want to choose another episode.

But which? I distinctly remember learning about Sodom and Gomorrah as a child, and I remember being puzzled. What did they do that was so wrong?

This is a question that rabbis and sages have grappled with, to mixed conclusions. Although the Torah text itself gives indications of sexual deviance, Jewish tradition, following the Prophets, has tended to emphasize “inhospitality to strangers” as an indicator of pervasive moral blindness.

Even if we elect to advance a reason for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we should have second thoughts about emphasizing this episode. If our goal is to instill love of God, how prominent do we want to make an episode that results in such drastic punishment, especially if we are deliberately unclear about the offense?

Both this story and the story of the Flood have the potential for undesirable psychological consequences. We do, of course, teach the story of Noah’s ark, but the Noah story has two important differences. First, Noah is seen as righteous, even if only with respect to his own time. Second, the story ends with God’s promise not to destroy the world.

It would actually be more in line with Jewish tradition to emphasize the announcement of the birth of Isaac, but for a reason we might not think of today. Tradition cites Abraham’s reception of the three messengers as an example of perfect hospitality (with which Lot’s reception in Sodom contrasts).

It draws further lessons of derekh eretz from the messengers’ care to ask about Sarah and, later, from God’s behavior. Sarah attributes her laughter (the source of the name Yitzchak) to the idea that Abraham is too old to father a child, but in relaying this to Abraham, God says that Sarah thought that she herself was too old, in order not to hurt Abraham’s feelings.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Maybe the first monotheist

Lech Lecha should be an easy parashah to teach. Its opening subject, the Call of Abraham, suggests a variety of ways to engage students. Depending on the composition of the class, it might be a springboard for discussing the upheaval of moving from another region or country, or the challenges of living among neighbors whose religion is different from ours.

But the Call of Abraham is not the entirety of Lech Lecha. The greater part of this portion is the life story of Abram and Sarai. It includes one of the episodes in which Abram passes Sarai off as his sister; the peculiar story of the war of four kings against five; a dramatic covenant; Abram’s fathering a child with Hagar, at Sarai’s insistence; the prophecy of the birth of Isaac; the changing of Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah; and the introduction of the covenant of circumcision.

Some of these episodes are rather discreditable, and yet, with the possible exception of the story of the four vs. the five kings, they demand to be taught. Omitting the birth of Ishmael or the covenant of circumcision is almost unthinkable, the change of names certainly needs to be noted, and the episode in which Abram and Sarai flee to Egypt during a famine is important because it prefigures Israel’s longer sojourn in Egypt that is described in the book of Exodus.

Furthermore, we often teach elements of the story that an ordinary reading of the Torah doesn’t reveal. Almost every child knows that Terah, Abram’s father, was an idol merchant, and how Abram smashed the idols and blamed it on the largest of them. But this story comes from midrash, and while midrash is typically an expansion on a hint in the Biblical text, the connection is faint.

In fact, although some school textbooks present Abraham as the first monotheist, it is hard to attribute exclusive monotheism to Abraham. The Torah provides essentially no evidence on this point. While his relationship to YHVH appears to be exclusive, nothing more can be said except that Abraham, unlike the major Hebrew prophets of a later age, does not inveigh against the worship of any other gods.

A detail at the end of the often-overlooked episode of the War of the Four Against the Five is suggestive. During the fighting, Abram’s nephew, Lot, is taken captive, and Abram rescues him and the other captives. On their return, they are greeted by “Melchizedek, king of Salem” [Salem is Jerusalem, then a Canaanite city]:
And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, Who has delivered your foes into your hand. And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything. (14:18–20)

This tithe indicates that Abram accepts Melchizedek’s priesthood. It is not clear whether “God Most High” (El Elyon) refers to the very God (YHVH) of Abram’s covenant, or whether Abram recognizes the validity of another god.
If it is the former, it is hard to claim that Abram “invented” or “discovered” monotheism.

Later traditions considered Melchizedek a monotheist—in Jewish tradition, a righteous gentile, but in Christian tradition a precursor of Jesus. Regardless of these traditions, it suggests the existence of a cult in Canaan that was already centered on the God of Abraham’s call from Haran.

If it is the latter, Abram is not yet a monotheist. He is not even quite a monolatrist (a person who believes in the existence of multiple gods but serves only one). Some modern scholars believe that the exclusive worship of one God did not figure in Israelite religion earlier than Moses, and that the worship of false gods in Israel against which the prophets spoke reflected not foreign influence but rather the persistence of pre-monotheistic beliefs.

In any case, other gods play no role here. Abraham isn’t called to oppose other gods, nor does the Torah state anything about his prior belief. It’s his relationship with what Judaism came to recognize as the one God that matters here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Does God grade on the curve?

The commentators fall into disagreement at the very first verse of parashat Noach. The source of the disagreement is the statement, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age” (Gen. 6:9).

One school of thought about this is that Noah was only relatively righteous. That is, that he may have been blameless by the standards of his own time, but in another age he might not have been considered righteous at all.

The other school of thought is that, living in a particularly depraved time, Noah must have been especially righteous. Where the first interpretation holds that Noah is only considered righteous in comparison with those around him, the second holds that he was particularly heroic to have been righteous in such unrighteous surroundings.
For those who are keeping score, the first interpretation is that of Rabbi Jochanan, and the second is that of Resh Lakish.

To put this in the terms most familiar to educators, the question that is being asked is: Does God grade on the curve?

According to the first way of thinking, the answer must be yes, because Noah is judged righteous through being, apparently, the most righteous person of his time, even if he would not have ranked high on an absolute scale of righteousness. Furthermore, the Torah says (at the end of parashat Bereshit) that Noah found favor with God, and (in this parashah) that Noah walked with God.

In religious school, the question of grading on the curve doesn’t arise, because grading as such is rarely an issue. How often does anyone fail Sunday school?

What does arise, however, is an issue that is implicit in a more extensive criticism of Noah: that although he is obedient to God, he fails the test of genuine righteousness because he accepts the judgment and does not plead or argue on behalf of all those who will die in the flood. In other words, he is criticized for not being as righteous as Abraham, who pleaded for the people of Sodom. It implies that being Noah isn't good enough; he should have tried to be Abraham.

That line of criticism should speak to us. Although our school has a formal curriculum, we can’t, as a secular school might, take for granted that a student who fails to master the curriculum is merely a mediocre student. We’re not in the business of teaching children to be mediocre Jews.

The text tells us that Noah walked with God, and from that we may conclude that, regardless of whether Noah was genuinely righteous or only relatively righteous, God must have walked with Noah.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sukkot: Midterm Exam

Imagine that this is the midterm exam. There is only one question: What are the Torah readings for Sukkot?

It’s not hard to think of the readings for Simchat Torah: V’zot ha-B’rakhah and B’reishit. But what is the reading for the first day of Sukkot? Or for any day of Sukkot?

There are specified readings for each day of Sukkot. They come from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and what they have in common is that each of them refers in some way to the festival. Variously, they state the commandments to celebrate Sukkot for seven days, to hold an assembly on the eighth day, to dwell in booths, to use the four species that constitute the lulav and etrog, and so forth.
There are various possible reasons for reading these passages. Superficially it is appropriate to read a passage that refers to a particular holiday on that holiday, but that doesn’t seem to be the reason for all of the yom tov readings.

One reason that is not so plausible is that it is to inform us of the proper observance. What makes this implausible is that we would receive the reminder too late, after the holiday had begun, instead of when there was still time to make appropriate preparations. In other words, this is not a parallel to the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, which speaks to us about repentance on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, nor is it like the traditional sermon for Shabbat ha-Gadol, explicating all the details of Pesach preparation and observance.

One apparent function of the readings, however, is a parallel to the original function of the worship service itself: to substitute for practices that could no longer be carried out when there was no longer a Temple in Jerusalem. The schedule of daily worship derives from the schedule of sacrifices, as does the Musaf service. Although it was, and is, still possible to build a sukkah and shake the lulav, it was no longer possible to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and some of the readings appear to substitute for this.

One of the readings, from Deuteronomy 31, suggests another way of looking at the question:

Moses wrote down this Teaching and gave it to the priests, sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant, and to all the elders of Israel.

And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to occupy. (9–13)

Although the specific reference is to the “year of remission,” the sabbatical year, the passage serves to remind us that elements of Sukkot observance, like those of Pesach, are naturally appealing and memorable to children.

Thus, if religious school is in session at all during Sukkot, it makes sense to serve snacks in the sukkah and have every child shake the lulav and sniff the etrog. It’s not merely for the sake of their observing these mitzvot; it’s also because children like and remember it.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mercy 1000, punishment 4

The Torah reading for the Shabbat during Sukkot bears no obvious relationship to the Sukkot festival.

It’s from Exodus, and contains no reference to Sukkot (passages containing commandments about the festival are read on other days of Sukkot), but rather the request of Moses to know more about God—even to see God.

God responds, “I will make all My goodness pass before you,” but warns, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live,” and also instructs Moses to carve two more stone tablets to replace those that he shattered when he saw the golden calf.

Then, astonishingly, God passes in front of Moses, and the famous 13 attributes of God are named: “Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of fathers upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

It is not clear from the Hebrew text whether God says this, or Moses. The Jewish Publication Society translations attribute the words to God; some others attribute them to Moses. It makes sense to attribute them to God because they are an answer to Moses’s request to know more about God.

But why should this reading be assigned to the Shabbat in Sukkot? One answer is that the description of the grandeur and majesty of God contrasts so sharply with our experience of Sukkot. That is, the fragile, temporary sukkah reminds us of the fragility of human life.

It’s a tradition of Ashkenazic communities also to read Qohelet, Ecclesiastes, on the Shabbat during Sukkot. The emphasis in Ecclesiastes on the impermanence and insignificance of human life accords with this theme.

Another reason for making this the Shabbat reading might be its description of God as compassionate and merciful. The list of God’s attributes should be fresh in our minds from the Yom Kippur liturgy, and there is a traditional belief that an unfavorable judgment sealed on Yom Kippur can still be reversed during Sukkot.

The idea that God visits the iniquity of parents on children, even “upon the third and fourth generations,” is troubling. That children should suffer for their parents’ sins seems objectionable. It also seems to conflict with the statement, in the same passage, that God shows kindness “to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.”

The explanation of traditional commentators that we should compare the promise of a thousand generations of mercy with that of up to four generations of punishment also seems less than completely persuasive. It makes more sense to interpret this contrast as a reflection of reality: some sins have effects that are real and lasting, and it is not always in the power of even the most repentant sinner to reverse those effects.

To cite a too-obvious example, it is often reported that many adults who abuse or neglect children were themselves abused or neglected as children. The effects of the abuse that they suffered are thus felt at least into the third generation. On a broader scale, conditions that impoverish people in one generation or deny them access to education will be felt in society for many years to come.

So perhaps there is a further meaning to be drawn from this selection. Before Yom Kippur we are enjoined to redress wrongs we have committed against others. On Yom Kippur we repent for those and for sins that impair our relationship with God. Perhaps in the weeks after Yom Kippur we should concern ourselves with mitigating the lasting effects of wrongs that those who committed them cannot fully redress on their own.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Family values

The traditional Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah come from Genesis: the birth of Isaac on the first day, and the “binding” of Isaac, the akedah, on the second. Many Reform congregations that observe only one day of Rosh Hashanah read the akedah on that day; a few read the traditional selection for the first day and don’t read the akedah at all, except in the weekly cycle of Torah readings.

It is hard to explain why these should have been chosen as the Rosh Hashanah readings. Both selections raise serious moral questions that the Torah does not answer; the akedah, in particular, gives rabbis an inexhaustible sermon topic.
The problem is especially acute at children’s services. If the service includes the reading of Torah, do we really want young children to hear a story in which an apparently loving father almost kills the long-awaited child? Books of Bible stories for children often omit or abridge this episode, but what choice is there when it’s the Torah reading?

Some congregations read it at children’s services, but possibly without translation and almost certainly without explanation. The Reform machzor offers an alternative reading, the Creation story, that some congregations read in family services (or in adult services on one day or the other).

That doesn’t help us as teachers. Although we may certainly be selective in choosing which parts of the Bible to teach, emphasizing those that have the most educational value for children of the age we’re teaching, the fact that the akedah is the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah suggests that it’s too important to skip. And in class, the “Ann Landers solution”—using language that young children won’t understand—isn’t an option.

Worse, the conventional lesson won’t work. Usually Abraham is presented as a model of faith: willing to sacrifice his son for the sake of his God. Would you want your father to have that kind of faith?

With older students it’s possible to confront the issue directly, for example by putting Abraham on trial for child endangerment. While that isn’t appropriate for younger students, it suggests an approach that doesn’t completely gloss over the appearance of abuse or neglect.

That is to shift the focus away from a view of Abraham’s faith as a near-insanity that drives him almost to kill his son. That is, to move toward the view that his faith allows Abraham to follow God’s call while believing that God will not make him go through with the sacrifice of Isaac. It’s a view that is more in accord with the rest of Torah, where the message (from last week’s Torah reading) that comes through most consistently is “choose life.”

Rabbi Burton Visotzky, teaching about an equally disturbing episode of thinly veiled abuse in the Bible, the story of Lot’s daughters, observes that the study of Torah has healing power, and that if we avoid teaching the disturbing parts, we deny this healing to those who most need it. But we have a choice. We can teach the akedah as the story of a man whose faith is so strong that he is willing to kill his son, with God as the teacher administering a test that Abraham passes. Or we can teach that it’s a story in which God prevents him from killing Isaac, with God as the coach who keeps him from failing.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

It's not over 'til Moses sings

Parashat Ha’azinu, the Song of Moses, comprises chapter 32 of Deuteronomy. It is the last portion for regular Shabbat reading; the weekly cycle is interrupted by Sukkot, and the final verses of Deuteronomy, V’zot Hab’rachah, are read on Simchat Torah.

Although scholars believe that the “songs” in the Bible—the Song of the Sea and the songs of Hannah and Deborah—are among the most ancient of Biblical texts, many suggest that the Song of Moses is not of the same antiquity. Its structure, parallel couplets, is similar, but its language and content suggest later composition. While its assumption that the people of Israel are already settled in the land of Israel could be understood as prophecy—and tradition views Moses as the prophet par excellence—its description of Israel as a “foundling” nation discovered by God in the desert (32:10) is at odds with the Exodus narrative.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut notes that the Song of Moses has thematic parallels to certain psalms and to Ezekiel, and that its language is similar to the writings of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. It does not, however, anticipate the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, which might suggest earlier composition than the time of Jeremiah.

A recurring theme of the Song is God’s anger with Israel, whose people, it says, have incensed God through the worship of false gods. In verses 19–25, terrible vengeance is threatened, in language worthy of any of the prophets.

Verse 26–27, however, introduce a novel reason for God’s not taking the threatened vengeance. It is not that God is merciful and compassionate, or quick to forgive. Rather, the reason is “Their enemies who might misjudge / and say, “Our own hand has prevailed; / None of this was wrought by the Lord!”

In other words, Israel’s survival is needed as evidence of God’s power, and in order to deny the enemies the satisfaction of believing that they (or their gods) had triumphed.

The next verses, however, cast a different light on this. They state that the enemies, if they themselves did not lack discernment, would realize that any victory on their part could only occur if God had abandoned Israel (which is to say, if Israel had abandoned God).

The idea that Israel exists as evidence of God’s authority has great strength in Jewish tradition. But there’s a twist: it’s not our existence that provides the evidence, but our actions. Any action is judged not only according to law, but also according to whether it displays respect for God, or disrespect: whether it is kiddush Hashem or chillul Hashem.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Not in the heavens

Parashat Nitzavim begins Moses’s final oration to the people of Israel. In it Moses anticipates the risk that some of the Israelites may turn to other gods. He both threatens them with curses and promises redemption.

What has made this parashah memorable, however, is its insistence that the Torah is for every Jew: “I make this convenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (29:13–14).

Whether this refers to the 40-year-old covenant of Sinai or to a reaffirmation of it is not entirely clear. Unlike a slightly similar passage in Joshua, it contains no formal covenant ceremony, but only offers the choice.

In any case, tradition has understood it to mean not only that it is a covenant for all time, but also that the collective assent of our ancestors binds each of us to it as individuals. Although it is God’s covenant with the entire nation of Israel, each of us participates in it individually and directly.

Parashat Nitzavim, because it is read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, risks a degree of neglect. The Reform movement, however, has found it such a touchstone of belief and practice that we have chosen selections from it as the Torah reading for the morning of Yom Kippur (not the afternoon as the Plaut commentary states—the Reform reading for Yom Kippur afternoon is Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code).

The message that especially speaks to Reform philosophy is not just that God’s covenant is with each of us as individuals, but that the Torah is not reserved for an elite. Even in Biblical times it was a distinctive feature of Israelite religion that all the people participated in religious rituals, albeit in different roles. In other societies of the ancient Near East, ritual life was often reserved to priests and kings; in Israel, every family was enjoined to bring sacrifices and farmers has a distinctive ritual obligation, the offering of their first fruits.

This statement in Deuteronomy goes a step farther, and may reflect a change in sensibility from that of, for example, Leviticus, which emphasizes the functions of priests. It tells us that the Torah “is not in the heavens” (lo bashamayim hi), that it is within our reach and not too baffling for us (30:11–12).

Reform Judaism has begun to make the study of Torah a central form of our self-identification as Jews. That is to say, when we study Torah, it isn’t just for the sake of information. Rather, the act of study itself is a key Jewish act.

As teachers, then, we should try both to exemplify this for our students, and to develop the awareness of and love for Torah that this parashah invites every one of us to pursue.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

When to start Hebrew

It's a familiar enough story: parents, or the rabbi, tell the school committee that sixth-graders can't read Hebrew well enough to start b'nai mitzvah lessons. By "read Hebrew" they mean what Hebrew teachers usually call decoding: reading aloud with correct pronunciation but probably without comprehension.

Some Hebrew teachers are baffled by this statement. They point to the students' competence with the prescribed list of prayers, forgetting that the ability to read prayers does not always constitute reading. When you are my age and can't remember where you left your glasses, it is easy to forget how easy children memorize. In a class where there is frequent drill on specified prayers, many students achieve mastery of those prayers without developing the ability to read other Hebrew texts, even different prayers, with fluency. Since the student's Torah and Haftarah portions will be entirely new, and since they are unique to the student and won't be practiced over and over in class, the ability to decode somewhat fluently is essential.

The school's response is often to start teaching Hebrew earlier, but this doesn't solve the problem and may mask it further. Children who start learning to read Hebrew earlier don't necessarily achieve greater decoding proficiency; sometimes the result is worse. What children who start earlier, or who have more hours of class per week, do achieve is mastery of a longer list of prayers.

There's a reason for this. The methodology we use to teach Hebrew decoding in supplementary school builds on the students' secular-school language arts. Basically, we hope that students will have developed skill in phonetic reading in English that they can transfer to phonetic reading in Hebrew. (All Hebrew reading is phonetic, and students do better in Hebrew school if their secular school teaches reading through what used to be called "phonics." Nearly all schools do this now, because Federal education policy requires it, but a generation or so ago, lots of schools used non-phonetic methods.)

In my experience, the "primer year" is crucial. This is the year that students use a Hebrew primer that attempts to teach phonetic reading for mastery, teaching all the consonants and vowels and including polysyllabic words. Shalom Uvrachah, Ot la-ba'ot, Tiyulim, Likro u'Livarekh, and Z'man Likro are examples of Hebrew primers.

The publishers of all of these primers recommend them for grade 3 or grade 4. This is partly because all of them take for granted that students read at the third-grade level or higher. Some schools attempt to use one or another of these books in grade 2, but it doesn't result in better decoding overall, because only the second-graders who are reading English above grade level are ready for them.

Thus, I recommend making the primer year either grade 3 or grade 4. If your school meets two or more days a week, grade 3 is good. Not all of the students are firmly at third-grading reading level, but there is enough class time to work with those who aren't and who will need more help. I have come to agree with Dina Maiben that if your school meets only one day a week and has no more than one hour to devote to Hebrew, it is more productive to wait until grade 4 when nearly all students, except those with relevant learning disabilities, are reading at least at third-grade level.

Does this mean that you postpone all Hebrew until grade 3 or 4? In a word, no. Or, "lo!"

Think for a moment about how you learned to read English, if English is your native language. If you learned the sounds of the letters "d," "o," and "g" and then put them together to make dog, you experience a little thrill of revelation because you already knew the word dog and what it denoted.

Most of the time that doesn't happen in Hebrew school, because the primers teach mostly words that our students don't recognize. (In the first few weeks they teach a lot of nonsense words, too, but that's another problem.) It's the recognition of familiar words that cements the skill of phonetic reading, but in general our students don't know enough Hebrew words for this to work.

So what we should do in the early grades is teach words, not reading. That is, teach words orally, using "direct instruction" as much as possible. The means showing and demonstrating instead of telling and explaining, taking advantage of children's capacity for natural language acquisition. (People who cite natural language acquisition as a reason for starting Hebrew reading early overlook the fact that natural language acquisition is all about oral language, not about reading and writing.)

For example, instead of teaching that the letter shin has the sound of SH, teach that it is the initial sound in shofar. Do this the week before Rosh Hashanah and bring a shofar to class. If you can't blow it, arrange for a parent or synagogue volunteer to demonstrate. Let the children handle it and try to blow it. In subsequent weeks, review shofar (you can use a picture for the review). When you want to teach resh, have the rabbi visit and teach that in English we call her rabbi but in Hebrew the word is rav.

I like to use the Torah Aura series Now I Know My Alef Bet in grade 1; it teaches 50+ Hebrew words through their initial letters (it doesn't teach sofiot--final letters--or beged-kefet letters without dagesh). If you adopt it, be sure to use the vocabulary posters. In grade 2, my choice would be Journeys Through the Alef Bet, which uses the same approach but teaches all of the consonants. It adds one more word for each letter; you could also teach, as oral vocabulary, other words that will be in the primer the students eventually use.

For the primer year, I'm of six or seven minds. Many of the available primers have virtues and all have defects. Which book you use probably does not matter as much as how you use it: teach the students to associate the shape of a letter or vowel mark directly with its sound, bypassing the name of the letter and especially avoiding complex mnemonics. (Tav has the sound it does because it's tav, not because it has a toe sticking out.)

After the primer year, my preference is to emphasize modern Hebrew for comprehension; we use Behrman House's Shalom Ivrit. But if your school emphasizes prayer, at the very least teach all of the vocabulary and grammar that appear in the textbooks. The Hebrew series commonly used in grades 4 through 6 or 7, such as Hineni, S'fatai Tiftach, and Z'man Litfilah, all include some vocabulary and grammar, but teachers sometimes omit it in favor of prayer fluency, even though practicing prayers doesn't necessarily improve or even maintain students' decoding skills.

I spoke about this at CAJE in a session called "Hebrew Languish and How to Overcome It." The handout from that session, as a PDF, is here.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Gen X, Gen Y

One of the recurring themes at the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education this year was the thirst for Jewish learning - and Jewish connection - among young adults, roughly ages 21 through 35. Sarah Liebman, who directs a program for this cohort in Portland, Oregon, said at the first adult-education session, and reiterated at the closing session of the conference, that young, mostly single, adults have both the time and the desire to learn Jewishly.

Contrast this with young parents, the group that synagogue educators struggle to draw into family and adult education. Most young parents don't have much time; they're running as fast as they can just to keep up. Furthermore, it's at odds with their life stage, because parents of young children place their children's education needs ahead of their own.

We would do better to begin educating people at an adult level before they marry and have children. In general we are not geared up to do this. Synagogue programs naturally orient themselves toward synagogue members, and most of this cohort has not joined a synagogue. Some are even reluctant to become involved casually with a synagogue (especially if there could be pressure to become members). Several participants recommended holding programs for young adults in locations such as public libraries.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Doing the numbers: Bamidbar

The school year often ends before the reading of Numbers begins. Students using the Behrman House parashat hashavua books learn some of the contents of Numbers nevertheless, because those do not attempt to follow the actual schedule of weekly Torah readings. If the class followed the traditional schedule, their study would begin in the middle of Deuteronomy most years, and often end in the middle of Leviticus.

The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert.” Indeed, all of the action takes place in the wilderness; it is the history of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering.

The English name refers to the census figures that compose much of the first parashah. These, and the details about the organization of the Levites that follow, make it a tedious parashah to read or teach.

It can almost be said that nothing much happens in Numbers. What is most apparent to modern readers is that the people grumble a great deal, driving Moses to desperation and to an act of apparently minor disobedience (striking the rock instead of merely speaking to it) that traditional commentators considered the reason for his not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

There are also various encounters with surrounding nations and tribes, some of them memorable in themselves. Perhaps the most-discussed of these is the episode of Balaam, a prophet who is hired to curse the Israelites but who is only able to praise them. (If the idea of hiring a professional to curse the enemy seems strange, consider that Iraqi radio during the first Gulf War featured long recitations by poets brought in for exactly the same purpose.) Balaam’s praise is the text for the prayer and song “Mah Tovu.”

And Numbers also includes an episode that has become a touchstone for Jewish women: the daughters of Zelophehad, who demand of Moses that they be allowed to inherit their father’s estate. The ruling itself is only a small victory for feminists, because while they were allowed to inherit, it was only in the absence of any brothers—and they were then required to marry within their own tribe. It is important because Moses had to approach God for clarification of the law, indicating that Jewish practice can include changes from prior custom or popular belief about an issue.

The census figures at the beginning of Numbers present an obvious problem. If we take the word elef to mean “one thousand,” its meaning in modern Hebrew, the number of Israelite men eligible for military service totals at least 600,000, implying a population of more than two million. It is hard to imagine a group of this size moving about as the Torah describes, especially without any comment in other ancient sources.

Some commentators have concluded that elef had an ancient meaning other than the number 1,000, perhaps a large group or “contingent,” as the new JPS translation frames it. By the most conservative reasoning, the number of fighting men might have been closer to 5,500, a figure similar to the size of other ancient armies, corresponding to a total population of about 20,000.

Numbers itself reports, however, in chapter 3 that the population included 22,273 first-born sons. While this casts doubt on the figure of 600,000, it can only be reconciled with the 5,500 figure by assuming that nearly all the first-born sons were underage.

But while Numbers matters to us, these numbers ultimately do not. The question is one we probably cannot resolve, but it is the tradition they represent that is important.

Small schools at CAJE 32

I will be leading a discussion session for participants from small supplementary schools at the CAJE conference in St. Louis (August 5-9). This year our topic is "Small Schools: Building Community to Enhance Learning." Here's the description:

Teaching students to be part of the Jewish community is our goal, but what if our community is small, geographically remote, religiously diverse, denominationally isolated, or all of the above? In this session we’ll discuss the ways that our communities help to educate our students. We’ll share strategies for building community within the school, for building relationships beyond the limits of school time and space, and for helping our students to become part of a larger Jewish world.

I would welcome replies (to okmoreh) from people in small schools, even if you won't be at CAJE this year, about issues and concerns that you might want the session to address. If you have approaches that you've used and would like to share, you might save them for the session if you can attend, or include them in email to me if you know that you can't attend.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Believe it or not - Behar/Bechukotai

This week’s reading comprises parashat Behar and parashat Bechukotai, the last weekly portions in Leviticus. They are read together in a majority of years, but like Tazria and Metzora are separated when a leap year requires additional weekly portions.

The jubilee year is one of the major themes of Behar. From the Hebrew yovel, jubilee refers to a fifty-year cycle at the end of which land would revert to its original owners. (Originally yovel denoted the horn that would be blown to mark the occasion.) The connotation of rejoicing that it has acquired in English comes from a Latin root that is probably unrelated.

The jubilee is actually a super-sabbatical year. According to the Torah, every seventh year is a sabbatical, during which land is not cultivated and debts are forgiven. After forty-nine years (seven cycles of seven years each), the jubilee year occurs. It has all the characteristics of a sabbatical year, plus the reversion of land.

It is known that the provisions of the sabbatical year were observed for many centuries; indeed, the agricultural restriction is nominally observed in Israel today, although generally through the token sale of agricultural land to a non-Jew. The forgiveness of debts eventually became the cause of hardship and was essentially abrogated by Rabbi Hillel’s prosbul, which turned personal debt into what we would call contract law.

There is serious doubt, however, about whether the requirements of the jubilee were ever carried out. First, there would have been hardship in observing two sabbatical years in a row.

Second, scholars question whether the restoration of every parcel of land to the family that had received it in the time of Joshua could ever have been possible. More specifically, they question whether Joshua’s division of the land could ever have taken place, at least in the way that the Bible describes.

There is even doubt about whether the Israelite conquest of Canaan took place, an issue that has been the subject of general controversy in the Conservative movement and, of course, in Israel. Although there is legitimate disagreement, many scholars believe that, if such a conquest took place, it did not happen as quickly and efficiently as the narrative in Joshua suggests.

Indeed, the Bible itself presents evidence that it did not. Battles against other tribes inhabiting the land are a major subject of Judges and Samuel.

Should we tell children all this? Generally, we will choose not to. The full weight of modern scholarship adds nothing to a child’s understanding of the Passover story, and suggesting that the exodus from Egypt might not have taken place at all removes a great deal.

Nevertheless, we do students little good by insisting that they accept as truth that which they find frankly incredible. Traditional commentators who argue that all the provisions of the jubilee year were carried out do so only by ignoring the plain sense of the text.

The “plain sense” is what Jewish pedagogy calls the p’shat, and learning to extract it is the first step for any student beginning to work with the actual text of the Torah. Merely understanding all the words, in English or in Hebrew, isn’t always enough. Full understanding of the p’shat may also require knowledge of the context and of the conventions of Biblical narrative, as well as of the basics of interpretation.

Jewish reading of the Bible doesn’t stop with the plain sense. In mainstream teaching, we also give equal attention to d’rash, which refers to commentary and interpretation: the kind of meaning around which a rabbi might build a sermon, for example. We usually give less attention in classes to remez, the philosophical meaning, and sod, esoteric meaning.

Much of our teaching actually begins with d’rash. We don’t expect young children to grapple with a text in order to find the p’shat; instead, we paraphrase it and usually emphasize the d’rash, the lesson that a student should learn from the passage.

Inconveniently, the age at which students are ready to work directly with the text is also the age at which skepticism develops. Thus, it’s also to d’rash that we return when a passage is difficult to accept on its own terms.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Emor: Why remember priests?

Parashat Emor consists largely of material that is specific to the Temple priests. This should not be too surprising: most of Leviticus contains instructions for the priests, and a common Hebrew name for it is Torat Kohanim, instruction of priests. Even material in this parashah that is not exclusive to the priests, such as instructions about various holidays and festivals, is presented from the priestly point of view.

One of the striking features of Emor is the discussion of special rules that affect not only the priests’ work in the Temple, but all aspects of their lives. This emphasis on the specialness of the priests has led many scholars to conclude that it might be of relatively late composition, stemming from the reforms following the discovery (or composition) of Deuteronomy in the reign of Josiah.

One of these reforms was the centralization of sacrificial worship in Jerusalem, eliminating regional shrines such as the one at Shiloh and disenfranchising rural priests. Some scholars hold that the emphasis on the special quality of priests here reflects the insistence of the “Zadokite” priests in Jerusalem, who claimed direct descent from Aaron, that only they qualified to officiate at the altar, and that Levites not of such descent could only do the menial work of the Temple.

Most teachers faced with this parashah would probably build a lesson around the section on holiday observance, or possibly around the section dealing with the punishment for blasphemy. The latter is of some extra interest because it is one of the few occasions, and the only one outside the book of Numbers, on which Moses found it necessary to consult God about a specific law. The best-known of these occasions is probably the episode dealing with the daughters of Zelophehad and their right to inherit their father’s estate.

A lesson on the special rules for priests would present a challenge. Given that kohanim have so few priestly functions today, students are likely to ask why this section should even be studied.

One reason for studying this section would be simply to understand the special quality that Biblical religion imputed to the priests. It is by no means unusual to have special rules that set priests apart from other people; the rule of celibacy for Roman Catholic priests would be an obvious contemporary example. (In contrast, Hebrew priests were expected to marry, although they were barred from marrying a divorced woman.)

Another is that the vestiges of priestly function that remain part of Jewish practice--in traditional settings, pronouncing the birkat kohanim and officiating at pidyon ha-ben, the redemption of firstborn sons, come to mind--serve as reminders of the work that was once the main function of priests.

Thus, the care with which traditional communities have maintained those few priestly functions that are still possible, and with which families have retained knowledge of their priestly status, can be understood as reflections of Jews’ longing for a return from galut, “exile” in the Diaspora and the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel.

Which has come to exist -- it is barely a week since we celebrated Yom ha-Atzma’ut. Most of us, whatever our feeling for Israel, probably do not anticipate the construction of a Third Temple and the reinstatement of sacrificial worship. In fact, it usually comes as a surprise to learn that there is a yeshiva in Jerusalem that now trains men of priestly descent to carry out the Biblical sacrifices. (For many of us, it’s an unwelcome surprise; current Reform prayer books omit or rephrase prayers that refer to this.)

Instead of looking to hereditary priests as the sign of a future redemption, we tend, in the language of a prayer found in Conservative siddurim, to think of Israel as “the first flowering of our redemption.”

Beyond the Age of Mitzvah

Congregations often ask what can be done to encourage students to stay enrolled in religious school after they have become b'nai mitzvah.

By the time the question is being asked, it may be too late for the current group of students. I genuinely believe that the single most important thing is to instill excitement in Jewish learning while students are young. It's been said that nearly everything students know after bar/bat mitzvah was learned in third grade or earlier. If that's true, and if we make students attend school for four more years anyway, it is no wonder that they don't see any reason to continue attending through high school. Why stay in school if there is nothing to learn after third grade anyway?

In other words, I think that it is important to have sufficient verticality. A lot of what we do in supplementary school comes across as "same old, same old": we study the holidays and Shabbat every single year, and students don't always learn in greater depth. Students need a sense of progress, of learning material that is new and more complex than what they learned the year before.

Beyond that, there's one very important factor in persistence that we can usually do nothing about: tradition. If a congregation has a tradition of persistence beyond b'nai mitzvah -- for example, a Reform congregation that has emphasized confirmation since sometime in the nineteenth century -- high-school enrollment will probably be good. It is much harder in congregations that have no tradition of high-school enrollment (including, by the way, many suburban Reform congregations founded in the past 40 years).

Nevertheless, there are some things we can do:
  • Teach things that are worth learning. Although there is a place for "light" courses, if the entire curriculum consists of crafts and cooking, the overall effect will be negative.

  • Teach at the appropriate level. Eighth and ninth grades shouldn't seem like a rehash of seventh grade, nor should they seem like college courses.

  • Give students a choice. Include elective courses -- a combination of core and elective courses is best -- or, if electives aren't feasible, solicit student input about course topics.

  • Include a (small) social component. School is school, but part of the motivation to attend is to spend time with friends.

  • Work with parents. Since friends' participation is so influential, consider fomenting the kind of conspiracy that Joel Grishaver recommends: a secret agreement among parents not to let their child be the first to drop out.

  • Especially if confirmation is not well-established in your congregation, consider emphasizing high-school graduation (at the end of grade 12) rather than pushing confirmation (after grade 10 or 11). It's more resonant in American culture.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

My experience as a bar/bat mitzvah tutor is that Tazria and Metzora are the most popular b’nai mitzvah Torah portions, but it isn’t because of anything that they contain. It’s only because of the dates on which they are read.

If a young person is lucky, the best date for the ceremony will turn out to be a week or two later when Kedoshim is the reading. This parashah, from which the Reform movement draws its reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, comprises what is known as the Holiness Code, one of the most attractive readings in all the Torah.

One often-quoted precept from it is the injunction not to place a stumbling block before the blind. If we read this literally, it describes a nasty practical joke in which the blind person could trip and be injured. But it also commands us not to insult the deaf. Students reasonably ask, why should it matter? The person can’t hear the insult and won’t suffer from hurt feelings.

To understand this, it helps to know that some older translations read “curse the deaf.” If a curse were to be effective, it could do real harm and the victim wouldn’t even know what was happening. Jewish tradition, however, has generally held that human curses don’t have any real effect on the intended victim.

That doesn’t mean that a curse, or anything derogatory that might be said about a person, doesn’t have any effect. While the victim might be willing to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” the Jewish way of looking at this is that bad things harm the person who says them. In Hebrew this is called lashon hara, “evil speech”--something that we’re supposed to avoid even if we happen to believe that it’s true.

Another way of looking at it, one that appeals to children, is simply that it’s unfair. A deaf person, being unable to hear the insult, has no opportunity to defend himself or herself. This isn’t limited to cases of deafness. It would apply equally to a hearing person who, for any reason, might not find out what was said. That’s why verse 19:14 ends with, “You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” Jewish tradition understands that the harm occurs whether the victim is aware of it or not.

Just as we understand the rule against insulting the deaf to apply to all cases where the person might not find out what we said, Jewish tradition interprets “placing a stumbling block before the blind” much more broadly. On the surface, it’s a stupid joke that no one should play. But we also understand it to mean that we can’t do anything that takes advantage of a person’s ignorance or inexperience.

For example, if someone asks how to get to a certain place, we’re not allowed to give bad directions. We have to give the best directions we can. Of course there is a chance that we’ll be mistaken; maybe we don’t know the route very well ourselves. But, except when the person asking for help intends to do harm to someone else, we can’t deliberately give false information. Even young children can understand that God will know whether we meant to do well or meant to mislead the person.

But does the rule against insulting the deaf, in its broadest application, mean that we should be silent when another person does something that we know is seriously wrong? Verse 18, “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him,” is the relevant proof text for the argument that we shouldn’t be silent. But it says that when we must speak about something that is wrong, we should speak to the person, not behind his or her back.

Religious-school students are often eager--too eager--to share derogatory information about other students with the teacher. Sermons about lashon hara have little or no effect, but we can choose whether or how to respond to it. It’s a “teachable moment” (for everyone involved).

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day

Perfect weather for Earth Day in southern New England: sunny and moderately warm, ideal for outdoor environmental activities.

But do we observe Earth Day in Jewish schools? For some schools, the answer must be no: very traditional communities take no notice of holidays that are not Jewish holidays. In most schools, however, the community at least tolerates Earth Day and may actively embrace it.

On the other hand, most of us have already promoted Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees, as a Jewish environmental holiday. Although this is a modern interpretation, to anyone who was around for the first Earth Day, it makes perfect sense.

Unfortunately, the opportunities that it suggests for active learning are not necessarily appropriate for Tu Bishvat. Here in New England, planting trees is usually not feasible in January or February; we are more likely to contribute money to the Jewish National Fund. Many of the activities that students suggest - cleaning up a park or beach, promoting recycling, or distributing compact fluorescent fluorescent bulbs - have nothing specific to do with trees. In fact, they're more appropriate for Earth Day.

In the northern U.S., Earth Day is also a better day for planting trees. In fact, the traditional date for Arbor Day, the fourth Friday in April, is at the end of this week.

So, if we choose to introduce an environmental theme at Tu Bishvat, there are at several ways to do it that make sense.

First, we might choose an environmental theme for a Tu Bishvat seder. For most children and many adults, this is more readily apprehensible than a mystical, Four Worlds theme that is another appealing option.

Second, let's remember that Tu Bishvat is the New Year of Trees. If we want to do environmental mitzvot at Tu Bishvat, perhaps we should focus on a single issue: deforestation. Classroom activities might include writing letters to government officials, possibly supporting the protection of national parks and forests.

For a show-and-tell session or a family education program, we might invite a forester to visit the school. You don't have to be in a national park to do this: even cities have foresters (Cleveland, for example, has a Department of Urban Forestry).

For the most impact, we could link Tu Bishvat and Earth Day: launch a project on Tu Bishvat that we'll complete on Earth Day. We'd start with learning on Tu Bishvat, then move through dreaming and planning (interrupted by the Passover break or spring vacation) to our Earth Day activities.


These two parashot, yesterday's Torah reading, are probably among our least favorites, not only because they deal with an apparently loathsome skin disease, but also because its theme, the exclusion of those who suffer from the disease, also offends our sensibilities.

It should be clear, however, that, despite the conventional translation of tzara’at as “leprosy,” the condition of tzara’at has little, if anything, to do with Hansen’s disease. As Rabbi Bernard Bamberger notes, commentators have suggested a wide variety of diseases, some of them minor, to which it might refer, and it is possible that any or all of them might fall into this classification.

More to the point, it should be apparent that the procedure described here has nothing to do with medical diagnosis or treatment. As Bamberger also notes, no similar procedure involving diagnosis by a priest and quarantine is required for other, possibly more serious or more contagious, diseases. That tzara’at may also afflict fabrics or (in Metzora) houses also suggests that it is something other than an ordinary disease process.

Furthermore, the priest’s role, in Tazria, is limited to the examination of the sufferer; the priest has no further role until the sufferer recovers.

Rather, tzara’at is understood as the physical representation of God’s disfavor--that is, as the outward sign of an inward, spiritual malaise. In modern terms, we might also understand it as the external manifestation of a psychological condition; Dr. A. J. Twerski goes so far as to liken it to a condition of which the sufferer is in denial, and refers to the community’s obligation to overcome the denial in order to help him or her.

Jewish tradition particularly associates tzara’at with the sin of lashon hara--evil speech, slander, or gossip. Although this association can be drawn from a word play on the name of the second parashah, Metzora (they are joined in most years), a stronger case for the association can be drawn from Numbers 12, where Miriam is stricken with tzara’at after she and Aaron speak ill of Moses. But nothing in this parashah supports a strong association between tzara’at and lashon hara or any other specific sin.

This focus on outward disfigurement as the expression of an inner spiritual defect, and the exclusion of the sufferer from the community because of it, strike many of us today as objectionable. These objections, however, reflect a double misreading of the text.

The first misreading derives from focusing on the sufferer’s presumed spiritual defect. It appealed to the rabbis to associate tzara’at with a specific sin, lashon hara, not merely because the idea of divine punishment for sinful acts is part of Jewish tradition, but also because the cause-and-effect relationship between the action and the punishment suggests a possibility of atonement. In Judaism, unlike, for example, Calvinism, misfortune is not seen as a sign of being permanently out of God’s favor; the inherent personal worth of every Jew is taken for granted.

Thus, it makes sense to interpret these parashot in light of those immediately preceding it, in which the discussion first of the sacrifices and then of kashrut has the holiness of the people Israel as an underlying theme. Perhaps we should give more attention to holiness or purity than to impurity.

The second misreading stems from focusing on the exclusion of the sufferer. The text here strongly suggests that many people could be expected to recover from tzara’at within seven days, or fourteen, and the second parashah, Metzora, provides a ritual of purification that allows one who has recovered from tzara’at to return to the community. Thus, this parashah could also be seen as part of a logical unit that concludes two parashot hence, in Achare Mot, with the instructions regarding Yom Kippur.

A moral like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” cannot be readily drawn from this parashah; it is a basic assumption here that the affliction, whatever its direct cause, reflects genuine impurity. There are, however, several other lessons that we can draw.

The first is that we need not regard every affliction as a sign of God’s disfavor. In this parashah, those who might be suffering from tzara’at do not diagnose it themselves; examination by the priest is required, and many similar conditions are carefully excluded from the diagnosis. Although it is still tempting for many with severe or chronic illness to view themselves as “cursed by God,” nothing in this parashah supports such an attitude.

The second is that the state of alienation from God and the community is a temporary condition, one that derives from specific acts rather than from a generalized state of unworthiness. Despite the degree of horror that attaches to tzara’at, it is a condition from which a sufferer can hope to recover and return to the community.

The third is a challenge: in the modern age, when tzara’at itself concerns most of us hardly at all, this parashah asks us what conditions today cause us to exclude others needlessly from our communities, or cause others to exclude themselves. And it asks us what means we might find to reincorporate them as effectively as the purification ritual reincorporated the tzara’at sufferer into the people of Israel. In the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy we explicitly authorize ourselves to pray with sinners; otherwise how could we pray at all?

Ye and We

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