Monday, December 1, 2008

Why is Hebrew so difficult?

It is unsettling to walk along a street in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and hear small children speaking Hebrew. Don’t they know how difficult Hebrew is?

Why is Hebrew difficult? Or, more accurately, is Hebrew difficult? For Israeli children, it doesn’t seem to be. It’s just the way everyone around them talks.

For us, that’s part of the trouble: we’re surrounded by English, not Hebrew. Our children learn to speak English before they know how difficult English is—and with its countless exceptions in spelling and grammar, English is considered one of the most difficult languages.

An alef-bet that is different from the Latin alphabet that English uses is the most conspicuous issue. Letters that look too much like one another contribute to errors; I often tell students who are inclined to “glance and guess” when reading aloud that
even Israelis have to look carefully at every letter of every word. For a child, Hebrew letters are scarcely more difficult than English letters, and the regularity of Hebrew pronunciation is a relief after the unpredictability of English.

Because children in the lower grades of school still have a capacity for natural language acquisition, we have begun changing to pedagogical methods that draw on it: teaching oral vocabulary from kindergarten onward, even before students begin learning to read Hebrew, and focusing on “picking up” meaning rather than memorizing rules.

Research has found that three factors (other than individual students’ language ability) strongly influence students’ success with Hebrew. The first is whether a parent knows any Hebrew, e.g., to read from a siddur. Secular educators in Israel had
to change their teaching methods when they began to teach Hebrew reading to the children of olim from countries like Russia, where few Jews were familiar with the Hebrew of the prayer book. Our teaching methods anticipate that not all parents know Hebrew, but it is still helpful if parents know some Hebrew or begin to learn.

The second factor is whether the family’s congregation uses Hebrew in worship. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has written that congregations that use little Hebrew in prayer rarely achieve high student accomplishment in Hebrew—there’s just no incentive. The effect is compounded if parents seldom bring their children to services.

The third is parents’ expectations or predictions. When a parent says, “I never managed to learn Hebrew and I know my child won’t, either,” it almost always turns out to be true, even if the child has more than adequate learning ability. Or when a parent says, “You don’t really have to learn all that,” who will the child believe: the teacher or the parent?

So, for parents: first, if you don’t yet know Hebrew, begin learning. Second, bring your children to Shabbat services with some regularity. Third, cultivate the belief that your child needs to learn Hebrew and will succeed at it.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shabbat School

My only direct experience with Shabbat School was as a student some 40 years ago, and based on that, I would say that there are potential problems that proponents of it will tend to understate. There are also potential advantages but not all of them are to the students.

I grew up in a Reform congregation (so there was no issue with writing, cutting, pasting, etc.) that had Shabbat school for the upper grades – the primary grades met on Sundays. One potential advantage of this was that students were there for the Shabbat morning service. We also had a service attendance requirement on Friday nights, and the result of this combination is that I still know most of the English text of the Union Prayer Book from memory. I find that I know quite a lot of useless stuff and that is one of the most conspicuous.

Having the students there on approximately 30 Shabbat mornings a year – instead of the 10 or so you might get for Junior Congregation – would seem to be an advantage if teaching the Shabbat morning liturgy is an important goal. But unless you have three days of school a week (two weekday afternoons and one weekend morning), it will be a strain to get both enough prayer time and enough class time. When I have supervised Junior Congregation it ran either 1.5 or 2 hours; in a 2-day school we could not afford to lose that much class time, nor would I have been satisfied with only one hour for Shabbat tefillah.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that Shabbat school is proposed is to eliminate the need to bring children an additional day for Junior Congregation, but I am skeptical about whether it would improve attendance. In my experience, both as a student (back in antiquity), and more recently as a teacher and principal, there are even more activities competing for students’ time on Saturday mornings than on Sunday mornings.

Also, here (this morning especially) the greatest problem with Sunday attendance is family vacations. We had about 50% absence this morning even though the public schools that most of our students attend are in session Monday through Wednesday, because families are blowing off not only religious school but also three days of regular school in order to take a 9-day family vacation only a month before the winter break! Those who want “family time” on Sundays may want it just as badly on Saturdays.

One potential advantage, which I've seen as a visitor to a Reconstructionist congregation that has Shabbat school, is that if school hours are synchronized with service hours, the attendance at the main service may improve – that is, instead of dropping children off, parents attend the regular service. This is indirectly beneficial to the students through the parents’ example.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Script writing

I am going to make a radical suggestion: don't teach printing. It takes up far too much time, it's tedious and laborious for the students, and the students will never have any occasion to use it.

The truth is that there is so little Hebrew writing to be done at all in our schools that time spent learning to print block is wasted. This is particularly true if we introduce it in kindergarten or pre-K, where the children haven't yet developed fine motor skills and it's harder to learn, but it applies in any and all grades.

On the other hand, I am in favor of teaching script writing in the elementary grades. Not because we have always done it that way – I didn't learn it until I was over the age of 40 – or because it is allegedly a hallmark of Conservative education – it's really school-specific.

I'm in favor of it because I believe that our job is to educate students for Jewish life, and in particularly for lifelong Jewish learning. We all face pressures to emphasize what is strictly pragmatic and utilitarian, to the point that anything else is completely excluded, but we are supposed to be educators, and that includes advocacy for what is in the best interests of our students. It also includes educating parents and lay leaders about what that means.

So here is why I support teaching script writing.

In the mid-1990s, Professor Sherry Israel at Brandeis University did a study for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, which had established a Commission on Jewish Continuity. By that time everyone knew that the Jewish population study of 1990 had found three factors that contributed markedly to adult Jewish identification: day school, summer camp, and peer-group tours to Israel. (By the way, these results have often been misused to claim that Hebrew school had no effect, but if they show anything of the kind, it's that Hebrew school doesn't have *enough* effect.)

Students in our religious schools generally aren't attending day school (not an option at all in this community), but we all know that we should do everything possible to get students into Jewish summer camp and then into USY (or other) tours to Israel.

Israel's study found one additional factor that was as powerful as the other three: taking Judaic studies or Hebrew courses in college. That makes a great deal of sense in developmental terms, because college students are beginning the process of choosing adult values and self-definition, and voluntarily enrolling in a Judaic studies course represents a big positive step in that.

So I believe that we should also try to position our students to take Hebrew and/or Judaic studies in college (and, therefore, encourage them to choose colleges that have such courses). Above all, that means including enough intellectual content for students to see that there is something worth studying at a higher level – sometimes we focus so much on skills that ideas get short shrift. But if we hope that students will study Hebrew in college, we should teach them script writing in the elementary grades.

Now, I worked for 20 years in secular higher education, the greater part in colleges with Judaic studies programs and substantial Jewish enrollments. In college Hebrew courses, even Hebrew 101, script writing is required from the first day of class (well, maybe the second). I saw a lot of Jewish students who were afraid to enroll in Hebrew courses because of that – they had developed a mental block about it.

This wasn't a realistic attitude, because no background in Hebrew is required for Hebrew 101 and the classes almost always include non-Jewish students, but college students aren't always realistic.

In our school we teach script writing even though we know that the students won't really master it in the time we allocate to it. We require the (rather small) amount of written work that students do in Hebrew to be written in script. We don't try to achieve good handwriting - recognizable is enough. I'm not so sanguine as to believe that most students will retain script writing very well through high school, but it's sufficient that they have become comfortable enough to know that they can re-learn it easily.

And we don't teach printing at all. In pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade, we don't have the students do any writing at all. We start to introduce script writing in second grade, but it's in third grade that the students really start to practice writing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Force of a Promise

This posting is based on a presentation given at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Big Flats on October 12, 2008.

Kol Nidre
is chanted at the beginning of the evening service for Yom Kippur. It is high drama: Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and held by three or more worthy people, the entire congregation stands, and in a traditional congregation the hazzan (cantor) chants the full text three times.

For many Jews, Kol Nidre is Yom Kippur, and almost everyone refers to the entire evening service as "Kol Nidre" even though the actual chanting of it, even three times, lasts only a few minutes.

This is partly because of the affecting melody. It is almost certainly not because of the text alone, which is largely in Aramaic and which few of us understand.

The text, in fact, is troublesome. Kol Nidre means "all vows," and while people often refer to it as a prayer, it is actually a legal formulation. In short, it annuls whatever vows a person might make. Its legal function is highlighted by having three righteous people hold Torah scrolls, forming a bet din (religious court), and by requiring that it be chanted before sunset (because legal business could not be carried out once the holiday day began).

Beginning the day that is considered the holiest of the year by prospectively annulling vows has caused problems for many centuries, because it led to the conclusion that the word of a Jew could not be trusted. As a result, at times in various countries, a Jew's word was only relied on in an important matter if accompanied by the infamous, and sometimes painful, Jew's oath.

Modern liturgists have been equally troubled by the Kol Nidre text. The Reform movement attempted, unsuccessfully, to omit it, but in at least one Reform machzor (prayerbook for the High Holy Days) it was printed without translation. Some current machzorim state that it was the prayer of people not free, in other words, that it applies to vows made under duress, or that it applies only to vows that, after sincere effort, a person cannot fulfill.

The reason that Kol Nidre offends our modern sensibilities, however, is that we no longer take vows and oaths as seriously as our ancestors did. By definition, an oath is a promise made in the name of God. Our forebears understood such a promise as one that must be fulfilled, with no exceptions; probably they believed that if they failed to keep such an oath, they would die before the next Yom Kippur.

In contrast, although people frequently conclude modern legal oaths (e.g., in a secular court of law) with the phrase, "so help me God," the frequency with which oaths are broken in our society suggests that the fear of God is not a powerful motivator, even among those who invoke God freely.

The full seriousness with which our ancestors took any oath is apparent in the story of Yiftach (Jeptha) in the book of Judges. Yiftach is a military commander who swears an oath that, if he is successful in battle against the Ammonites, "then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:31).

Yiftach defeatrs the Ammonites and returns home. His daughter -- his only child -- is the first to come out to meet him. She says, "Father, you have uttered a vow to the Lord; do to me as you have vowed" (11:36) -- and he does.

Rabbinic tradition does not approve of Yiftach's fulfillment of his vow. It holds that he should have gone to the High Priest and sought the annulment of his vow. Kol Nidre seems to have assumed its importance because we no longer have a High Priest to annul vows that should never have been made.

And, because we take the making of vows less seriously than did our ancestors, we probably make improper vows far more often. How often have we, as parents or teachers, said in a moment of exasperation to a child, "If you do that one more time, I swear to God I'll kill you"? The child probably will "do that" one more time, and in the logic of Jewish tradition, that would constitute a vow that had to be carried out. So we need to annul all our foolish and mistaken oaths.

I want to suggest that, instead of downplaying Kol Nidre, we take speech -- all speech, not just oaths that invoke God -- more seriously. A sign of how little trust we have in one another's words today is that, during this election campaign season, we often find that, even when we agree with what a candidate says, we do not entirely believe it.

Although our theology may not lead us to expect a bolt of lightning to strike us every time we break an oath, we would all do better to speak more carefully: to say only what we genuinely mean, to promise only what we will will really do, to say what is true rather than what is expedient.

A number of years ago the philosopher Sissela Bok wrote Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. In it, she strongly endorsed the principle of veracity, although she also found instances in which lying might be excused.

Jewish tradition identifies two such instances. One is telling a bride that she is beautiful -- but the rabbis of old did not consider this untrue. They held that every bride is beautiful, because of inner joy, on her wedding day. The other is misleading a rodef -- a pursuer who chases after another person with the intention of murdering him. In that case, lying is not only permitted but, because of the commandment to preserve life, mandatory.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Teaching history

A colleague asked about a curriculum for Jewish history in grade 7. Here’s what I wrote:

I think that the most important thing is for any history that you teach to mesh with what the students learn in secular school, which varies from state to state. If it doesn’t connect with the general history that they’re learning it will be much harder to teach and the students will retain less.

Several years ago at CAJE, Prof. Paula Hyman argued that American history was the best way to introduce Jewish history. That has been my experience in New England and New York, where we've found it productive to teach Jewish history in America in the fifth grade. Here in New York, it connects very well with the state history curriculum since it begins in 1654 in New Amsterdam.

However, when I worked in Los Angeles, I found that it didn’t connect as well, because students there learned the history of the United States from a California point of view, starting with the Spanish missions, not Jamestown and the Pilgrims.

Anyway, for the seventh grade, we’ve had good results using The Atlas of Great Jewish Communities by Sondra Leiman (URJ Press - we also use Leiman’s American Jewish history book in the fifth grade). Most of our students get an introduction to world history in the sixth grade in public school. Although Leiman’s book is arguably a history text, its approach is more generally social studies, emphasizing the lives of the people in each community, the leaders who are remembered (it’s exceptionally good in representation of women) and, where applicable, the texts from those communities that we still study.

Our schedule also calls for 7th-graders to study tefillah and religious living on the weekday. On Sunday, the world Jewish history/social studies component is about 1/3 of the total work (students attend for 3 hours on Sundays).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beyond Hebrew Languish

Last week at CAJE I presented a session with the above title, a follow-up to the "Hebrew Languish and How to Overcome It" session that I presented last year (summary here).

"Hebrew Languish" refers to a letter I received from a prospective teacher: "I have many years of experience in Hebrew Languish which I would like to share with your school." Unfortunately, most of our schools have plenty of Hebrew languish already.

Where last year's session dealt with Hebrew language in the primary grades, this year's dealt with a transition to the upper grades, and in particular to the kind of language-based program that our school has. To be clear, we use Shalom Ivrit (Behrman House) in grades 4, 5, and 6; each grade has 1 hour 40 minutes per week (1 hour on Sunday and 40 minutes on Wednesday) with a specialist teacher. We also teach prayer, but it's secondary, using the prayer companions to Shalom Ivrit. Including the prayer component, we have about 2 hours 10 minutes of Hebrew per week.

Most of the participants in this year's session said that their schools have prayer-based programs, and some wouldn't have enough time to adopt a language-based program. The key elements of teaching Hebrew language apply, however, in any setting.

First among these is to emphasize acquiring language in the primary grades rather than learning it. Older students and adults learn a language by studying rules of grammar, verb conjugations, vocabulary lists, and so forth, and then putting the pieces haltingly together. Young children can acquire a language by "picking it up," that is, by hearing the spoken language in simple forms and gradually learning what things mean.

Thus, in kindergarten or first grade, we do best to teach children oral vocabulary and not to emphasize learning the alef-bet very much at all. Ideally, children would have a vocabulary of about 100 common words before we begin teaching them to read. (You knew far more than 100 words in your native language before anyone taught you to read it.)

The principles of language acquisition apply equally strongly to teaching language in the upper elementary grades. With Shalom Ivrit, it is fruitless for students to attempt to do any translating in book 1 (grade 4 for us), but the most obvious way to teach it is to have students translate the stories. Unfortunately, students can't translate effectively until they can paraphrase in their native language, which for most students isn't before grade 6. So it is better to work at figuring out the approximate meaning of entire sentences and not worry too much about the individual words at first.

In a program that emphasizes prayer, it is valuable to do as much work with language as possible. Joel Grishaver, in a session that he presented with Ellen Dreskin, was emphatic about it: we should always teach the common prefixes and suffixes, and the shorashim (roots) of words that occur frequently in prayers. Without this kernel of meaning, each prayer is a vast uncharted sea of Hebrew; if a student can recognize even a few words, they serve as signposts.

All of the common textbooks for prayer-based Hebrew (Hineni, Z'man Litfilah, and others) contain significant language modules, generally related to the vocabulary or syntax of each prayer. Many teachers seem to skip these sections in favor of drill on the prayer texts, but it's a false economy of time. Teaching students even the rudiments of language will improve their mastery of prayer texts.

This is equally true in the primer year (grade 3 for us). I have said often enough that if your only goal for Hebrew in that grade is to teach decoding, Z'man Likro would be the most effective of currently available textbooks, but my friend Dina Maiben points out that Z'man Likro contains a language unit in each chapter. Dina says that too many teachers blast right through it as if it were another page of reading drill, and students are shortchanged by that approach.

My handout from this year's session is here.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Torah & evolution

Last night I had the privilege of attending a lecture by the Rev. Michael Dowd, the author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. He's a Protestant minister who has given up pulpit work in order to lecture and teach full-time on this subject.

It's beyond my capacity to reduce his message to a paragraph or two, but I'll say that he's speaking to the large group of people who want to believe in both science and religion. I say "believe" even though Jewish tradition does not emphasize faith—which our tradition largely takes for granted—and belief is not exactly the question for us anyway. The truth content of science doesn't depend on an individual's belief in it, and some of us who are engaged with the religious dimension of Judaism value it for reasons other than straightforward belief.

In other words, his audience isn't the extremists of secular society who hew exclusively to science and find no merit at all in religion, nor is it religious fundamentalists who proclaim the literal truth of Scripture and insist that any science that differs from it is simply wrong. It's for those of us who, in the language of Jewish tradition, will say, "You are right—and you are right."

His basic message, that science and religion express the same truths but frame them in different kinds of language, finds Jewish expression in the religious naturalism taught by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who is usually cited as the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. (We should remember that he remained a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary for all of his career; I think that his original goal was to shake up Conservative Judaism.)

And in fact, Reconstructionist Judaism has become especially attractive to well-educated Jews who fully accept contemporary science and feel a need to reconcile it with their spiritual needs. Many other modern Jews deal with this either by keeping science and religion entirely separate, or by just ignoring the conflict.

As I grow older, I am more and more drawn to Reconstructionist thinking, but as an educator I've seen the difficulties it presents in teaching children. The problem is that it's based on a sophisticated form of reasoning that we d0n't expect children to comprehend. Years ago I had an interview for a job as education director at a Reconstructionist congregation, and I still remember the looks of horror on the faces of the search committee members when I said off-handedly that children should learn Torah. Their idea was that children needed to be insulated from the Torah until they were old enough (and educated enough, probably with a Ph.D. degree) to understand it properly.

But I still believe that children should learn Torah, even though all but the youngest students will ask questions that we, as teachers, are uncomfortable in answering. When a sixth-grade class, studying parashat Noach, asks me whether the flood story is true (by the way, they never ask whether the creation stories are true), I answer that the Torah is not a science book, and not really a history book, either.

I also tell them that there is some evidence of a massive flood in ancient times and that many other cultures also have flood narratives. But I don't use these ideas to attempt to persuade students of the truth of the Torah narrative. If anything, rather the contrary: I focus on the reasons that many cultures might have found a flood narrative valuable enough to preserve.

The idea that the Torah expresses truths in poetic language (Dowd calls this "night language," the language of dreams and visions) is one that sixth-graders can begin to understand. Leading students toward this understanding ought to be a central goal of Torah study beginning at about this age level. I've written more about this in commentaries on parashot Va'era and Bo.

I'm grateful to the First Baptist Church in Painted Post and its minister, Rev. Gary McCaslin, for sponsoring the lecture. If you have the opportunity hear Rev. Dowd speak, I recommend that you attend. Most of his lectures are presented by churches, especially Unitarian Universalist fellowships; his lecture schedule is on his website.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


A colleague wrote, “We want to try something that has not been done in this congregation.
We would like to use a checklist of skills to keep the families abreast of the student progress.”

I replied:

If you work on this, I hope you will do it in a way that corresponds to the goals of your school. It would be possible to reduce this to a number of discrete items that, no matter how thoroughly mastered, would not by themselves represent the desired outcome of Jewish school.

For example, many congregations have prayer charts listing specific prayers that a student is to learn at each level. But the ability to read, chant, or recite those prayers doesn’t represent the entirety of what we want from Jewish education. I once had a fourth-grade class that had glommed onto the idea that the only goal of Hebrew school was to “do”certain prayers. Some of the students were uncomfortable with class sessions that required working with ideas, or even with learning new prayers, and when the stress became too great, often a student would insist on standing in front of the class to “do” (perform) a prayer learned the year before.

And I once directed a school where the curriculum for many grades consisted of ten or more pages listing discrete factoids that every student should know. (“Maimonides lived in Egypt. Maimonides wrote the Mishneh Torah.”) It would not have been possible to determine from the written curriculum what a student was supposed to do with all those facts. This was in a state that was in the forefront of mandated testing in public schools.

A number of years ago I was involved with competency-based education, where goals are expressed in terms of “competencies” that a student should develop. In its best form, competency-based education defines the competency on a macro rather than a micro scale, so that a competency is an overarching capacity that may comprise many discrete skills. At Alverno College, the institution that is probably best known for this approach, the goals came to be expressed as 8 abilities: Communication, Analysis, Problem Solving, Valuing in Decision-Making, Social Interaction, Global Perspectives, Effective Citizenship, and Aesthetic Responsiveness.

In addition, the acquisition of skills is integrated with the mastery of content. For example, students would develop skills in analysis through working with subject matter in various disciplines.

I’ll give an example from a part of curriculum that I'll be working on soon. In Kitah Vav (6th grade), the curriculum includes both parashat hashavua and the brachot for the reading of Torah. If all we had was a prayer list, we could check off the Torah blessings as each student learned them. If we happened to remember the parashat hashavua study, we could list facts that the students should know and test them periodically. (“The Torah is also called the Five Books of Moses. The English names of the books are....”) We could even test them on the content of the parashot that they study.

But our real goal for Torah study is that students develop the capacity to discern and paraphrase the p’shat of a short section of Torah text in English. This is hard to put down on a checklist. Although there are ways that it might be tested, we don’t consider that kind of testing appropriate in our school, and the way we would measure a student's capacity is through observing the student’s efforts.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Teaching about the Shoah

After our community’s Yom Hashoah commemoration, we were talking about why the attendance is so poor.

As a newcomer, I don’t know what it was like in other years, but I didn’t really think it was poor, compared to other places I’ve lived. I can remember only one Yom Hashoah commemoration that had relatively high attendance. It was during a Shabbat evening service (not in competition with Shabbat services as a Thursday night service tends to be), and the year was 1993.

The year was significant because it was the 50th anniversary of the rescue of Jews of Denmark (see for background) and a Danish historian at the local college was speaking.

Ordinarily, however, attendance at Yom Hashoah services tends to be modest almost everywhere. I’m not sure why — is remembering the Holocaust just not a priority for many of us now? Do we expect to be made to feel miserable at the service?

I vote for the latter explanation: we expect to be made to feel miserable. This expectation has been fed partly by misuse of the Shoah (e.g., in the Reform movement’s liturgy for Yom Kippur afternoon) to create a sense of generalized guilt that is, I think, misguided. In any case, our community’s commemoration wasn't like that. We emphasized honoring the memories of the victims through telling some of their stories.

I have more thoughts about teaching about the Shoah in religious school. This can lead to heated discussion, even though a focus on the students’ needs cuts through most of the controversy.

Some congregations – my first Hebrew-school teaching job was in one – mandate a Holocaust course, apparently to honor the memory of the victims. That’s a non-educational reason.

Often, in these congregations, it's mandated for grade 7, probably because that may be the last year for some students. That speaks to an educational reason: it’s seen as the one remaining topic that every student must study.

I’m uncomfortable with that, because it implies that the Holocaust is the capstone of Jewish education, the point to which all our Hebrew-school work of the previous seven or eight years was leading. Furthermore, my experience has been that many seventh-graders haven’t quite reached the stage of cognitive development where they can learn what I would hope to teach, with the result that the subject is trivialized.

I think that the best year for teaching about the Shoah in depth is grade 8, partly because Seymour Rossel’s excellent textbook works well at that level.

Torah Aura’s instant lessons are also excellent and could be used in conjunction with Rossel’s book (following the textbook for the course structure), or can be used for a shorter course at the high-school level. If a school teaches about the Holocaust only in grade 7 or earlier, revisiting it at high-school level, when the capacity for historical reasoning has grown, is a good idea.

On the other hand, some school boards all but prohibit teaching about the Shoah. I was the director of one such school. The school board was fearful of doing anything to which any parent might object, and in a previous year there had been a complaint. I don’t know what took place that year, whether a teacher’s handling of it was inappropriate or whether a family was exceptionally sensitive.

A single complaint is no reason to restrict (or mandate) the teaching of any topic. In other schools, I’ve received isolated complaints about teaching too much about Israel (and, from other parents, not enough about Israel), including death and burial in a class on the Jewish life cycle, and Hebrew (again, both too much and not enough).

Some schools do teach about the Shoah as early as grade 6. We touch on it in grade 4 (in connection with the history of Israel) and grade 5 (in connection with American Jewish history), and our 6th-grade teacher approaches it through films that are appropriate for the grade level. We do not currently teach it at the level I prefer, 8th or 9th grade, but I’m recommending it for a 9th- and 10th-grade class next year.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The egg & the orange

A class asked about the meaning of the roasted egg on the seder plate. It's a good question, because the egg just sits there. We don't eat it; except for stating that it's required on the seder plate, the haggadah never refers to it.

In contrast, we eat the karpas, the charoset, and the maror, and the haggadah text refers explicitly to the zeroa, the shankbone. So what's the purpose of the egg?

A student in the class suggested that the egg symbolizes new life. This is the explanation that I learned as a child, and it makes some sense, because the exodus from Egypt marks the beginning of the life of the Jewish people as a nation that will eventually settle in the Land of Israel.

On the other hand, it's not obvious that "new life" needs to be symbolized on the seder plate at all, and the absence of any reference to it in the haggadah text still requires explanation. It's a bit like saying that the karpas symbolizes spring: since Pesach always falls in the spring, a specific symbol of spring is not really as important as it might otherwise be.

Also, it fails to explain why the egg is roasted. Logically, an egg symbolizing new life might have to be raw and fertile.

Another explanation sometimes given is that the egg represents the sacrifices that are no longer carried out. This has the virtue of explaining why the egg is roasted, but since the zeroa represents the Pesach sacrifice, which is stated explicitly in the haggadah, it's still not clear why the egg is required.

Furthermore, at one point in the seder--korekh, the "Hillel sandwich,"--the charoset seems to represent the Pesach sacrifice! The text states, "With matzah and maror shall you eat it," and it originally referred to the sacrifice, but it's actually the charoset that we eat with the matzah and maror.

I usually answer that the haggadah was written by a committee. Like many collective works, it includes the ideas of multiple authors, even when these ideas are inconsistent or redundant.

Thus, the requirement to have a roasted egg on the seder plate may represent the opinion of one rabbi or group of rabbis, while the shankbone represents the opinion of others. Perhaps those favoring the egg also suggested an addition to the haggadah text that would have referred to it, but their suggestion wasn't adopted. Who knows?

It may also represent an established custom that the rabbis of old didn't endorse, but felt unable to abolish. Leaving the egg on the seder plate without any reference in the haggadah text would have been a compromise.

I see the first washing of hands in the seder in this way. No brachah is said then, which also requires some explanation. Conventionally, people say that there is no brachah so that people will ask why there is no brachah, which just sounds silly (unless you think that it is desirable to ask as many different questions during the seder as possible, in which case anything that is odd or inexplicable has merit).

My take on washing hands without a brachah is that the rabbis weren't certain that washing hands at that point in the seder was actually required. The idea of a brachah shel mitzvah is that one says it before performing a specific mitzvah, so if the action isn't known to be a mitzvah, or is there is doubt, usually no brachah is said. We wash with a brachah before eating the matzah, just as before eating ordinary bread, but the first washing of hands precedes eating only a very small amount of a vegetable.

But some of us have another case of a food item that we place on the seder plate, but to which the haggadah never refers: the orange. Ordinarily this is described as representing women who were excluded from full participation in Jewish ritual.

There are several midrashim about the orange currently in circulation. All attribute the origin to Susannah Heschel. Her own account of it dates to a presentation she gave a number of years ago at Oberlin College. As she describes it, someone asked her opinion of the then-new practice among Jewish lesbians of placing a piece of bread on the seder plate as a protest against their exclusion from the mainstream of Jewish life and thought.

Heschel was uncomfortable with placing something treif on the seder plate, especially if the goal was for Jewish lesbians to gain acceptance, in other words, to become kosher in Jewish society. She suggested instead placing something totally new, such as an orange, on the seder plate--something that would not, in and of itself, transgress, but which could add new meaning.

Most households that place an orange on the seder plate don't make a formal addition to the haggadah text for it. Similarly, some add a kos Miryam, a Miriam's cup (of water) to the seder table even though most haggadot make no mention of it.

To some extent, the kos Miryam seems to have displaced the orange as a feminist addition to the seder table. For those of us who worship in settings where women participate fully, and where women serve on the boards and hold office in our congregations, the need to symbolize the exclusion of women from Jewish life, the purpose of the orange, no longer seems compelling. The kos Miryam may turn out to be a more enduring addition, because it symbolizes the omission of women's roles from our texts and history.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Metzora & Economic Segregation

I wrote last week that "just as our ancestors were inclined to reject individuals based on unjustified fears, we are prone to excluding others for reasons that are equally unwarranted, and these two parashot (especially Metzora) teach us to do better."

Anyone who teaches children and adolescents is familiar with this problem, but the tendency to exclude others for flimsy reasons isn't confined to young people. Growing up, I knew that no one in my family was welcome in the region's most prestigious country club - that was why there was also a Jewish country club.

My family didn't belong to the Jewish country club, either. We didn't play golf; it was a distance away; and it was expensive. But that's not the point.

The point I want to make is that many of our Jewish institutions, unfortunately including some congregations, tend to act like a country club. I don't mean that they have golf courses (although I did work for one congregation that had tennis courts and a swimming pool and was building a basketball court). Too often, however, they act as if they're composed of homogeneous groups of affluent Jews, to the point that less affluent Jews feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.

For example, a decade or so ago I had a student in the school who was planning not to celebrate as a bat mitzvah because her family could not afford the kind of lavish kiddush lunch and elaborate evening party that had become the norm in the congregation. To my mind, being called to the Torah at the age of religious majority ought to have nothing to do with the kind of party a young person's parents might throw.

It's by no means a new problem. Centuries ago, some Jewish communities had "sumptuary laws" intended to limit the expenditure connected with a simcha.

It's not, however, just a matter of the cost of celebrations. While it is a reality of nonprofit life in the U.S. that institutions need to cultivate donors of large amounts of money - which, to be clear, helps to keep membership affordable for the rest of us - social mores that make anyone feel less welcome because of income level or occupation have no place in our congregations.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


It was a lovely occasion: potluck dinner and havdalah at the synagogue in a smaller community about 20 miles away. The synagogue, as far as I know, no longer holds regular services; it serves primarily as a social center for the local Jewish community, many members of which also belong to one of the congregations where I live.

A question came up about the meaning of the spices - I guess that the significance of the wine and the candle is more obvious. The explanation that is most often given has to do with a neshamah yetairah, an "additional soul." The idea is that on Shabbat, each Jew acquires an extra soul that departs at sunset on Saturday evening, and the purpose of the spices is to console (or revive) you.

I have never liked this explanation. Students who hear it just get glassy-eyed, and for adults who may have doubts about the existence of even one soul, the idea of having a second one, even temporarily, is hard to take.

Some rabbis teach, instead, that it commemorates an ancient practice of bringing in a fire pan with spices, sort of like incense, to dispel bad odors (from cooking, spoiled food, unwashed Jews?) in the house. Since fire could not be used on the Sabbath, sunset was the first time in about 25 hours that this could be done.

I don't like this explanation, either, even if it has historical merit. Since we no longer deal with odors in this way, and many of us would have no reservation about lighting fire on Shabbat, I think that it removes meaning from the ceremony, making that aspect of havdalah just one more thing that we do for no reason that makes any sense.

So instead I teach this: psychologists say that, of all the senses, the sense of smell has the greatest power to evoke memory. Sometimes when you suddenly think of something out of the blue, it's because a fragrance - perhaps one of which you weren't consciously aware - has brought the memory to mind.

The Torah contains two version of the Ten Commandments, aseret ha-dibrot, one on Exodus and one in Deuteronomy. In one, the commandment about Shabbat reads Shamor et yom ha-Shabbat, "keep [observe, or literally, guard] the Sabbath day." In the other set, it reads Zachor et yom ha-Shabbat, "remember the Sabbath day."

Now, we can only observe Shabbat when it is Shabbat. Lighting candles and refraining from work on Wednesday will not make Wednesday into Shabbat. But the commandment to remember Shabbat is not limited to one day of the week. For example, we remember Shabbat on Thursday evening and Friday morning when we begin make preparations, and we can be mindful of Shabbat at any time. Smelling the spices at havdalah helps to implant the memory.

In addition, we can strive to remember the peace of Shabbat during stressful times throughout the week. So here's a suggestion: make havdalah on Saturday evening. Then, if you start to feel harried during the week, go back to the spice box and sniff the spices again. Let them remind you of Shabbat peace whenever you need to remember it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tazria 2008

My first post on this site was about Tazria and Metzora, which are often read together (but not this year). You'll find it here.

When I was giving b'nai mitzvah lessons, I probably taught these two parashot to more students than any others, not because their themes are popular, but simply because they come up for reading at a time families like for their celebrations. In this climate, parents are reluctant to schedule a simcha for January or February, and often schedule the mitzvah event for Tazria or Metzora just because those are the first weeks when they think the weather might be good.

For congregations that read Torah on the triennial cycle, the effect is heightened this year, because before we get to the part about skin diseases, we must read two short aliyot about the segregation of women after childbirth. Many people today object to the subject in general, and even more to the fact that the mother's segregation is doubled if she gives birth to a female child. Congregations that read "full kriah" must read this part, too, but it's a smaller proportion of the total.

It happens that I'm doing more interfaith work now than I have in several years, and this is one of the sections where it's hard not to ask "What would the goyim think?"

It is not unusual for Christians to assume that our religious practice follows the Hebrew Bible literally. When I worked in Oklahoma, the temple had a construction project in progress, and one of the construction workers came to the office to tell us that, if we needed sheep or goats for the sacrifices, he was also a rancher and could supply them.

I'm not sure which idea most of us would find more disturbing: that our religion used to include practices that we now find objectionable, or that some of our neighbors might believe we still follow them.

In spite of that, I like to teach Tazria and Metzora: I find a lot of relevant meaning in these and other parts of Leviticus. As last year's drash describes, I prefer to focus on inclusion, more specifically reintegration, rather than on exclusion.

This is a message that is important for young people to encounter, because so much of teenage society seems to revolve around cliques, who's "in" or "out," and exclusion. Without information that we can't deduce from the Torah text, we can't really read Tazria as medical advice. We can read it in the general context of holiness that pervades Leviticus, but the idea of corporate (i.e., national) holiness doesn't resonate with most of us.

The most relevant reading places it more in the context of superstition: just as our ancestors were inclined to reject individuals based on unjustified fears, we are prone to excluding others for reasons that are equally unwarranted, and these two parashot (especially Metzora) teach us to do better.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rabbit hunt!

The Passover bunny does not bring us the roasted egg for the seder plate, and we don’t celebrate Passover with a roasted-egg hunt. (If we hunt anything, it’s the afikoman.)

Nevertheless, some traditional haggadot are decorated with a drawing of a rabbit, a non-kosher animal.

The rabbit is a reminder of the special procedure to be followed when Passover begins on Saturday night, when Shabbat is ending, as it does this year. It is tricky to remember the sequence of actions at the beginning of the seder, and so our predecessors devised the [Hebrew] acronym YaKNeHaZ, for yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zman:

  • Yayin—the standard blessing for wine, borei p’ri hagafen
  • Kiddush—the kiddush (“sanctification”) for erev Pesach, with text and melody different from the Shabbat evening kiddush
  • Ner—the blessing for lighting fire after Shabbat, borei m’orei ha-eish
  • Havdalah—the prayer separating Shabbat from the day that follows
  • Zman—the blessing celebrating the season (shehecheyanu).

The havdalah text is also different from the regular one, because it marks the separation between the holiness of Shabbat and the holiness of the festival rather than between Shabbat and weekdays.

But what does any of this have to do with a rabbit? To a speaker of Yiddish or German, the Hebrew acronym Yaknehaz sounds like jag den Hase, “hunt the hare.” The commentary in The Feast of Freedom, the Rabbinical Assembly haggadah, notes that this is “a double anomaly since hunting animals in unJewish and the hare is ‘unclean’ to boot.”

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Shemini: Strange tale of strange fire

The third parashah in Leviticus includes the strange story of Nadav and Avihu and their “alien fire.” This episode follows a detailed description of the procedures used to consecrate the tabernacle, ending with the appearance of “the Presence of the Lord” to all the people (Lev. 9:22) and the spontaneous combustion of the offerings of the preceding parashah.

At the beginning of chapter 10, these two sons of Aaron take their fire pans, with fire and incense, and attempt to offer “alien fire, which [God] had not enjoined upon them” (10:1). Fire immediately shoots out and kills them.

This story has, understandably, troubled generations of readers. There is debate about what, if anything, Nadav and Avihu did wrong; about what exactly happened to them; and about what it should mean to later readers.

A conventional rabbinic explanation turns the story into nothing more than a cautionary tale against innovation. In short, it become a proof text for the claim that “everything new is forbidden by Torah.”

A reading influenced by other parts of the Bible might suggest that what was “alien” or “strange” about the fire was that Nadav and Avihu did not intend it for the God of Israel. This reading has little standing in Jewish tradition: the idea that two of Aaron’s sons might have sacrificed to another god is too disturbing.

An ordinary reading, one not particularly influenced by Jewish tradition, might conclude that their procedure was somehow faulty, that they had not mastered the technique. Such a reading makes it sound like the commonplace travail of lighting a barbecue grill.

Some midrashic interpretations take up the theme of “playing with fire”—in other words, that Nadav and Avihu’s intentions were basically good, but that they underestimated the seriousness of the enterprise. One contemporary treatment compares them to young people who take foolish risks in order to impress their friends.

Another line of interpretation, however, focuses on the juxtaposition of this episode with the injunction, in 10:8–11, against the priests’ drinking wine or any other intoxicant when they are officiating, “for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.”

Rabbi Bamberger points out, in his introduction to this section in the UAHC Torah Commentary, that a real connection between the two passages is unlikely. He also observes that the prohibition applied only when the priests were on duty; at other times they were free to enjoy wine, as were other Israelites.

Furthermore, he adds that, except in the special case of a nazirite, who has taken a vow that includes abstaining from wine (really from all grape products), Jewish tradition gives little support to abstaining from alcohol on principle. We make routine use of wine in ceremonies such as kiddush and havdallah.

Although there is some reason to believe that Jews who regularly practice these ceremonies with wine at home are less likely than the general population to drink to excess, it is no longer the case that alcoholism is very rare among Jews. In this respect we largely resemble the population in general, and it is likely that the rate of alcoholism (and other substance abuse) is the same for us as for Americans as a whole. To a great extent, the Jewish community remains in denial about this.

Jews who participate in 12-step programs, however, encounter a special problem. Many 12-step meetings are held in churches, and many of them have a distinctly Christian character that makes it hard for Jews to participate. Only in large cities are there likely to be 12-step programs in which Jews feel comfortable. Even if there is no reason to connect the injunction against intoxicants with the “strange fire” of Nadav and Avihu, this parashah should serve to sensitize us to a growing concern in our communities.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Seven days of Purim

We all celebrate Hanukkah for eight days, and Sukkot and Pesach for seven or eight days each. But somehow I seem to have been celebrating Purim for seven days, too.

Now, it is possible to celebrate Purim for two days, because it is celebrated one day later, as Shushan Purim, in cities that were walled in Biblical times. A friend in Israel told me that he planned to celebrate Purim today in Tel Aviv and then travel to Tzfat to celebrate Purim tomorrow.

But we don't live in a walled city. We ended up with seven days of Purim this year because of oddities of the secular, not the Jewish, calendar. One congregation here has a tradition of holding a dinner on the Shabbat evening nearest Purim, followed by a mixed-up Shabbat service, and our school always holds its Purim carnival on a Sunday morning.

This year the Friday nearest Purim is today, the actual day of Purim, so it would have seemed logical to hold the Purim-Shabbat dinner tonight. But for Christians today is Good Friday. A dinner tonight might have posed difficulties for intermarried families, and because all the public schools are closed today and some will also be closed on Monday and Tuesday, this is a weekend when families can travel.

Similarly, our Purim carnival might have been held on Sunday, when some families will be away for the weekend or spending the day with non-Jewish parts of their families. Accordingly, the Purim-Shabbat dinner was last Friday, and the Purim carnival was last Sunday.

The other congregation had its megillah reading last night, with a pizza dinner following. It was the best megillah reading in my recent experience, with enough silliness and participation by children to make it fun for everyone, but with megillat Esther read (mostly in English) in its entirety.

It is possible to criticize either moving part of the Purim celebration to Shabbat or deliberately avoiding overlap with Christian holidays, but I think that such a criticism would be misguided.

Although I disagree with the now largely abandoned practice of shifting the observance of so-called minor holidays to Shabbat or the weekend, we do our selves no favor by being so rigidly purist as to ignore either school vacations or non-Jewish holidays when we schedule celebrations that are not obligatory parts of the observance. So I am happy that one congregation held its megillah reading on erev Purim and read the megillah in full, but I don't object at all to holding a dinner or carnival on other days.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tzav: even MORE about sacrifices

This week’s parashah, Tzav, and its predecessor, Vayikra, deal largely with sacrifices. As a result, they do not immediately grab our interest.

It is possible, of course, to imagine teaching them in careful, loving detail. Students would learn about the four different types of sacrifices that are defined here, studying all the rules for each of them. Despite the difficulty of relating the details of the sacrificial cult to modern life, it would be an easy unit to teach, and at the end we could give a test on the definitions, rules, and procedures and know what students had learned.

In fact, a child’s study in a traditional cheder began, usually when the child reached the age of five, with Leviticus, not with Genesis. There was some pedagogical merit in this, because many children approach the study of Torah with a literalism that delights in detail and does not require contemporary relevance. And many children could take pleasure in reciting the various kinds of offerings—olah, minchah, chatat, asham, zevach, shelamim—and repeating their definitions without becoming overly concerned with the underlying meaning.

All of these sacrifices ended, of course, with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. While traditional Jews pray for the reinstatement of animal sacrifices, Reform Jews do not. Conservative siddurim include the prayer but it is not a mainstay of Conservative belief.

Rabbi Judith Abrams suggests that, in order to deal with these parts of the Torah, we must first understand why sacrifices would have been instituted, and especially why our ancestors, following the destruction of the Temple, would have prayed for their reinstatement.

The Torah itself is largely silent about basic reasons for sacrifices. Although it defines specific occasions for sacrifices and gives instructions for each kind of sacrifice, the institution of sacrifice itself is taken for granted. In general, whenever a sacrifice is mentioned, whether it is the Pesach sacrifice that is described in Exodus or the one of the sacrifices defined in Leviticus, there seems to be an assumption that everyone already knows all about the sacrifice and its purpose.

From the descriptions in Leviticus, we can deduce that the purpose of sacrifices was to maintain or restore Israel’s relationship with God. That suggests a modern approach to teaching about them: we might contrast the ways that our ancestors expressed their relationship with God with the ways that we would choose today.

But we must still confront the institution itself. If we, in agreement with Maimonides, see animal sacrifices as merely one station in Judaism’s spiritual progress—that is, as spiritual “training wheels” that promoted a transition from idolatrous religions that practiced human sacrifices to a completely monotheistic religion with no sacrifices at all—why should we pray for sacrifices to be reinstated?

Rabbi Abrams suggests this analogy: if hospitals could no longer perform surgery, but all other aspects of modern medicine continued to exist, and if some of us had conditions that could only be treated with surgery, wouldn’t we long for surgery to be reinstated? Wouldn’t we try to perform it somewhere else? (After the destruction of the Temple, there were attempts to carry out sacrifices at other places.) Even after we had given up realistic hope for surgery to take place again, might we not still pray for it?

That, she concludes, is how our ancestors felt about sacrifices. Although the prayers of the worship service, in a form that we would still recognize, came to replace them, Jews longed for the certainty the sacrifices had provided that they were in the proper relationship with God.

Even if we do not pray for the reinstatement of sacrifices, we should pray for the close and enduring relationship with God that the sacrificial system promised. We should also be mindful of the prophets’ criticisms of it: that it provided a false sense of security, and that a true relationship with God could be based only on genuinely righteous living.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hebrew: some principles

I’ve been writing a Hebrew curriculum for our school—a project that feels like it may never end. Recently I outlined some principles for Hebrew instruction, and I thought I would post them here:

(a) Hebrew is Hebrew. Although ivrit b’ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew) is an unrealistic approach for teaching in a supplementary school, Hebrew cannot be presented as if it were a secret code based on English syntax or the Latin alphabet. In particular, teachers should not teach any Hebrew letter as the equivalent of an English letter.

(b) Hebrew decoding is phonetic. Even native speakers of Hebrew learn to read by phonetic methods. Particularly in the absence of cultural and linguistic context, approaches that rely on whole-word recognition fail in Hebrew. The methodology used in supplementary schools builds on the students’ secular-school language arts and requires that they have developed transferable skill in phonetic reading in English before attempting to decode Hebrew.

(c) Language precedes reading. While courses such as “French for Reading Knowledge” exist and are often effective for adults, children through the age at which supplementary schools traditionally taught Hebrew decoding retain substantial capacity for natural language acquisition. Students learn to read their native languages through the reading of simple words that they already understand and use in speech. Thus, the creation of a Hebrew vocabulary context should precede formal decoding instruction, so that as students begin to read, they encounter words that they have already learned orally.

(d) “Direct instruction” is more effective than explanation. With children, Hebrew vocabulary should be taught by showing an object (or a picture, if the object cannot be brought into the classroom) or demonstrating an action, and saying its name. As much as possible, the teacher should avoid using the English word in teaching the Hebrew word. For example, it is better to use a stuffed toy dog to teach kelev than to say, Kelev means dog.”

(e) Mnemonics are more trouble than they’re worth. In general, children can learn Hebrew letters and words on their own terms: the letter tav has the sound that it has because it’s tav, not because it has a toe sticking out, and teaching an unnecessary mnemonic tends to impede rather than facilitate mastery. Even worse, when a teacher intones, “Mi is who, hu is he, and hi is she,” students are likely to hear it as “Me is hu, who is hi, and he is shi” (swapping the Hebrew and English words), or just mix them all together and conclude that there is no hope of learning it.

Vayikra: it's inoperative

This week’s reading begins the book of Leviticus; the name of its first portion, Vayikra, is also the Hebrew name for the entire book. The name Leviticus suggests that it has to do with Levites, but most of its text deals with the duties of the priests, the kohanim (all priests are Levites but not all Levites are priests).

Teaching texts from Leviticus presents a number of challenges. The first is that students, especially younger students, find some of the texts intrinsically repellent—especially those, like this parashah and the next, that deal with animal sacrifice.

Adults also object to some of the texts, but not always the same ones. For example, many adults are disgusted by the dual parashot Tazria and Metzora, while children occasionally find the description of skin disease “cool” and have little trouble drawing a persuasive moral lesson from it.

Another challenge is that much of Leviticus seems to have no application to modern life. It is possible to draw a contemporary drash from each parashah, but the details of the parashah, mostly pertaining to the operation of the mishkan and the duties of priests, are currently, in the language of the Watergate era, “inoperative.”

Nevertheless, one approach to teaching emphasizes mastery of these very details. For example, a lesson on Vayikra or Tzav might deal with the various kinds of sacrifices, the specifics of what may be brought as an offering for each kind and how the priest is to carry out the sacrifice, and so forth. In a sense this is an easy lesson to teach: it deals with facts that are indisputable. Furthermore, some students are intrigued by the wealth and complexity of detail and would be delighted to be tested on it.

Most of the time, however, we will want to find another approach, and that brings us up against a third challenge. It’s not unusual, even as some students are becoming enthusiastic about all the details of these passages, for other students to respond, “Who cares?”

It’s not just because the sacrificial system and other functions of the priests are now “inoperative.” There’s a deeper problem: individualism.

The most fundamental problem in studying or teaching Leviticus is that its orientation is collective rather than individual. Thus, while the opening parashot describe sacrifices that an individual might bring, their emphasis is on the system of daily sacrifices that had to be offered regardless of individual desires.

Similarly, the pervasive focus on purity and holiness isn’t primarily concerned with the needs of individuals, even though the Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a powerful moral lesson for individuals. Instead, the emphasis is on national purity and holiness, as exemplified by the mishkan.

This is most clear in chapter 16, which describes the preparation of the tabernacle for Yom Kippur. The underlying theory is that individual sins, including those resulting from mere error, have a cumulative effect that must be undone by purifying the altar with the “ritual detergent” of animal blood.

In other words, the sins of individuals also impair the relationship of the entire nation to God. The idea is that people relate to God both as individuals and as members of a group, and Leviticus deals mostly with features of the entire group’s relationship, which is mediated by the priests.

Thus, the greatest difficult in teaching Leviticus isn’t that the absence of a Temple with a functioning priesthood makes Leviticus “inoperative.” It’s that we no longer consider our group (ethnic, religious, or national) identity to be the predominant feature of our relationship with God. In ancient societies, the relationship with a deity was through a king or, as in Judaism, through priests. The idea that every person maintains an individual relationship with God is modern, and making sense of Leviticus demands that we suspend our modern belief.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Pekudei: It's done!

The parashot of Vayakhel and Pekudei are often combined.

The central theme of
Vayakhel is the generosity of the Israelites in contributing to the building of the mishkan. In fact, they are so generous that Bezalel and the other artisans protest that the people are giving too much, and Moses proclaims that no further gifts are to be brought. Although these contributions for the mishkan may have been the prototype for all Jewish fund drives since then, the model of ending the giving early has rarely been followed.

In terms of narrative structure,
Vayakhel complements the preceding parashah, Ki Tissa. There, the Israelites brought improper gifts to make the molten calf; here, they give properly to build the mishkan.

Pekudei begins with a catalogue of the materials used in the mishkan. This section can also be read as a model for Jewish fund-raising, in that it offers a full accounting of how the gifts were used, a practice that not all Jewish charities follow today.

Later in this rather brief
parashah is a proof-text for the right of the descendants of Aaron to serve as priests in perpetuity:

You shall bring Aaron and his sons forward to the entrance of the Ten of Meeting and wash them with the water. Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, an anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest. Then bring his sons forward, put tunics on them, and anoint them as you have anointed their father, that they may serve Me as priests. This their anointing shall serve them for everlasting priesthood throughout the ages. (40:12–15).

Visitors to our congregations are sometimes surprised to learn that rabbis do not fulfill priestly functions and that most rabbis are not of priestly descent. (In fact, it is something of a disability for a rabbi to be a

The dominant theme of
Pekudei, most apparent when the last 20 or so verses are read, is the completion of the mishkan—specifically, that each step was carried out “[just] as the Lord had commanded Moses,” a phrase that is repeated seven times (to the great distress of Torah readers).

The reiteration of this seems strange at first, but it makes sense as a final response to the molten calf. Most modern scholars agree that the calf was not actually intended as an object of worship. Rather, they believe that it was to be a pedestal, a “footstool,” for God’s presence.

This does not make the molten calf any less improper, because it is the
mishkan itself in which the Divine presence is to dwell. But it explains the Torah’s insistence that every detail of erecting the mishkan was carried out correctly: to guarantee its effectiveness.

And, according to the last verses of Exodus, it is effective:

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. (40:33–35).

The attitude seems to be, “If you build it, God will come.”

Friday, February 29, 2008

Vayakhel: When to say “Enough”

To anyone with the experience of a synagogue or federation fund-raising campaign, these verses are almost beyond belief. When in living memory has there been such an outpouring of “freewill offerings”—and when have the leaders of any fund drive ordered the donors to stop giving?

But when [the Israelites] continued to bring freewill offerings morning after morning, all the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came, each from the task on which he was engaged, and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Ex. 36:3–6)

How could such a thing have happened? The relationship of this parashah to what precedes it in Exodus suggests some conclusions.

First, there is the obvious parallel to the immediately preceding parashah, Ki Tisa. In fact, the cognomen of this parashah, Vayakhel, is ominous, because a different form of the same word was used to describe the discontented assembly that led to the making of the golden calf. There, the Israelites gladly contributed gold to make an idol; here, however, they contribute gold and many other substances that are needed to make the tabernacle. Thus, their gifts and the making of the tabernacle provide formal closure to the episode of the golden calf, not through punishment, which has already taken place, but through a return to God.

Second, Vayakhel concludes a logical unit that began with parashat Terumah, in which God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Ex. 25:2). Israel’s true atonement is accomplished not through the punishments exacted after the fact, but through the fulfillment of the commandment that God had already given.

Third, it is part of a symbolic cycle that began much earlier in Exodus, with the liberation from Mitzrayim, and that reached its peak with the revelation at Sinai. It was because of trust and gratitude that Israel could accept the revelation of Sinai, but while that acceptance emphasized trust in (and fear of) God, the outpouring of gifts in Vayakhel emphasizes overwhelming gratitude.

How could Moses dare to check the expression of that gratitude? It would appear that, because Israel should be endlessly grateful to God, the stream of gifts should also be endless.

Moses can limit the Israelites’ gifts, however, because God has already given detailed instructions about the construction of the tabernacle, and from these the artisans can determine what is sufficient. In the modern world, when our instructions are less clear, the needs seem endless, and our “freewill offerings” may be less generous, it is harder to say, “Enough!”

The remainder of this parashah, which describes the making of the tabernacle and its artifacts by Bezalel, Oholiab, and the other artisans, casts some light on this predicament. Although the specifics of the tabernacle are unique, they have a parallel in our practice of hidur mitzvah – the enhancement of a mitzvah through the use of beautiful artifacts and superior materials. For example, we choose to use silver rather than a base metal for Shabbat candlesticks, and we select the best available kind of bread for Shabbat, even though the mitzvot could be fulfilled technically without these enhancements.

But how much enhancement is enough? Most of us, once we have acquired beautiful Shabbat candlesticks, do not yearn for a pair that might be even more beautiful. We have some sense that the enhancement is sufficient. We may even realize that, if we were to insist on having enormously expensive and beautiful religious artifacts, they might become the objects of worship rather than the appurtenances of it. And, whether we give freely or grudgingly to a synagogue or federation fund drive, few of us feel compelled to continue adding to our pledges once we have made them.

In matters of our personal service to God it is less clear. Whether our personal observance is traditional or liberal, we often feel a gnawing discontent, which may impel those whose style of observance is liberal to reclaim traditional practices, or those whose observance is traditional to adopt various chumrot (additional strictnesses).

And yet the discontent remains. Rather than be discouraged by it, we should be heartened: it reminds us that, like our ancestors in this parashah, we are still able to feel grateful to God for our liberation from Mitzrayim and for the gift of Torah.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ki Tissa: what is work?

What is work? A physicist would use one definition, and a labor statistician would use a different one.

Most of us would define work in terms of effort, whether physical or mental, and we would certainly class paying jobs as work regardless of what the jobs entailed. For example, a baby-sitter is “working” even while sitting still.

And we are familiar with the traditional Jewish definition of “work,” the one that rules out riding in a vehicle on Shabbat even though it might entail less physical effort than walking. Where do we get that idea?

This week’s parashah is most often cited in connection with its most memorable episode, the story of the Molten Calf. It also contains several other elements that warrant study, beginning with the odd story of the census at the very start of the parashah. The peculiarity is not the discussion of a census as such; even in the ancient world a census was far from unknown. What is odd is that each person who is counted in the census of the Israelites has to pay a ransom. Imagine how much more resentment there would be of the U.S. census if, in addition to filling out a form and divulging personal information, everyone had to pay a filing fee!

The rationale for the ransom of half a shekel apiece seems to be that counting the people of Israel is a privilege essentially reserved to God, and a mundane census endangers the person being counted. Even today, in traditional circles, effort is made to avoid counting Jews. For example, if there is doubt about whether a minyan exists, the usual way of counting is to have the group recite a Bible verse, one word at a time, that consists of exactly ten words. And some of us may remember grandparents who would count “Not one! Not two! Not three!”

This parashah also contains the source text for the definition of work that is prohibited on Shabbat. After the instructions about the census, God gives Moses detailed instructions about various accoutrements of the mishkan, and designates Bezalel, Oholiav, and others to make them. Immediately following these instructions, God tells Moses to speak to the people about keeping the Sabbath.

But keeping the Sabbath has already been commanded (in the Aseret ha-Dibrot), so why say it again? On the principle that nothing in the Torah is redundant, Jewish tradition takes the association to indicate, first, that even work to carry out God’s instructions about the mishkan is subject to the commandment of Shabbat observance, and second, that all the various kinds of work needed to build the mishkan and make its accoutrements are specifically prohibited on Shabbat.

This section contains a text that is familiar from the Shabbat liturgy, V’shamru:
The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed (31:16–17).

This parashah contains another passage memorable from the liturgy. After breaking the tablets of the Law, destroying the Molten Calf (and making the people drink a solution of its ashes, the likely cause of the plague that follows), and ordering the Levites to kill the chief offenders, Moses returns to the mountain to receive a second copy of the Law. Even though God communicates with Moses “face to face” (33:11), Moses wants to know more—perhaps he is affected by a little of the same doubt that led to the creation of the Molten Calf—and asks to see God’s “Presence” (k’vodekha, the “glory” that will fill the mishkan at the end of Exodus).

God answers confusingly that Moses cannot see God’s face, but that God will pass before him and he may see God’s back. As this takes place, God intones a list of God’s characteristics that is part of the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim:
The Lord! the Lord! 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 (34:6–7).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tetzaveh: eternal pomegranates

Parashat Tetzaveh continues the theme of last week’s reading: the building and operation of the mishkan.

A substantial part of it deals with the design of the priests’ vestments, which seem very elaborate for the portable sanctuary of a people wandering in the desert. Many scholars believe that the bulk of the description comes from a much later period and may describe the vestments worn by priests in the First Temple.

This is partially supported by the absence of information that would seem essential even though there is a wealth of detail about other things. That there is a hereditary priesthood seems to be taken for granted, and the text names items, such as the ephod, that are never defined. Probably everyone knew what they were.

The parashah begins with the description of the ner tamid. Although we most often call this an “eternal light,” that is clearly not the meaning that the Torah intends: in verse 27:21, it states plainly that the light is to burn from evening to morning, in other words, when light would be needed.

The idea of burning the light, or lights, 24 hours a day seems to date only from the Second Temple period. Whether this is the direct predecessor of the ner tamid now found in every synagogue is a matter of dispute. Although it is generally believed that a light came to be burned in the synagogue following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the historical location for it was on the western side of the sanctuary.

The transfer to a location over the Ark, on the eastern wall, may reflect the influence of Christian church architecture during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Although one strain of Jewish thought automatically rejects any practice that imitates Christian churches, Jews in those communities in Europe that extended a measure of civil rights to them were often participants in general culture, and it was not unusual for synagogues to be designed by Christian architects, or for synagogues to commission music from Christian composers.

Furthermore, the forms of Jewish and Christian worship developed side by side; they have common sources and influenced each other. For example, our practice of having two readings from Scripture—Torah and Prophets (haftarah)—has an exact parallel in Christian worship where it is typical to have either one reading from the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) and one from the New Testament, or one from a Gospel and one from an Epistle.

This is even more striking when we read about the priests’ vestments, since components of priests’ vestments in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches follow the description quite closely.

In Judaism, where there has been no active priesthood for more than 1,900 years, elements of the priests’ dress, including a sort of robe and a breastplate, are found on the Torah scroll. In some synagogues there is a Torah breastplate designed exactly like the one described here, including the 12 gemstones; several years ago I was the reader for this passage in one such synagogue.

And our Torah ornaments are called rimmonim, “pomegranates,” after the decoration prescribed for the hem of the priest’s robe, and often have bells, also prescribed. One of our Hebrew textbooks defines rimmonim as “Torah ornaments,” but I like to tell students the original meaning and give credit for it on tests. I also tell them that in modern Hebrew rimmonim can denote hand grenades—“pineapples” in American slang.

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...