Sunday, December 26, 2010

Shemot: Righteous midwives

Shemot was my bar-mitzvah parashah, and I spoke about it yesterday at Shomray Hadath. I did not give a reprise of my bar-mitzvah speech, and I couldn't have: I grew up in a congregation where, with the exception of one aliyah, the young person was supposed to be seen and not heard.

One episode in Exodus 1 is the story of the midwives who defy the Pharaoh's order to kill the male Israelite babies. I have always wanted the midwives to be Egyptian, and therefore an example of righteous gentiles. One medieval commentator, Isaac Arbabanel, did think that they were Egyptian, but the majority opinion is that they were Israelite women.

The Hebrew text allows either interpretation: they're [ha-]m'yaldot ha-ivriyot, which can be either "the Hebrew midwives" or "the midwives of the Hebrews." There are several arguments for rejecting the latter reading:
  • Their names, Shifrah and Puah, are Semitic names, not Egyptian names (Moses, on the other hand, is an Egyptian name). Not only are they common Hebrew names today - a woman in the congregation who received an aliyah yesterday has the name Puah - but their form is Hebraic.
  • The Torah does not refer to the Israelites as ivrim - the plural noun that is translated as "Hebrews" - anywhere else. It's found only as an adjective, as in "Hebrew slave." (The most likely derivation of ivrim is from a word that seems to have denoted people who have lost their former status, i.e., an underclass, rather than a nationality.)
  • It seems likely that a people living apart from most of the nation would have its own midwives and not call in Egyptian midwives.
One argument supporting the idea that they are Egyptian midwives comes from the argument that they give for not having killed the male infants. A typical translation reads, "The Hebrew women aren't like the Egyptian women - they are vigorous! Before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth."

The comparison to Egyptian women suggests that the midwives have personal experience of birthing among Egyptian women. Kal v'chomer: If it is unlikely that Israelite women would have called in Egyptian midwives, it is even more unlikely that Egyptian women would have called in Israelite midwives.

Furthermore, according to Richard Elliott Friedman, "vigorous" is an unfortunate translation. What the midwives actually say is that the Israelite women are chayot - animals, or animal-like. To my ear, "They're animals!" sounds like something an Egyptian midwife would be more likely to say.

Friedman mentions one other problem of translation in this passage. Most translations read, a few verses earlier, "When you deliver the Hebrew women and you look at the birthstool..." with a footnote explaining that a birthstool consisted of rocks or bricks, usually two, on which the woman in labor sat.

It would need to consist of two rocks or bricks because the Hebrew is avanayim. The ordinary plural of even, stone, would be avanim. A plural ending in -ayim specifically indicates either two of something or, especially in anatomical terms, something that comes in pairs. The obvious reading is "When you see the two stones," an anatomical reference to the male child.

Friday, October 15, 2010

God in America

I watched most of the second installment of God in America on PBS, and I was startled by some of it.

From the segment on Judaism, a person would think that Reform Judaism originated in the United States, and that Isaac Mayer Wise invented it all himself. While the program was right to emphasize his enormous efforts to spread Reform, his accomplishments in founding the major institutions of Reform Judaism in America, and his hope that it would unite all Jews in this country, I think it was wrong to overlook the origins of Reform in Germany and the pre-Wise stirrings of Reform in America.

It also slighted the effects of the radicalism of other Reform rabbis of the period, some of whom were much more radical than Isaac Mayer Wise. Wise's Minhag America was a comparatively traditional siddur, while the Union Prayer Book, first published in 1895, was based on Rabbi David Einhorn's competing siddur, Olat Tamid, which made far more sweeping changes than Wise's.

I was also surprised to hear that Wise found resistance from thousands of "Conservative Jews" emigrating from Europe around 1870. Now, the philosophy of Conservative Judaism did originate in Europe, e.g., with Zecharias Frankel and the "Historical School" that asserted the capacity to interpret Torah, Talmud, and halachah in the light of modern scholarship. But there was no large-scale movement called, or even like, Conservative Judaism in 19th-century Europe, and the Jews who emigrated from eastern Europe after 1870 (many significantly after) certainly did not come from anything like a Conservative synagogue. Conservative Judaism is more genuinely an American phenomenon than is Reform, in my opinion, even though both have roots in Germany and German Reform Judaism remained somewhat closer to traditional Judaism than did American Reform.

The affinity between Jewish emigration from eastern Europe and Conservative Judaism had more to do with the fact that it was the less traditionally religious Jews, those more oriented toward the opportunities of the modern world, who were most likely to emigrate. Thus, they were more open to a style of Judaism that combined more traditional form than Reform with a less traditional philosophy than what we now call Orthodox Judaism.

The program had expert advisors, including Prof. Jonathan Sarna, so it is possible that I am wrong about all this. But what it said was so different from what is almost universally taught that I really wonder how well the producers followed expert advice.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


There's a very old joke that goes like this:

What did the parson preach about?
What did he say?
He was against it.
I remembered this while reading a recent op-ed column in The New York Times by Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a UCC minister in Swampscott, Mass. He writes, "the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves."

That also reminded me of something that Hebrew-school parents sometimes say when I ask them what their goals are for their children's Jewish education: "We just want them to feel good about being Jewish."

My heart sinks when I hear this, for several reasons. First, it might well be possible to feel good about being Jewish without ever attending Hebrew school. For example, a child could grow up with a lot of ethnic pride even if it's unfounded.

Second, parents might think that some, in fact a lot, of what we teach is likely to make children feel
bad about being Jewish: we might teach about religious obligations that our families don't fulfill (kashrut, Shabbat). Or we might teach about Jewish history and include the low points. I once had to deal with a rabbi's wife who wanted to come into the school and teach a course on the history of persecution.

Third, what do we mean by
good? Happy because we get lots presents at Hanukkah, plus challah every Friday evening? Happy because the newest Justice of the Supreme Court is Jewish? Some of these things are like eating ice cream -- they feel good up to a point, but too much can make you sick.

In other words, we gravitate toward a different sense of
good: the moral sense. We want our students to feel good about being Jewish because Judaism provides moral guidance and a sense of meaning in life. From the feel-good point of view, however, this is a downer, because it requires actually learning stuff.

It's much the same with sermons. As background, let me say that I grew up in a Reform congregation when an average sermon lasted at least 20 minutes, often 30, occasionally more, and rabbis preached mostly about current social issues. People actually came to temple to hear those sermons!

It's not the same today. For one thing, it's no longer true that a rabbi has superior education to all but a tiny minority of congregants. Today most adult Jews are college-educated and many have graduate degrees: although our education is almost all in secular fields, we have plenty of it overall. We don't feel a need for our rabbi to interpret everything to us and we certainly don't want anyone to tell us what to think.

As an adult I've lived in every region of the country, belonged to a number of different congregations, and visited many more. In addition, for most of my adult life, I attended Shabbat services every week, so I've experienced a variety of different approaches to sermons.

To generalize -- I hope not unfairly -- it seems to me that many rabbis have given up. Faced with congregations of members to whom religious Judaism appears irrelevant, rabbis have retreated from sermon topics that might possibly make it relevant, to topics that don't require much engagement with the religious dimensions of Judaism at all.

Thus, we can hear sermons that do not contain a single word of Torah, even sermons that seem explicitly contrary to Torah. Please don't take me for a traditionalist zealot; I'm not arguing that rabbis should never disagree with any element of Torah or
halachah. But I do think that if the moral lesson to be drawn from a sermon seems to be at odds with the Torah, it needs some explaining.

Nor am I saying that rabbis should exhort us to be more observant. I think it was a mistake for Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, the rabbi in
And They Shall be My People: An American Rabbi and His Congregation, to measure his success only in terms of the number of congregants whom he persuaded to become fully observant.

Too many sermons, however, come across as something akin to group therapy, except that no one else is allowed to speak. The working out of an individual's personal problems usually isn't promising material for a sermon.

Rev. MacDonald also writes,

When they’re being true to their calling, pastors urge Christians to do the hard work of reconciliation with one another before receiving communion. They lead people to share in the suffering of others, including people they would rather ignore, by experiencing tough circumstances — say, in a shelter, a prison or a nursing home — and seeking relief together with those in need. At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.

Leave out "Christians" and "communion," and how is this any different from what we really
should hope to hear from our rabbis?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Early Childhood

Some schools have curricula that are like those that I inherited in a job in another city: basically a multipage list of discrete facts (you could call them factoids) that each student should know by the end of the year. This would be compatible with end-of-year testing (and it was in a state that is strongly into testing), but not everyone agrees that it should even be called a curriculum.

Most curricula describe goals and methods. This kind of curriculum could emphasize facts, skills, ideas, or any combination. A curriculum based on the principles of Understanding by Design would emphasize ideas and would describe the learning activities that should convey them.

Lately I've been writing a curriculum for an early-childhood class in a Jewish supplementary school. This came about because parents on the school board were concerned, basically, that their children weren't learning enough. (Every time parents have said that children weren't learning enough, anywhere I've worked, it was in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, or first grade. This doesn't mean that students in higher grades are learning enough.)

I thought that perhaps they meant that our pre-K class didn't have the kinds of goals that their children's weekday preschools had. I've worked around weekday preschools and I know that, although they don't have the kind of idea-based curriculum that I would want in a later grade, they have very clear goals for skills (motor and social as well as cognitive) and programs for achieving them. Those kinds of goals don't seem really appropriate for a Sunday school class.

My friend Nachama Skolnick Moskowitz had a different take on it. She suggested that the parents might be dismayed by the cycle of not-very-meaningful activities that is typical in a Sunday-school class like this. These are activities that are often sanctified by decades of use, but which either don't teach much of anything, or teach something that we don't really want to teach. For example, having children plant radish seeds in little pots at Tu Bishvat doesn't teach anything about trees, and Tu Bishvat isn't about vegetables.

When I asked in various online groups about curricula for a Sunday-school pre-kindergarten class, the replies surprised me. One colleague in a nearby (and larger) city asked why we have such a class at all and recommended family education instead. We have the class in response to demand, which exists because our community isn't large enough to have weekday Jewish preschool.

An early-childhood specialist at one of the national religious movements wrote that there is no such thing as a pre-kindergarten curriculum, because early childhood education is all about emergent curriculum – building the curriculum around the interests of the pupils. That's eminently feasible in a weekday preschool where there is no fixed list of topics that must be taught and teachers can respond promptly to whatever interests develop, not so feasible in a once-a-week class.

In the end we moved to a combined kindergarten and pre-kindergarten class with two teachers, and a curriculum called HaMakom, which means "the Place." In a religious setting, however, it denotes the place in which we find God, and may serve as a synonym for God.

Our idea is that the classroom itself should be HaMakom--an environment that models the best forms of contemporary Jewish life. We want it to be rich with Jewish symbols and objects and provide multiple opportunities for Jewish play. We also want it to be uncluttered and airy, which will be a challenge since the classroom is not large.

Part of the plan is to use the room decoration and various stations to engender interest in appropriate topics – a twist on emergent curriculum. These will include a holiday station – what class at this level doesn't study the Jewish holidays – as well as a Shabbat station, a Hebrew station, and so forth.

The full curriculum is here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Little atheists

Almost nothing rattles a religious-school teacher more than a student’s claim not to believe in God. Sometimes this claim is merely an attempt to derail a class, but sometimes it is a sincerely held opinion. In either case, the teacher struggles to deal with it and still continue with the intended lesson.

The same statement would present no problem in an adult class, but would probably not be made at all. In teaching adults, I say that whether to believe in God is not as productive a question as what to believe about God. Contemporary Judaism encompasses a wide spectrum of belief, from a God who frequently intervenes in everyday life to an impersonal God that comprises all the forces of nature. We have no mandatory “Confession of Faith,” and all strains of Judaism teach that how we live our lives is more important than what we profess to believe.

When a class has time to pursue the topic, students may advance various reasons for not believing in God. When a Torah class studies the two accounts of creation in Genesis, or the story of Noah and the flood, students usually point out that the stories differ considerably from what they learn in science classes. Teachers are, of course, well aware of that, but to most Jewish adults, it is obvious that the Torah is not a science book, and that religion and science represent truth in very different ways.

One especially interesting argument is that God, as described in the Bible, does some things, or orders us to do things, that are evil. For example, in I Samuel 15:3, God, speaking through Samuel, commands Saul to exterminate the Amalekites. Saul’s failure to do so is later cited as the reason for choosing David to replace him as king, and Jewish tradition holds that both Haman and Hitler were descendants of Amalek.

In our time, however, a commandment to exterminate an entire people seems self-evidently wrong. Our children, furthermore, are learning that all kinds of racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination are wrong. Jewish tradition suggests that God may make exceptions to God’s own laws, but now we want more consistency.

It is actually encouraging when a student advances this argument, because it shows that the student is learning what we most want to teach—ethics and values—rather than accepting everything uncritically. What makes it difficult in classes is that not all students will be equally ready to deal with inconsistencies and conflicts in the text; some will read literally what others will interpret metaphorically.

In fact, students who raise these questions are bringing up issues that have troubled rabbis for many centuries. It is not always possible to explore this kind of question fully in a single class session, but the essential point is that the purpose of religious school is education, not indoctrination. When a difficult question arises, it is more important for a student to learn how to think about it than to learn what to think.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Low expectations

Concerned that the study of Talmud had become so complex that most Jews of his time could not follow its arguments, the medieval scholar Rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote a book he called the Mishneh Torah—second Torah, or restatement of Torah. He intended it as a handbook of Jewish practice and belief for average Jews, so it wrote it in simple Hebrew and organized it clearly by topic.

Maimonides covered not only not only the laws stated in or implied by the Torah, but also provisions he believed necessary to implement them. He wrote, for example, that it was mandatory for every town to establish a school. (He meant a school for boys. Typical of his time, he believed that women were exempt from the requirement to study.)

He also wrote that a teacher is required to continue teaching a subject until all the pupils understand it. In modern schools, we call this learning for mastery, but we apply it more to skills, such as multiplication, than to ideas. In his view, furthermore, it was incumbent not only on the teacher, but also on the students, to insist on mastery:

Neither should a pupil say “I understand” when he does not, but should keep on asking questions repeatedly. If his teacher gets angry and excited on account of him, he should say to him: “Teacher, this is the Torah! I
must learn it, even though my capacity is limited.”

What is most striking in today is the idea that every student, regardless of ability, must learn the Torah, and not only superficially. Maimonides says that the class should stay with a topic until all students understand “the depth of the halachah.” He refers specifically to halachah—Jewish law—because his overriding concern is that every Jew know how to observe it correctly.

Most of us do not share that concern. There are large areas of halachah that do not affect us today: laws pertaining to the operation of the Temple in Jerusalem, including sacrifices; many that pertain only to priests, kohanim; and some that apply only in the land of Israel. Most of these were already in abeyance by the time in which Maimonides wrote. Some are superseded by the laws of the countries in which we live. And there are many that we observe differently, or not at all, because of our own religious principles.

With less sense of urgency about halachah, we tend to see mastery of the subjects taught in religious school, however desirable, as less essential. Although we may press for mastery of Hebrew skills, congregational and community religious schools usually do not strive as much for mastery of Judaic knowledge. We value the students’ total experience of Hebrew school more than mastery of content, and we know that academic pressure would not contribute to the environment that we want.

To some extent, we encourage a culture of low expectations. A high grade in math--really, a high grade in any subject in secular schools--may help a student to get into a selective college. High achievement in Hebrew school won't (unless it's a Hebrew-high program that's accredited to offer courses for high-school or college credit, as in a few cities).

Some congregations use bar/bat mitzvah as an incentive, by setting and enforcing requirements. These standards often strike students and parents as arbitrary and capricious. More to the point, the requirements are almost always for attendance, not mastery: at least three years of Hebrew school, or a prescribed number of sessions of Junior Congregation. If a student has met the attendance requirement, the burden falls on the tutor, not on the student, to bring about a creditable "performance." Neither of the congregations that enrolls students in our school has any school-related requirement at all.

There are exceptions. In regions where state-mandated testing in public schools is especially pervasive, religious schools tend to adopt similar practices, often with respect to Hebrew, sometimes also in other subjects. One school board in such a state asked me, more than a decade ago, if there was an organization similar to the Iowa Tests that we could bring in to test all our students in Judaic knowledge. I worried that, to a student who received a low score, it would feel like a failure in being Jewish.

Thus, I don't think that it would be productive to attempt to raise standards through lots of testing. Nor do I think that the strategy used by some public schools in gifted-and-talented programs--assigning mountains of homework--would be a good idea, even if parents would tolerate it. We rarely assign any homework at all, knowing that parents would nullify the assignments anyway.

On the other hand, it is important that we teach with serious purpose. Although students are not always eager to do real academic work in Hebrew school, they take pride in accomplishment and readily distinguish between making progress in learning and merely marking time. Maimonides says that it is wrong for a teacher to do other work with them or to teach sluggishly. By “other work” he probably meant work for financial gain, but we might also include activities that seem appropriate in school but fulfill no actual learning objective. Teaching “sluggishly” might include teaching below the students’ capacity.

Should students enjoy Jewish learning? Yes! But fun in school is not enough: some of the enjoyment should come from making progress, mastering new skills and ideas, and growing in the appreciation of Jewish life.

Friday, April 2, 2010

God's back? Shabbat chol hamoed Pesach

The pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot and Pesach interrupt the cycle of weekly readings. In addition to a special Torah reading for each day of the festival, there is an assigned reading for the Shabbat that falls during the festival that replaces the weekly parashah. In contrast, the Shabbat in Hanukkah has no special Torah reading, although it has a special Haftarah, the famous “not by might and not by power” selection from Zechariah.

The readings for the first two days of Pesach come from Exodus 12 and 13. They describe the Pesach sacrifice, commandments about the festival, “as an institution for all time, for you and your descendants” (Ex. 12:24), the slaughter of the first-born Egyptians, and the flight from Egypt itself, ending with additional instructions about the festival.

The reading for the Shabbat during Pesach, however, is a problematic passage in which Moses asks to know more about God, even to see the Divine Presence. It’s from parashat Ki Tisa, which was the weekly reading only a month ago. It follows the episode of the golden calf and ends with a second Covenant.

Moses’s instance on learning more about God and seeing God’s presence should remind us of his resistance to being chosen to liberate the Israelites from Egypt earlier in Exodus. There, he argues at length, until God’s anger flares up; here, even though he seems still to need outward signs of God’s favor toward him and Israel, his request is granted. God replies, “I will also do this thing that you have asked: for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name” (Ex. 33:17).

But Moses will not be allowed to see God’s face, “for man may not see Me and live” (33:20). Instead, it is God’s back that he will see.

God’s back? On the surface, this implies a physical existence for God that Jewish theology rejects. Taken too literally, it may even seem somewhat indelicate. Rabbi J.H. Hertz suggests that God’s presence would be seen in the form of a fire, too intense to look at directly, so Moses will see only an “afterglow.” In contrast, Rabbi Plaut, in the UAHC Torah Commentary, interprets God’s “back” as representing the deeds and actions that reveal God’s nature to us.

This appearance, whatever we take it to be, is accompanied by a text that we repeat as part of the High Holiday liturgy: “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 the children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (34:6–8).

It is not altogether clear who is speaking, God or Moses, but an ordinary reading of the Hebrew text suggests that it is God, and that is how the JPS version renders it.

Jewish tradition understands these verses as stating thirteen attributes of God—and, unusually, stating them in a positive rather than negative formulation. From the liturgy we are also familiar with other statements of the attributes of God, particularly Yigdal, based on the interpretation of these thirteen attributes by Maimonides.

The Haftarah for this Shabbat, from Ezekiel, is also a famous one: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” In addition to it, some communities also read selections from the Song of Songs (I recommend the translation by Marcia Falk).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Two Secrets

There are two open secrets about becoming a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. The first is that one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah automatically upon reaching the requisite age, whether there is a special ceremony or not. Although it’s our custom to recognize the coming of religious majority by having the young person participate in the worship service, every Jewish adult has exactly the same religious privileges and obligations.

The second open secret is that one is still Jewish on the morning after the mitzvah event. Students in religious school sometimes ask, “Do I have to learn this for my bar/bat mitzvah?” as if there were no reason to learn anything not required for the ceremony. Students at this age are pragmatic learners: they’re ready to learn everything that seems useful, but not always receptive to knowledge and skills of uncertain utility.

The problem is that – obviously – a young student has no personal experience of any later stage of life, no frame of reference for determining what may eventually be useful. It’s also true in secular education: in math, for example, students learn to calculate percentages before there is any practical need to use percentages.

What this tell us is that education focusing solely on preparation for a bar/bat mitzvah service is insufficient for Jewish life. Our choices about religious-school curricula embody not only immediate utility, but also predictions about the knowledge and skills that students will need throughout life.

For example, an acquaintance with the worship practices of other streams of Judaism is valuable whenever you attend services away from home—whether as a guest at the bar/bat mitzvah celebration of a friend, in college, or later in life. This is an area in which a community school has an intrinsic advantage, because congregations’ schools rarely teach any practices except their own.

Jewish history is helpful in understanding our place in the world. It helps to know that Jews have lived in America since 1654, when New York was still New Amsterdam, and that one 18th-century Jew, Haym Salomon, helped to finance George Washington’s army. And with Israel in the news almost every day, we all need to know the history of modern Israel.

Ethics? It may be true that all that is really necessary is to try to be a good person… but how do you learn how to be a good person? Learning how to think about ethical issues is an essential part of growing up, and it’s important to have a framework of values that transcend popular culture.

Most important, perhaps, is that each student develops a capacity for lifelong Jewish learning. It’s not only that school time is too limited to include everything that would be worth learning, but also that we are ready to learn different things as we mature. Thus, we want each student to learn more than the minimum to get through a bar/bat mitzvah service, because breadth of learning in school sets the stage for learning throughout life.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Stumbling blocks

February was Jewish Disability Awareness Month. If this is a surprise, I should add that it was the third annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

I missed the first two altogether and learned about the third after it had begun. According to Rabbi David Saperstein, during February Jewish institutions and organizations were supposed to “undertake a variety of initiatives to raise awareness of disability issues, whether it’s by hosting a panel on disability issues, studying relevant Jewish texts and discussing their application to daily life, volunteering with organizations that aid people with disabilities, or embarking on a holistic re-examination of how the community—our synagogues, schools and other communal institutions—includes, or fails to include, people with disabilities.”

So why did we miss this? One reason is that religious entities, including all houses of worship, are exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act, the law that mandates physical and programmatic access in other settings for people with many kinds of disabilities. Being under no compulsion by civil law to address disability issues, we could choose to ignore them. Another is that the ADA’s requirements for barrier-free design don’t apply to existing buildings, only to new construction and major alterations.

Nevertheless, for both ethical and practical reasons, most new synagogue buildings have included entrance ramps as well as elevators when necessary, as well as wheelchair-accessible restrooms and drinking fountains. Some, but not all, have provided for wheelchair seating in their sanctuaries, accessible telephones, and other accommodations. Some, including many existing synagogue buildings, have added assistive listening systems.

The ethical reasons include the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Stumbling blocks come in many forms, including less-than-accessible buildings, Shabbat services (how many sanctuaries have wheelchair access to the bimah?), and prayer books. We are also told, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” which implies that we should not impose separation on others.

The practical reasons include the Jewish need for unity. Especially in a community as small as ours, we cannot afford to exclude anyone, even inadvertently. Rabbi Saperstein suggests that accommodation for disabilities may be especially important in the Jewish community: the rate of disability increases with age, and the median age in the Jewish community is several years older than in the general population.

Disability awareness is particularly timely for our community because we are preparing to house all of our Jewish activities in one building. Half the space in that building is on a level that is currently accessible only by stairs, and there is no wheelchair-accessible restroom on either floor. The facilities committee has pledged to make necessary accommodations but may not have planned for everything that is needed, so I hope that everyone with specific concerns will be sure to share them with the committee.

Zecher litziyat Mitzrayim

In the first session of the Crash Course in Jewish History, I said that the ultra-condensed version of the course would be, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

While that’s supposed to be a joke, it represents the extent to which Passover exemplifies the Jewish view of history. We tend to see every event in our history as following that pattern.

In Jewish thought and in Jewish prayer, Passover is even more than our story of survival and liberation. For example, although we teach young children that Shabbat is the weekly remembrance of God’s resting after creating the world, the kiddush for Friday night states that Shabbat is zecher litziyat Mitzrayim, the remembrance of going-out from Egypt.

Many of the instructions in the Torah also tie themselves to the Exodus. Deuteronomy 18:17 tells us, “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless,” and verse 18 adds, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” The passage continues with the well-known instructions to leave overlooked and fallen crops in our fields and orchards for the poor to gather, and concludes by reiterating, “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”

. Does this mean that we are obligated to carry out these commandments because of our history as slaves in Egypt, or that we are given these commandments to help us remember that we were once slaves?

Or does it matter? The traditional idea is that observing ritual mitzvot helps us to observe ethical mitzvot, but it’s a two-way street. On one hand, the ritual of the Passover seder should strengthen our resolve to help the poor and oppressed. On the other hand, we celebrate Passover only once a year, but our fellow human beings need our help year-round.

Thus, whenever we help someone who is poor, ill, or oppressed, we should understand it as fulfilling commandments of the Torah, commandments associated with Passover.

This has been on my mind recently because of the B’tzelem Elohim (In the Likeness of God) curriculum that our eighth- and ninth-graders are following. The curriculum leads the students to create and carry out community-service projects, but it begins with study of texts from the Torah and later writings about our obligations to help others and, in particular, the best ways of doing so.

Students find these texts difficult and perhaps unnecessary, because the duty to help others seems self-evident. That it does demonstrates how thoroughly some of these instructions from the Torah have become central to Jewish life and, to a great extent, to American life. Nevertheless, we should be mindful that, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or work to liberate the oppressed, it is a holy act—a remembrance of our going-out from Egypt.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Torah and Evolution, part 2

Today was Evolution Shabbat in many synagogues, and tomorrow will be Evolution Sunday in churches. Evolution Weekend is the weekend nearest Charles Darwin's birthday (Feb. 12). The Evolution Weekend web site states:
Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic - to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letters themselves, which have now been signed by more than 13,000 members of the clergy in the United States, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.
It's an outgrowth of the Clergy Letter Project, in which (as of Friday) 467 rabbis and more than 12,000 Christian clergy had subscribed to letters opposing attempts on any religious grounds to limit the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes.

I had the privilege of speaking about it this morning at Congregation Shomray Hadath. In truth, the idea of opposing the teaching of evolution on the grounds of a conflict with Torah is just about unknown in Judaism, even in Orthodox circles: almost no Jewish adults in North America reject science. A problem does occur from time to time in science classes in Orthodox day schools, but it largely reflects the immaturity of the students.

I said that, in workshops for teachers, I sometimes ask participants to write down the answers to two questions:
  1. Do you believe that we should teach the creation story in Genesis, chapter 1, to children?
  2. Do you believe that it represents scientific truth?
As a rule, everyone answers "yes" to #1 and "no" to #2, and most do not see any problem with the split.

Religious Jews who "believe in" both evolution and Torah deal with it in various ways:
  • Some see Torah and science as occupying different spheres of knowledge. They try to keep them separate and generally manage to ignore any apparent conflict.
  • Some see the apparent conflict as demonstrating the limits of human knowledge, an approach dating back to Maimonides, who taught that if science and religion appear to conflict, it is only because our understanding of them is as yet insufficient.
  • Many, probably the largest number in the liberal streams of Judaism, interpret parts of the Torah as metaphor and myth. This is the approach that Reform rabbis took in the Pittsburgh Platform (1885), which states, "We hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age, and at times clothing its conception of divine Providence and Justice dealing with men in miraculous narratives."
In reality, it is not necessary for anyone to "believe in" either evolution or Torah. The theory of evolution is either correct or it is not, regardless of what any of us believes. (Opponents sometimes want schools to teach that it is "only a theory," but any scientist will say that it is the theory that best describes the data that exist.)

Similarly, Torah exists regardless of whether one "believes in" it and regardless of what anyone believes about it. The question for us is what we make of it.

Zealots might say that the bulk of American Jewry is able to cope with the difference between the creation story in Genesis 1 and what science tells us because most of us do not believe very much in God or Torah to begin with. I disagree with this, and side with the scholars who wryly observe that true faith does not require ratification by a committee of biologists.

It is easier for Jews than for Protestants because faith is really not central to Judaism as most of us know it. We do not have any concept of "justification by faith alone" (in that terminology, Judaism emphasizes justification by works), nor do we have any mandatory confession of faith. And we are not preoccupied with salvation; even on Yom Kippur, no rabbi calls out, "Come forward and be saved!"

The most elegant response is the one presented by Rev. Michael Dowd in his book
Thank God for Evolution, about which I've written before. He argues that the Bible and science are not in conflict at all, but are telling the same story. They use different language; he calls them "day language" (the language of science and mundane reality) and "night language" (the language of dreams, poetry, and myth).

They also have different goals. The creation stories in Genesis (chapters 1 and 2) orient us, the People of Israel, to our place and role in the world, and it should come as no surprise that nations who view their places and roles differently should have different creation stories. We want to teach the story from chapter 1 to children because it depicts a universe in which God is control and has a plan, and the plan works as it should. Chapter 2 is less orderly; there's a lot of blundering. It explains to adults why the world in which we live is such a mess.
We are seeing a continued and growing attack on the teaching of science in public schools, by political conservatives and religious fundamentalists who lobby state education departments, especially that of Texas—if a textbook cannot achieve adoption by the Texas authorities, it will probably never be published—to weaken the teaching of evolution. These demands include warning students that it is only a theory and presenting other theories, regardless of the fact that the other theories have no scientific support and amount to the teaching of religion.

Sometimes I even imagine a time in the future when we will need to send our students to Jewish day schools, not only in order to teach them Hebrew, Jewish life, and Jewish history, but also to teach them science. (And to protect them from fundamentalist Christian indoctrination in the guise of science.)

The version of the Clergy Letter for rabbis is
here, and the list of rabbis who have signed it follows the letter.

Friday, February 12, 2010

It takes a shtetl

It takes a shtetl to raise a Jewish child.

No, that’s not quite right. Although the shtetl experience had significant effects on Jewish thought, it is not central to Jewish life today.

Few of us would willingly trade the freedoms of twenty-first-century America for the forced closeness of an isolated village in eastern Europe. But it does take a community to raise a Jewish child. This is not to say that one can’t be Jewish in isolation, such as when required by schooling, work, or military service. What it means is that to be a Jew is to be part of a worldwide Jewish community that cannot be defined by either religion or ethnicity alone.

Thus, not all Jews are religious, nor are all religious Jews religious in the same way. Our religious practices show a range of ethnic and philosophical differences. Nor are our ethnic customs all the same. Think about Jewish food: what is Jewish food? Sefardim such as Moroccan Jews knew nothing about bagels until they saw them in Ashkenazi bakeries in Israel or North America, but they eat rice during Passover. There are Jews who don’t like gefilte fish!

About a decade ago I taught an eighth-grade class on Jewish family history. The idea was that family history was the gateway to more general Jewish history. Jewish food was one illustration: whatever we think of as “Jewish food” is the typical food of the region of the world from which our families came, perhaps adapted to make it kosher. (Russian borscht might contain both meat and sour cream; in French cooking, à la juive, Jewish style, means fried in oil instead of pork fat.) By the late 1990s this was lost on students, because family food had become either mainstream American food, or the latest foodie craze—that year, Thai. So if family food is Jewish food, Thai food was Jewish.

Furthermore, our Jewish community, especially in America, is becoming progressively more diverse. It includes Jews by birth who are religious and who are not religious, and Jews by choice and other family members who participate voluntarily in the life of the community.

Young children do not think in global terms, and identification with a worldwide community is not automatic. For a very young child, the world is defined by home and family, and gradually expands to include the neighborhood, the school, and the temple or synagogue. As it expands, the child learns to be part of a community that is one step larger than the family, but still familiar and safe.

As the child matures, the connections of those communities to larger ones can become meaningful. This meaning develops through the family’s participation in their Jewish community.

Once children are of school age, religious school (Hebrew school) is the most obvious manifestation of Jewish community, because children spend three to five hours a week in Hebrew school. But school is not the only form of Jewish community, and it’s a somewhat artificial one, focused on specific kinds of learning. School can’t represent all the facets of a Jewish community. For example, the tzedakah component of our school curriculum can’t convey the experience of those who work together at the Community Kitchen on the first Thursday of every month. Our prayer curriculum doesn’t convey the bonding that occurs during a worship service. School parties don’t fully represent the experience of social events in our two congregations.

So I encourage the families of our religious-school children to participate as fully in the life of the Jewish community as they are able. That includes not only worship services—our most frequent community event—but also mitzvah projects, book discussions, social events, concerts and films, or even fund raising, and to bring their children whenever it’s feasible.

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...