"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Three

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers.

CHAPTER THREE of his exploration appears just below. You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here. Read "CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself" by clicking here.

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What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Three: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.

In order to fully understand the difference between the written and the oral in Jewish texts, we need to look at the story of creation.

The cosmology that we receive at the beginning of the Torah is difficult. We know from the first verse that certain "things" already exist at the moment of creation – these precursors are darkness, the deep, God, and God's intention to create. The ambiguity inherent in the existence of these "things" creates a philosophical conundrum that medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides above all others, address but are unable to resolve: out of what source is the material of creation derived? If God is all, then how can God be changeable? Can a changeable God be perfect? If God is not all and creation is separate from the Divine, how can God be limitless and all powerful? These are rankling questions. The sword that Maimonides wields to cut this Gordian knot is the idea that the natural laws that apply to our physical existence do not also apply to God.

Maimonides places the understanding of this essential dilemma beyond the realm of human cognition and beyond words, but the Torah itself goes another way - "God said, 'let there be light; and there was light.'" God speaks, and through speech alone the physical world manifests.

How are we to understand this act of speech? It is presented in the Torah in words that are easily understandable to us because they are presented in a human rendering of a divine language. But who hears these words and who records them for posterity? The next verse, "God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness," shows that speed and intellection are not identical. "Let there be light" truly is a verbal utterance. The text continues, "God called the light day, and the darkness Night." This shows us that discernment and naming are related, and that both are consequences of separation (division).

The story of creation is a story of speech, of distinction, of judgement, and of naming. Out of speech comes life and activity. The first act of creation echoes through the whole work of creation. It is both foundation and model.

What begins in speech is also accomplished through naming, the means of distinction. Judgement can only be rendered on what has been made distinct. The Written Law begins with spoken words. In the process of discernment (seeing things as distinct from one another), things become separated from each other in name and in the physical world. God makes these separations through speech and thought. But we know that human will does not translate into reality without physical action.

God models this translation for us in the way that convenants between God and Abraham are accomplished. A covenant is made through acts of physical separation – cutting. While all of these cuttings are marks in flesh, it is important to remember cutting (carving, incision, and gouging) was also the action required to produce writing in Abraham's time. One carved into stone, incised into metal and wood, and gouged or traced in clay or even sand.

The first of these covenantal moments is the very odd covenant of the pieces. Abraham (Abram at the time) is told by God that he will come to possess the land and he asks for a divine sign. God calls for Abram to bring a three-year heifer, a three year she-goat, a three-year ram, a turtle dove, and a young bird. Abram does this and cuts all of the animals in half (except, without explanation, the young bird) and lays the two halves of each opposite one other in two symmetrical rows. Abram then falls asleep in the heat of the day and sinks into a feverish dream. In the dream, he is told of the long road his descendants will have to take before they take possession of the covenant-promised land. When he awakes, it is already the darkest of dark nights and "there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces."

Abram is brought to a moment that reenacts creation (with a hint of the fourth day in the presence of two different lights). The torch that passes between the pieces reiterates and sanctifies through fire the sacrifice through separation that Abram has made. Abram has made his inscription in the flesh of his offerings, a symmetrical division which mirrors the symmetrical separations made by God in the creation – day/night, heaven/earth, water/land, etc.

This divine sanctification of a human act of physical separation is not yet the equivalent of a full transition to written record, but it is the initiation of the use of signs as abstractions for words and ideas. The Covenant of the pieces is a sign that Abram/Abraham would keep in memory. The next step in this process is brit milah. Brit is the inscription of the covenant onto the living human body. It is the first permanent mark. The technology of covenant is converging with the technology of writing.

This relationship to permanent marking is clarified in the Akedah (the "Binding of Isaac"). Abraham is told to offer up his son as a sacrifice. God’s motivation is a classic conundrum. Whether or not God intends this as a test of Abraham, it becomes exactly that. The usual interpretation is that the Akedah is a test of Abraham’s faith, but it can also be interpreted as a test of Abraham’s understanding of the mechanics of the written aspect of covenant. Isaac already bears the covenantal text on his body. A sign has been inscribed. We are being told that written signs are made to create clarity and for permanence. The misunderstanding on Abraham’s part that needs to be corrected is his belief that a covenant that ends life can overwrite a covenant in life. This second sign would negate the first and is prevented. Subsequent prohibitions on tattoos, scarification, and even beard cutting reinforce this understanding.

In our next installment, we will talk about Jeremiah and the transition from the inscribed to the scribed.

Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

This Shavuot: The Kabbalah of Ice Cream

Blog2_KabbalahOfIceCream_posterJoin fellow members of our Bay Area Jewish community for an illuminating night (and dawn!) of learning, rejoicing, and good eats on Tuesday, May 30, and Wednesday, May 31!

Start the evening with a community dinner and post-nosh learning at Congregation Chevra Thilim, then move on to Richmond District staple Toy Boat Dessert Café (for some sweet, edifying licks) before settling in at CBS for our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night Torah study session established by Jewish mystics.

Check out the full schedule below and join us for some or all of what promises to be an edifying and magical night! Please note that all teaching portions of the evening are free and open to the public, but the community dinner requires a ticketed reservation.

Shavuot Stroll 5777

8 p.m. – Community dinner and davennen (Congregation Chevra Thilim)
If you plan to attend the dinner, please reserve your seats by clicking here.
Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for children 5 and up, and free for children 4 and under.

9 p.m. – Our first taste of learning: Roadmap to Sinai, with Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi (Congregation Chevra Thilim)
10 p.m. – depart from Chevra Thilim

10:30 p.m. – The Kabbalah of Ice Cream (Take 2 scoops!), with Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi & Rabbi Aubrey Glazer (Toy Boat Dessert Cafe)
12 a.m. — depart from Toy Boat

12:30 a.m. — Tikkun Leil Shavuot, all-night study session with Jonathan Bayer, Henry Hollander, Michael Loebs, Rabbi Aubrey Glazer (Congregation Beth Sholom)

First session (12:30–1:30 a.m.)
Falling In Love Again: A Wedding At Sinai (Includes a discussion of David Moss ketubot)
Rabbi Glazer

Second session (1:30–2:30 a.m.)
The Torah in African-American Spirituals: The Many Migrations of the Story of God and the Jewish People
Jonathan Bayer and Henry Hollander in conversation
(w/ performance by Bayer of selected spirituals in the style of Reverend Gary Davis)

Third session (2:30–3:30 a.m.)
Talk by Michael Loebs (title/subject TBD)

Fourth session (3:30–5 a.m.)
The Fantastic Tales of Rabbi Bar Bar Hanna as told in the Talmud and illustrated by Canadian artist Aba Bayevsky
Henry Hollander & Rabbi Glazer
In the midst of an in-depth discussion about terms of sale for ships, the Talmud suddenly decides to blow our minds! Giants, big fish, huge snakes, vast dimensions, circus acts, miracles, and more.

5 a.m. — Shacharit davening, Gronowski Family Chapel (Congregation Beth Sholom)

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Please also join the CBS community for Shavuot services on Wednesday, May 31, and Thursday, June 1.

Wednesday, May 31
9 a.m. — Shavuot, 1st Day service
12 p.m. — Shavuot Lunch & Learn Kiddush, Book of Ruth
1:45 p.m. — Mincha Gedolah Shavuot*

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Thursday, June 1
9 a.m. — Shavuot, 2nd Day service (with Yizkor memorial service)
12 p.m. — Shavuot Lunch & Learn Kiddush, Book of Ruth
1:45 p.m. — Mincha Gedolah Shavuot*

Our normal, evening minyan service (6 p.m.) is replaced by this 1:45 p.m. service.

"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Two

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study is back, meeting each Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants are studying the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

Henry is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. Chapter Two of his exploration appears below.

You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here.

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What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Two: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself. (Have you read Tristram Shandy? If not, you really should. Poor Tristram becomes quite familiar with this sort of thing.)

As I discussed last week, the Written Torah consists of Torah, Prophets, and Writings – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. We know that at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple all of the books of the Tanakh existed in written form. We have the physical examples that were discovered at Qumran on the Dead Sea. Some people believe that the entire Tanakh is the precise word of God. If we accept this (and even if we don’t), how did the word of God come to be written down?

Writing and Jewish law (halacha) are connected from the beginning within the Tanakh. The first mitzvot to be revealed are the Ten Commandments. These come in two drafts. The first, written by "the Hand of God," doesn’t make it to us intact. The one that we actually get to read from is inscribed into stone by Moses.

There are a number of lessons about writing in the Jewish tradition that we can learn from this story:
1) Use of the written word is an attribute that we share with the Divine.
2) Our written texts, physically produced by human hands, are sufficiently similar to those produced by the Divine "Hand" that they can have the full authority of the words of the Divine.
3) The written word can partake of the same permanence – that is, the same perfection – as the word of the Divine received directly.

The Written Law has the virtues of permanence and fixity. Appearing in the written text, it provides a certainty on which the believer can base their confidence that the will of God can be known, followed, and be made a source of constant support.

These virtues can also become weaknesses, however. Permanence is the extreme of orthodoxy. Humanity is ever shifting in location, social mores, technology, artistry, and even temperament. As long as the Law remains at the center of human concerns, permanence works in its favor. But, if the law becomes dislodged from that center even slightly, that permanence is transformed into a weakness.

If the Law requires a physicality, it is always threatened. The first set of tablets is smashed. The people remain without the benefit of the Law until a second set of tablets can be carved for them. Dependence on fixity of physical permanence stifles the preservation of the Law through memory. When the Law enters memory through repeated reading or through memorization of an oral text, it enters the mesh of human memory and, like the human mind as a whole, becomes malleable.

In the First Temple period, both sets of tablets lie in the Ark. They are not brought forth. We never hear of the reading of the Law until the reign of Hezekiah, when a lost scroll (generally assumed to be the Book of Deuteronomy) is rediscovered during the renovation of the Temple. It becomes clear from the aftermath of the reading of that scroll that the Israelites (Judahites) had forgotten most of what Moses had taught. The quality of Jewish faith in the First Temple period seems thin to us now. It appears to be a brittle monotheism lacking all of the intellectual ferment that we associate with the Jewish mind.

The nations of Israel and Judah come under dire threat in the eras of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The coming of a new or renewed faith among Jacob’s children starts to become visible. Writing and the technology of writing plays a part in this change.

Next week, we'll find hints of an explanation of the ties that bind the Written Law to the Oral Law.

READ CHAPTER THREE: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.
Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Our Talmud Shiur Resumes

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study returns next Tuesday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants will begin the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

As the shiur prepares to resume after a brief break, Henry has decided to contribute regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus allowing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions to appreciate a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. The first of these appears below.

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What is Talmud Study?

Chapter One: In which a simple question proves not so simple.

What is Talmud study? Talmud study is distinct from other types of Jewish text study. It is an investigation of the Oral Torah rather than the Written Torah. What does that mean?

Written Torah is the Tanakh – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, also known as The Five Books of Moses, The Prophets, and The Writings. Tanakh is the combined canonized text of the Jewish Bible (alternatively known as Mikra or the Hebrew Bible, but never the deeply offensive "Old Testament.") When we listen to a rabbi’s sermon or study Parsha HaShavua (the weekly Torah portion) we are studying the Written Torah directly. If we read Rashi, Nachmanides, Nechama Leibowitz, or Aviva Zornberg, we are reading Oral Torah commentaries on the Written Torah.

Every Jewish text that has appeared after the texts canonized in the Written Torah is the Oral Torah. The Written Torah mixes narrative and legal material freely. These types of thought diverged into more specialized discussions in the oral lore that began as soon as the Written Torah was revealed. These separate threads are referred to as aggadah (Rabbinic literature) and halacha (Jewish Law). Aggadah develops into a body of texts referred to broadly as the midrash. Midrash includes Pirek de Rebbe Eliezer, Midrash Rabbah, the Mekhiltas, Sifre, and others. These works comment directly and closely on Tanakh. Midrash is often said to be an effort to fill in the vast open spaces in Biblical narrative left open by the Tanakh’s laconic style, and this is certainly true. Midrash is quirky and explosively imaginative. Over time, the midrash has taken on the role of a canonized text, but its direct origins are in rabbinic sermons of the first and second centuries. As printed books, these works are organized to show how they directly depend on and relate to the structure of Written Torah.

The Zohar, the central mystical text of Judaism and the seed out of which much of subsequent Jewish mysticism grows, is also organized as a commentary on the Five Books of Moses. While the Zohar flies as far as the mind will let it, it always returns to the end of the day to the Written Torah like a homing pigeon.

But the Talmud is not organized around the Written Torah. It is organized as a commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the body of text that emerged out of the oral discussions of the halacha. (Besides the Mishnah, vital but less central early halachic texts are the Tosefta and the various small traditions recorded in Baraitot.) Mishnah is an explication of how one should go about the practical details of observing the halachot (laws) that we find in the Tanakh.

We also refer to these laws at the 613 mitzvot. Some mitzvot seem clear, such as "Thous Shalt Not Kill." Others, such as "A Jealous Husband Must Take His Wife to the Priests and Not Put Oil on Her Meal Offering," are a bit more opaque. Like all rules, Biblical law often seems much more easily understood in theory than in practice.

The Mishnah speaks in its own voice. Even though it derives its subject and meaning from an aspect of the Tanakh it does not quote from Tanakh nor is it organized around the structure of the Tanakh.

Mishnah is the central element of Talmud. Talmud includes the Mishnah and a later, vastly larger, text referred to as the Gemara. The Gemara purports to be a commentary on the Mishnah. (When we open a page of Talmud, we see much more on the page, but that's a subject for another day.) The Mishnah is an organized and thorough effort to make obeying the will of God a practical possibility. It is also an assertion that the human relationship with the Divine functions as a result of the probing human intellect at work.

Where does this come from? How true is the last assertion above? And what is Talmud study?

Next week, I will discuss the origins of the Mishnah and the "writtenness" of the Written Torah.

READ CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself.

Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Max Billick's Bar Mitzvah

facebook_maxbillickMy name is Max Billick, I’m a seventh-grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. I’m interested in politics, history, constitutional law, world languages, Talmud, and cooking.

This Shabbat – on the fourth day of Sukkot Chol HaMoed – I will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. On the occasion of my bar mitzvah, I will be recognized as a member of this community and brought into the covenant.

On Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot we will be reading from Parashat Ki Tissa. In the parsha, G-d commands Moses to conduct a census. After the census, G-d gives two tablets to Moses on which Moses inscribes the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, the Israelites decide to make a golden calf. G-d is displeased about this but Moses is able to convince G-d to not forsake the covenant. When Moses saw this for himself, he was enraged and broke the tablets. He pleaded with G-d again not to forsake the covenant, and again carved tablets that he inscribed the Ten Commandments upon.

I want to thank my tutor Noa Bar, for helping me prepare for my bar mitzvah, and Rabbi Glazer for his invaluable help in preparing my d’var Torah.

Meet Claire Ambruster, JVS Summer Intern

CBS is pleased to introduce our Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Kohn Summer Intern, Claire Ambruster. Claire is supporting multiple departments at CBS during her internship (June 21 - August 12), including communications. Wearing her communications hat, Claire will learn about thoughtful development and management of social media strategy and also gain blogging experience. Today, we're sharing her first blog contribution.

We've been very impressed with Claire so far, and are fortunate to have her on our team, even if only for the summer!

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My Journey to Working in the Jewish World

Facebook_ClaireAmbrusterLast week, I began my summer internship through the Kohn Summer Intern Program – a project of Jewish Vocational Service. My fellow interns and I met for the first time at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. We enjoyed a tour of the museum, schmoozed, and discussed our goals for the summer. As Kohn interns, we each work separately at different Bay Area Jewish nonprofits. On Fridays, we come together for interesting seminars, during which we discuss everything from Jewish life to job skills. I will be working with Congregation Beth Sholom (CBS) this summer, and am very excited for the opportunity to explore the inner workings of this synagogue – from drafting CBS Facebook posts to managing membership databases. I am also enjoying getting to know the Beth Sholom community. Simultaneously, I look forward to getting to know the other Kohn interns and learning about the different types of work they are doing to invest in the Jewish world.

Although I now am committed to Jewish practice, I did not always envision that for myself. I grew up in a secular home in San Francisco. Although we lit Hanukkah candles each year, we also strung colored lights around our Christmas tree. As I grew older, I wanted to learn more about my tradition, and I asked my parents to enroll me in Hebrew school. Once enrolled, I quickly became inspired by Jewish teachings. When the time came to pick a high school, I decided to further my Jewish education and enrolled in a pluralistic Jewish high school. I soon fell in love with Jewish studies – from Talmud to contemporary Jewish thought. As I grew, I developed confidence in my faith. I began to contemplate taking larger concrete steps towards Judaism, and I pondered the idea of having a bat mitzvah ceremony and eventually going through conversion, as I am not yet considered halachically Jewish.

Last summer, I was given the opportunity to have my long-anticipated bat mitzvah ceremony. I was participating in the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI) summer program in Los Angeles, and had spent several weeks engaging in a whirlwind of profound learning with my peers. On the final Shabbat of the program, I stood before a crowded room, eagerly anticipating the ceremony. I read from the Torah, singing notes I had learned only weeks beforehand. Afterward, I reflected on the biblical passage, in which the daughters of Tzelafchad demanded to receive their father’s inheritance, which traditionally went to sons. In the same spirit of the daughters of Tzelafchad, I stood in front of the community to inherit and reaffirm my Jewish identity. After years of questioning my Jewish identity, it was incredibly redemptive and exhilarating to read from the Torah and feel the joy surrounding me.

It is moments like this one – where communities come together in joy and in loss – which remind me how important Judaism is in my life. I look forward to helping build the Jewish world here at Beth Sholom for the remainder of the summer!

Kezayit: Burn, Baby, Burn!

Facebook_LagBOmerFlamingArrowWhat's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Lag B'Omer is this Thursday, May 26 (18 Iyar). Although the holiday has been getting more press in recent years, it continues to go largely ignored by most Jewish Americans.

But maybe that's about to change? A concerted effort is being made by some contemporary Jewish leaders to make Lag B'Omer a centerpiece of the Jewish calendar, a holiday that secular Jews will appreciate as much as their religious brethren. Given that Lag B'Omer is traditionally observed by lighting bonfires, dancing, singing, and feasting, it should be an easy sell.

So why do we set things ablaze and party hardy on Lag B'Omer? What are we so colorfully celebrating? According to one content-aggregating website, "Lag Ba'Omer is a joyous holiday, but no one is sure what it celebrates."

There are explanations, however. Lag B'Omer translates as the "33rd [day] in the Omer." The Omer, as devoted Kezayit readers will surely recall, is the 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot. While we previously explained why the 49 days of the Omer are counted and why this count has taken on mystical significance, we didn't mention that most of the period of the Omer is understood to be one of semi-mourning. Halachically observant Jews may not get a haircut, shave, listen to instrumental music, dance, or have weddings or parties during the Omer. The Talmud explains that the semi-mourning memorializes either a terrible plague that killed 24,000 of the great sage Rabbi Akiva's students or the murder of those same students by Roman soldiers during the years of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–136 CE). Modern rabbis have also suggested that the Omer should be seen as a time to remember the millions of Jews who were persecuted and killed during the Crusades, centuries of European pogroms, and the Shoah. Of course, anthropologists point out that many ancient cultures practiced "similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their concerns about the growth of their crops."

BonfireWhether it's an ancient rite of an agricultural people, a commemoration of a specifically Jewish experience, or some combination thereof, the Omer is meant to be a somber period. Lag B'Omer is the exception. All the restrictions of the mourning period are lifted; it's the one day during the Omer that we let it all hang out. Which brings us back to the holiday's potential renaissance.

As a recent article in J. makes clear, Lag B'Omer makes space for even the most secular of Jews to connect strongly with their Judaism. Joel Stanley, Director of Jewish Innovation at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center (OFJCC) in Palo Alto, saw an opportunity to draw a crowd with "live music, archery, dance, wilderness workshops, spontaneous chats about Kabbalah, activities for kids and barbecue"...as well as "towering fire sculptures." This year, the OFJCC is producing their first Burning Mensch celebration, a Lag B'Omer party designed to appeal to younger, more secular Jews, those of our tribe who generally eschew ritual or traditional spiritual experiences, but are eager to celebrate their Jewish heritage. Zack Bodner, Executive Director of the OFJCC, says Burning Mensch is part of an effort he dubs Judaism 3.0, "a vision for the future."

We salute such creative efforts, and hope that Burning Mensch is a grand success, both for the sake of its producers and sponsors (Kol Emeth, Jewish Study Network, and Milk + Honey) as well as for Jewish engagement, generally.

Tractate Shabbat -- Talmud Study Update

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud study group, wants to talk cooking!

Talmud study participants are now focusing on a section of Tractate Shabbat that discusses how we are (and are not) able to use ovens and stoves on Shabbat and, more generally, what constitutes "cooking." What at first appears to be a collection of rabbinic discussions that tie us in knots over minor differences in cooking technique turns out to be a springboard for spirited debate about a wide range of cooking and foodways.

Please note that the Talmud shiur is now switching back to Tuesday nights (from Mondays).

Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

Kezayit: Kitniyot

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Kitniyot2CBS prides itself on the relatively diverse make-up of our community but, like the majority of synagogues in the United States, most of our members identify as Ashkenazim or subscribe to Ashkenazi minhag (custom). For observant Ashkenazi Jews, Pesach (Passover) dietary restrictions are especially onerous. Like other Jews, Ashkenazim refrain from eating hametz (leavened foods) during Passover, but they also eschew kitniyot, a catch-all term used to describe rice, corn, soy beans, peas, lentils, and many seeds. All of these foods are off limits for Ashkenaz Jews during Pesach.

In recent years, there's been much debate about the kitniyot minhag. Should Jews of Ashkenaz provenance continue to practice the prohibition? Or is it high time we put tofu on our Pesach menu? Let's unpack this a bit...and maybe settle any disputes occurring in your kitchens.

First, the ban on kitniyot was only codified in the 16th century; it's a relatively recent minhag. There are competing explanations for its origin, but the general consensus is that rabbis were concerned that European Jews would mistake a hametz flour for a grain flour, thereby unintentionally violating halacha. The rabbis banned anything and everything that might confuse Jews during the holiday. Today, when we can easily tell the difference, is there really any need for the custom to continue?

Second, it's important to remember that minhagim should not be confused with mitzvot. A minhag is not part of written or oral law, and might be widely practiced (e.g., the kitniyot prohibition) or confined to one particular family (e.g., that goofy thing your bubbe did that your dad does and you've started doing, too). Perhaps not surprisingly, many Jews prioritize minhag over halacha, especially if the custom was practiced by their grandparents and parents. You know the score – tradition!

But even the most strict among us should keep the principle of minhag avoteinu beyadeinu ("the minhag of our forefathers remains in our hands") in mind. Even if you're reluctant to reconsider long-held customs, our rabbis are doing just that. On December 24, 2015, the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law & Standards adopted two Responsa (sheelot u-teshuvot,) concerning kitniyot. You can read the full papers here and here, but the summaries are supplied below.

The first of the two responsa was authored by Rabbi David Golinkin, the President of The Schechter Institutes and Past President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he currently serves as Professor of Jewish Law. Rabbi Golinkin's paper does not include a formal psak, but concludes that the kitniyot minhag should be eliminated. It was adopted by a vote of 15-3-4.

The second responsa was authored by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Reisner, the Interim Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom (Bridgeport, CT) and Rabbi Emeritus of Chevrei Tzedek (Baltimore, MD), respectively. Their paper was adopted by a vote of 19-1-2. The concluding psak of this rabbinic Responsa is: "In order to bring down the cost of making Pesach and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesach."

It's none of our business what goes on in your kitchen or dining room, but we encourage you to feast on kitniyot this Pesach...if you want to.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): A "Jewfish"?

KezayitThe closing section of each CBS HaLuach newsletter features a Jewish-interest news item or curiosity. We generally prioritize the obscure and offbeat, and we welcome suggestions.

What's with the name? A kezayit (literally meaning "like an olive") is a Talmudic unit of measure. Halachically speaking, it is the minimum amount food or drink one can consume in order for a rabbi to be satisfied that you've actually eaten. (And, no, a kezayit's worth won't satisfy your mother! You're a growing boy!) In the context of our newsletter feature, we're using kezayit in a more metaphorical way -- it's a morsel, a tidbit, something light, but tasty, and totally worthy of your consumption.

Today, we thought we'd provide you with a taste of the Kezayit feature...and it's a tasty taste, at that!

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The ever-interesting Jewniverse recently posted a short article with the title "How the Jewfish Got Its Name." From the piece:

"There are several theories for how the jewfish (Promicrops itaiara), an Atlantic saltwater grouper..., got its name. It may derive from the Italian giupesce, which means 'bottom fish,' or may have originally been named 'jawfish' for its large mouth. A less flattering theory is that in the 1800s, jewfish were declared inferior and only fit for Jews.

The Maryland-based American Fisheries Society received complaints about the name for decades. It announced in 2001 that the name was deemed 'culturally insensitive' and was changed to Goliath grouper – not for the biblical Philistine Goliath who was slain by David, but because of the fish’s ability to grow up to 700 pounds.
"

We love Jewniverse, but that's not the full story. Because your Kezayit writer is also a natural history nut, CBS is able to provide you with the scoop on the provenance of the jewfish name!

Jewniverse is correct to assert that the origin of the original name remains unclear, but most historians believe it came about as a result of Jamaican and Cuban Jewish communities eating so much of the fish species. Why did they eat so much of it? It just so happens that the grouper species is both kosher -- it has fins and scales -- and very tasty!

One of the primary sources for this naming account is a 1697 book titled A New Voyage Round the World, by explorer William Dampier. According to Dampier, during an expedition to Jamaica, he encountered Jews who considered Promicrops itaiara to be the best (and largest) kosher fish in that part of the world. Dampier wrote, "The Jew-fish is a very good Fish, and I judge so called by the English, because it hath Scales and Fins, therefore a clean Fish, according to the Levitical Law."

So, although the name jewfish was deemed offensive and changed, it seems clear that it wasn't initially intended to be a pejorative label. In any case, despite the renaming, many fishermen continue to call the species by the more familiar appellation. In time, with the turning of the generations, jewfish will fade from use; for now, though, even Chabad still uses the name.

Finally, we leave you with a fun video of a very excited man in a kayak catching a 550-pound Goliath grouper off Sanibel, Florida.


Image credit: "Jimmy posing with a large jewfish from the Gulf of Mexico off Key West in 1985," via collection of The Florida Keys--Public Libraries (CC BY 2.0)

An Overview of Rabbi Glazer's Israel Trip

From Sunday, December 20, 2015 - Sunday, January 3, 2016, Rabbi Glazer will visit Israel to present some of his recent research, give book talks, study with renowned Israeli scholars, and participate in a program for college students.

7911984On December 24, he will teach in the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Winter Break study program, Ta’amu U’r’u – Taste and See. His session is titled “Beginnings Forever After: How do we understand the depths of beginning a relationship to Talmud Torah according to Kabbalah & Hasidut?”

Rabbi Glazer will also give book talks at two Masorti communities -- Neve Schecter, in Tel Aviv, on December 24, and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem on December 31. His talk, "Is Jewish Thinking Possible After Auschwitz?," interrogates the (im)possibility of Jewish thinking -- and serious metaphysical thought at large -- following the essays of philosopher, pianist, and aesthetician Theodor W. Adorno. These two talks occur in conjunction with the Hebrew-language publication of Rabbi Glazer's A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (Resling Press, Tel Aviv).

"The Zohar: East and West" international conference takes place December 28-30, with two days of sessions at Ben Gurion University, Be'er Sheva, and the final day at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 3.52.39 PMCelebrating the culmination of Daniel Matt’s Priztker Edition translation of the Zohar, Rabbi Glazer will present his research on Tiberean Hasdisim's usage of Kabbalah. His presentation will be drawn from his paper, “Between Quietism of the 'Still Mind' & Merging in 'Ecstatic Kisses' In the Holy Land: Zohar as Hermeneutics of Contemplation in Tiberean Hasidism," which explores how the spiritual practice of quieting the busy mind can allow the practitioner to be more fully present and self-actualizing in their interactions with others. In particular, Rabbi Glazer considers how these ideas are expressed in the 18th century spiritual community of Tiberias and its application of the Zohar?

We wish Rabbi Glazer nesiyah tovah (good travels) and fruitful teaching and learning while abroad!

If you need pastoral services during Rabbi Glazer's absence, please contact the CBS offices; we have emergency clergy available in case of birth, death, or serious illness.

TDoR & Our Androgynous Creation

JLGBT_TDOR1It's Transgender Awareness Week (November 14 - 20), and people and organizations around the country are participating in events and outreach campaigns designed to raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people. The week culminates this Friday, November 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), an annual memorial to those who have been murdered as a result of transphobia.

Congregation Beth Sholom invites you to connect with Keshet, a national organization working for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews in Jewish life, to learn more about Transgender Awareness Week events and programming in the Bay Area. Also, mark your calendars for this Friday’s San Francisco Trans Day of Remembrance community gathering at the LGBT Community Center in San Francisco.

We at CBS feel strongly that LGBT and transgender causes are also Jewish issues. Our Jewish history is our Jewish present, and we know firsthand the challenges, suffering, and tragedy experienced by “the other,” the “stranger.” Year after year, we’re reminded that “the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34) A few short decades ago, American Jews were on the front line of the Civil Rights Movement, but as we’ve grown more comfortable with our (much improved) social station, we’ve grown somewhat complacent. Many of us struggle to live out the Leviticus mandate; it’s been reduced to a platitude, albeit one we take pride in even as we (too often) willfully insulate ourselves from or deny the suffering of so many “others” in our midst. Sadly, the transgender community is an excellent case in point.

In a short video produced by I AM: Trans People Speak, a project to raise awareness about the diversity that exists within transgender communities, a rabbinical student observes,

As a Jewish educator, I am passionate about creating spaces for trans and queer Jews, if that’s in prayer, or educational spaces, or community. I think that right now, Jewish community is not a safe space, and there’s a lot of work we need to do. I am really looking forward to the day when a Jewish community does not need to create a safe space, it is a safe space; that Judaism in itself is a safe space for queer and gender-variant folks.

Indeed, there are few "safe spaces" for transgender people today. Joanna Ware, Keshet's Boston Regional Director and the Lead organizer of Keshet's Jewish Guide to Marking Transgender Day of Remembrance, writes that transgender people face “cutting words, cold shoulders, exclusion, and discrimination, and sometimes…violence.”

With this daunting reality in mind, CBS encourages our Jewish community to do two things. First, learn more about transgender and gender non-conforming people and how synagogues and other Jewish institutions can take steps to make our Jewish communities more welcoming — indeed, embracing — of genderqueer identities. Second, turn to our tradition for insight about the complications of gender. The rabbis responsible for compiling the Mishnah identified not two, but six different gender categories, described in brief here.

Zachar: This term is derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. It is usually translated as "male” in English.

Nekevah: This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English.

Androgynos: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics.

Tumtum: A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured.

Ay’lonit: A person who is identified as “female” at birth, but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile.

Saris: A person who is identified as “male” at birth, but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam).

Gender-Symbol_Transident-300x300 Although it’s undeniable that the rabbis privileged the zachar, the conventional male identity, over all others, it’s instructive to acknowledge that non-reproductive, ambiguous, and hybrid gender categories were not considered degenerate. They were merely less common. Additionally, one Mishnahic rabbi interpreted the foundational text of Torah in an especially compelling way.

G-d created the adam [the first human being] in G-d’s own image; in the image of G-d He created him – male and female [G-d] created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

"Said Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazar: 'When the Holy One, blessed be the One, created the first adam [human being],
[G-d] created him [an] ‘androgynos.’
” (Midrash Rabbah 8:1)

While it may raise a few eyebrows among biblical literalists, Rabbi ben Elazar’s interpretation is in keeping with contemporary sociological notions of gender and sexuality. One’s sex refers to the individual’s biological and physiological characteristics, whereas gender refers to the behaviors, roles, expectations, and activities of that individual. Framed another way, sex refers to male and female, while gender refers to masculine and feminine. And sexuality is a continuum of attraction and behavior, not a binary, gay/straight assignment. In other words, we’re born with our sex, but our gender and sexuality are yet to be defined.

CBS embraces Rabbi ben Elazar's freeing, beautiful take on Bereshit -- G-d created us androgynous. Together, let us toast our multifaceted creation and celebrate gender difference and genderqueer identities in our community.