Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Chukat

"The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."

I am often struck by the prescience of 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber, author of the influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05). Notwithstanding the "disenchantment" that ensues in modernity with the need to know the "why" of everything, Judaism posits that the search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) is possible – with limitations.

This week, we are concerned with how to contextualize statutes, specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – namely, those ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features a silhouette of our tradition’s sacred cow. It is nearly impossible to locate a red heifer (parah adumah) that meets the halachic requirements for the ritual purification sacrifice described in Parashat Chukat. The heifer is so rare, in fact, that tradition tells us only eight of them were sacrificed before the destruction of the Second Temple (and none after, of course). But their extreme rarity hasn’t stopped some Jews from looking for cows that pass muster. An Israeli organization dedicated to building the Third Temple has attempted to identify red heifer candidates since 1987. Over the course of those 30 years, they located two candidates that were eventually rejected and they currently claim to have a third, kosher candidate for consideration. If that cow also proves unsatisfactory, they plan to genetically engineer a red heifer that will meet the halachic requirements. And, no, we’re not making this up. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Robert Cover (1943-1986), the renowned law professor and activist at Yale Law School, once remarked that every legal system or nomos had woven within its own narrative or story. Cover taught that everyone lives in at least one nomos, by which he means a normative universe. A normative universe is "a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void." He is quick to point out that while this universe is not identical with law, it does however contain within it both law and "the narratives that locate it and give it meaning." How apt for this week’s reading of Mishpatim — law writ large— to then reconsider Cover’s words that: "[f]or every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture." Every reader of Torah knows intuitively the truth of Cover’s teaching, namely, that the law, connected with its narratives, constitutes a world. It is only by locating our lives within a common community where our lives can then be shared, and yes, even sane!

So what is the (sane) story woven into this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions? To address this question we turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists because they exemplify what Cover is at pains to interpret, especially in this week’s reading. In the mystical masterpiece set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, we find in this Book of Splendor known as the Zohar, that the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's austere illustration depicts the contours of a gavel. The mood and imagery are both inspired by Parashat Mishpatim, with its litany of "of 23 imperatives and 30 prohibitions." As Rabbi Glazer contends, one can find love "interwoven with the legislative nomos," but at the p'shat (face value) level, Mishpatim is a straightforward code of conduct; as such, it provides an essential foundation for an orderly, civil society. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

German Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt once remarked: "Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."

How do we discern the difference between hypocrisy and evil? And then how do we confront evil in life? For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good so as to live with hypocrisy-free integrity.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration of defaced wheatpaste posters on an urban wall is inspired by Deuteronomy 25:19: "...you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!" This biblical injunction is the basis for three of the 613 mitzvot: Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites; Wipe out the descendants of Amalek; Do not forget Amalek's atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert. If you’re an art aficionado and this portrayal of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the portrait is a wild-haired riff on one of Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s famous self portraits. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Renew Our Days: The High Holy Days Unbound

AvivaChernickShaliach tzibbur (prayer leader), musician, and teacher Aviva Chernick returns again to CBS to lead Renew Our Days: The High Holy Days Unbound, a special, two-part service occurring on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah Day 1 and Yom Kippur.

Renew Our Days is a prayer lab, a non-halachic service (e.g., there is no Torah service) inspired by traditional liturgy, but not bound to it. The service continues to evolve from last year's initial iteration; it will move a bit further from a traditional structure, letting go of more of the text and incorporating more contemplative and embodied practice.

Highlighting selected passages and prayers, Aviva will guide participants on a journey, an opportunity to rediscover and reconnect with the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual substance of Jewish prayer and the High Holy Days. "With curiosity and an openness to discover the experience of prayer anew," Aviva says, "so much is possible."

Join us in song, prayer, and reflection as we experience
the "Days of Awe" in a fresh and inspiring way.

Renew Our Days is open to all CBS High Holy Day ticket holders, but space is limited and preregistration is required (even if you have already purchased your general High Holy Day tickets). Please plan to join us promptly at 10 a.m. The service will end at approximately 1 p.m. (During the Yom Kippur service, Yizkor will occur around noon.)

For a little taste of the prayer lab's vibe, we invite you to listen to Aviva’s lovely interpretation of Chadeish Yameinu.

[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/02-Chadesh-Yameinu-Turn-Your-Face-to-the-Sun.mp3"][/audio]
Service Details
Renew Our Days: Rosh Hashanah Unbound |  September 21, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Renew Our Days: Yom Kippur Unbound (w/ Yizkor) |    September 30, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel

___________
RENEW OUR DAYS WORKSHOP
Many of the Renew Our Days service melodies will be easy to sing, but new to service participants. Because Aviva wants to maximize the experience of all who join the special High Holy Days prayer lab, she is offering an optional Renew Our Days Workshop on Sunday, September 17, 4:15 – 5:45 p.m., on the Eva Gunther Plaza (just outside of the Sanctuary). In the event of rain, the workshop will take place in the Gronowski Family Chapel. Please join CBS congregants and friends as we reconnect with or get to know Aviva and become comfortable with the service melodies before the new year. (When you register for the services, you will automatically be registered for this workshop.)

Even before the workshop in late September, service participants can begin acquainting themselves with some of the Renew Our Days melodies. Please enjoy these simple recordings – sing along and let them warm you up for what is to come. (Just click on the melody names to listen.)

NEWER MELODIES FOR THE MORNING SERVICE:
1. Tishrei Niggun, by Nava Tehilah – (Or download music file)
2. Carlebach Niggun, by Shlomo Carlebach – (Or download music file)
3. Modah Ani, by Rabbi Shefa Gold – (Or download music file)
4. Elohai Neshama – (Or download music file)
5. Baruch Sheamar, by Rabbi Shefa Gold – (Or download music file)
6. Nishmat Kol Chai, by Joey Weisenberg – (Or download music file)
7. Ahava, by Aviva Chernick – (Or download music file)
8. Adonai S'fatai – (Or download music file)
9. Hayom, by Aviva Chernick – (Or download music file)

FAMILIAR MELODIES FOR THE HIGH HOLY DAYS:
10. Zochreynu
11. Michalkel Chayim – (Or download music file)
12. B'rosh Hashanah – (Or download music file)
13. U'teshuvah U'tefilah U'tzedakah – (Or download music file)
14. Avinu Malkeinu – (Or download music file)

Renew Our Days is supported by an anonymous grant.

Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Chukat"The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world."

I am often struck by the prescience of 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber, author of the influential The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05). Notwithstanding the "disenchantment" that ensues in modernity with the need to know the "why" of everything, Judaism posits that the search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) is possible – with limitations.

This week, we are concerned with how to contextualize statutes, specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – namely, those ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork features a silhouette of our tradition’s sacred cow. It is nearly impossible to locate a red heifer (parah adumah) that meets the halachic requirements for the ritual purification sacrifice described in Parashat Chukat. The heifer is so rare, in fact, that tradition tells us only eight of them were sacrificed before the destruction of the Second Temple (and none after, of course). But their extreme rarity hasn’t stopped some Jews from looking for cows that pass muster. An Israeli organization dedicated to building the Third Temple has attempted to identify red heifer candidates since 1987. Over the course of those 30 years, they located two candidates that were eventually rejected and they currently claim to have a third, kosher candidate for consideration. If that cow also proves unsatisfactory, they plan to genetically engineer a red heifer that will meet the halachic requirements. And, no, we’re not making this up. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Behar / Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

Facebook_CoverDesign_Behar-Bechukotai"Sowing the seed,
my hand is one with the earth.
…Hungry and trusting,
my mind is one with the earth.
Eating the fruit,
my body is one with the earth.
"

Wendell Berry’s poem "Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer" asks us to consider how the farmer is like the farm. Similarly, the strong language of covenantal prohibition in Leviticus calls on each of us as conscious consumers to draw boundaries around how we use and transform the natural world.

Transformative cycles of seven in biblical literature, in general, and here in Leviticus, in particular, recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in everything, including all other sentient beings. Lines of filiation run most directly through our own awareness of the transformative cycles that embrace us. If a human intelligence of the earth and sensitivity to its needs is one that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace, then perhaps Wendell Berry’s "mad" farmer is not so mad after all!

It is also illuminating to consider our network of intimate relationships and cycles in the context of charity. If you still haven’t had a conversation with a Mormon, try talking about tithing. Observant Mormons unflinchingly give ten percent of their pre-tax dollars to the church. And Jews? Not so consistent – perhaps this is why Jewish institutions continue to struggle as they do all across America. Why is it that a Mormon feels more commanded than a Jew to fulfill a biblical precept?

Earning material well-being is a necessity for the survival of civilization. But how often do we linger in the passionate embrace of the culture that is the fruit of our labors? Wisdom comes with an ability to both earn and enjoy.

In Parashat Bechukotai, the Israelites are promised that if the commandments are kept, they will enjoy the material prosperity they have rightly earned in addition to dwelling securely in the Holy Land. Conversely, should this covenant be abandoned or abrogated, there is a harsh rebuke, coupled with a warning of exile, persecution, and other manifestations of evil. Here, in Bechukotai, we also encounter a variety of pledges made as divine offerings, as well as the aforementioned spiritual practice of setting aside a tenth (tithing) of firstlings and first fruits.

True wisdom then comes from earning material well-being through civilization as well as the passionate embrace of culture so that we may enjoy in sharing this well-being with others. The understanding that in giving, you receive more than you give could not be more true or urgent today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts the arrival of the Jubilee year. Because the Jewish day begins at nightfall, the land is shown scattering rays of Jubilee joy at dusk. "And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." (Leviticus 25:10) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

"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.

* * * * *
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

"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.

* * * * *
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.

* * * * *
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

Mishpatim -- Exodus 21:1–24:18

Facebook_CoverDesign_MishpatimConsider this audacious claim: halacha is inextricably intertwined with Kabbalah or, put another way, the law is intertwined with mysticism. Could this really be so? Are there many areas of Jewish life in which kabbalistic practice entered mainstream halachic practice? If so, what effect might this reality have upon this week’s otherwise seemingly dry articulation of 23 imperative and 30 prohibitions?

As Jewish historian Jacob Katz (born November 15, 1904, in Magyargencs, Hungary, and died May 20, 1998, in Israel) insisted in his book Halakhah and Kabbalah: Studies in the History of Jewish Religion, its Various Faces and Social Relevance (1984), Jewish law is indeed intertwined with Kabbalah. As we have been learning in our second year of Zohar study in our Lehrhaus Philosophy Circle of the Bay Area, a fruitful way to address this legal layering of Torah is to turn to the Jewish mystics, also known as Kabbalists. The Zohar is a mystical masterpiece that is set up as a commentary to the weekly Torah readings, and the mystical Kabbalists turn to the law as a speculum through which their minds as well as their souls can be illumined.

In this week’s reading, the Kabbalists turn to the unseen protagonist of Mishpatim, known simply as Sava de-Mishpatim or the “Old Man of the Law." In contemplating the deeper spiritual purpose that dwells within the law, this long Zoharic narrative relates an encounter between two study partners, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya, and their aged, wandering donkey-driver, who turns out to be more than he seems. On the journey, much Torah is shared between the rabbis and their driver as they interrogate each other through riddles. Finally, they are all dumbfounded by a riddle of the beautiful maiden without eyes, her body at once hidden and revealed. The parable is then explained: the beautiful maiden is the indwelling spiritual energy of Torah known as the Shechinah. She emerges in the morning and is concealed by day, only revealing herself to those who are truly in love with Her [rihemu d’orayta].

Keep that parable in mind, then, and return to this week's parsha, when, upon hearing the initial words of the Decalogue at the Sinai theophany, the people gathered round the foot of the mountain all respond, “All that God has said, we will do” (19:8). Later in the text, after Moses relates specific divine rules to the people, they again say, “All of the things that God has said, we will do” (24:3). A few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, the people utter the phrase na'aseh v'nishma, or “We will do and we will understand” (24:7).

What we are challenged to really understand here is that interwoven with the legislative nomos of penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, torts, and loans, is a narrative. That narrative is a love story. Our relationship to Judaism can only be a true spiritual practice when it is wrapped in deep and abiding love for Torah. Only then can we, if we so desire, express that love in a deeper commitment as critical kabbalists…

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a response to Exodus 24:10: "...and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity." What does it mean to perceive G-d as a Jew? Just as some of us write "G-d" with a hyphen to represent the grand and incomprehensible essence of deity, so, too, can abstraction gesture toward that which is unfathomable and profound. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shul School Continues – More Thinking Matters

ThinkingMattersWe're excited to share the winter and spring line-up for our popular Thinking Matters: Modern Jewish Philosophy mini-course series.

Below, we provide an overview of February – May 2017 Thinking Matters course offerings. (The full 2016–17 mini-course overview can be accessed by clicking here.)


Join our impressive line-up of local star teachers and CBS experts to wrestle with today's urgent questions of Jewish philosophy. Can there be such a thing as a Jewish philosophy, or a philosophy of Judaism? How does Judaism relate to the broader question of the relationship of ethics, religion, and theology to philosophy? (For an introduction to Jewish modern thought and philosophy, we recommend Steven Katz's essay, "Eliezar Berkovits & Modern Jewish Philosophy.")

All classes meet on Thursday evenings from 6:30 – 8 p.m. All sessions are FREE for CBS members, but students are encouraged to make a donation to CBS. For nonmembers, each single session is $12. Alternatively, nonmembers can purchase an 8-session pack for $84, or the full semester subscription for $180.


Facebook_ArendtOrigins Of Totalitarianism From Hannah Arendt To Today
February 9, March 9, April 6, & April 27
(4 sessions w/ Dr. Michael Loebs)


Course Description: Join Dr. Michael Loebs for a re-evaluation of the famed German Jewish political philosopher, Hannah Arendt. This four-session mini-course will involve much interactive discussion about the diverse themes in Arendt’s political philosophy, including authority, legitimacy, popular sovereignty, and its moral implications throughout the world and at home.

Readings: from The Portable Hannah Arendt, "Perplexities of Rights of Man" and "Little Rock"
Session 1: Click here to download
Session 2: Click here to download
Session 3: Click here to download
Session 4: Click here to download


REGISTER BELOW



Thinking Through Halakhic Mind/Man In Soloveitchik
February 16 & TBD (due to postponement)
(2 sessions w/ Dr. Adrian Mirvish)


Course Description: What exactly is the status of Jewish law or Halacha? Is it a set of sometimes arcane laws that have simply, historically, over time, evolved to stand as commandments? Is this set of laws obeyed on a subjective basis, because of what Jews over the ages have come to feel and experience - both communally and personally - or is the Halacha rather in some sense truly objective, and if so how exactly does it affect our lives? Another question that can be asked in connection with these positions: is there is any viable connection or relation between objective and subjective poles of religious experience?

Soloveitchik deals with all these issues, setting up a fascinating dialectic between objective and subjective forms of experience plus the phenomenon of revelation. We will explore these topics in the two classes dealing with his thought.

Readings: The Lonely Man of Faith, by Joseph Soloveitchik

REGISTER BELOW




Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Facebook_CoverDesign_KiTetzeiHow do we react to evil when we confront it in our lives?

For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration captures the fear that permeates much of the parsha. "...all Israel will listen and fear." (Deuteronomy 21:21) Our ancestors stoned to death wayward children and cut off the hand of a woman who inadvertently touched the "private parts" of a man other her husband – their moral code was clearly a corporeally enforced one. Fortunately, this violence would be reconsidered and tempered by the rabbis. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shul School Is Back In Session!

ThinkingMattersOur popular Thinking Matters: Modern Jewish Philosophy mini-course series kicks off a new semester next week!

Below, we provide an overview of September – November 2016 Thinking Matters course offerings. (The full 2016–17 mini-course overview can be accessed by clicking here.)


Join our impressive line-up of local star teachers and CBS experts to wrestle with today's urgent questions of Jewish philosophy. Can there be such a thing as a Jewish philosophy, or a philosophy of Judaism? How does Judaism relate to the broader question of the relationship of ethics, religion, and theology to philosophy? (For an introduction to Jewish modern thought and philosophy, we recommend Steven Katz's essay, "Eliezar Berkovits & Modern Jewish Philosophy.")

Details and readings for upcoming Thinking Matters single classes and mini-courses are included below.

All classes meet on Thursday evenings from 6:30 – 8 p.m. All sessions are FREE for CBS members, but students are encouraged to make a donation to CBS. For nonmembers, each single session is $12. Alternatively, nonmembers can purchase an 8-session pack for $84, or the full semester subscription for $180.

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER ONLINE


Elie Wiesel and the Problems of Holocaust Representation
September 22 & October 27
(Sessions continue in 2017: January 12, January 19, February 2, March 2 & 30, & April 20)
(8 sessions w/ Dr. Michael Thaler)


Course Description: Elie Wiesel is universally recognized as the leading voice of Holocaust commemoration and interpretation. This course will highlight significant differences in content and message between Wiesel's original Yiddish memoir, Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), which is known only to a handful of scholars, and the universally acclaimed French (La Nuit) and English (Night) versions. Dr. Thaler will also compare Wiesel’s work of Holocaust representation with the accounts of other key witnesses, both Jews and non-Jews, including Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird), Tadeusz Borowski (This Way To The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen), Charlotte Delbo (None Of Us Will Return), Jean Améry (At The Mind’s Limits), and Primo Levi (Survival In Auschwitz). Additionally, to examine the impact of Holocaust narratives on younger American Jewish writers, we shall look at Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Here I Am.


Jewish Thinking & Activism In Black Lives Matter
November 3
(1 session w/ Ilana Kaufman)


Course Description: Jewish identity. Jewish values. Black lives. They all matter. Thinking about and reflecting on Jewish identity and values, Ilana Kaufman will present experiences from field work and data, and delve into interesting community dilemmas connecting who we are as Jews and the Racial Justice movement.

Readings: TBD

Ethics In Sacrificing One Life For Another
November 17
(1 session w/ Rabbi Doug Kahn)


Course Description: "Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only], he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura taught: 'Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend’s death,' until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: 'Your brother should live with you' (Vayikra 25:36) – your life takes precedence over the life of your friend's.'" (Bava Metzia 62a) This one-session class wrestles with the ultimate ethical issue – saving one life at the expense of another. Rabbi Kahn will examine how Jewish law was applied to agonizing life-for-life situations during the Holocaust and continues to be relevant in today’s world.

Readings: None


CLICK HERE TO REGISTER ONLINE

CBS Does Jewish Heritage Night

Nathaniel&SamTeitelbaumEllaLaelSturm_SFGiantsJewishHeritageNight_August2016Every year, sometime in late July or August, Bay Area Jews from all walks of life descend on AT&T Park for what just might become our fourth Pilgrimage Festival. The annual ingathering of the Jews known as San Francisco Giants Jewish Heritage Night is always a great deal of fun, and last night was no exception.

Over 70 CBS congregants and friends participated in the 2016 Jewish Heritage Night (Tuesday, August 30), and many came well before the first pitch to check out the pregame celebration at the north end of Terry Francois Boulevard, just across McCovey Cove (best known for kayakers retrieving "splash hits," home runs hit over the right field wall into the water). Some stalwart Jewish organizations working in the Bay Area, including PJ Library, the Jewish Community Federation, Reboot, and Keshet, set up information tables at the party, and, as always, our Chabadnik brothers patrolled the crowd looking for Jews – all men, per their take on halacha (Jewish law) – to lay tefillin. The popular Rally Rabbi blew the shofar to announce Rosh Hashanah's approach (it may be a month away, but it's always good for the soul to hear the blast of "Tekiah"!), and a handful of bands performed for all assembled.

Sadly, our Giants fell to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a close game (4-3). Still, any evening at the ballpark is a treat, and knowing that a good segment of the crowd is composed of fellow yidden and their family and friends is a great reason to smile, as so many of us did.

Thanks to all who participated this year and to the Giants for putting the event on. Next year, at AT&T Park again...and may we win!

A selection of photographs snapped during the event are included below. Visit our Facebook page for more photos.
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Simone Jochnowitz's Bat Mitzvah

Facebook_Jochnowitz

Facebook_Jochnowitz

Hello. My name is Simone Jochnowitz. I’m an eighth grader at A.P. Giannini Middle School. My interests include hanging out with my friends, playing trombone in my school band, dancing, and going on walks with my dog. This coming Shabbat, August 27, I will become a bat mitzvah.

My parsha is Ekev, which means "if." In this parsha, Moses tells the people Israel about all the good things that will happen to them IF they follow the laws and commandments that he has taught them. He reminds them about the unfortunate episode involving the Golden Calf, and other evil actions they committed during their 40 years in the desert. Parashat Ekev also contains the famous question, "What does HaShem want?" (The answer: "Follow his ways and do justice.")

I would like to thank my mother and father for teaching me the haftarah and helping me with my speech; Rabbi Glazer for his support; my brother and sisters for their love and encouragement; and the Congregation Beth Sholom community for celebrating this simcha with me and my family.

Renew Our Days: The High Holy Days Unbound

AvivaChernickShaliach tzibbur (prayer leader), musician, and teacher Aviva Chernick returns to CBS to lead Renew Our Days: The High Holy Days Unbound, a special, two-part prayer lab occurring on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah Day 1 and Yom Kippur.

Renew Our Days is not halachic (e.g., there is no Torah service or sermon) – the service is based on traditional liturgy, but not bound to it. Highlighting selected passages and prayers, Aviva will guide participants on a journey, an opportunity to rediscover and reconnect with the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual substance of Jewish prayer and the High Holy Days. "So much of what we want and need is already in the liturgy," Aviva says, and it extends "an invitation to our spirits, voices, bodies, and minds."

Join us in song, prayer, and reflection as we experience
the "Days of Awe" in a fresh and inspiring way.

Renew Our Days is open to all CBS High Holy Day ticket holders, but space is limited and preregistration is required. Please plan to join us promptly at 10 a.m. The service will end at approximately 1 p.m. If you will be joining us, we ask that you R.S.V.P.: just click here and follow the registration instructions. (For a little taste of the prayer lab's vibe, we invite you to listen to Aviva’s lovely interpretation of Chadeish Yameinu.)

[audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/02-Chadesh-Yameinu-Turn-Your-Face-to-the-Sun.mp3"][/audio]
Renew Our Days is supported by two anonymous grants.

Service Details
Renew Our Days: Rosh Hashanah Unbound |  10 a.m. – 1 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Renew Our Days: Yom Kippur Unbound |    10 a.m. – 1 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel

REGISTER FOR RENEW OUR DAYS HERE!
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RENEW OUR DAYS WORKSHOP
Many of the Renew Our Days service melodies will be easy to sing, but new to service participants. Because Aviva wants to maximize the experience of all who join the special High Holy Days prayer lab, she is offering an optional Renew Our Days Workshop on Sunday, September 25, 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., in the Gronowski Family Chapel. Please join CBS congregants and friends as we get to know Aviva and become comfortable with the service melodies before the new year. (When you register for the services, you will automatically be registered for this workshop.)

Even before the workshop in late September, service participants can begin acquainting themselves with some of the Renew Our Days melodies. Please enjoy these simple recordings – sing along and let them warm you up for what is to come. (Just click on the melody names to listen.)

NEWER MELODIES FOR THE MORNING SERVICE:
1. Binah Niggun, by Joey Weisenberg – (Or download music file)
2. Carlebach Niggun, by Shlomo Carlebach – (Or download music file)
3. Modah Ani, by Rabbi Shefa Gold – (Or download music file)
4. Elohai Neshama, by Rabbi Shefa Gold – (Or download music file)
5. Baruch Sheamar, by Rabbi Shefa Gold – (Or download music file)
6. Nishmat Kol Chai, by Joey Weisenberg – (Or download music file)
7. Hayom, by Aviva Chernick – (Or download music file)

FAMILIAR MELODIES FOR THE HIGH HOLY DAYS:
8. Zochreynu
9. Michalkel Chayim – (Or download music file)
10. B'rosh Hashanah – (Or download music file)
11. U'teshuvah U'tefilah U'tzedakah – (Or download music file)
12. Avinu Malkeinu – (Or download music file)
13. Ki Anu Amecha – (Or download music file)

A Personal Reflection on Halacha

In early July, we introduced our Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) Kohn Summer Intern, Claire Ambruster, to the community with a thoughtful article she wrote for the CBS blog. Today, we're pleased to share Claire's second blog contribution, "A Personal Reflection on Halacha," which is accompanied by her lovely artwork.

Yes, indeed, Claire is one talented intern!

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ClaireAmbruster_Artwork1Like many modern Jews, my practice requires that I embrace a quintessential Jewish struggle. I struggle to reconcile my commitment to religious observance with my commitment to egalitarian values. I also desire to practice regularly and spontaneously.

I recently learned of a Kabbalistic teaching written by Rabbi Hayyim Vital in Sha’ar HaGilgulim. He writes (11:12) that each soul is intrinsically connected to a unique mitzvah. It is the mission of each person to perfect that one act. While practicing all 613 mitzvot also engages the soul, Vital writes that we are most responsible for perfecting our individual, "root" mitzvah.

The idea that one mitzvah is uniquely connected to our soul does not mean we must ignore the other 612, but it does mean that some of the mitzvot might not come naturally, authentically, or easily for individual Jews. We can learn and grow by grappling with even the most personally-challenging mitzvot, but we learn and grow in an equally valuable manner by practicing mitzvot at our own pace, in a way that feels meaningful. Halacha is a living, individual experience.

Recently, I became inspired to expand my Shabbat observance. Although I had not developed a regular Shabbat practice, I attempted to observe one Shabbat completely according to halacha (no driving, no phone or computer, no cooking, etc.). It didn’t exactly work. While parts of the experience were meaningful – especially the break from my computer screen! – my high expectations of a "perfect" Shabbat became a little overwhelming. For me, focusing too much on the "rules" distracted me from my original kavanot (intentions). For the next Shabbat, I vowed to focus more on the basics – to light candles, spend time with family and friends, to rest, and renew.

This struggle between halacha and spontaneity, between tradition and change, is one I choose to embrace. With respect to halacha, I find a kind of magic in speaking ancient prayers and honoring words that have been spoken l’dor v’dor – from generation to generation. There is a magic in connecting to my Jewish family, bound together by the rituals we practice. Yet I sometimes find that focusing on halachic practices can distract from my true desires and kavanot. For now, my goal is to find a balance, stay true to myself, and continuously learn and discover.

Artwork credit & note: Claire Ambruster, Shiru L'Adonai, Watercolor on paper, 2015; Claire wanted this piece to accompany her article because Shiru L'Adonai, or "singing a new song," "references the theme of finding a balance between change and tradition."

Chukat -- Numbers 19:1 - 22:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Chukat2The courageous Somali-born Dutch activist and feminist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b. 1969), pleads with us to "recognize that we can no longer tolerate violent oppression of women in the name of religion and culture any more than we would tolerate violent oppression espoused by any other bully in the name of a twisted rationale."

While the shadow side of every religion is violence, how should one abide by laws for which there seems to be no rationale? The search for the underlying reasoning behind halacha (Jewish religious law) – specifically laws like those related to the red heifer – often reveals traditional statutes, namely, laws ordained without rationale. Over the course of centuries, this inquiry has lead to a distinct genre of Jewish literature called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot, or Rationalization of the Commandments. If every commandment can be explained rationally, the modern mind will be satisfied. But what price will religion pay if all of its enchantment and mystery can be explained away through reason?

This is the tension that emerges in this week’s reading. Parashat Chukat describes the ritual that mixes ashes of the red heifer with living waters. While its symbolism remains a mystery to us, we know that a life committed to the spiritual practice of Torah is nourishing and life affirming! Like the living waters Miriam pointed the Israelites to throughout their desert sojourns, each of us can embrace life through sacral deeds we call mitzvot, whether we can explain them or not. The paradox of the red heifer is that the ashes of the pure render the impure pure, while the priests who are pure in preparing the ashes become defiled.

Moses also strikes the rock at this point in the journey rather than speaking to it in order to provide the thirsty Israelites with water. The Israelite’s thirst is slaked, but as a result of this burst of anger, both Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. Miriam dies in Zin, and Aaron dies at Hor Hahar, passing on the succession of the priesthood to his son, Elazar. As venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp following further discontent, Moses is commanded to place a brass serpent upon a pole to battle the plague. Those who look heavenwards will be healed. This culminates in a song sung by the Israelites to honor the miraculous well of Miriam that slaked their thirst in the desert. Moses then leads the people into battles against the Emorite kings, Sichon and Og, who appear recalcitrant in granting passage to the Israelite’s through their territories.

Amidst all these challenges, Moses remains committed to caring for and uplifting the Israelites. Against all odds, he trusts in the process that leads to the greater good – even in our own day, we still call this emunah, or faithfulness.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a depiction of the Nehushtan, or "the brazen serpent." "Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live." (Numbers 21:9) As a lover of snakes – and someone who has lived with snakes for most of my life – I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.