Posts Tagged ‘Torah’

Nitzavim and Yom Kippur

October 5, 2011

The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is a section from Leviticus that involves the details of ritual sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. But the 19th century pioneers of Reform Judaism felt this was irrelevant to modern life and humanistic religion, and substituted a different passage — Nitzavim, or Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.

This is the passage that I’ll be chanting on Saturday morning. (Well, the first part of it — Deuteronomy 29:9 through 29:14.)

Moses would have given his farewell address near here - view of Dead Sea from Mt. Nebo (Jordan) / Photo by David Bjorgen

Nitzavim presents Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people, as he readies them to enter the promised land without him. He reminds everyone gathered before him that they have entered into a covenant with God. He recounts the “detestable things” and “fetishes” they left behind in Egypt, and predicts that some of them will succumb to the temptations of idolatry, thinking “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.” He warns them that they will be punished and exiled — but if they repent and return to following the mitzvot, God will welcome them back and return them to prosperity.

I suspect there’s some historical backstory here — that this section of the Torah was written at a time when the Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, and the author may have intended to explain the exile and exhort the people to better behavior. I haven’t done the research on this, so please jump in and correct or amplify if you know more.

But historical analysis aside, it’s a fitting portion for Yom Kippur in its focus on the dangers of sin and the rewards of teshuvah (which translates as turning, or repentance). And the image of  Moses speaking before the entire community of Israel — old and young, the portion tells us, men and women, officials and strangers, even the humble wood-hewers and water-drawers — is appropriate for the only day of the year when every single member of a Jewish congregation shows up for services.

There are two parts of the portion that I find particularly moving.

The first is a line that I’ll be chanting, where Moses tells the assembled multitude that the covenant is “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

It feels almost like science fiction, some wormhole or rip in time that allows Moses to speak simultaneously to all Jews through the centuries. The covenant includes those not present because they have died, and those not present because they are not yet born. It gives me a shivery transcendent feeling — I’m part of this stream that extends back to Abraham and forward as long as there is a Judaism.

My grandparents who have passed away are part of it. The great-great-great-grandparents whose names I don’t even know are part of it. My daughter’s unimaginable grandchildren are part of it.  For a moment we are all here together, standing near Mt. Nebo listening to Moses.

The other line I particularly like comes later in the portion, when Moses reassures the gathered populace that they can, in fact, fulfill their end of the covenant.

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

I find this a  comforting way to think about other challenges, not just the challenge of leading a moral and righteous life.

It’s so easy to paralyze ourselves by thinking, “That’s too much! I can never do that!” These days I’m having those kinds of despairing thoughts about the ten extra pounds I’ve put on: “How will I ever be able to lose that weight?” And those thoughts are a constant presence around my novel writing: “I’ll never be able to get that character right! I’ll never do decent dialogue! I’ll never be able to write like XXX or YYY!”

But in reality, a surprising number of the things that cause us despair are not beyond us. They are not in the heavens, they are not across the ocean. Sometimes we just need to calm ourselves down — take things step by step, piece by piece, or, in Anne Lamott’s phrase, bird by bird.

It is not too baffling for us, it is not beyond reach. The answers are close to us, in our mouths and hearts.


My favorite place to practice chanting Torah…

September 12, 2011

… is the beach.

I did this when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah service, and I’ve been doing it again with the portion I’ll be chanting on Yom Kippur morning.

Stinson Beach / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Stinson Beach is long, wide and mostly empty, even on weekends. It takes me 45 minutes to walk to the end, and then another 45 to walk back. I take my iPod with our cantor’s recording of my portion, and I walk along and listen and chant. None of the other beach walkers seems to notice or care, and it’s much safer than the other place I practice chanting — in the car.

Don’t even ask about that. One of these days I will rear-end someone, and when the officer eyes me suspiciously and asks if I was texting while driving, I’ll say “Of course not. I was chanting.”

Learning to chant a Torah portion is different from anything else I do in my daily life.  It involves spoken sounds rather than written words. It’s not intellectual or analytical. There’s no tangible, material goal like there is in writing a news story or cooking a meal or planting zucchini.

It’s harder than simply learning to sing in a foreign language. When I listen to pop songs in Hebrew or French or Spanish — the foreign languages I sort of know — the choruses tend to stick in my head. They repeat, they rhyme, they use familiar daily sentence structures. All of that makes them easy to remember.

Fog and sun / Photo by Becca Schuchat

With Torah, the grammar is often archaic and convoluted. (For instance, the Torah typically uses future tense when it means past tense. Why? I’m sure there’s a historico-linguistic reason, but no one has told me.) There are weird sentence constructions, and obscure words like “ephod” that don’t exactly pop up in daily conversation.

The melody shifts back and forth at random between minor and major keys. There are no patterns of repeated melodies, no rhymes, no ABAB CDCD verses and choruses. It would be a lot easier if God had hired Woody Guthrie and the Torah read, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the Jezreel Valley to the Jerusalem highlands.”

To be fair, there is the skeleton of a system.  A limited number of melodic phrases are used again and again in chanting Torah, and there are symbols to represent those phrases (cantillation). Sometimes the melodic phrases even correspond in a systematic way with certain points in the text, like the ends of verses.

But it’s still a lot less systematic and structured than modern pop songs or western classical music or the various bits of poetry we all had to memorize in grade school. And for a relative beginner like me, it remains pretty inscrutable. So I turn on my iPod, listen to the cantor, and imitate what she does. Phrase by phrase, line by line. I look for familiar words and am ecstatic when a difficult, unfamiliar word turns out to share a root with a word I already know. Those words are like rafts in the middle of a long, exhausting swim.

Andie at Stinson / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Between the Torah portion I learned for my Bat Mitzvah service, the one I learned for a service in July, and my current Yom Kippur portion, I’ve now done this enough that I can see a pattern in how I approach it.

Phase 1: Feel overwhelmed. (“How am I going to learn all that?”)

Phase 2: Take it one phrase at a time.

Phase 3: Get enough phrases down that I can chant a verse or two without getting stymied.

Phase 4: Learn enough verses to realize I am almost done. Yay!

That last phase is the one I’m in now, having learned five of six verses pretty securely. At this point it becomes fun. I find myself humming the melody without thinking about it. I can go back to some of the more troublesome lines and make sure  the phrasing and notes are exactly right. I can start to think about the meaning of the words while I chant them rather than just worrying about what the next word/note should be.

It occurs to me that this, in a very abbreviated way, is the same process as revising my novel. I’m in the overwhelmed/one-step-at-a-time phase with that right now. I still haven’t worked out my problems with the middle of the manuscript. It just occurred to me this morning that I may need to completely overhaul the ending. I hope sooner or later to reach  the point I’m at with my Torah portion — where the big, blunt work is done and I can relax and focus on making the phrasing just right.

Huh. What was that I was saying about this having nothing in common with the rest of my life?

Fame! fortune! chanting!

May 3, 2011

Yeah! The big call just came!

Okay, calm down. It was not a New York editor phoning to beg me to publish my novel with them.

It was our temple’s cantor, back from her sabbatical, asking me to chant a verse of Torah during high holidays this fall. And not just any verse — the first aliyah on Yom Kippur.

This is a verse that in recent years has been chanted beautifully by a congregant in her 90s. It seems she decided to bow out this year and the cantor thought I would be a good replacement.

I’m very excited. Our temple draws a big crowd on high holidays — so big that we rent the 3,000-seat art deco Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland. But honestly, I’d be just as excited if I were chanting in some religious school multi-purpose room that holds 50.

Apparently the cantillation for high holiday chanting is slightly different from the rest of the year, as are the prayer melodies.

I’ll get started learning the Yom Kippur portion this summer — after I chant Torah in July with Karen, Sidney and Jane, the three other women who became adult b’not mitzvah at Temple Sinai this year.

Now… back to waiting for the call from that hypothetical editor. I won’t hold my breath, though. It’s harder chanting Hebrew when you don’t let yourself breathe.

In Conversation: Rabbi Andrea Berlin

April 21, 2011
One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the second in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

Rabbi Andrea Berlin

Rabbi Andrea Berlin came to Temple Sinai in 1998 and recently moved to a regional position with the Union of Reform Judaism. She exudes an infectious delight in Jewish learning, and inspired near-groupie enthusiasm among both adults and teens taking a class in medieval Jewish thought with her.

Rabbi Berlin, 40, has two children with her husband Jon. She was the rabbi for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, but I had never asked about her own beliefs until we did this interview.

Here Rabbi Berlin talks about her hybrid socialist/Orthodox upbringing, her personal connection to (and anger at) God, the challenges of navigating Middle East politics as a congregational rabbi, and the trend toward “cyber-Judaism.”


A “socialist Reformadox” upbringing

Q: Tell me about your Jewish upbringing. Were you raised Reform?

A: I was raised as a socialist Reformadox.

Q: That’s a great label! But what does it mean?

A: We’d have to start with my dad, who during World War 2 spent half his time in the United States and half his time in England. His birth father was an Orthodox factory owner who made women’s coats in England. The man who raised him here was an atheist socialist and one of the major movers behind the Ladies Garment Workers Union.

My dad came into the marriage with my mom being non-practicing, but having both socialism and Orthodoxy as very strong passions, with socialism the most predominant. My mom grew up in New York Orthodox family…not Orthodox herself but very involved in Judaism. Passover showed all the variety of my family.

Q: So tell me about Passover in your family.

A: We worked out of the regular Maxwell House Orthodox haggadah, with supplements from the union haggadah – not the Union of Reform Judaism, but union as in AFL-CIO  It had a lot of pro-labor, pro-union, freedom-for-the-working-class type poems and songs. Then as we got more and more involved in the Reform movement, we would bring home the Reform liturgy. It was all over the place.

I grew up having bacon and eggs, but God forbid you ever put milk on the table with the bacon because that was just not kosher. As I’ve become more religious, I’ve dragged my parents along in the process.

I went to Reform religious school in third grade. It took a while to get there. We started Orthodox, and then went humanist. When I came home and explained that God was the opiate of the masses, my parents decided to try Reform.

Q: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

A: I don’t know. I was very, very young. When I was nine, I was tall for my age so when we would play house, I would always have to be the mom. I would have to do the dishes, which I didn’t like. So the bargain I struck with my non-Jewish neighbors was that if we could play temple first and I could be the rabbi, then we could play house and I would be the mom. That’s one of my earliest memories.

Communicating with God

Q: Let’s jump straight to the serious stuff, like I did with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. What’s your conception of God?

A: It changes every day. I have both an immanent [personal] and a transcendent conception of God.

The immanent one is probably the more difficult to articulate. It’s instinctual, a gut relationship. I very much feel God’s presence. I feel I can communicate with God and, if I am quiet and open and humble enough, I can get a sense of God and of direction.

Then there’s a transcendent belief where God is the force behind Creation. It was a conscious, decisive force with the intent of creating the world. I believe that God is ever present, but God’s relationship to the world has vastly changed over the history of humanity.

Q: Focusing on the transcendent — God as a force behind Creation. Is there something you would call a mind?

A: I think there’s a consciousness. It’s something so vastly different from anything we can comprehend that to call it a mind would be giving it attributes that are probably inappropriate. We can probably perceive .009 percent of what makes this thing.

Rabbis Andrea Berlin and Steven Chester at a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai

Q: Did this consciousness communicate with our forefathers and the prophets? Was Abraham actually talking to some one or some thing? 

A: The reason I’m hesitating is that I have a foot in both doors.

If I were answering from my religious instinct, I’d say that Abraham certainly received communication from God. I’m not sure it would have been in words, but the medieval Jewish philosophers talk about God placing thoughts and images in the minds of the prophets.

On the other hand, looking at it from my academic view, Abraham didn’t exist. But the Torah still contains divinity even if Abraham didn’t exist. It was a way of giving us very important information that we needed to have through the voice of this Biblical character.

Torah as holy, but not to be taken literally

Q: When instructions like the Ten Commandments were conveyed to the Jewish people, were those actually the words of God, or of a prophet, or of a writer of the Torah?

A: I think there’s a divine spark in all of it. I would make a very sharp distinction between the written and the oral Torah [rabbinic commentaries].

To me, the oral Torah is an example of human beings struggling with written words. This is where I would break from Orthodox theology – I don’t believe in the infallible tradition, that somehow the oral Torah, everything a rabbi would come up with, was handed down by God at Sinai. I do believe that our brains are holy, our seichel [wisdom]  is incredibly holy, so that must come from God. But we invent it in each era.

Q: What do people mean by “written Torah” and “oral Torah?”

A: The written Torah ends at the end of Deuteronomy. The oral Torah is Talmud and Mishnah and the codes and everything that comes after. With written Torah, I feel it’s irrelevant where it came from – the fact is it’s holy, and we’ve treated it as holy. Whether written by God or human beings, it was designed to be studied in concert with our human instinct. Therefore it is a living, ever-evolving book. The mistake we make is to take it literally. As long as we don’t do that, it can have a holy influence in our world today.

Q: Let’s take some of the stuff that you wouldn’t follow today, like stoning people. 

A: Not only shouldn’t we take it literally, but we’re meant to struggle with it. I also think it’s possible that God has evolved. God’s relationship with humanity has changed – not only because we’ve changed, but why couldn’t it also be that God has changed as well?

Even though God exists out of time, God is learning about human beings as we’re growing. So I don’t necessarily think that God today would repeat that you take a child outside the gates and stone him if he curses his father.

Q: But do you think God actually had anything to do with that rule or was it just what people did at that time?

A: I teach Torah from a historical perspective, where we look at the Near Eastern codes. So when the authors wrote that, they were borrowing from what they knew of society. At the time, it was the only way you could maintain order and control.

But talking about me personally? I think it’s irrelevant. Even the words that cause me pain are holy and I have to treat them as such – that doesn’t mean follow them, but argue with them and change them. The rabbinic tradition I share is called pilpul, where you change the words so much that you come out with the opposite conclusion. The unholy thing would be to ignore them.

Q: And those words are holy because they’re our tradition? Or because they were inspired by God?

A: Because they exist in a holy book, inside the Torah. Even the words I believe are wrong are holy.

Different holy books for different people

Q: Would the words in any holy book be equally holy? Are the words of the Quran or Hindu scriptures equally holy?

A: To Muslims and Hindus, yes. But Torah is mine. It’s holy for me.

Q: So is there an objective God or truth? An imam says “the Quran is holy,” and a priest says “the Gospels are holy” —

A: Judaism teaches that I am bound to Torah because my people accepted it. I chose to accept it; it’s a covenant I have with God and the Torah. It does not apply to someone who does not want to join that covenant. It’s not the same theology as saying, “This is a holy book, everyone needs to adhere to it.” Only the people who are part of the covenant need to adhere to it.

Q: But if there was a God powerful enough to create the entire world, wouldn’t that God have created one set of moral rules for the whole world? 

A: No, I don’t think so. I return to the text. When the Ten Commandments were given, it says that “God spoke all these words, saying….”

The question is why those two words [said and saying], why the redundancy?  God spoke the Ten Commandments to one community so we’d all hear them together, and also said them individually in everybody’s ears because we all learn and hear differently.

While that was true for the Ten Commandments for the Jewish people, I feel it was also true for the greater objective truth of the world. There can be this one God but because we’re all different, we’re going to understand God differently. And what’s nice is that the fundamental principles that thread through all these books are the same. You can’t murder. You can’t commit theft. There are things you can’t do, and they’re pretty consistent across the board.

Walking with God while climbing Half Dome

Q: Let’s talk about your immanent or personal sense of God. Is this  something you’ve always had? 

A: As long as I can remember. It’s not consistent with any sort of intellectual attempt to articulate or understand it.

Q: Does it come to you at particular moments, like through praying or being in nature?

A: It’s like any relationship. I always have it, but there are times when I access it more often. It ebbs and flows. There are times I feel more distant from it, usually when I’m angry.

But it’s also something I talk very little about. My job as a congregational rabbi is to help people articulate their own views of God. So I don’t bring mine into that, since it would disrupt that process. It’s very rare that I actually talk about my relationship with God.

Q: Well, now you get to talk about it! It’s interesting to me because it’s completely alien from my experience. I have never experienced anything remotely Godlike on a personal level except a sense of being part of the universe when I’m in nature.

A: It might be the same thing, only we have different labels for it.

Q: I’d still say on my end, it’s pretty minimal. So… what is it you actually feel?

A: It’s hard to define. A closeness to an entity. It’s different from a human being, but I assume the feeling of being in relationship is similar. I feel I am “in relationship” to something else.

When you were talking, I remembered when I climbed Half Dome and there was this moment when I was exhausted. I had my pack on, it was hot, I couldn’t get enough oxygen – I was done. I ate a fruit bar and found my second wind. But from that time until we got to our stopping point, a couple of hours, I was walking with God. It was suddenly crystal clear to me. The mountains around me still had snow on them, and I felt like an artist was standing next to me showing me his work. It was an incredibly powerful experience.

On a more mundane scale, this morning I led minyan [prayers]. When I’m davening, I don’t always pay great attention to the words, but when I do, it’s almost like reading a diary given to me by someone else. Then in the moment when we’re quiet, I really do feel like someone is listening to me.

And often during the day, if something comes up, I can communicate to God and I feel like I’m being heard.

Q: Does God respond in terms of giving you answers?

A: Not answers. Sometimes I get a sense that I’m being cared for. Or there are coincidences that couldn’t possibly be coincidences. It feels like what Rabbi Larry Kushner calls “the invisible lines of connection.” It feels like there’s something bigger there than just a coincidence. That will often give me confidence about what my next step should be.

Q: When you pray, are you praying FOR things? Are you praying that your new job goes well? That God will be there for you? Are you talking to God?  

A: When I teach Torah study, I always pray that I’m accurate and that the class is exciting! So basically, I pray that I’m not going to make stuff up.

I pray for strength. Usually it’s not about getting something; it’s about what aspect of myself I need. I do always pray that Jon and I can raise our children to be happy and healthy mensches. We’ve gone through some very frightening health crises with them, and I’ve prayed very hard at those times.

Q: But during a typical morning minyan? 

A: There are prayers of supplication and prayers of benediction — benediction meaning “gratitude.” So most of my prayers are prayers of gratitude where I think about the kids, about Jon, my sister or friends. Sometimes on a Friday night I’m looking around the congregation and thinking about the work I get to do and am grateful for that. I always close with a “happy healthy mensch” prayer for the kids.

Q: Your sense of being cared for by God — is it fleeting or does it stay with you? 

A: Again, I would compare it with a human relationship. My sister lives in Boston. When I talk to her, she’s right there. But when I’m giving the kids a bath, she’s not in the front of my mind. The same thing is true with God.

Rabbi on the (relative) right

Q: How would you describe your Jewish practices compared to the majority of Reform rabbis? You are the most traditional of our three rabbis at Sinai.

A: I am to the right of most of my colleagues on everything — politics and ritual. With maturity, I’ve become a lot more relaxed. I used to be very uptight about what I thought Jews should and shouldn’t do, but age changes things.

For example, I keep less strictly kosher now than we used to. I don’t mix milk and meat when we’re at home, although I’m willing to do it when I’m out if I can’t avoid it.

Q: Given your preference for tradition when it comes to ritual, why are you a Reform Jew rather than Conservative?

A: The philosophy. I might choose to practice this way [traditionally], but I absolutely believe in Reform’s intent of combining Torah with seichel — our common sense and ability to interpret.

I love that we don’t lose the forest for the trees, that we don’t allow the letter of the law to corrupt the intent. I love the way we do holidays. I love the way we mobilize around social action. That’s a huge reason why I’m a Reform Jew. I believe the Torah’s basic mission is to bring light to the world, and how else are you going to do that if you’re not out in the street actually doing it? I love the way we do education. I love the way we allow modernity to enhance our Jewish experience.

Q: Have there been challenges as a congregational rabbi who is on the more traditional side?

A: Being politically right has been more of a problem. It’s mostly around Israel. I was raised with the understanding that Jews supported Israel, period.

Q: And Jews shouldn’t ever criticize Israel? 

A: If I’m not living there, I’m hesitant to do so. There’s plenty of criticism of Israel, but you still need to stand behind her and her survival.

Q: How does that come out in congregational life?

A: People take umbrage with our curriculum in preschool and religious school, or with the sermons. Rabbi Chester usually gives the pro-Israel high holiday sermon. People talk to me about it afterward, complaining, and don’t realize I’m actually to the right of where he is. Or they’re uncomfortable with the word  “Israel” itself – forgetting that’s our name, who we are, having nothing to do with the country. But people react to it in our prayers and that’s hard for me to navigate.

I can listen to people say whatever they want about God and there’s no personal response from me. But Israel’s a different story.

Q: Well, God’s a little more powerful than Israel! 

A: I believe in the two-state solution. I don’t want to sound like Meir Kahane. And thinking about people in the world, the Palestinians are probably in the most precarious situation. We need to take that into account.

But what I have trouble with are people who start the conversation with the premise that Israel’s existence is not a foregone conclusion. I find that here [in the Bay Area]. And I don’t know how to be a caring professional rabbi around that discussion.

The coming of cyber-Judaism

Q: Off of politics and back on ritual…  where do you see Reform Judaism going with ritual? The movement as a whole is more traditional than it was 20 years ago.

A: I believe we are heading toward post-denominational Judaism, where the lines between the movements are much more fluid. How that will look, I have no idea.

Cyber-Judaism is going to have a huge influence on brick-and-mortar Judaism, and I don’t think cyber-Judaism is delineated by denominations. Rather than Reform ritual, we’ll be looking at “modern ritual” that encompasses Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, Conservative, Modern Orthodox — ritual that will bring the movements into a more intimate working and sharing relationship.

Q: What do you mean by cyber-Judaism?

A: Communities will evolve from people knowing each other in person into the cyber-world, or from meeting in the cyber-world into knowing each other in person. Even right now, I can think of several colleagues who have become very close in the cyber-world and they see each other at conferences. I can see the same thing happening with congregants.

Q: Would it replace going to services?

A: I’d see it as a supplement. I know we have live Web streaming, but I don’t think people will find it sustainable in terms of getting what they get from bricks and mortar. But socially, that’s how we’re going to network, and synagogues will do a lot of their business in the cyber world.

Q: What is your hope and fear for the next generation? 

A: My fear is like this old rabbinic story. A man goes to his rabbi and says,  “I can’t get to services so much – I live far away, and it’s so cold and there’s snow, so I daven at home and that’ll have to be okay.” And they’re sitting there and the rabbi moves one ember out of the fire and they sit in silence and watch the ember die.

That’s my fear – that being together in ritual and prayer cannot be recreated in the cyber world. It’s like a spark of flame. You have to be present to be ignited with that flame.

My hope is that we will figure out a way to use cyber-Judaism to underscore and enhance the values of Judaism. To use it as a mobilizing force around political issues, or the needy or literacy. If we can use it to keep people in touch when not physically together, that would be fantastic.

Anger at God

Q: Anything you’d like to talk about that I haven’t covered?  

A: The one thing I’d like to follow up on are the times that I get really, really angry at God. Mostly it’s when we bury kids. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven God for the times we’ve had to do that.

But what’s important for people to know is that I’ve never found any reason in Judaism to feel threatened by expressing that emotion to God.

Q: Meaning you’ve never felt like a bad person for being angry at God? 

A: Yeah, or that God’s going to take vengeance. My tradition gives me the right to be very angry at God.

Q: Have you ever gotten an answer? 

A: No. And that’s probably why I can’t forgive God. If God expects me as a woman to bring children in this world, and as a rabbi to help people go through that kind of loss, I deserve an explanation. And it’s one I’m never, ever going to get. So it makes me mad.

Q: A lot of people would simply say, “I don’t believe in God.” 

A: I wish I could. Then I wouldn’t be so angry.

Q: Well, do you ever step outside yourself and say, “My connection with God could just be a neurochemical reaction?” 

A: Of course! But it’s irrelevant if that’s what it is.  You could also say that falling in love is a neurochemical reaction, but I‘m not going to divorce Jon.


This is the second in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. You can read the first interview with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin here.

My d’var Torah – Vayakhel

February 27, 2011

Here’s the text of the d’var Torah (interpretation of Torah) I gave at my adult Bat Mitzvah service at Temple Sinai  on Feb. 26, 2011. My portion was Vayakhel, from the Book of Exodus, 35:1 – 38:20. There is a brief audio clip in the middle of this post that you may either choose to hear or skip.

For more about my Bat Mitzvah service (including some photos), see the previous blog post.


This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, which means, “and he gathered together.” It comes near the end of the book of Exodus, right after that unfortunate incident in the desert where the Israelites lapse into idolatry and build a golden calf. 

In Vayakhel, Moses gathers the people together and tells them to bring all kinds of personal treasures to build a tabernacle to God. Before anything, though, he orders them not to violate the Sabbath – Shabbat is so important that it must not be infringed even for construction of a house of God. Then the people go out and bring their treasures – dyed ram skins and dolphin skins, fine linen and goats’ hair, gold earrings and nose rings. (I am sure there were a few Israelite moms and dads who were quite happy to donate their teenage daughters’ nose rings.) 

The people end up bringing so much stuff that Moses has to tell them to stop – an unexpected turn of events that probably strikes envy into the heart of anyone who has ever led a fundraising campaign. (And there are a few of you in this room today!) 

The portion continues with a very detailed description of all the components of the ark and tabernacle  – the curtains, rings, boards, hooks, pedestals and so on — as the construction work is overseen by the master builders, Bezalel and Ohaliab. 

There were several things that struck me about Vayakhel. The first is that it is almost a mirror opposite of the preceding portion, the debacle of the golden calf. In the golden calf episode, the Israelites donate their jewels and treasure to create an idol that is a travesty of holiness. In Vayakhel, they donate their jewels and treasure to create a truly holy structure. It is one of the rare moments in the Torah where the people actually do the right thing! Rabbi Elliott Kleinman points out that it is not jewels and treasure – not material possessions — that in themselves are immoral. It is what people choose to do with their possessions. The contrast between these two consecutive sections of Torah highlights this choice. As individuals and as a society, we can use our abundant resources to serve false gods of ego, prestige and power. Or we can use those resources to do good and enhance our world. 

The second thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the importance of Shabbat, a point that has been emphasized by many of the commentators. Here the Israelites are about to build a house for God – can anything be more important than that? — and yet Moses tells them, before he says anything else, that they must stop that work on Shabbat. 

Vayakhel tells us that we may not profane the Sabbath even for God. Yet Jewish tradition also says there is one thing for which we may break the Sabbath – to save a human life. 

Thinking about this, I picture Jewish values as a pyramid of holiness – at the top, more important than anything, is preserving life. Just below that comes Shabbat, a time for rest and contemplation. Only under that come the physical trappings of what people typically think of as religion – the buildings, altars, prayerbooks, ritual items. 

Rabbi Abraham Heschel described Shabbat as itself a kind of sanctuary or tabernacle. Just as Bezalel constructed the tabernacle, we construct Shabbat – only we build it in time, not in space. We build it anew every week, and that has served us well. For the past 2,000 years, Jews have had neither a Temple nor a tabernacle – but wherever we went, we could construct space for holiness in our lives by observing Shabbat.   

The third thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the very detailed physicality of it – the vivid inventory of blue, purple and crimson yarns and tanned ram skins that the people were asked to bring, the mind-numbing recitation of all the screens and hooks and boards assembled by Bezalel. The Haftarah portion for today is remarkably similar, a description of the architect Hiram building Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. 

Both the Torah and Haftarah portions read a little bit like a shopping list for a trip to Home Depot. Hiram, for instance,  assembles “two pillars, and two bowls of capitals that are on top of the pillars, and two networks to cover the two bowls of the capitals on top of the pillars, and 400 pomegranates for the two networks, two rows of pomegranates for each network, to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were on top of the pillars….” 

It reminded me of when we remodeled our kitchen – that is, if, when we talked to friends about the remodel, we had chanted our process in Biblical trope: 

Chanting (click to listen to audio file)

Seriously, though, what are we supposed to make of this long, long construction manifest? 

As a Reform Jew, I believe that the Torah was written by human beings – humans who were wise and inspired, but were also creatures of their era. So we can speculate about some of the points that the author of this section was trying to make. 

I suspect he was trying to impress listeners with the power of a God who warranted such opulence and craftsmanship, much as the builders of medieval cathedrals tried to convey the grandeur of God in their tall spires. He was also probably trying to show how Bezalel and his craftsmen followed God’s instructions down to the exact cubit – as the rest of us should follow God’s mitzvot to the letter. And, as someone who was probably a member of the priestly class during the First Temple period, the author may also have been using the details of the tabernacle’s construction to justify the décor and rituals of his own era. 

But let’s step back from historical conjecture and think about what to make of this today, in our own lives. 

Despite that initial bow to the primacy of Shabbat, this portion is about the importance of place and setting in spirituality. There is so much attention to detail – those hooks, those boards, those 400 pomegranates – not 300, not 500, but 400, and two rows of them for each network. All these material details – the number of pomegranates, and how many rows of them for each network – are part of creating a very particular setting that will foster a connection to the spiritual. 

It’s a little paradoxical. The idea of spirituality is to get beyond the physical. And certainly people can have transcendent experiences anywhere – on an empty beach, a crowded subway, a seedy bar at closing time. So theoretically, it shouldn’t matter whether we are standing around in the wide open Sinai desert or entering a tent with dyed ram’s skins and golden cherubim and 400 pomegranates. 

But it does. That’s one of the lessons of the golden calf episode – as human beings, many of us paradoxically need physical cues to help us transcend our physical selves. An altar, a priest, a whiff of incense. God and Moses learned that lesson, and gave the Israelites a tabernacle to fill those needs in place of a calf. 

What do we as individuals need today? It varies. Some people find spiritual nourishment in group prayer in a synagogue or church. Others meditate or listen to music. Still others turn to nature – a walk in the redwoods or along the ocean. 

I’d put myself in that last category. I enjoy the music, community and tradition of services, but I typically get much more of a sense of transcendence from being in nature. That’s where I get a sense of the miracle that is the universe, and an understanding that I am just a small part of it all. 

It’s Christian transcendentalists like Thoreau who get a lot of the attention for finding spiritual nourishment in nature, but I’m not the only Jew who feels that way. Here is an excerpt from a Jewish writer whose home I visited last summer. 

She wrote, “It’s not imagination on my part when I say that to look up at the sky, the clouds, the moon, and the stars makes me calm and patient. It’s a better medicine than either valerian or bromine. Mother Nature makes me humble and prepared to face every blow courageously.” She didn’t get to see much nature – only a tree through a dirty window, and even that only occasionally. She was Anne Frank. 

In any event, take the time to think about what that setting is for you. Then assemble it with all the care and diligence of Bezalel assembling the tabernacle. Construct it in both space and time. You can start small – a half-hour walk alone by the bay on Saturday afternoon? Fifteen minutes of meditation before work in the morning? Keeping a Debbie Freedman CD in your car to play on your commute home? 

Like the Israelites whom Moses gathered together in Vayakhel, we remain charged with assembling our own tabernacles, in space and in time. We remain charged with creating our own opportunities for spiritual reflection. In today’s hectic world, spiritual moments won’t happen automatically – we need to build them as consciously and deliberately as Bezalel crafted the tabernacle. 

So bring your dyed rams’ skins and your golden nose rings. Bring your favorite Mi Shabeirach melody or your favorite path in Redwood Park. Bring 15 minutes of your lunch break or two hours of your Saturday morning. 

There is a phrase in this portion – where it talks about people bringing their offerings to build the tabernacle, it uses the phrase “kol chacham lev.”  “All who were wise in their hearts.” Some commentators like Nechama Leibowitz have suggested that the hearts of the repentant Israelites were even more important an offering than their gold jewelry and dyed rams’ skins. 

May we be wise enough in our hearts to build the kinds of tabernacles we need to nourish ourselves today. 


Rabbi Chester typically asks adult b’nei and b’not mitzvah to say a few words about what led them to undertake this process – at the age of 53, it’s not something that my parents asked me to do, and I certainly don’t need any fountain pens!

 For me, this process was essentially an effort to fill in a gap in my Jewish identity. I grew up in a very assimilated family that did not belong to a synagogue, and I found my Jewish identity as a teenager in Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement affiliated with one of the kibbutz federations in Israel. I lived on a kibbutz for half a year after high school, and in Jerusalem for 18 months in my 20s. So I had a fairly strong understanding of modern Israel and its politics, modern Hebrew, and Jewish history and culture. 

What was missing was an understanding of the religious aspect of Judaism. As our family became more and more involved with Temple Sinai, and its wonderful community, I wanted to feel competent and conversant in the prayers and liturgy. I wanted to wear a tallit, but also to feel like I had earned the right to wear it. 

And I wanted to feel like I could pass Judaism on to the next generation – that if, God forbid, there was some Holocaust-type catastrophe and I was the only adult Jew left in the room, I could lead Shabbat services. 

It’s been a fun and stimulating process. I’ve articulated some of my own beliefs and deepened my understanding and love of Judaism. I met with Rabbi Chester individually and with our group of three other adult b’not mitzvah. I’ve also used my blog about the process to have extended conversations with our temple’s other two rabbis, and to have wonderful online conversations with many of you here today about issues like God, Torah, and my incredibly cute cat. If I haven’t managed to browbeat you into reading the blog by now, I encourage you to take a look and subscribe. I’m going to keep going with it, even after we’ve all gone home today and the caterers have cleaned up the last bit of cream cheese. You don’t stop being a Bat Mitzvah after the ceremony, and you don’t stop being “midlife” until… um, when, I don’t know, maybe someone here can enlighten me on that! 

The Academy Awards don’t start until tomorrow night, but I’m going to get a jump on the thank-you speeches.  I’d like to thank the people who helped me prepare for today. I’ll start with Rabbi Chester, who spent an unbelievable amount of time with me, both individually and as part of our group of adult b’not mitzvah. I feel privileged to have  come in “under the wire” with my bat mitzvah before his retirement. Thank you to Cantor Keyes, who is on sabbatical right now but taught me my prayers and chanting before she left, and Cantor Saxon who led the musical part of the service today and contributed the Peace Prayer from his original Gospel Shabbat. Thanks to Ophira Druch, whose Hebrew class I took last year. I’d like to thank Rabbis Mates-Muchin and Berlin for their support, and in particular for their time and willingness to discuss their personal beliefs in my blog. 

Thank you to Sydney, Jane and Karen – the other adult b’not mitzvah whose personal journeys and questions helped deepen my own process. Friends Barry and Judy, who are fellow co-founders of the Julia Morgan School and all around inspirations to me. (And Judy’s mom Evelyn, who stepped in at the last minute to represent the previous generation in handing down the Torah.) Our chavurah, who are a veritable bar and bat mitzvah baking factory – we will have baked desserts for 11 kids’ bnei mitzvah by the time this generation is grown, and I hope we bake for another couple of adult b’not mitzvah after mine. (You potential b’not mitzvah know who you are.) 

I also want to share my appreciation of the New Israel Fund – an organization that so perfectly expresses my own values and visions for a just and democratic Israel – in my Bat Mitzvah invitation, I asked people to forego gifts but instead consider donations to New Israel Fund or to Temple Sinai. There is a table with information about NIF in Stern Hall which you can visit during lunch or on your way out. 

Finally – family. My brother and his family, who provide love and support – I feel so fortunate that you live nearby. My out-of-town relatives who are here in spirit. In particular, my Solomon cousins who are saying kaddish in Orange County today for my Uncle  Bob who died earlier this week.

And finally, Becca, whose own Bat Mitzvah was an inspiration to me,  and Sam, whom I love so much and who has been 110% supportive of me during this process and in anything else I have ever undertaken. 

Shabbat shalom.

Vayakhel — part 1

October 28, 2010

So I’ve started work on my d’var Torah, the speech that I’ll give based on the Torah portion of the week. 

Torah portions are named after their first word, and mine is Vayakhel, which means “he called together.” It begins by saying that “Moses called together the entire community of the children of Israel….” 

Vayakhel, from the Soncino Chumash / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Vayakhel comes near the end of Exodus — right after that unfortunate incident in the desert where the Israelites become impatient with Moses’ long absence up on Sinai and decide to build and worship a Golden Calf. 

As Homer Simpson might say: Mistakes were made.  

But in Vayakhel, the people redeem themselves. 

I intended to give you a brief summary of the parshah (portion), but the summary kept getting longer and longer. Then I thought, why not write it as a Tweet? (That would limit me to 140 characters, max.)

Here goes: 

Moses tells the Jews to keep Shabbat and bring offerings for God. They bring so much he tells them to stop. Bezalel builds the tabernacle.

That’s the gist, in my best 21st-century attention-deficit style. But really, most of the portion reads like a long, long, long Home Depot list of all the luxurious items that God asked the Israelites to bring, and how Bezalel and his crew of “wise-hearted” artisans put them together. Just to give you a sample:

Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. He overlaid it with pure gold, inside and out, and he made a gold molding for it round about. He cast four gold rings for it, for its four feet: two rings on one of its side walls and two rings on the other. He made poles of acacia wood, overlaid them with gold, and inserted the poles into the rings on the side walls of the ark for carrying the ark.

(All that detail about overlaying and inserting…. It makes you think maybe Bezalel was assembling an EKBY JÄRPEN ark from Ikea.)

The Haftarah (prophets) reading that accompanies Vayakhel is remarkably similar. Sometimes the connection between the week’s Torah and Haftarah sections is a little abstract, or metaphorical, or just plain opaque. But the connection between Vayakhel and its prophetic counterpart could hardly be more obvious.

The Haftarah (I Kings VII:  40-50) describes the artisan Hiram making all sorts of items for King Solomon’s Temple: 

Hiram made the pots, and the shovels, and the basins… the two pillars, and the two bowls of the capitals that were on the top of the pillars; and the two networks to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were on top of the pillars…. Two rows of pomegranates to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were upon the top of the pillars….

Haftarah: I Kings VII

When I was memorizing my Haftarah, it seemed to cycle around and around itself – all those networks on top of bowls on top of capitals on top of pillars. I had to restrain myself from breaking into a chorus of “and the green grass grew all around all around, and the green grass grew all around.”

In any case… we have two sections of the Bible that are concerned with construction of holy places – the transient, movable tabernacle and the “permanent” Temple. Both sections give center stage to the lead artisan. Both go into very detailed physical descriptions of the lavish materials used in these holy structures.

 What to make of this?

 Aha! A cliff-hanger! More to come….

Why Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia aren’t Jewish

September 25, 2010

I’m taking a class on Jewish history with our rabbi, Steven Chester – actually, less a class than a frenzied 100-yard dash across the surface of Judaism, since we only meet for an hour a week. 

(I still live in that old college paradigm where class = three hour-long lectures a week, plus a section discussion, plus research papers. But hey, this is adult ed. We adults are not necessarily smarter than college students. We just have less time.) 

We’re currently back in the Biblical phase of things, talking about Abraham and Joseph and Moses and what historical evidence exists for various episodes of the Old Testament. 

One point made by Rabbi Chester particularly struck me – that Judaism didn’t really become Judaism until well after the Biblical period. 

Judaism as we know it is not just the Torah. It’s not just the laws given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It’s not even the combination of Torah and prophetic writings that Christians call the Old Testament. 

Judaism is all that plus the rabbinic commentaries and interpretations that were built on top of the Bible like so many floors of an apartment building – the Mishnah, the Talmud, the generations of rabbis commenting on and interpreting the Bible. 

Fragment of Mishnah commentary by Maimonides / University of Manchester

Judaism doesn’t have fundamentalists in the sense that Christianity does – people who look only to the literal word of the Bible to guide their lives. Even the most ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects rely on rabbinic commentaries for interpretation of the Bible. 

Granted, the ultra-Orthodox seem to feel that legitimate interpretation came to a halt about 1,500 years ago. And parts of the Talmud may seem weird, obscure or outdated today. But at the time it was compiled, it was a flexible effort to adapt centuries-old Mosaic laws to the realities of contemporary life, including forced exile from Jerusalem. 

Prayer replaced ritual sacrifice. Multiple synagogues replaced a single Temple. The implications of Biblical injunctions were discussed, debated and interpreted. 

“You have ‘an eye for an eye’ in the Torah — primitive desert law,” Rabbi Chester said in one of my Bat Mitzvah study sessions with him last spring. “Then Rabbi Hillel comes along and says, ‘That means the value of an eye for an eye.” 

So Judaism is not simply an unwavering adherence to an ancient code of laws. It is interpretation and adaptation of those laws so that the spirit remains true, but the details meet the present era. (As a Reform Jew, I would argue that we need to keep interpreting and adapting, and not stop in 5th century Babylon or 16th century Poland.) 

Now, let’s flash forward a millennium or two to 21st century America, where the U.S. Supreme Court is polarized between two schools of thought: 

  • Conservative justices like John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas who claim the U.S. Constitution means only what the framers literally wrote, and
  • Moderates/liberals who believe in interpreting the Constitution to address modern-day issues like gay rights, abortion, and a complex global economy that requires government oversight and regulation. 

I was thinking about this while reading a recent New Yorker story on the judicial philosophy of Justice Stephen Breyer, whose new book attacks the view that the federal government should do nothing more than the founding fathers specified in 1787.

Making Our Democracy Work, by Stephen Breyer

Journalist Jeffrey Toobin wrote that Breyer: 

“gives a comprehensive denunciation of a purely originalist approach, noting first the difficulty of divining what the framers might regard as the legal status of ‘the automobile, television, the computer, or the Internet.’ And he argues that the framers themselves wanted the application of the Constitution to change with the times.” 


Is it more than historical happenstance that three of the four liberals on the Court  – Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan – are Jewish?

Torah pin-up girls for justice

August 8, 2010

I’ve written before about how outrageous  it is that Jewish women are not allowed to worship equally at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the most holy site in Judaism.

Kowtowing to ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Israeli government prohibits women from chanting Torah at the Kotel (wall). Last month the police went a step further and arrested one of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel simply for holding a Torah in the vicinity of the Wall.

JTA, a Jewish news service, reported that:

The chairman of the Women of the Wall was banned from the Western Wall for 30 days after being arrested for holding a Torah scroll at the site.

Jerusalem police arrested Anat Hoffman on Monday morning following the monthly women’s Rosh Chodesh prayer service. She was … ordered to stay away from the Kotel for the next 30 days.

According to the organization’s account, Hoffman, holding the Torah scroll, was leading about 150 women from the women’s section of the Western Wall in a procession toward Robinson’s Arch, where they are permitted to use the Torah scroll. Police tried to remove the Torah scroll from Hoffman’s arms and arrested her for not praying according to the traditional customs of the Western Wall.

“Not praying according to the traditional customs of the Western Wall” — a crime! Pretty depressing. But here’s the good news:

Hoffman’s group, Women of the Wall, has launched a cool, creative support campaign that can involve all of us — even as far away as Oakland, California.

WOW  is asking Jewish women around the world to take photographs of themselves holding, chanting or studying Torah, and then send those photos to the Israeli government.

Apparently the Israeli media tend to portray Women of the Wall as a handful of wacko extremists. The campaign is intended to show that, far from being a tiny minority, these brave activists speak for the vast majority of Jewish women around the world. WOW’s goal is to collect 10,000 photos by the time of Simchat Torah (Oct. 1), the holiday when we start the annual cycle of reading through the Torah.

I was delighted to find that my congregation, Temple Sinai, was on top of the WOW photo campaign even before I managed to get to this blog. On Friday during services Rabbi Andrea Berlin explained the issue, and afterwards congregant Dawn Kepler snapped pictures of Sinai women with the Torah.

Recognize anyone in the following photos?

Temple Sinai board member Janine Bloch // Photo credit: Dawn Kepler

My daughter Becca becomes a Bat Mitzvah, 2007

Yours truly // Photo credit: Dawn Kepler

Yeah! I’ve got six months to go until my Bat Mitzvah date. But I can still be a Torah Pin-Up Girl For Justice. (My term, not WOW’s. Don’t wanna get them in further trouble.)

You can too. Check out the WOW site, take part in services at your local shul, and send in your own Torah Pin-Up Girl photo.

And hey…  it makes a pretty good Facebook profile photo too.

Early thoughts on Vayakhel

May 13, 2010

I have so much time until my Bat Mitzvah service — it’s not until February 2011 — that I’ve deliberately avoided starting to analyze my Torah portion. I don’t want to be sick of it by the time I need to write my drash.

But as I walk around chanting to myself under my breath, I’ve started to think about the meaning of my parshah, or portion.

So I figured I’d write down my very early thoughts now, before I read anyone else’s analysis or commentary. It will be interesting down the line to compare my first impressions of it with what scholars have chosen to see and focus on.

My portion is Vayakhel, which begins with Exodus 35:1. This takes place when the people of Israel are out in the desert, after they’ve fled Egypt and come to the foot of Mt. Sinai and built the Golden Calf and repented and received the ten commandments.

Moses calls the people together to build the Ark and the Tabernacle, which will hold the commandments and be the center of worship. Torah portions are named after their first word, and vayakhel means “and he convened” or “he gathered together” — as in, “Moses convened the Israelites and told them xxxxx….”

First Moses tells everyone that God has commanded them to work six days and rest on the seventh. He goes on to give them a kind of holy shopping list of things they should bring as offerings to God, such as:

Gold, silver and copper; blue, purple and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins and dolphin skins; acacia wood; oil for lighting; spices for the incense and anointing oil; precious stones; etc.

He goes on to tell all the “wise-hearted” people among them to make everything that God has commanded, and he launches into another list of all the various construction elements of the Tabernacle:

Tents, covers, clasps, planks, bars, pillars, sockets, poles, tables, lamps, oil for lamps, oil for anointing, altars, gratings, washstands, screens, pegs… (you get the idea).

He appoints Bezalel, an extraordinary craftsman, to head up the effort. The people come and bring the stuff. In fact, the people bring so much stuff that Bezalel goes to Moses and asks him to make the people stop bringing stuff.

Then the next 79 lines (79! that’s a lot) are spent describing the materials and quantities that are used to build the Tabernacle.  For instance:

Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. And he overlaid it with pure gold from inside and from outside, and he made for it a golden crown all around. And he cast four golden rings for it upon its four corners, two rings on its one side and two rings on its other side…

That’s pretty much it.

So here are some initial thoughts — well, not even thoughts so much as directions for thinking:

Why spend so much time describing in very material detail the physical construction of the Tabernacle?

Are the authors of this section of Torah trying to impress listeners with how imposing and magnificent the Tabernacle was? (Like medieval bishops building ornate cathedrals to inspire awe in God?)

Are they acknowledging that people need material, physical things to express or focus their spiritual beliefs? Would it have been possible for the Israelites to worship God without altars and incense and golden rings? How important is it for people today to have some physical place or object to focus their spirituality — a synagogue, rosary beads, a sacred mountain, a gravestone in a cemetery etc. ? Why is it that people need material props to focus on things that transcend the material?

Is this section a response and parallel to the episode of the Golden Calf? With the Golden Calf, the people demanded a material  idol. Have Moses and God acceded to that demand and bowed to human nature by having them create this gold-laden, stone-studded complex?

Or maybe you can read this as recognition of the value of craftsmanship. Clearly the work of Bezalel and the other artisans is esteemed — even cherished. I would bet that, through history, Jewish silversmiths and carpenters loved hearing this portion read.

The people bring more than is needed.

As someone who has been involved in non-profits and fundraising for years, I love this part. Isn’t it every fundraiser’s dream — you ask people to donate, and so many donations pour in that you have to tell them to stop?

Again, there’s a parallel to the Golden Calf. Maybe the people were so chastened by that experience that they are now bending over backwards to be generous and holy. Think how many times the prophets later berate the Israelites for greed and idolatry and wrongdoing…. This seems like one of the few times in the Bible where the Israelites do more than what God has asked.

Women are explicitly involved in building the Tabernacle. 

The portion explicitly refers to women’s involvement. It mentions women bringing gold along with the men, and mentions women’s spinning all that colored wool and goat hair. This may mean nothing; but there are not a lot of references to women in the Bible so maybe it’s worth thinking about.

The reminder to keep Shabbat. Under penalty of death!

Shabbat is so important that it’s forbidden to work on the seventh day, even to build the holiest structure in the world. This isn’t the first or even main place in the Torah that directives about Shabbat are given, but it is still a pretty strong message.

Moses furthermore says that whoever violates Shabbat will be put to death. Yow! This is just a teeny tiny part of the portion. But it’s one of many places where the Torah is primitively and brutally out of synch with what we view as civilized behavior today (i.e., directives to stone to death people who commit adultery, idolatry etc.).

There was a great piece of satirical writing that made the rounds on the ‘net a few years ago in response to conservative Christian attacks on gays and lesbians. It was a letter or essay that said, in essence, “okay, the Bible says homosexuality is evil. If you take that literally, you should also stone your daughter for disrespecting her parents, and cut off the hands of robbers, and men should be allowed to take multiple wives and etc. etc.”

Can anyone give me a reference or link to that essay?

In addition to being pointed political satire, it called attention to the places where Biblical mandates clash with modern ethics. And that all ties in to the large question of:

How do we determine which parts of the Torah to keep, and which ones to (respectfully) toss?

Merrily we chant along

April 23, 2010

Way back in January, I wrote about how I had been assigned my Torah portion (Vayakhel, or Exodus 37) and was about to start learning cantillation – how to chant the Hebrew text.

Slowly and steadily, I’ve been progressing through it. 

The cantor initially gave me four aliyot – four consecutive short sections to learn. When you look at them on the page, they don’t look very long. But when you listen to them, you realize that each word contains multiple notes – and sometimes even a single syllable is drawn out to encompass multiple beats or notes. So there’s more to learn than meets the eye. 

I received a printout of the Hebrew text of my portion, including cantillation marks that indicate how you are supposed to sing each word. Since we are living in the modern era, I also got MP3 files of each aliyah. 

If you’ve never heard Torah being chanted, you can listen to my cantor — Cantor Ilene Keys of Temple Sinai — chanting my first aliyah Vayakhel 1

(She has an amazing voice! She hits high notes that I didn’t even know existed. And a century ago, no one would ever have been able to hear such a voice chanting Torah. The Reform movement was the first branch of Judaism to start ordaining women as cantors in 1975; the Orthodox to this day do not allow women to be cantors.)

I gradually developed a routine for learning my portion. First I read through the Hebrew and figure out the pronunciation and meaning of the words. Then I take it phrase by phrase and look at the cantillation marks and try to puzzle out how it should be chanted. Then I listen to it on my iPod and see how I got it completely wrong.

Then I listen to the phrase again. And chant it. And listen to it. And chant it. And listen to it… you get the idea, Eventually I move on to the next phrase ,and then the next, until I’ve gotten the whole aliyah down pat and can start the next one.

I do a lot of my iPod practice on the treadmill at the gym — where the other exercisers no doubt think I have lost my mind and am communing with aliens.

This week I more or less finished all four of my aliyot. (And my Bat Mitzvah date isn’t until next February – I am way ahead of the game because we started so early.) I still have a little bit to solidify with the last aliyah, but I’m basically finished. I felt soooo proud of myself and decided to ask the cantor if I could do an additional two aliyot. She was happy to oblige.

This wasn’t just the pride of accomplishment. There was a little competitive zing to it also. My sister-in-law is becoming a Bat Mitzvah next month, at her Conservative synagogue. She is doing it as part of  a group of 12 women, so she has been learning just one aliyah.

Ha!!! All spring while chanting away, I was feeling quite macho for learning four aliyot – now six aliyot — while my sister-in-law was learning one. Just call me SuperJew.

SuperJew... able to chant large Torah portions with a single breath

But then I got curious. This week I asked the cantor, Do all synagogues break the Torah portion into aliyot in the same places?

 And it turns out they don’t.

The Orthodox chant the entire Torah portion every week – so they have six or seven very long aliyot. According to my cantor, Orthodox congregations typically have one person who does all the chanting, and don’t share it among the congregation like we do in Reform. So that one person is chanting the equivalent, in length, of  40 or 50 of my little aliyot. Every week.

The Conservative movement, meanwhile, reads through the Torah in three-year cycles. Over the course of a year, they read and chant one-third of it.  So they’re chanting less than the Orthodox, but still a lot.

Meanwhile, Reform Judaism — which is my branch — chants only a smidgen of each week’s Torah portion. It’s a symbolic amount – enough to give the flavor of Torah without alienating all us secular congregants who also want to fit soccer games and gym workouts and Costco trips into our Saturdays.

So my multiple aliyot – all six of them – would add up to just one Orthodox aliyah. Taken together, my six aliyot are just a teeny bit longer than my sister-in-law’s single aliyah.

So long, SuperJew. So long, competitive edge.

There is an obvious moral lesson here, but I think I will avoid stating the obvious.

I’ll just get back on my treadmill and keep talking to the aliens.