Wednesday, March 31, 2004

My goodness. has posted two of my letters to them.

(I have two hobbies these days: I grow African violets, and I read and write rants -- er, letters -- to the editor.)

Before I went to Jerusalem, my friend Barbara Kadden asked me if there was a verse from the Tanach that was particularly dear to me. If someone asked you to pick one verse, which one would it be?

I chose a portion of Genesis 12:1 -- "Go, you, from your land, from the place of your birth, and from the house of your father to the land which I shall show you." Barbara made a quilted wall hanging for me in purples and gold with the verse emblazoned in Hebrew. It hangs next to my desk.

If I were to paraphrase the line today, I might write this:

"Go, you, from what is familiar, from the boundaries of your comfort zone, from the place where you are safe and secure, and I'll let you know what to do next."

It still works.

"It's obvious to me that this country is rapidly dividing itself into two camps -- the wimps and the
warriors," Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., said. "The ones who want to argue and assess and appease, and the ones who want to carry this fight to our enemies and kill them before they kill us." (March 30, 2004,
according to the AP).

Wimps and warriors?

I have a question for Senator Miller: how many of his relatives are in the U.S. military? Or, for that
matter, for the President or Mr. Cheney or Ms. Rice or anyone else in the current administration: are your children in the military? Exactly what can this war cost you, personally?

My eldest son is a Navy Reservist. He is not active -- yet. Many other mothers and fathers in the United
States have sons and daughters who are on active duty. I cannot imagine what they go through each time they hear that another car bomb has gone off in Baghdad.

Our all-volunteer U.S. military is made up primarily of two groups of people, with a great deal of overlap
between the two groups. Some of them are men and women who have chosen to serve our country as a career, or for a time, out of conviction: they want to keep America free and strong. Some joined
because it was their best economic option. Either way, they have chosen to restrict their own freedom in
order to preserve the freedoms we all enjoy.

The least we can do for those who choose to serve in our military is to hold their lives dear. This mother
wants to ask Senator Miller, who's the wimp? Where is your child, your grandchild?

A warrior is not someone who sends other people, and other people's children, off to die for a pack of
lies. A warrior is not a fool who sets off on a fool's errand. A warrior is not someone who plays dress-up for photo ops. A warrior is someone who actually fights.

Pardon me, Senator, but in my book, you and your friends are wimps. You are worse than playground
bullies: you send other people to take your risks.

I am the proud mother of a man who has chosen to serve America. Every time I listen to the news, I ache for the other mothers who dread the news. Every time I listen to the news, I wonder how these
self-proclaimed "warriors" can look at themselves in the mirror. Every time I listen to the news, I ache
for America.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Why do Jews need teachers?

For starters, "the sea of Talmud" is not an empty metaphor. There is a terrific about of material to learn, to become a well-educated Jew. Tackling it alone is impossible: too much of it has come down to us in very specialized language, very compact form, and sometimes fragmentary form, and one simply cannot sit down and read it, and then come away with much. I spent most of yesterday on a single bit of Midrash, which looked at first like a string of random citations connected by a few words, which I could translate but which still made no sense at all. It was only after I went back to my notes, reminded myself of what my teacher had told me, and looked again at the text, that I began to see the sinews in the connecting words. I'm still not sure I've got it; I'm going to take another shot at it when Shabbat is over.

So there's lots to learn, and it isn't easy: both good reasons for having a teacher.

Last night I got a lesson in another reason that I need teachers. I've been looking at my to-do list, the Midrash paper (see above), the regular preparations for class in Bible, Midrash, and Commentaries, the other two papers that are due before Passover, and all the preparation for a weekend and seder at my student pulpit, and feeling as if there is simply no way I can possibly clean my house for Passover, too. I was invited to Shabbat dinner at the home of one of my teachers, a woman about my age, with two school-age children and a husband, all of us as students, and academic work of her own, as well. She'd spent her Friday cleaning for Passover.

I didn't mention that I had just been thinking that I couldn't do it, but there she was, doing it. WITH kids, WITH classes to teach and papers to grade. I learned Torah from Dr. Weisberg at her Shabbat table about how to keep house and be a Torah scholar too. I listened to her talk about her week, and watched her interact with her children and her husband, and set some goals for myself.

It is important to study Torah; the world depends on it. It is also important to live Torah, because if you study it and don't live it, then what's the point?

My goal for this week is to do my work. When I reach a point where I have to stop, then I'll clean house. I spent today reading up on making a house ready for Pesach. I've thought about priorities: given the late start, where I shall begin, and what constitutes "enough." I figure that if I have a regular oscillation from study to cleaning all week, I'll learn far more Torah than if I only studied. I'll learn, and I'll do, then I'll learn again.

And that is why I needed a teacher.

Friday, March 26, 2004

It's Friday morning -- I'd have said, "Yom Shishi" in Israel. Here in L.A., it's usually a big study day, a rapid ride towards sunset, when the homework stops for 25 hours.

Today my to-do list is very long, intimidatingly so. I am glad that I can look back over my shoulder and remember the days of mothering a toddler and an infant -- that was real work. I think about those days a lot when I'm studying something that makes me feel like my head is going to explode. I got myself and the kid through colic, and what is a tough Rashi passage compared to three weeks of that?

Israel is much on my mind these days. I haven't written about it a lot, primarily because I am not sure what I have to say that is genuinely useful. Best thing I have seen in the media lately is "Mideast Miseries," a piece in by Gary Kamiya. It's not perfect, but it's darn good.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Only two years ago, when I was scheduling teachers for Introduction to Judaism in San Francisco, I was sharply aware of the shortage of qualified teachers for the class. Reform rabbis were a scarce bunch, with more demands on their time than they could possibly meet. The Jewish press talked about the "rabbi shortage" and it was the topic of discussion at UAHC Biennials, too.

When I began the process of application to HUC, I joked that I'd decided to do something about the rabbi shortage -- study for the rabbinate! Well, I wasn't the only one. I'm not sure anymore how many of us there are precisely, but here in L.A. there are more than 20 of us piled into classrooms that would be cosy for half that number. And next year, we're expecting another large group of second-year students.

This is good for the Reform movement, very, very good. It is a challenge, to put it mildly, for our teachers: as our Commentaries teacher said today, the last time he taught this class, he had six people around a table and could give everyone personal attention. There are legions of us: we're like puppies, all over the place, gangly and not quite sure what we are doing, but very enthused to be doing it. I imagine that many of our professors look at us and want to tear their hair, just at the numbers.

When I get cranky about it (and I do sometimes; I envy that class of six), I remind myself of those days when I couldn't find a rabbi who could schedule even one session of an Intro class. I think about all the people who were spilling out the doorways of classrooms, eager to learn.

Something wonderful is happening in the Jewish world, and we're all part of it.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Here's a idea I'd never encountered before: there was a time in Jewish history when Hebrew grammar was a radical innovation. The Arabs were the first to do a systematic grammar of a Semitic language; they developed classical Arabic grammar in order to study the Koran and its commentaries.

Rabbis brought this new method of text study to Torah study, with interesting results, but it was controversial (apparently Rashi and his grandson had some rousing discussions about it). I was astonished to learn that at least one medieval commentator wrote about the various "voices" in the text, pointing out that Moses couldn't have written the last chapter of Deuteronomy, etc. That method of studying text more or less died out in the middle ages, not to be tried again until modern times.

It's been a while since anyone was accused of being a radical for parsing a Hebrew verb.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Jewish texts go way back. The challenge for me, at this minute, is to learn how to read them. The trouble is that context changes very fast -- the mind of Rashi (or Ezra, or Jeremiah, or the person(s) who wrote Bereshit Rabbah) lives in a different context than I do, and it is hard sometimes to understand what they are talking about.

Rashi (one of the greatest Torah/Talmud scholars of all time) lived in medieval France, Troyes, to be exact. His world is so foreign to me, it might as well be science fiction. I am trying to learn to read his language, follow his logic, understand his worries, and learn from him. The Hebrew (which is tricky, since it is laced with shreds of Old French and technical jargon) is the least of it: I need to understand how the man thought.

Today in Midrash class, we worked our way steadily through a problem. A rabbi "opened" the discussion with a passage from Psalms. In the format he'd chosen, he would work his way from that passage back to the passage upon which he was expounding (in this case, Genesis 1:1) and in the process illuminate some aspect of the passage that was otherwise not obvious. I had puzzled over it at home, and gotten nowhere. I looked at the Soncino translation, and got nowhere. We were two hours into class before it dawned on me (only, I think, the third time the teacher said it) that the rabbis were playing a word game on names.


They could do this because they were virtuosi of the texts. I, on the other hand, am just a beginner with the texts, and I have not only the Torah, not only Tanach, but the Mishna and the Midrash and the Gemara and the Rashi on all of it...and..and...and...a LOT to learn.

And people ask me why rabbinical school takes so many years!

Saturday, March 13, 2004

I have been reading a wonderful book: Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman. It feels like "light reading" but its underpinnings are solid scholarship. If you have ever wondered what the current scholarly opinion is about Biblical authorship, or if you have felt confused by "J," "E," and those other "sources," it's terrific. If you would like a little taste of why I love my Bible class so much, why a dusty old Book fills me with utter excitement, this book will do the job.

What else to say? I spent my Shabbat out and about. I went to see the ocean, which I do not visit often enough. I love living in California.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

We had a lot of fun at "Purim schpiel" yesterday at HUC (as someone quipped, it was Shushan Purim for walled cities with no windows). [An inside joke: our classrooms have no windows. The building is an architectural ... marvel.] The "altekaker" students -- that is, those of us who are 49 and counting -- did a song and dance medley to showtunes with such deathless lyrics as:

We're as old as our classmates' parents
We've babysat some of our teachers too
if you'll excuse all our sensible shoes
We're in love.... with being a Jew!

(think South Pacific, "I'm in love with a Wonderful Guy")

We announced ourselves as the UAHC: Union of American Hebrew Crones.

(Nice of the URJ to vacate the acronym just in time for us, hmmm?)

It felt like exactly the right way to begin my fiftieth year, which is what I'm doing, since today is my 49th birthday. I don't have any real celebration planned, although I've had good wishes from some wonderful friends. I am going to take my cue from a dear friend who turned 50 a few years ago: she made the whole year a celebration.

Today I'll celebrate by taking my copy of Miqraot Gedolot (a medieval collection of Bible commentary) to commentary class. I'll celebrate by hearing a lecture on Ashkenazi Jews in medieval Europe. I'll celebrate by planning the Passover seder for my student pulpit, by writing a sermon, learning a Torah portion, by attending tefilah. I'm going to celebrate this year by living.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Today was a sudden summer preview in L.A.: 90 degrees! So strange (and nice) to walk out into the sunshine and balmy air. It was Shushan Purim; I am glad that things seem to have been relatively quiet in Jerusalem. There's a photo of men dancing in a yeshiva on the cover of Ha'aretz, but that's it. Good.

It's a new term at HUC, a new "quadmester" and I am excited about the new classes. I'm sorry Synagogue Music is over, but instead we'll be taking Commentaries, a class for which I feel an almost desperate need. The resources are vast and I can only make some sense of them; I am hoping that Dr. Firestone will demystify them a bit. And in history, we're moving ahead to the Middle Ages in Europe -- it's a pretty depressing looking syllabus (Crusades, persecutions, etc., etc.) but that's the Middle Ages for you.

This year will be gone in a flash.

I'm looking forward to attending the Reform Community Shabbat in Oakland later this month. A group from my congregation, Etz Chaim in Merced, will be there, so it will be a nice fusion of past and present, as well as an opportunity to touch base with old friends at the Union for Reform Judaism, where I used to work.

OK, that's all for now. Back to Bible.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Purim is this weekend. At the moment I am awash in Purim songs, Purim lore, and odd bits of Purim-phenalia found on the Internet. One item I couldn't resist was this account by an American Jew who went to school in Dublin for a year.

Enjoy your hamentaschen!

Monday, March 01, 2004

I'm one lingering history paper away from being 3/4 done with the year. I have had a few epiphanies lately that were really quite wonderful, mostly having to do with my ability to read rabbinic and Biblical Hebrew -- I'm no whiz kid yet, but it's coming along steadily.

I think I took one entry in last year's journal to rave about reading the Bible in Hebrew, so I'll try to restrain myself a bit this time, but oh, it is fabulous to be able to read without the filter of a translation! I am learning so much from our Bible teacher about how to read, too, how to get deeper into the text. For instance, I'm working now on a translation/exegesis of the end of the book of Genesis, the death narrative of Joseph. There's an episode near the end, where the brothers worry that Joseph is going to take revenge, now that Jacob is dead, and they talk among themselves. In most English translations, they just sound worried. In the Hebrew, the choice of the words gives not only the meaning -- worried about retribution for their behavior -- but a connotation that they are still not really sorry, that they still think Joseph deserved to be sold into slavery! It puts an entirely different spin on the whole episode, and on Joseph's response.

I'm enjoying Bible so much that I'm dusting off my 20-years-neglected Greek in order to be able to use the Septuagint. Fortunately, I find that I never really forget much -- it's just a matter of scraping off the rust, applying a bit of oil, and not being embarrassed to let it creak in public.

So it goes.