Jewfem Blog

So a funny thing happened to me when I posted about the editor of the Talmud; or, what to do when people think you’re crazy

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Once again, I’m recovering from The Internet. Specifically, from the Jewish blogosphere, especially the spaced dominated by Orthodox rabbis. And I’m not even talking about the issue of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, which is a topic gaining traction following the #MeToo movement. (See #GamAni) – after all, sexual abuse is hardly limited to one religion, one denomination, one social class or one community. It is everywhere. (I am recovering from that too, a subject of a different post....) I am talking about reactions to my post from last week about discovered the Stama Gemara, the editor of the Talmud. I know that my journey of leaving 40+ years of Orthodoxy behind and becoming a Reform rabbi is likely to make Orthodox rabbis unsettled. But sometimes I am still surprised at how this finds expression.    So, when I wrote about my experience of reading the Talmud as as a collection of stuff that was purposefully collected and manipulated to make us think that the conclusion of the text is one that is Correct and Received and Divine, it generated some hard reactions. And I discovered, once again, why it is such a dangerous thing to share honestly our experiences of healing, change, or awakening. The reaction so often just becomes another thing that you end up having to deal with. To be fair, I received a lot of very supportive and engaging responses. Many other Recovering Day School Graduates shared a similar process of unlearning messages that we received, ones that are harmful, dishonest, or purposefully manipulative. Others welcomed me to the world of Enlightened Folks, wondering what took me so long to get here. And actually, there were several really long and interesting threads on different pages, within Orthodoxy as well, which actually delved into the question of where the Talmud came from, how it is taught, and what it means to be educated with all this “God Language.” I think that these are genuinely useful, productive and engaging conversations. And then there was the other group. The Deniers. Or, more accurately, The Gaslighters. The ones who said I must be making this all up. It’s not true. This doesn’t happen. It is a surprising reaction. I was ready for the accusations of being a heretic. I am used to Orthodox rabbis talking about me as if I am not even Jewish, as if my ideas are so beyond the pale that I wouldn't even be rescued if I were at Sinai. That was mostly when I was an Orthodox feminist. But this line of attack -- as if to say, nobody is THAT strict -- was different. And was no less undermining. The first inkling of being cast this way was a comment on someone’s thread in which the guy, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote, “I literally laughed out loud when I read the part where she discovers that ‘there is an editor’.” Oh, haha, I guess that’s funny. Like, how could I be so stupid? And by...

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When rabbis don’t know right from left; or, learning to listen to the God within

There is a fascinating debate in the rabbinic literature about how far rabbinic authority goes. It is an argument over two words in a verse in Deuteronomy (17; 11) that admonishes the people of Israel not to deviate from the word of the Torah “right and left” yamin u’smol. The dispute sheds light on what some rabbis thought about their followers and themselves. This particular verse is very significant for the rabbis over the generations, because the Talmudists shrewdly manipulate the words in a way that constructs rabbis as exclusive agents of the word of God. “Do not deviate”, they argue, is a commandment meant for the mere plebian Jews who are too boorish to know what the Torah means. These run-of-the-mill Jews need rabbis to reveal God’s intentions. “Do not deviate” gave rabbis justification to invent a plethora of practices – such as lighting Shabbat candles or washing hands before eating bread – and claim that they are directly from God. Jews funnily recite the words, “…as God sanctified us and commanded us”, over some of these customs, even though they are not written in the Torah. The rabbis said, so it’s as if it’s from God. Do not deviate.    Rabbinical cleverness has often served us well. The rabbis created, for example, the notion of pikuach nefesh, that saving of a life justifies breaking Shabbat. Apparently in non-rabbinical Jewish communities, such as the Ethiopian Jewish community pre-Aliyah, the concept of pikuach nefesh doesn’t exist. So that, for example, years ago when a group of Ethiopian boarding school students in Israel watched the fire department extinguish a blaze on Shabbat – which is against the bible – the kids refused to return to the boarding school because in their view, putting out the fire was a violation of Judaism.   The idea of pikuach nefesh, the primacy of saving a life, may be a biblical fiction, but it’s a good one. The rabbis who invented it listened to their own hearts and understood right from wrong, and shared that with all of us. As arbiters of change, the rabbis have made many rules over the generations that radically alter the letter of the Torah, such as allowing Israeli banks to charge interest, allowing Israeli farmers to grow crops in the seventh year, allowing Jews to keep bread hidden in their closets over Passover, and more. They have changed everything except arguably (in Orthodoxy at least) the status of women in marriage and in leadership because, well, that is apparently just going too far. In any case, in a class this week with Rabbi Shlomo Fox at Hebrew Union College, we discussed these issues along with a particularly riveting set of rabbinic writings on these verses. We first read an interpretation by Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, one of the primary medieval commentators on the Bible and Talmud. Rashi wanted to know what the Torah meant by “right and left”, and he wrote, “Even if [your rabbis] show you something that is...

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Returning to the Talmud, on my own terms

I’m studying Talmud again. It’s been a while since I learned at the full-time Drisha Talmud program (A while? Like 25 years!) It’s been even longer since I studied with Rabbi Harari at the Yeshiva of Flatbush (OMG, more like 33 years.) Maybe it’s like riding a bike and you never forget how. More likely, the way I am studying now is unlike any other way I have ever studied it.  It helps that I just finished reading Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, an exquisite piece of literature in which the author uses the lens of her daily Talmud study – daf yomi – to reflect on the tumult in her life. In recounting passages about the destruction of the Temple, for example, she finds comfort for the dissolution of her marriage; in the Talmudic tractate of Yevamot, she finds her strength in women’s independence; from a bizarre passage about fish, she explores the depths of sexuality. She finds charm and complexity as only a voracious reader can. She sees comparisons between the Talmud and Shakespeare, Whitman, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. These allusions seem to come naturally to her, as they would to someone with this kind of life-long addiction to reading. She often uses her morning runs – before daf yomi class – as opportunities to memorize poetry.  Or, when she had a sprained ankle and was demoted from jogging to swimming, she would keep photocopies of poems in a plastic sleeve at the edge of the pool, pop her head out of the water every time she got to the wall, and memorize one line of poetry per lap. (Yeah, I know.) Her brilliance has not only given her an encyclopedic knowledge of literature that is rare today; it has also made her an exemplary interpreter of Talmud and a rich commentator on life. And by the way, what an extraordinary pleasure it is to read a book written by someone who so deeply loves books. I thought about Ilana Kurshan as I sat in my first class in Talmud 101 with Rabbi Dr. Alona Lisitsa at Hebrew Union College. The Talmud is not quite as charming for me as it is for Ilana. When Rabbi Lisitsa (who has a special place in my heart because she is the one who first invited me to apply to HUC rabbinical school, with the argument that it is the only place where Jews can be anything they want; evidenced by the fact that she herself completely adheres to halakha), when she went around the room asking us to describe our relationship to Talmud and what we expected from this course, I could feel my head start to spin. “I don’t like studying Talmud at all,” I admitted to my new colleagues, perhaps too honestly, suddenly realizing that I am about to reveal more about myself than perhaps I should be at this stage of Rabbinical School Year 1. Certainly, learning Talmud from Rabbi Dovid Silber and...

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How I learned what it means to be a rabbi -- warts and all

On my first two days of rabbinical school, I arrived late. Two days in a row, despite starting my day at 5AM to arrive at HUC by 8:30, I failed this most basic task of getting there on time. The first day, I completely miscalculated the traffic, and was cursing myself for half an hour on the 2-kilometer stretch of the 443 from the Pisgat Zeev exit to Ramot. The next day, I left half an hour earlier, and *only* arrived ten minutes late. Only. I spent most of that drive practicing my apology to the head of the school. I walked in on the first day, towards the end of the tefilla, the morning prayer service, and gave an embarrassed nod to him, Rabbi Ofek Meir, who was sitting in the front row. He smiled gently, with a clear gesture of reassurance. He was smiling and breathing – as opposed to me. I was not smiling and not breathing. On the second day, walking in earlier in the service when Ofek was smack in the middle of leading a soulful rendition of the Shema blessings using his gifts with the guitar, I stood at the door for a few moments to catch my breath and take it in. There, I began to fully appreciate the extraordinary moment I was in. it wasn’t just the beautiful singing and musical accompaniment that filled the room. It was something deeper, a genuine spiritual intention that was contained in this space. My excitement at the thought of being here for the next four years swelled, and began to overwhelm all else. This is tefilla without any power dynamics mixed in, I thought. This is what it sounds like when there is no coercion, no judgment, no exclusion. After the tefilla, I walked over to Ofek and tried to apologize again for being late. He wouldn’t hear it. “You come from Modi’in, right?” It was as if he knew what I was going through before I did. He reassured me and said it was really fine. “Fine for you, “ I said, “but not for me.” He smiled. It really was all okay to him. This entire exchange was completely new for me. What is the word for this? Acceptance. Ah, yes, acceptance. The idea of accepting a person as they are, of accepting myself as I am – such a basic thing, it is often so elusive. Acceptance is not something that the Jewish community often trains itself in. At least not in the places where I have been circulating until now.   I was remembering my first day at work, 19 years ago, at a Jewish communal foundation. It was my first job after completing my Master’s degree in Jewish education. It was also my first attempt at holding down a job with three little children at home under the age of five. I was eager, anxious, and green. I walked into the front door, on this glorious first day, and greeted the...

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