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Yom Sheini, 23 Kislev 5778

Hanukkah Reconsidered: A Split in the Jewish Soul

Hanukkah wasn’t complicated for me until this year.

I knew the story of the brave Maccabees, the family that fought off the Jew-hating Greeks, because Mom retold the tale when we were little and we acted it out in costumes at the annual friends-and-family Hanukkah party. The Cruel Greek King, Antiochus (usually played by my twin, Robin, in a Tudor crown), decreed that all Jews must stop practicing Judaism; he set up idols for the Jews to worship instead of their God, and led his army to seize the Jews’ holy Temple. But the Jewish warrior, Judah the Maccabee (usually played by me), and his Maccabee brothers (all played by my younger brother, David), fought back valiantly, and reclaimed the Temple.

The Hanukkah story ends with the miracle, of course: When the Maccabees reclaim the Temple, they try to rekindle the menorah. But when they look for oil to reignite it, they find only enough for a single day. Lo and behold, it lasts eight days.

I grew up loving this halcyon holiday – that is, until I learned the dark side and felt like a kid discovering that there’s no Santa Claus. It turns out, many rabbis assert, that Hanukkah is, in part, a tale of Jew vs. Jew. The Maccabees took on not just Antiochus IV, they challenged their fellow Jews for selling out, embracing Hellenistic Greek culture.

“Hanukkah grows out of a split in the Jewish soul,” writes Rabbi Irving Greenberg in his book The Jewish Way. “In most of the battles in that extended war, Jews fought among themselves as soldiers in the armies on both sides.”

I get that Jews will always disagree, but there’s something deeper dividing us: a sense of who’s authentic and who’s not. I have my own anxiety about where I fall or how I’m perceived.

Am I Hellenized? Would the Maccabees have viewed me as a threat to Jewish life?

I consult Arthur Kurzweil, a writer and speaker with a copious grey beard who never says the politically correct thing.

Sure enough, he says the Hanukkah story “is about Jewish intolerance in the best sense of the word,” when strict Jews were intolerant of lax ones.”

He believes too many of us have “blended in,” or assimilated, by opting for an “anything-goes” Judaism that he says isn’t Judaism.

Although Kurzweil doesn’t point a finger at me, I’m clearly implicated as a member of his Hellenized camp.

To sort through all this, I call my college friend Rabbi Mychal Springer, who directs the Center for Pastoral Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

 “I think Judaism has survived because of Hellenistic impulses,” she says. “Over the generations, we’ve incorporated good things from the world around us. And sometimes we get frightened and say we’ve gone outside the bounds, but that’s part of the process of recognizing what’s sustainable.”

Judaism has always evolved, she continues, pointing out that Hanukkah isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. And suddenly we say we’re ‘commanded’ to say prayers for this holiday we invented. In fact, Hanukkah is the great symbol of our evolution. The closest you get to Hanukkah in the Bible is Sukkot.”

Sukkot? What does that have to do with Hanukkah? The ancient Jews, oppressed by Antiochus, had to skip Sukkot because the king forbade all Jewish practice. So when the Jews retook the Temple, they made up for the missed Sukkot by celebrating it, belatedly. That Sukkot-redo became a new holiday, Hanukkah, which means “rededication.” I get it now. Since Sukkot lasts eight days, so does Hanukkah. “Historically, Hanukkah is simply a late Sukkot,” Springer clarifies.

Still intent on adding facts to the Hanukkah story, I go the whole nine yards and call Seth Schwartz, the hard-hitting professor of Classical Jewish Civilization at Columbia University. I want to make sure that Kurzweil’s Jew vs. Jew paradigm – Hellenist versus Traditionalist – is rooted in scholarship.

Schwartz says it isn’t. Or at least that it’s an oversimplification. The Maccabees weren’t rebelling chiefly against assimilated Jews, he says, but rather against Antiochus’s royal edict to stop Judaism. He goes on to say, “The Maccabee revolt was not a civil war between progressive Jews and reactionary Jews,” calling this an exaggerated subplot that “many liberal rabbis learned in rabbinical school.”

As to whether Jews like me can be called Hellenists, Schwartz instead suggests that we are materialists, pointing out that Hanukkah was never a major holiday until Christmas exploded. “Three generations ago, who cared about Hanukkah?” asks Schwartz. “Our ancestors in the Old Country, they lit candles on Hanukkah. That was it. There wasn’t a fuss about it. We needed a big story to compete with the Christmas story. So I think it’s specifically American.”

I leave Schwartz’s office feeling sheepish about my kids’ present pile.

This article is adapted and reprinted from My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, with permission from Fig Tree Books LLC.

Abigail Pogrebin will be a featured speaker at the URJ Biennial in Boston, December 6-9. Register at www.urj.org/biennial.

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Who Should Teach About Hanukkah and What Should They Be Teaching?

As one of a pair of Jewish kids in my rural Maine elementary school class, I was conscripted each winter to teach my classmates about Hanukkah. I'd dutifully bring in my wax-encrusted brass menorah, a few wooden dreidels, and a bag of foil-covered chocolate gelt to sweeten my description of those plucky Maccabees and the miracle of the oil.

While my teachers’ intent to share cultures outside of the Protestant norm was pure, the annual presentation only set me farther apart from my classmates. Sometimes it opened the door to actual bullying, as when classmates drew swastikas on their notebooks and showed them to me, feigning innocence.

As a rural Maine public school teacher myself, colleagues occasionally ask me to bring the brass menorah and illustrated story of Hanukkah to their classrooms to share, once again, my non-normative winter holiday. But now that my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter is in a preschool program, I've come to realize that hearing about cultural and religious practices directly from the practitioners serves only to emphasize our otherness.

This past year, my daughter’s wonderful teachers, neither of whom is Jewish, took it upon themselves to research Purim and Rosh HaShanah. They planned simple, secular activities to acknowledge the holiday, just as they do with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Mother's Day. The toddlers donned costumes and had a parade for Purim, and they did an art project with apple ink stamps and ate apples dipped in honey for Rosh HaShanah. Just as my child attends our town tree lighting, her peers were now participating in a version of Jewish celebrations normalized through her teachers’ good practices.

Should non-Jewish teachers decide to incorporate Hanukkah into their curriculum, rather than put the onus on Jewish students, the most important consideration is that while Hanukkah and Christmas often coincide on the calendar, Hanukkah is in no way a Jewish analog to Christmas (it predates it by two hundred years, after all!). I'd also want mention made of the institutionalized suppression of religious practices that the Jews endured under Antiochus, and the fact that millions worldwide face the same marginalization and fear today. I would want teachers to explain that while many families give and receive presents for Hanukkah, the lights, which symbolize hope and tenacity, are, as they say, the "reason for the season." Latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts), dreidel, and gelt are all examples of fun and secular ways students can experience a little of the holiday spirit, the way I do at tree lightings, carol sings, and my school's annual reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Make no mistake, incorporating the holidays celebrated by non-mainstream Protestants into the classroom still stirs up plenty of controversy. Not all parents are thrilled to have their kids listening to Purim songs or wishing one another a sweet new year in September.

No decisions have been made about future holidays at my daughter’s school, and the kids will be on vacation for both Hanukkah and Christmas this year, but I very much hope her teachers will be allowed to bring out some matzah for Passover, dates and milk for Ramadan, and maybe next winter some latkes for Hanukkah.

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8 Ways to Celebrate Hanukkah that Don’t Involve Gifts

I love celebrating Judaism with my family. Nothing brings me pleasure like sharing holidays, celebrating traditions and creating new rituals. I don’t, however, love some of the traditions that seem to have evolved to be considered very mainstream – including exchanging gifts for eight nights of Hanukkah. (I don’t love those plague toys at seder or the Mensch on the Bench, either, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

There are a few reasons I want to avoid eight nights of gifts. For starters, my kids and I don’t need any more stuff – and I’m going to try to shield my little ones for as long as I can against the consumerism and commercialization of holidays (and, well, life, too). The Torah doesn’t tell us to give gifts at Hanukkah (and in fact, the Hanukkah story isn’t in the Torah!), so I’d rather invest my efforts in highlighting and celebrating other stories that Judaism can teach us that will be more relevant to my munchkins. (We make a really big deal out of Shabbat at our house, and Purim gifts are shared generously.)

By no means am I suggesting we skip Hanukkah. It’s fun and meaningful, and it’s the only time of year that we Jews see one of our holidays celebrated in public (have you seen Target’s Hanukkah swag this year?!). Instead of eight days of gifts, though, I suggest instead eight ways to celebrate Hanukkah with your kids that relate the story and celebration for your enjoyment to help you refocus your approach:

1. Play with light!

Do a flashlight scavenger hunt, use glow paint, pull out your old lite-bright, make shadow puppets with a candle, have a glow party, search pinterest for light play ideas that appeal the interests and abilities of your kids- the list is enormous and tons of fun.

2. Eat some cheese!

Sure, everyone knows about the oil and that we eat foods cooked in it to celebrate this holiday – but I was thrilled to find out about a long tradition of celebrating Hanukkah by eating cheese! Even better, the origin of this tradition is credited to a strong, powerful woman from the Torah, Judith (though the story is probably a PG-13-rated tale that you might not want to share with kiddos). Make fondue, create a fancy grilled cheese bar, or make and share tasty cheese plates.

3. Hang a mezuzah, knit a kippah, or fashion some Star of David jewelry.

Jews today are protected by laws that declare each of us has the freedom to pursue the religion of our choosing, we can display our identity as we see fit. This Hanukkah, celebrate your Judaism! (Unfortunately, 2017 has seen more anti-Semitism than we have in a long time, which might be a topic to discuss with your kids, too – but that suggestion doesn’t make the cut for inclusion in a list of celebrations.)

4. Go shopping… for someone else.

Check your privilege – and encourage your children to recognize theirs – by helping others this holiday season. Buy and wrap a new toy, collect items in your home to donate, or otherwise find a way to give to someone in your community who is in need.

5. Retell the Hanukkah story.

Your kids have probably heard some variation of the tale of Judah Maccabee. Find out what they know, decide if you want them to know more, and figure out a way that they can share the story themselves. Start with Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin’s “Kid-Friendly Version of the Hanukkah Story” then consider the following ideas: download a stop-motion animation app; help them write the story out and create a book using their illustrations or images they find online (you can even print it in a real book format using an online photo book printer); dress up as the characters; create and film a play; choose books that your kids can share with other kids… there are so many ways to get involved in sharing the story. Choose one (or ask your children to pick) and make it a family project.

6. Host a dreidel tournament.

Gather the ones you love and play dreidel using whatever currency makes sense for your family (gelt, money, poker chips, passes to excuse the holder from taking out the trash?). Sure, you can play the classic variation, but try to make up new games and rules, too! Who can make it spin the longest? Who can aim their dreidel to spin in a particular direction? Who can predict the length of a particular dreidel’s spin?

7. Clean out your house and find something you lost.

The Hanukkah story teaches that, as the Jewish people worked to clean up the destroyed Temple, they looked for the little bit of oil that miraculously lasted through tumultuous times. It’s a safe guess that in most North American households, a thorough cleaning and organizing of closet and playrooms (or wherever else you keep your stuff!) can yield discovery of all sorts of treasures, including toys that have been forgotten, clothing you can donate, items you can repurpose, and more.

8. Play with Hanukkah music.

You could go Hanukkah caroling in your neighborhood or at a Jewish senior citizens’ home – or you could have a movie night, pop some popcorn, and watch all of the YouTube Hanukkah Playlist that have been released in certain years, play a few rounds of “Name that Tune” or freeze dance, make a music video of your family band, or do a karaoke night peppered with songs about Hanukkah, light, freedom, and family. (Try ReformJudaism.org’s Hanukkah Songs playlist, as well as the Hanukkah Family Favorites playlist designed for families with young children.)

I’m not totally anti-gift. Our family will exchange presents and appreciate gifts, too, but it will be a small piece in the ritual and memories we make together. The rabbis teach us, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot” While I’m giving my kids fewer giftwrapped packages, I’m hoping that resisting the urge to give them presents each night for a week will help yield a more grateful attitude that fosters a lasting happiness.

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These Playlists Will Keep You Rockin' All Hanukkah Long!

Hanukkah is nearly here! Whether you're hosting a holiday party or simply want to turn on some Jewish tunes as you light the candles with your family, our Spotify playlists will do the trick. Though both are family-friendly (perhaps with the exception of Adam Sandler's modern-day classic "The Chanukah Song"), the first playlist shared here is meant for listeners of all ages, and the second is geared toward families with young children. Enjoy! 

Want even more Jewish music? Tune into Jewish Rock Radio: www.jewishrockradio.com

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8 Social Justice Gifts to Make the World a Better Place This Hanukkah

This year, give the gift of social justice! Here you can find a gift idea for each night of Hanukkah to emphasize the work of tikkun olam – the work of repairing a broken world.

1. Give the gift of music

Available for purchase now at www.togetherasonemusic.com, Together As One is an album of brand new social justice music. The album, which was recorded in Nashville, features award-winning and critically acclaimed artists. These songs will inspire, challenge, and elevate all who sing them and serve as a call to action for a new generation of activists. 

2. Give the gift of Fair Trade Judaica

When was that last time you gave some cool Judaica to someone? Consider giving fair trade Hanukkah gelt from Guilt Free Gelt or a new tallit or challah covering made by Guatemalan artisans receiving fair wages available at Fair Trade Judaica. Check out the fair-trade jewelry at Bead for Life or the delicious coffee beans at Equal Exchange.

3. Give the gift of reading

Gift a RAC Reads book to a friend. Reform Jews across North America come together in their own communities to read, explore and discuss social justice-themed books. RAC Reads provides all the tools necessary to help get you started. We’ve selected best-selling books that address relevant social justice topics, provided questions to guide your discussion, topics on getting started and resources to help you take action. So, grab a few of your fellow congregants, pull up a chair and let’s get reading!

4. Give the gift of light 

There’s a lot that needs to be done to reduce carbon emissions and decrease our detrimental impact on the world around us, which can be a little overwhelming. Unlike traditional light bulbs, which produce huge amounts of heat in addition to light, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) give off high-quality light using 25% of that electricity. EnergyStar.gov has some useful tips for replacing your household lights with CFLs 

5. Give the gift of sustainable food

The foodie in your family will love the healthy and ethically sourced foods that come with a share in your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, purchased through Hazon’s Tuv Ha’aretz Jewish CSA program or a farm near you. A few hundred dollars buys an entire season’s worth of nutritious food and the opportunity to connect with your community, Jewish values and the environment in the most delicious way!

6. Give the gift of freedom

On September 24, 2017, President Trump issued a new executive order restricting travel from eight countries. This is the third ban coming from the White House this year that places heavy restrictions mainly on predominantly Muslim-majority countries. The new restrictions on travel vary by country and include a phased-in approach that was planned to begin on October 18, 2017. Urge President Trump to rescind this latest discriminatory executive order, and urge your members of Congress to denounce its provisions, including the imposition of a religious test for entry, and urge its immediate repeal. No one should be barred from entering the United States based on race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.

7. Gift the gift of warmth

In the cold winter months, consider donating coats, gloves, hats, and socks to your local homeless shelter to help families in need. Create a donation box at your congregation where members can drop off used winter gear to donate. Consider giving to the Salvation Army, Red Cross, Goodwill or a number of other local organizations who will help families stay warm this winter. 

8. Give the gift of legacy

In honor of your favorite social justice hero, consider donating to the Religious Action Center. For nearly six decades, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) has been the hub of Jewish social justice work. For more than 50 years, the RAC has been the Reform Jewish voice for justice in Washington, D.C., representing the Reform Jewish community on the most pressing issues of our day – economic inequality, environmental justice and human rights.

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How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life

Marilyn Paul has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and taught at the Yale School of Medicine, the Massachusetts General Institute of Health Professionals, and the Hebrew University Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine. Author of An Oasis in Time: How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life, she also is a professional coach, dedicated to helping people improve their lives at work, at home, and in the world. I sat down with her to discuss the healing powers of Shabbat.

ReformJudaism.org: You grew up in a family estranged from Judaism, but you eventually found a path into Jewish life through Shabbat. How did that come about?

Dr. Marilyn Paul: When I was a Yale grad student, a friend invited me to Shabbat dinner. I said no because I was much too busy with my studies and social activism. I had boundless energy and was in the grip of an enormous desire to achieve. I would get up at 6 a.m., go all day, and then study at night in the library until 1 or 2 in the morning.

He asked again and again until finally I went. When I walked in and watched the gathered people lighting the candles together, I realized something wonderful was happening.

At that time, I didn’t know how to slow down, until one morning, I was too exhausted to get out of bed. I was later diagnosed with an immune deficiency disease. I understood my illness to be a warning that I had not paid attention to my body’s natural signals, and that I had stretched my immune system to its limit. It literally took a virus to slow me down.

Not in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined that years later I would take an entire day off every week to calm my soul, and write a book about it.

How would you respond to someone who says, “My to-do list is just too long to allow for a day of rest?”

I would say that we have been brainwashed into thinking that working more gets more work done. That’s a fallacy. All the leading productivity experts are screaming into a megaphone: Rest! Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology Sabine Sonnentag, for instance, has shown that people who have regular rest gain control, mastery, and creativity.

Here’s a personal example: Last year, we moved to Berkeley and bought an unfinished house. I became the general contractor in addition to homeschooling my son, writing a book, maintaining my professional coaching practice, helping a friend prepare for his bar mitzvah, and organizing our household meals and social calendar. The only way I could have juggled all these tasks without throwing my life into shambles was by restoring my body, mind, and soul on Shabbat.

What are some of the obstacles preventing us from making Shabbat part of our lives?

For starters, we are trapped in a workaholic culture in which we move too fast, and we place too high a premium on accomplishments and productivity. We don’t know how tired and stressed out we really are, we don’t know what makes us truly happy, and we are addicted to our digital devices.

What are some strategies to overcome these obstacles?

The book offers five:

1. Protect your time off and guard it fiercely, because everything in our world will conspire to take Shabbat away from you.

2. Name your starting and ending times, and try to stick to those boundaries.

3. Put down your digital devices.

4. Slow your movements, which helps slow your mind, and savor the now.

5. Let go of achieving.

When you exit your oasis time, how does it affect the rest of the week?

The soul life of Shabbat extends to every day of week. In his book, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter illustrates this point by describing Shabbat as the center of a wheel with the spokes representing the 6 other days of the week.

How does Shabbat, what you also call “oasis time,” restore your soul?

It helps me reorient to what matters most in my life. It resets my inner compass so that I can remember and act on what is important and meaningful to me. It gives me time to rest and regain my bearings. It breaks the fatigue and burnout cycle that would otherwise rob me of my zest and health. And it allows for a time of genial, unhurried connections with my family, friends, and community.

Shabbat has saved my life.

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Why I’m Not Hiding My Religion Any More

I grew up in a small rural town in upstate New York and I tried to hide my religion during my entire childhood. In my school, there were no other Jewish students, at least not any others that I knew.

My father grew up in Brooklyn, the son of immigrants from Russia and Poland. It was an Orthodox household and his father was president of the local synagogue. My mother was also Jewish, and although she did not receive any formal Jewish education, creating a household where religious observances and study occurred was a foundation in our family. A religious education was so important to my parents that my mother drove 30 miles three times a week to take me to Sunday and Hebrew school. All the other students attended school in a different district, so they all knew each other. It was cliquish and lonely. I enjoyed Jewish study, but felt like an outsider.

Each year, I argued with my father about staying out of school for two days for Rosh HaShanah because I thought it would reveal that I was Jewish. I had a bat mitzvah, but didn’t invite classmates. I thought I was doing a decent job of hiding my religion, but when I look back I think to myself, “Who was I kidding?” In fact, I later learned that there were other Jewish students and teachers at my school.

College did not include Judaism either. Even though the student body had a significant percentage of Jews, none of my roommates (who became my closest friends) were Jewish. I was not active in Hillel or other activities that specifically involved Jewish students. I usually went home for the High Holidays, but if I did stay on campus, I attended services by myself and sat alone. At that point, I was not hiding my Judaism, but I was not outwardly expressing it either.

The turning point occurred when I moved to Washington D.C. to go to law school in 1989. For the first time, I had Jewish friends. We gathered for Jewish celebrations and developed traditions. I became comfortable with my religion. I traded stories with friends about my upbringing, and reflected on my wish to have gone to Jewish sleep away camp and participate in Birthright. I spoke with friends in detail about their trips to Israel and our views on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. My Jewishness became a part of my identity both at home and at work. It was liberating.

As a quadriplegic, I never thought I would get married. But another turning point occurred in 2005 when I married Tony, my husband of almost 12 years. He is Catholic and his family embraces Catholicism and its traditions. Despite our different religions, our parents’ values related to religion and to life were similar – family, education, doing good for others, showing gratitude, honesty, hard work, and not embracing a material life – making us more alike than different. We were married by a priest and a rabbi (sort of like the Odd Couple), and it was a beautiful ceremony in which the traditions of both religions were observed. Throughout our marriage, until my parents passed away, our families celebrated holidays together, and we have developed our own special traditions for religious holidays. My husband goes to Christmas Eve services with his mother, and my friend Vicki and I celebrate with the traditional Chinese food and a movie. We have adopted the same tradition for Easter. Best of all, we each get to enjoy the meals and family gatherings associated with the major Jewish and Catholic holidays.

At 50, I am comfortable with my identity: lawyer, entrepreneur, woman with a disability, and Jewish. Especially in recent months, with so much hate being expressed toward Jews, I want to scream “I am a Jew!” I’m not hiding my religion any more.

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When the Student is the Teacher: Lessons From a Stack of Old Letters

On Simchat Torah, we read the concluding words in Deuteronomy and without skipping a beat, start all over again with the first chapter in Genesis. With one breath, we read about Moses’ death and with the next, about the creation of the world. It is how we order our year; it is how we order our lives.

Several years ago, a close family friend died. Throughout his long life, Jerry had served as a mentor to me. Recently, his grandson, to whom both my son Ari and I have grown close, shared a surprising discovery: a stack of correspondence between Jerry and me his family found when they searched through his library. His grandson scanned the letters and emailed them to me. They remained there, on my computer, unopened.

Until yesterday.

That’s when I began to read and reread the letters, bringing our discussions back to life and reminding me of our wonderful friendship.

I was surprised to rediscover that I had served as a teacher and guide to the man I deemed to be one of my greatest mentors. Although not a rabbi, he was most certainly my teacher as well. In the letters, I found ruminations about theology, the purpose of religion, and the import of Judaism.

Jerry’s questions always prompted more thought. They prodded me to reexamine my convictions and on a few occasions, to revise my thinking. In that way, they reminded me of this Jewish teaching: “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but the most from my students.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 7a)

I happened upon one letter I had written in April 1993, the month before my daughter Shira was born. In it, I had wondered aloud if I would be a good parent. Jerry offered reassurance and guidance: “You and Susie are about to embark on the greatest adventure of your lives, being parents. It is a matter of miracle and wonder, not just biology, and it will test your abilities in every sphere, over and over again. But here is where Jewish questioning and the willingness to listen will stand you in the best stead.”

Who, indeed, is the teacher and who the student? Is the line ever clear?

In some letters, I wrote to Jerry about my parenting convictions. Rereading those pages now, I recalled my many pronouncements about how Susie and I would do things differently, and therefore better than our predecessors. About my own children, I quoted my grandmother’s retort about me: “Steven acts as if he is the first person in the world to have done this.”

I can hear her voice clearly; it is there on the pages.  

Just as every bride and groom should feel that their wedding day is the first day of creation, every parent should feel as if they are the first couple to give birth.

The cycle continues. Through those letters, my grandmother returned to life; my mentor was reborn. My children grow and mature. (For a true measure of my parenting, ask Shira or Ari – or those with whom my children interact. When I asked Ari myself, he responded with this: “Abba (Hebrew for “dad”), I give you five out of 10, Eema (Hebrew for “mom”) gets six. Shira, nine. Team average: seven out of 10.”)

This week, we begin the Torah reading once again.

We unroll the scroll. We open its pages. We meditate on its words.

Once again: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…”

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How to Supercharge Your Torah Study this Year

The shofar sounds the start of the new year, and soon after, Simchat Torah (Rejoicing with Torah) signals our reading the Torah scroll from the very beginning of the Book of Genesis.

The timing is no accident. Just as we’ve examined our behavior and recommitted to becoming the best versions of ourselves in the new year, so, too, have many of us resolved to engage more deeply in study this year.

But we don’t have to do it in a vacuum.

Each Monday, ReformJudaism.org shares the gift of the guidance of eminent modern-day scholars and leading Jewish thinkers. Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of ReformJudaism.org’s daily Ten Minutes of Torah emails, features these scholars’ in-depth takes on the weekly Torah portion – for our consideration, debate, discussion, and learning.

A new scholar writes for each book of Torah, and their weekly divrei Torah are delivered by email and available online on the Torah Study section of our website. The five distinguished writers who are leading the charge for this year’s Reform Voices of Torah are:

For those who prefer to learn by listening (or who spend a lot of time commuting), an audio recording of the commentary is available. A direct link is provided in each Monday’s email.

There’s one more highlight in the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah to power up your Torah study: a weekly podcast called On the Other Hand, which offers weekly tidbits of Torah wisdom from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Again, a direct link is provided in each Monday’s email, or you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast fix.

You can also find the Torah translations used by Reform congregations on our website.

What could be more accessible? If Jewish study is one of your goals for the new year, take a moment to sign up to receive Ten Minutes of Torah – and, of course, let us know what you think.

One more thing: As we bid goodbye to year 5777, we thank all the esteemed writers from this past year, led by Dr. Ellen M. Umansky (Genesis), Rabbi Ana Bonnheim (Exodus), Rabbi Lance J. Sussman (Leviticus), Rabbi Vered L. Harris (Numbers), and Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein (Deuteronomy) for illuminating our way through the Torah. Yasher koach them all! Their commentaries for each weekly Torah portion can still be found on the landing pages for each individual parashah, found on our Torah Study page.

As we welcome 5778, we look forward to all the Torah wisdom the year’s new scholars are sure to bring.

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Seeing the Torah With Fresh Eyes

Last month, we spent considerable time evaluating and repenting for the actions of the past year. We prayed for a clean slate, a sense of renewal.

As Yom Kippur ended, I felt good. I felt refreshed. I felt ready to take on the new year with last year’s rust shaken off. However, as the calendar moves toward Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the beginning of the yearly reading of the full Torah, my feeling of transcendence is slowly morphing into ambivalence. On one hand, a new year promises a fresh start. On the other hand, it means pressing reset on the same narrative the Jewish people have read for more than 5700 years.

In this week’s Torah portion, B’reishit, (the opening lines of the Book of Genesis), Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden of Eden, Cain kills Abel, and God looks at all of humanity to find favor only with Noah. Stories of banishment, fratricide, and mass destruction greet us from the moment we first set our eyes upon the page, and give us our first impression of Judaism. These stories can be extremely challenging to rationalize. For many years, trying to understand them has kept me at arm’s length from my tradition.

When I decided to re-embrace Judaism, it was in spite of, not because of, these stories. I naturally assumed that Jewish learning would be a positive force in my life: I would read Torah, apply it to my new experiences, and suddenly these stories would become personal and meaningful in a way they had not been before. However, pouring over text by myself, I found that the more I read, the less I understood.

There is a reason Jewish tradition places such a high value on reading and discussing text in public. Jewish learning is not based on text alone; it is based on dialogue. I have learned that to truly trust that my beliefs are solid, I need to discuss them with others and I need to hear them out loud (not from behind a screenname).

I feel the same way about politics.

Last year, I watched the 2016 election divide my friends in college. People who embraced the same culture I do were not embracing the same cultural values. We never discussed our disagreements any further than invectives about the candidates. This summer for the first time, I volunteered on a campaign supporting pro-voting rights candidates, and spent time knocking on doors in northern Virginia. Subconsciously, this work was a way to have the dialogue – not the diatribes – I hadn’t had before the election. Consciously, I just wanted to change the minds of voters and find an outlet to engage in tikkun olam (repair of the world).

On a day-to-day basis, arguing with strangers over basic principles was grueling. However, I realize now that this effort advanced my understanding of the importance of Simchat Torah. Was I arguing literally about the stories of B’reishit or other Torah portions? No, but every discussion was a chance to get a fresh perspective on old issues and elevate my arguments. We celebrate the beginning of the yearly reading of the Torah because it gives us another chance to get a new perspective. We have another chance to change.

I am lucky to have grown up in a loving community that gave me the tools to figure out what I wanted from Judaism, but never forced me to go down any one path. I have started attending weekly text study sessions with Jews who observe Judaism in myriad ways. At the same time, as an intern at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I can pursue justice and equity in a way that reflects my values. Together, these experiences are showing me that Simchat Torah does not have to be about trudging through the same narrative year after year; instead it can be a chance to look at that narrative with fresh eyes.

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