Tag Archives: Talmud

Turn, Turn, Turn…

In December of 1965 the folk/rock group the Byrds released their second album, entitled Turn, Turn, Turn!  The record’s title was taken from its first released single, with its memorable chorus “To every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn,) and a time to every purpose under Heaven.”   The lyrics, originally penned by the great Pete Seeger in the late 50s, are loosely taken from the 3rd chapter of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  On December 4th of ’65 the song hit number one, holding that spot for three straight weeks.

The turning image in the song reflects the mood of the biblical text.  The author of Ecclesiastes urgently feels the swift passage of time, and struggles in that powerful stream to gain his bearings.  Tradition teaches that the book was written by King Solomon in his old age as he attempted to come to terms with his own mortality.  The author speculates about life and its meaning, about the coming and going of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun.  Is it simply cyclical, he wonders, repeating again and again and again, or is there meaning to it, does it work in a particular direction, ultimately enabling us to reach some place we are destined to be?  If we are turning to whom are we turning, and for what purpose?

This is a time of year when Jews think a lot about turning, whether they even realize it or not.  The start of a new year always brings with it the sense of time’s passage.  But the idea of turning is also central to the process of teshuvah, a word we commonly translate as repentance.  The three lettered root of the word most often means to turn, or to return, to come back to something, someone, or some place you’ve been before.  This is what we all hope to do in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

A wise rabbi once observed that turning doesn’t require much effort.  It isn’t that you have to move a great distance – instead, you simply stop going in the direction you are going, and turn yourself so you are facing in a different direction.  Sometimes it is that slight reorientation that can make all the difference in the world.  Isn’t it true that life is often about the small things, the slight changes, often in attitude, that can make everything look different?

But there are two types of turning.  We can turn to, or we can turn from.  I sometimes think our initial instinct is to turn away.  When a challenge arises, when a relationship grows difficult, when we feel estranged from faith and God, turning away is often the easiest path.  We turn our backs, cast our eyes in a different direction, and in so doing shield ourselves from potential hurt and harm.  This kind of turning may feel safer, but ultimately it leaves us lonelier, more isolated, less connected.

Turning to is more difficult.  It often requires confrontation, either with ourselves, or others, or both.  It asks us to open ourselves up, to face what we might be inclined to look away from, to engage when we might feel like shutting the door.  But turning to has the potential to repair things that have gone wrong in our lives.  Turning to gives us the best chance of making changes we hope to make, of rekindling friendships, reinvigorating relationships, and reinventing ourselves.

The Talmud teaches that there is a short way that is long, and a long way that is short.  Too often in life we choose the short way and never reach the place we hope to reach.  Choosing the long way can make the journey more difficult, more time consuming, more challenging, but in the end can give us the best chance of arriving at our intended destinies/destinations.


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An Old Dog

You know the saying, one of the most popular proverbs around:  you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  What we mean by this is that people are set in their ways, that they reach a stage in life when they are who they are, and they will not be changing anytime soon.  In fact, they will not be changing at all.  The way they act, their interests, even how they think, are all, to use another saying, ‘set in stone.’

The implication of the proverb is the older we get, the harder it is to change.  There seems to be some truth to this idea.  When we are young we are more open to new ideas and experiences.  Our views about life and the world around us are not yet fully formed. We are more likely, in our youth, to meet new people and have experiences we’ve never had before.  But as we age our world in a sense becomes smaller.  Our friendship circles are for the most part closed.  We rarely if ever do something for the first time.  Even our general sense of the world becomes jaded – ‘it is what it is,’ we say, meaning ‘it isn’t perfect, but it isn’t going to change either.’  Perhaps this is why the tradition understands that King Solomon penned the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when he was an old man, a book that contains one of the Bible’s best known verses – “What has happened will happen again, what has been done will be redone – for there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

My wife and I are the owners of an actual old dog, our loyal and trusted pooch who this year will celebrate his 10th birthday.  The eager young puppy who was filled with energy, who would bound out of the house in the morning and tug you down the street, has slowed down considerably.  These days he solemnly surveys the street before going out, and once outside spends time sniffing the air before deciding in which direction to walk.  His pleasures are simple – to roll in grass on a hot summer day, or watch keenly from the top of the steps the street outside, or to lie quietly and comfortably on the couch as his ‘humans’ watch a bit of television.  Even as I type this he has just entered the room and settled himself comfortably behind my chair, somehow keeping one eye on me while napping at the same time.  If only I could learn to do that!

And yet even in his old age he has not become jaded.  The world is still wondrous to him. When a new season arrives he is thrilled at the change in weather, at the new scents that waft up from the ground in the spring, at the cold winds that ruffle his fur coat in the winter.  He is master of the neighborhood now, the oldest dog on the block, literally, but he loves to meet a young puppy, all bubbly energy, huge paws, overgrown ears.  He’ll play with his younger compatriot, as if to say ‘here is how you do it, now go out and have fun while I lie back here and take a snooze!’  He continues to change, to grow, to study the world around him, to live in the moment.  And this old dog will even, when properly motivated, learn a new trick.

One of the fundamental ideas of Judaism is that people have the capacity to change.  As set in our ways as we might be, as comfortable in our shoes, to fully live life we must be open to what is new.  New people, new experiences, new ideas, new relationships, new knowledge – all of these should be part of the way we grow and change, and growth and change should be a life long processes.  The old proverb and King Solomon were both wrong.  An old dog, when open to the world, can learn new tricks.  And there are many new things under the sun, waiting out in God’s world to be discovered.  As it says in the Talmud:  זיל וגמור – go out and learn!pooch

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Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home

You may remember the series of Rabbi Small books, written by Harry Kemelman. Popular in the 70s, each installment had a title that began with a day of the week – Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, etc. When he ran out of days of the week he used other titles – one was even called The Day the Rabbi Resigned, if I remember correctly. They were mysteries, and in each volume Rabbi Small solved a crime. Set in a fictional Massachusetts town outside of Boston, the Rabbi solves the crimes using logic learned from the Talmud and Jewish values. As they say, what could be bad?

I’ve always suspected that part of the reason the books were so popular is that the protagonist is a member of the clergy, and in a way even more curiously, a rabbi. In other words, your regular old detective character is just like everyone else, but he or she just happens to earn his or her living by solving crimes. But a rabbi ISN’T like everyone else. He is a bit holier. Man of God, and all that business. He thinks different thoughts, has a more direct relationship with the Divine. Heck, just reading about the rabbi would be interesting in and of itself. But a rabbi who solves crimes? Using talmudic logic? Go straight to the best seller list.

But of course the truth is rabbis are no more or less interesting than anyone else. Same foibles. Same problems. Same stresses, same things make us laugh, frustrated, angry, happy, relieved. Before games my old high school soccer coach used to say to us about our opponents “they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else.” The same can be said about the rabbi. No different from anyone else. No better or worse. No holier, no closer to God (maybe further!). Do we know more about Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish theology and text? I hope so! That is what we spent years studying in school, and just like you want your doctor to know more about physiology/biology/illness than you, your rabbi should know more about Judaism. But just like you know your doctor is a regular old person, just like you, the same is true of your rabbi.

Full confession. I neve read any of the Rabbi Small books. So I can’t comment on how accurately or inaccurately he portrays rabbinic life, the rabbinic family, rabbinic work. Could talmudic logic actually help to solve crimes? I suppose, although truth be told the idea strikes me as being a bit fanciful. And entitling one of the books ‘Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home?’ No rabbi I know. That is one way that rabbis are different from most folks – we work on Sundays.

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The Age of Indifference

A play on the title of Edith Wharton’s 1920 serialized novel, ‘age of indifference’ was the title of a Pew Center report of a year or so ago that suggested the younger generation was less concerned with the news, with what was going on in the world around them, and more concerned with their own lives, their ‘inner circle.’ I am not convinced. Anecdotally the young people I come into contact with have a sense of what is happening in the world, probably even more so than I did at their age. In my day the challenge was to find the information. Even if I was interested it in, I couldn’t always track it down. Today, a young person’s challenge is separating out the wheat from the chaff. There is so much information, so much news available, so much detail about anything and everything, how do you decide what to actually read, what to spend time with, what is worthwhile? It is less the age of indifference and more the age of information overload. We’ve been talking about compassion fatigue for some time now. Perhaps we need to spend some time thinking about information fatigue.

There are two traditional ways to study Talmud. One, ‘bikiut,’ means something like ‘survey course style (technically the word means ‘expertise’). The idea is to get through a lot of material, as many pages as possible, with a decent level of competency, and along the way you become somewhat ‘expert’ in Talmud. But then there is ‘b’iyyun’ study. This is a study of depth, of digging deep into a short section of text, of going through level after level of analysis on one idea. Peeling away the layers. Imagine wringing the washcloth out, squeezing and squeezing it until every last bit of moisture has been extracted. That is the way ‘b’iyyun’ study works.

There is pleasure in both kinds of study, and either approach to the text can help one to grow Jewishly and humanly. But I’ve always felt it is the ‘b’iyyun’ study that most accurately reflects the approach of the talmudic sages themselves. There is something meditative about it, prayerful even. A way to access God’s presence, to open up a sense of higher consciousness. From Ben Bag Bag in the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 5:22): Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn from it, and never move from it, for there is no better portion. We are living in a time of ‘survey’ learning. Snippets of information pass quickly before our eyes, even more quickly into short term memory and out again. But what about cogitation? Mulling over a problem, an issue, taking the time to actually think all the way through something? That is the kind of thinking Talmud study requires. A skill I would argue that we need more than ever.

So it is for this reason (and a few others) that I am starting a Talmud class. We will work slowly, taking our time, word by word, idea by idea. Hoping to meet regularly, once a week or close to it. Work in the original Hebrew or Aramaic or both. Student’s will need to be able to read Hebrew, although translations will be available. It is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. Years even. But, as they say in Hebrew, היגיע הזמן, the time has come. And then you have this, also from the Mishnah, also Pirke Avot, this time from Rabbi Tarfon: You don’t have to finish the work, but you have to at least get started!

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the J Street ‘Vote’

So what is the message of yesterday’s vote in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations?  (J Street’s membership in the group was voted down)  Is the community reaching a point where there will be no tolerance for an organization (or a viewpoint) that does not toe the party line, that does not parrot the positions of the Israeli government?  And to paraphrase the great sage Hillel, if this is where we are, where are we?

I would say not in a good place.  First of all, are we so afraid of alternative view points that we don’t even want to hear them?  Does that mean we feel we don’t have the intellectual ability to muster a proper counter argument, to express our own view in such a way that it will be compelling enough for people to listen to?  Haven’t we always prided ourselves on our ability to make a good argument, to take apart an issue, put it back together, and shape it so that our agenda can be respected and moved forward?  Are we admitting defeat?  We don’t know of any appropriate counter argument, so we’ll ignore the challenge and just hope it goes away.  This may be the same strategy that Malcolm Hoenlein has in terms of the Palestinians.  Not a good strategy, and I would also argue not a Jewish one.  We can do better.

This from a blog I wrote a year and a half ago:  “The old joke is two Jews, three opinions, and like with any good joke there is truth at its core.  We have long been an argumentative people.  Our core religious text, the Talmud, is a book filled with arguments.  The Talmud speaks of two types of Torah scholars.  One is the ‘Sinai,’ the sage who knows every jot and tittle of the law and can reproduce it from memory.  The other is the ‘oker harim,’ the uplifter of mountains.  This scholar can look at an issue from all sides, can argue from one side or the other, and is a critical thinker.  Both approaches are needed for authentic Jewish discourse, and traditionally both approaches have been part of a vibrant and vital dialogue about Jewish life in general and Israel in particular.  I worry that that is no longer the case.  The ‘oker harim,’ the independent thinker, is no longer welcome at the table.

     This is not only un-Jewish and a shame, it is also bad for the Jewish people, and it is bad for Israel.  It leaves many Jews, especially younger Jews, wondering if they have a seat at the community table and a voice in the community conversation about one of the most important Jewish issues of our time.  It strays from the most traditional form of Jewish dialogue, what the Talmud calls shakla v’taria – the give and take argumentation that deepens understanding of an issue.  We should not be afraid to have that kind of conversation in the Jewish community.  That is the way we have always done it, so why change now?  And more importantly, that kind of conversation – with true depth, with give and take, with an attempt to understand those who might think differently than you –   is at the end of the day the most productive and meaningful.”

Without J Street at the table we can’t have that conversation.  This was a missed opportunity not for J Street as much as it was for the rest of us.  We are all diminished by yesterday’s vote.  Of course loyal, dedicated, caring Jews will begin to pick up the pieces.  I worry that it will take a long time, and at the end of the road it might be too late.


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Deja Vu All Over Again

This famous line from Yogi Berra captures a central concept in Judaism that in Hebrew is called חזרה, or repetition.  It is the idea of going over something again and again until you know it almost, if not entirely by heart.  This was a traditional form of Talmud study, and it is the way the ba’al korei, the Torah reader, learns what he or she will be reading from the Torah.  It is found in the yearly Torah reading cycle, year in and year out reading the same words and stories.  It is even tied in to the daily prayer services and their repetitive nature, with essentially the same prayers said three times a day to the point of memorization.

I was familiar with this idea long before I became an engaged and observant Jew.  For many years, from the time I was in 5th grade all the way through high school, I would read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy annually  (these days only every other year or so – I have a long reading list!).  And if you grew up in the 60s and 70s you probably have fond memories of spending hours upon hours with friends, a turntable, and the newest record from your favorite band, playing it over and over and over, until the grooves of the record literally began to wear out.

I’ve always believed that that type of intense repetition gives one a level of familiarity, even intimacy, with material that just can’t be achieved in any other way.  When I was in rabbinical school I studied with a professor who literally had the entire text of the Mishnah (all 6 orders) memorized.  Occasionally he would play a strange game of talmudic machismo with us, challenging us to read the first few words of a mishnah – any mishnah – out loud.  He would then complete the text from memory, as well as tell us what tractate, what chapter, and what number mishnah in the chapter we had asked about.  I never saw him get one wrong, and we asked him about mishnayot that were in the middle of long chapters.  Once, during a courageous moment, I asked him how he managed this seemingly herculean feat.  He simply said “I go through the entire mishnah every week.”  Then I asked him why.  His response was fascinating – “I feel this is the only way to know the text the way the rabbis knew it (meaning the Talmudic rabbis).  I suspect he was probably right.

The old story is that a young Talmud prodigy is being interviewed by a Rosh Yeshiva for acceptance into the school.  The boy proudly tells the older scholar that he has been through the entire Talmud, despite the fact that he is not yet bar mitzvah.  The teacher replies:  “I am not interested whether you’ve been through the Talmud – I am interested in whether the Talmud has been through you.”  One way things truly ‘get into’ us – into our bones, into our kishkes – is by going back to them time and again.  And it is a great blessing that we have so many things worth revisiting.  Each trip back brings us a renewed sense of wisdom, meaning, and faith.


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Hillel Circles the Wagons – What is in the Middle?

Sunday’s NY Times reported that Hillel, the national Jewish student college organization, has formalized a new policy banning any speaker or program that challenges the State of Israel and its policies from appearing at a Hillel sponsored event.  In doing so the organization is following in the steps of AIPAC, the Israel lobby group in Washington, which does not allow its representatives to appear at any program or meeting where a member of an organization that does not agree with its policies is on the agenda.  And about a year ago members of Atlanta’s Jewish community tried to ban Peter Beinart from speaking at a Jewish book fair there, saying that his views on Israel were not acceptable.

I understand the impulse.  We look around and see a world that is hostile to Israel, we see anti-semitism (just this morning reports of a French comedian’s anti-semitic gesture being used by French athletes), and we fall back on the old Hillel maxim (not the organization, the Talmudic sage) If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

But while we are thinking about the sage Hillel lets remember that he was the bar plugta, the one who argued with, another great sage from antiquity, Shammai.  Hillel and Shammai always disagreed about matters of Jewish law.  If one said black, the other said white.  If one said something was permitted, the other said it was forbidden.  In the end, Hillel won the debate soundly, and in the over 300 disagreements between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, almost all of them were decided according to Hillel’s opinion.  Yet the opinions of Shammai and his house are all recorded and preserved in the Talmud.  Even though they were wrong.

This seems to me a fundamental Jewish ideal.  The Talmud, which is the core document of Jewish life, is a record of debates.  Page after page, disagreement after disagreement.  Sometimes the debates are about trivial matters, sometimes they are about issues that would have a long lasting affect on the entire Jewish community.  The point is that the Judaism we practice today, a rabbinic-Judaism, was formed through these debates, through the arguments.  And the record of those arguments is complete – both the winners and the losers are present on the talmudic page, both the main stream opinions and the radical ones.  That is authentic Judaism, the shakla v’taryia, the give and take, the intellectual back and forth.

To stifle debate, to close it out, or avoid it, to present only a single unified view, is just not the Jewish way.  Is it easier?  Yup.  Is it safer?  Maybe.  But since when have we Jews chosen the easier way?  And why should we start now?  And by the way, if Hillel’s mission is to foster authentic and meaningful Jewish life on campus, how can they do that when they are not operating in an authentically Jewish way?

So I say kudos to the Swarthmore Hillel.  They recently declared themselves an ‘open Hillel,’ and have stated they will not abide by the new national Hillel guidelines.   By doing so they have reminded us all not only of the importance of free speech in our country, but also of the role that open debate and discussion should always have in Jewish life.


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