Monday, October 29, 2007

Conversion Class

On Saturday, we started over with the Jewish History timeline, this time with a different approach.  The previous version was a pretty traditional rendering.  It assumed that all the events actually took place, and was reconstructed from clues given in the Bible.  This approach is consistent with Orthodox Judaism or Fundamentalist Christianity.
Here comes one of the more challenging aspects of Reform Judaism: the Bible isn't literal truth.  Reform Jews consider the Biblical record to be more along the lines of a collection of legends and folk tales meant to teach a moral or cultural lesson.  Think more along the lines of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree than Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

On with the show.
Even though Israel and the Holy Land are among Earth's hottest archeological hot spots, we can prove very few events recorded in the Bible.  We're talking about some stunners, too.  There's no evidence of King David.  Shocking, right?  Same with Moses.  In fact, there's no evidence of the Exodus from Egypt.

Since the Rabbi did his doctoral dissertation on the Exodus, we spent a lot of time talking about it.  We really have no idea when it happened, if in fact it did.  There are no references to it in any known Egyptian texts.
We do know that there were Semites in Egypt in about 1700 BCE.  They were called the Hyksos, but their documented story is very different from the Exodus story.  They were kicked out of Egypt in about 1600 BCE.  Not quite "let my people go".  Additionally, some of the places that the Hebrews wrote about during their 4o years of wandering have been found.  There's no evidence of an encampment.  Even some of the towns that were settled shortly after the return to Canaan have been excavated; they didn't find any artifacts that had Egyptian influence.

It gets pretty interesting when you carefully analyze the writings about the Exodus.  It seems that the Tribe of Judah was not involved.  They don't claim that their people were enslaved until after they start identifying themselves as Israel.  In their separate, nationalistic, identity, there's nothing.  Even people from the other Tribes leave them out.  It seems like a Tribe that's represented by a lion and known for their warrior ways would have done something worth mention.

After the Exodus came the battle of Jericho.  Despite what Joshua recored, the walls didn't fall.  There's not even evidence of the city having been occupied at that time.  In fact, there's no evidence of the conquest of Canaan.  See Israel Finkelstein's The Bible Unearthed (I haven't read it.  Rabbi mentioned it.  I do know that he was on Digging for the Truth, in the King David episode).

Speaking of David...
There's only one shred of reference to his existence, other than the Bible, and that's the Tel Dan Stele.  It's esstially a stone tablet, and one line reads "Beit David", which translates to "House of David".  It would be pretty convincing evidence, if only there were enough information to link that line to the Biblical King.  Alas.  All we can prove is that there was a King named David (This was also in Digging for the Truth).

In the end, you have to choose your path.  You can either have faith that the entire Bible is true and the science is fallible, or you can trust the science and understand that people have a tendency to exaggerate, especially when it comes to "my God can kick your God's ass".

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Links and associated Disclaimer

Call it a harkening back to my professional life, in which I work for an attorney.

I've gone back through the my posts and added in links to external sites.

Some of them are to, to better define the books that I'm reading.  It shouldn't be seen as an advertisement for either the book or the website.  My intention is clarity.

Similar grains of salt for some of the definitions.  I've linked to  I chose that because it's not a religious site, and therefore seems unthreatening and non-partisan.  Yes, I know that it's user-written and that anybody can change it.  I also know that there are ideas and themes which may or may not be 100% accurate.  It's a broad stroke, and I do firmly believe that you shouldn't make any major life decisions based solely on wikipedia.

What's in a Name? Would a Rose by any other name really smell as sweet?

In my readings so far on Jewish culture, I'm finding that they place a significance on names. There's a belief that your name can influence your destiny, so parents (and converts) should choose wisely. There's a tradition toward naming children after relatives, either living or dead, depending on whether one is Sephardic or Ashkanazic.

Interestingly, these are also values that my mother shares.

My middle name is a very strong family name, on both my mom's and my dad's side. It was my paternal grandmother's real first name, and it was my maternal grandmother's original middle name. It was also my maternal great-grandmother's name.

As for my first name, it has the same meaning as my father's: Victory.
This gets interesting, because my mom told me that she originally chose it because she thought it was pretty and didn't know the meaning behind it. It gets really interesting when you consider that she's one of the most competitive women in the entire world, and the names of her husband and oldest daughter reflect her love of winning.

The reason I'm writing this is because she just sent me a card. I've been having a difficult time with people at work, and she wanted to encourage me. She chose to do so by writing out the meanings of my names and telling me that she's "just learned that we are to walk in our name sake." Then she writes that my first name is victory and courage, and my middle name is noble and kind, and that I should just be who I am, and everything will be okay.

I don't think she even knows how Jewish that card is. I wouldn't have known until recently. This just might be easier and more organic than I thought.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Today's Service: Meditation

The following was included in the Siddur (prayer book) for today.  I thought it was beautiful.
Our synagogue uses "Gates of Prayer", and it's found on page 376.

Pray as if everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on you.

Master of the universe, grant me the ability to be alone:
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day,
among the trees and grasses, among the growing things,
there to be alone and enter into prayer.

There may I express my heart
talking with Him to whom I belong.

And may all grasses, trees, and plants
awake at my coming,

Send the power of their life into my prayer,
making whole my heart and speech
through the life and spirit of growing things,
made whole my their transcended Source.

O that they would enter into prayer!
Then would I fully open my heart
in prayer, supplication, and holy speech;
then, O God, would I pour out the words
of my heart before Your presence.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Online Classes

I stumbed across Jewish Pathways  the other day, but only just started actually exploring it.  It's an educational outlet of an Orthodox Jewish website.
Turns out, they've got some online classes that are FREE!  For a limited time, of course.  But you can't get any better than free.  Not to mention that study is a mitzvah...

One of them requires buying a text, which is kind of lame for an online class, but it happens to be a book that my Rabbi recommends, so I was planning to buy it anyway.  I've signed up for the Laws of Shabbat, Chumash Themes, The Way of G-d, and Deed & Creed.
So far, I've started the Chumash course, and it's pretty interesting.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part IV

Still more history...this part will bring us up through the destruction of the Second Temple, so we'll be into the Common Era (also known as AD).  This, of course, means that Jesus comes along during this section.  He's going to get his own post, because it's a special topic.

When we left off, the Jews didn't have a king, and they were just entering the age of the Prophets.  The Prophets' basic message was to stop sinning, because God was going to rain down some punishment.
In 586 BCE, he did, in the form of a Babylonian invasion.  The Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were exiled.  See, the Babylonians were smart people, and they knew that if they divided the people, they would be more easily assimilated.  The best and the brightest Jews were recruited to join the best and the brightest of the Babylonians, giving them freedom if they'd only renounce their religion.  Some of them refused, and a fierce nationalism was born.
Without a Temple, the Jews could no longer make sacrifices, and they didn't have a special place of worship.  Being insightful people, they remembered that if God's light fills the whole world, a special building wasn't completely necessary.  Thus, the first synagogues were created as the Jews congregated.  
As a result of the Temple's destruction, the religion became more democratic.   Since Cohens (priests) weren't needed to perform sacrifices, Rabbis became the more prominent leaders.  You see, priesthood was determined by lineage, while becoming a Rabbi was strictly through study and teaching.  

While all of this is evolving, the Prophet Ezekiel comes along.  He has a vision of the dry bones coming to life, and this vision has sustained the Jewish people through many difficult times.  Having the hope of coming back from the dead to revitalize is a powerful image.  It applied to the Jews during this exile, and after the Roman conquest, and after the Holocaust.  It's an image for all time, an ongoing prophesy, if you will.  

After 70 years of exile, the Jews were permitted to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, by order of Cyrus the Great, of Persia.

Of course, things couldn't stay happy.  Along came the Greeks.  They didn't attack the Jews, not in a physical sense.  What they did do was bring in their seductive culture which worshiped the holiness of beauty.  Judaism respected the beauty of holiness, and things started to get difficult.  The Bible was translated for the first time, into Greek, and many Rabbis saw this as an affront, because Jews didn't even know their own language.  There were two factions of Jews, the Hellenists (who were Greek-living Jews) and the Hasidim (who weren't todays Hasidic Jews, but were traditional) Eventually, things started to get forceful, and the Maccabee rebellion was born.  The Hasidim took up arms against the Greeks.
The Second Temple was built, and it was during this time that Hanukkah was first celebrated.  During the dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE, they ran low on oil for the menorah, with only 1 day's supply left.  It would take 8 days to make a new batch.  Miraculously, the oil lasted all 8 days, and that's why we celebrate.  It's meant to be a recognition of the victory of monotheism over paganism, and its celebration predates that of Christmas by over 100 years.

With the Greeks defeated, there could only be so long before the next battle.  Enter the Romans.  They were nothing like the Greeks.  Instead of being seductive, they were Sadistic.  Many Jews turned to their religion for hope.  Some started a new sect, the Essenes.  They believed that the Messiah was coming very soon, and that their Kingdom was not of this world.  Since there wasn't long to wait, there was no need to have children to continue the people, and they were celibate, so as to not be distracted from their faith by lust.  This was, you'll note, very different for the Jewish people, who believe that marital relations are a mitzvah.  It's also...very similar to how Jesus Christ lived, and how priests live now.  On an archeological note, he Essenes left us the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And then comes Jesus.  At this time, the Essenes believed that the Messiah was soon to come, because God said that he would send his messenger at a time when all hope was lost.  It seemed like just about that time to the Essenes in the face of the Roman persecution.  I'll go more into why they thought he was the Messiah, and why this book says Judaism believes that he wasn't later.  He was crucified by the Romans in 33 CE.

In 70 CE, the Romans took Jerusalem, and destroyed the Second Temple on the 9th day of Av (Tisha b'Av).  This day is significant as a day of Jewish tragedy many times over, so many times that Jews believe that it is not a coincidence.
Due to a deal cut with the General who was attacking Jerusalem, the Jews were permitted to set up and maintain a small school, even while the Romans killed as many Jews as they could find.  This is a big part of the reason Judaism survived the Romans.  
At this time, most of the teachings were part of an oral tradition.  In the face of so much persecution and death, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi decided to defy tradition and write the laws down in order to preserve them, in the second century CE.  Tradition says that he prayed for forgiveness as he put ink to paper, but thank God he did.  His writings became the Mishnah, and they covered nearly every aspect of Jewish life.

Over the next 300 years, Jewish scholars studied the Mishnah in yeshivas.  Yeshivas were essentially universities, Jewish-style.  Eventually their discussions of the Mishnah were recorded, and the combination of these writing and the Mishnah became the Talmud.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Conversion Class

Notes from Saturday's class...mostly more timeline stuff.

First, we started out with a question from a classmate.  She had been involved in a discussion of a story involving Noah, his son, and incest.  She was questioning why tradition considered it incest, when the text merely said, "uncovered his nakedness".  She wanted to argue for a literal interpretation, that Noah was drunk and passed out and, you know, stuff happened.
The Rabbi explained that "to uncover nakedness" is an idiomatic expression used in the Bible as a euphemism for sexual activity.  To uncover a man's nakedness could mean to have sex with the man, or with his wife.  In this case, sleeping with the wife is logical, because in the morning after, Noah curses his son's sons.  If you go through ancient texts of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean origin, cursing your offspring doesn't happen often, and when it does, it's because he usurped the father's power, or his bed.
As far as the Rabbi's concerned, this very cultural explanation that should be proof enough.  I buy it.  The classmate did not, and respectfully agreed to disagree.  The Rabbi bought that.

On to the history portion.  We left off last week at about 920 BCE, and began this session at 905 BCE, when King David's son, King Solomon, died.
The monarchy is split into two factions, following a rebellion.  The Hebrews are now in two separate countries, Judah in the South, and Israel in the North.

The two exist in parallel until 722 BCE, when Israel is attacked by the Assyrians and falls.  You see, the Israelites and the Judeans had to pay tribute to Assyria, who were the powerful people in the area.  At some point, the Israelites had had quite enough of their shenanigans, and decided to rebel.  According to the Rabbi, the Assyrians were the first fascists, and Israel wasn't the only country to rebel against their rules.  Judah didn't join in the rebellion, and that's probably why they survived.

This becomes the time of the Prophets.
There were two early Prophets: Elijah and Elisha, who emerged around 850 BCE.
Around 750 BCE, you start to see more Prophets emerging.  There was only one Israelite prophet, Hosea.  The rest were Judean: Micah, Amos, Isaiah (up through chapter 30 or so).
Another wave comes in about 650 BCE: Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Joel.

Before the fall of Israel, the two groups are aware of each other, and the prophets wrote about each other's countries.  It is interesting to note that the Israelites referred to their country as "Jacob", "Ephraim", "Joseph", and "Sumeria".  The Judeans initially only referred to their country as "Judah", but in about 650 BCE, they co-opted that name and all the nicknames as well, in an effort to take on their identity.

We spent the rest of class talking about what the Prophets do, and what purpose they served.
Some people thought they could see the future.
Some thought they were scholars and politicians.
I thought they were particularly insightful teachers and leaders.
The Rabbi said that there were three words for "prophet":
Navi: to interpret
Ro-eh: to see
Hozeh: to view
He said that they were the analysts of the time, that they used their theology as a lens through which to view the events of the time and predict what could be expected in the future.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Yesterday's Service: From Sarai to Sarah...Palin

The Torah portion yesterday was about Abram's wife Sarai (the same people who God renamed Abraham and Sarah). She was unable to have children, and in that time, that was a vital function for a wife. The had rules for how a man could go about having children if his wife had difficultites, and one of those was to take a concubine from among the household's maids. This is what Sarai suggested that Abram do. They chose Sarai's handmaid Hagar the Egyptian to do the duty.
They then encountered a problem. After Hagar became pregnant, Sarai felt that Hagar no longer respected her.

This is where the lesson came in. Instead of teaching us the story, the Rabbi wanted us to discuss honor, and what it means to honor someone. And he wanted to talk about the opposite of honor, because that is what Hagar did to Sarai.

Firstly, the word for honor that was used in the Hebrew text, translated literally, means "to give weight to". The word used in this story was "to make lighter". There's a bit of room for interpretation as to what exactly that means. In fact, everybody who shared their ideas had a slightly different opinion.

The Rabbi also told us that he found it interesting that the Bible says to "love your neighbors", but does not say the same about your parents. We are supposed to "honor" them, with honor being from the same Hebrew root.

I think this means that God knows that you will have disagreements with your parents (or your masters, if you're a maid), and they will do things and say things that will make you not love them (hopefully only temporarily). Even so, you must be able to respect them because of their positions.

This got us into talking a bit about politics, because similar logic should apply to political leaders. The Rabbi asked, if George W. Bush were to walk through the door, would you shake his hand? He argued that most people would, although most present disagreed. The Rabbi asked about other figures. That brought us from Sarai to Sarah Palin. Most of us would shake hers.

EDIT:  For those who are sent her by Google and want to know Sarah Palin's religion, she says she's Protestant.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Zipporah, Wife of Moses

By Marek Halter

This is not a book assigned by my Rabbi, but it is a book about a Jewish theme. It's a work of historical fiction; an attempt to flesh out a marginalized character. As such, I do not know how very accurate it is, other than that I could find no obvious inconsistency with the Biblical accounts.

That said, I really liked this Zipporah.. She was wise, passionate and firey, just as I would expect the wife of a great, though insecure, man to be. The author emphasized that Moses was not raised Jewish by having Zipporah act as his teacher. She served to boost his confidence in the face of the difficult task God put in front of him. This, I liked and felt might well have been authentic.

The author contended that Moses had only one wife, and that the reference to the Cushite wife of Moses was literal. Since we know from the Bible that Jethro was Zipporah's father, and that he was a Hebrew, the author wrote that Zipporah was rescued and adopted by Jethro. This makes Zipporah a convert, and I kind of like that (being a convert myself).

There were also some things that I didn't believe.. The author solved the problem of Moses not choosing one of his sons to be the next leader by killing them off in the chaos that followed Moses' discovery of the Golden Calf. I just felt like that would have been included in the Biblical account of that story. I had the same issue with the murder of Zipporah. It seemed too sensational and contrived, and also like something that would have been recorded.

As I continue my studies, I may form a different opinion, but for now, I liked it.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part III

Still more history of the Jews.

We start this section with the Judges, who were temporary limited-capacity leaders.  After the amazing leadership of Moses and Joshua, and the reverence paid to them, the Hebrews decided that God was their King, and the only leader they would need for their day-to-day lives.
But when disaster (or an enemy) struck, they looked to charismatic people who could unite them, despite their differing opinions on how God wants people to live.

Amazingly, the Judges who were chosen demonstrated different weaknesses, and those weaknesses were overcome through the power of God.  
The first Judge was Deborah, obviously a woman, who demonstrated that military leaders needed wisdom and daring, not just muscle and masculinity.
The next we have in the Biblical record is Gideon, who led the Hebrews to a stunning victory after selecting an army of only 300 from 32,000 volunteers.  By choosing his soldiers for their wisdom and religious devotion, Gideon proved, again, that muscle is less important than faith.
The lesson that strength is nothing without wisdom was brought home by Samson, who was certainly strong, but allowed himself to be out-witted and his physical power was taken from him.  After re-affirming his faith, he was allowed to become strong only once more.
The last Judge was Samuel, who cautioned the Hebrews against putting ultimate power in the hands of one person, but ultimately, gave in to the popular demand and selected Saul to be king.
Sure enough, power corrupted Saul, and he was followed by the beloved King David.

David was a warrior, a conquerer, a poet, and very human.  While he did amazing things and his Psalms are some of the best written examples of the human spirit, he still committed sins.  His greatest accomplishment was building Judah, and in creating a plan for the Temple.
David, however, was not allowed to build the Temple.  God did not want a man who had so much blood on his hands building a place which should be peaceful.  The task of building the Temple was left to David's son, the very wise Solomon.  He was also an amazing writer, giving us the books of Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.

After this, the Jews became involved in a civil war, and 10 of the 12 tribes seceded from Judah and created the Kingdom of Israel.  These 10 tribes eventually disappeared, becoming the 10 lost tribes.
Judah was then ministered to by Prophets, three of the first being Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Elijah's message was that straying from God and living unethically would have dire consequences.
Isaiah taught that ethical living, justice, and righteousness were the best ways to serve God, and that we should be a light to the world.
Jeremiah had the unfortunate task of telling everybody that their efforts weren't good enough, and their lifestyles were not righteous, and God's punishment was coming.  It came, and Jeremiah's message became more hopeful, teaching that living according to the Law would bring rewards and a return to the Promised Land.

Part IV coming soon.

Holiday Cards

I decided that this year, I really am going to send out cards.  I've been meaning to do it for the past couple years, but...just didn't get it done.
In my defense, I wanted to write little personal notes in each, but it was too ambitious, too time consuming.  Time is not something I have a lot of these days.
Lately, I've been taking a lot of pictures.  It started when I got a smartphone, and I discovered that I could take pictures and email them to flickr, right from my phone.  I started a flickr page then and there.  Because I am who I am, I ended up getting more ambitious and bought a nice digital camera and started going to town with the photos.  They all end up on that flickr page.

Because almost every picture I take gets posted, I needed to upgrade to a pro account, and when I did that, they gave me some free mini-cards.  From there I got the idea to make a bunch of notecards with one of my photos, and send them to my family and friends.
Then I had an even better idea: there's a company who will print your custom cards, and even mail them out for you.  Sweet.  
Just one problem:  I needed a good photo.  All of mine are of things that I've seen lately and places that I've been.  And my cat.  None of them were really any good for a holiday card, so I had a bit of a photoshoot today.

My inspiration was kind of a deconstructed menorah.  I took 9 candles, and arranged them on my coffee table.  I tried to take pictures of them from different angles, but there wasn't much that I could do with my pretty distinct lack of talent.  I did take some other shots with fewer candles, but I really hope that one of my "menorah" pictures works out.  I feel like that would be a good compromise and transition between my two holidays.  Plus, I really don't want the message of my "Christmas" card to be "Hi.  I'm Jewish now".  It's just not the time or the place for that, especially for my mom.

All I want is a pretty card that lets my family know that I love them and that I think about them.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part II

Book report, continued.  So far, it's more history.  

We learn a little more about the Creation of Earth, and how the choices that God made while he did that tell us about how we should live.
Some favored tidbits from this section:
"Why was one man created first, rather than many?  So that no person in the course of history would be able to say to anyone else, 'my ancestry is greater than yours'."
The book also points out that God tends to improve on his prior we can infer that when God made man, it was good, but when he made woman, that was a little better.

Next comes some more about Abraham, the man who discovered monotheism.  The book recounts some stories from Jewish tradition about how Abraham came to the conclusion that idols were, well, idle, and that a multitude of gods just created supernatural conflict, but that there had to be something greater, because nothing comes from nothingness.  He determined that there had to be one God.

Our next Jewish hero is Moses.  He was born in Egypt, at a time when pharoh wanted all firstborn Hebrew boys to be killed.  His mom put him into an ark, and with a prayer, set him afloat on the Nile.  Pharoh's daughter found him, and adopted him as her own.  He was, therefore, not raised with the Hebrew traditions.  Eventually, he finds out his real background, kills an Egyptian, and flees Egypt.  He then learns the traditions, and is chosen by God to free the Hebrews from Egypt.  He does, and they wander the desert for 40 years.  This was a punishment, because it really only took about 2 weeks to get from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Moses wasn't allowed to enter the Promised Land, due to some sin he committed.  Instead, he was allowed to see it from a nearby mountain peak, and then God himself took Moses' soul and buried his body in an undisclosed location (so as to avoid pilgrimages and shrines).

After Moses came Joshua.  He fought the battle of Jericho.  Moses chose Joshua as his successor, which is interesting, since Joshua was not related to him in any way, and Moses had 2 sons who would have made more traditional choices.

Next comes the period of the Judges, to be continued in Part III.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Conversion Class

Today's class focused on setting a framework for our studies in Jewish history.

We learned a bit about the geography, so we could place where the ancient places were within a modern context.  I can't do justice to that here.
We also started learning a timeline of sorts; we mostly learned a geneology today.

Jewish history starts with Abraham, some 4000 years ago.  He was born in Ur, Babylonia, which was probably in present-day Iraq.  He eventually settled in Canaan, which would be in Israel today.

Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.

Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob (who was later re-named Israel).

Jacob had 11 sons, who became the patriarchs of the 12 tribes (well...sort of).  The sons were Shimein, Levi, Reuben, Dan, Judah, Benjamin, Gad, Naphtali, Issacher, Zebulin, and Asher.  Joseph had two sons, Ephraim, and Menasseh, who both had land.  This would make 13 tribes, and you can't have 13 of anything.  And so it became that there is no tribe of "Joseph".  The Levites did not own land, because they served religiously.

After that, there is little record of who did what.  Not until Moses comes along, in about 1300-1250 BCE.  Then the Hebrews are led out of Egypt and make their way back to Canaan.

After Moses comes Joshua.  He fought the battle of Jericho.

Then, for a while, the Hebrews have no strong leader.  They're ruled by the Judges, who unite 
the people against an enemy (usually the Philistines), and then everybody goes back on their merry ways.  These guys (and a girl) were charismatic leaders whom the community sought out.

Saul becomes the first united king of the Hebrew people.  He's incredibly popular, and powerful.  He started out as one of the Judges, but after the battle was won, the people anointed him king.  He eventually goes a little crazy.

Enter David.  He fights Goliath, is very popular, and is seen as an ideal king.  He becomes the leader of the tribe of Judah and captures Jerusalem.  He becomes king of the Hebrews.

Succeeding David as king comes his son, Solomon.  He builds the first Temple, and becomes the last ruler of the united monarchy.  The nation divides, because Solomon enslaves the Israelites in order to build the Temple, and they eventually decide that they have had enough and rebel.

That's as far as we got, which brings us to about 920 BCE.

Today's Service: What I Learned

Instead of doing a sermon today, the Rabbi opened up the floor for a question and answer session.  One of the congregants asked about when we should bow during a certain prayer.  She said that she had done some reading, and it seemed like the people at our synagogue never bowed at the "right" time.  Granted, she was reading an Orthodox book, and our congregation is Reform, but that didn't explain the difference.

The Rabbi said that it didn't matter.
The answer to her specific question was that it is more important why you bow, then when.
And then he said something that I really found valuable:
"If you leave the service a better person than you were when you walked in, then the prayers worked."

Powerful stuff.  The whole point is not that you do it correctly, it's that you learn and grow as a human being, becoming wiser, more compassionate.  No ritual can make that happen; it can only prepare you to allow it to happen.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture, Part I

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Here's the first of my book reports; the Rabbi hasn't given us our booklists yet, but he did say that this would be on it.  Since this is a fairly long book divided into parts, I think I'll just do each part separately.  It should make things easier for me, for my notes.

Part I: Who are the Jews?

This section is, obviously, about Jewish identity.  It talks about the various Jewish stereotypes (like Jews being good businessmen, doctors, comedians and whatnot), but also about who the Jews really are as a people (including why the stereotypes may have originated).

As anybody who's opened a Bible can tell you, the Jewish people are descendants of Abraham, as are the Muslims.  The Muslim people are descendants of his son Ishmael, while the Jews are from Isaac's lineage.  Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau.  Esau rejected the religion, while Jacob embraced it.  Jacob had 12 sons, who became the fathers of the 12 Jewish tribes.  10 of those tribes are lost, and the two that remain are Judah and Levi.  From the name Judah, we get the word Jew.

Of course, it's a little more complicated than that.  The Jews were originally a tribe, but are now a religious group.  They are not, technically a "nation" or an "ethnicity", or a "race".  They're a group of people.  You can be Jewish by virtue of your lineage, or by conversion.  There are a whole bunch of laws governing who is Jewish and who is not.  This only seems to matter when one is considering moving to Israel, as every Jew has the right to become an Israeli citizen (although not all Israelis are Jews).

What I found interesting is that, even though Jews have a patriarchal society, you are considered legally Jewish if your mother was a Jew.  If your father was a Jew, but your mother was not, you must convert to become Jewish.  Being Jewish this way doesn't mean you must follow Judaism.  

Then again, I'm converting and choosing to be among the chosen people.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Plan

For the next year or so, I'll be taking a conversion class.  My Rabbi refers to it as "Intro to Judaism".  Since it's going to be a personal and spiritual journey, keeping a journal just makes sense to me.  Because I'm the kind of girl who finds comfort in research, I've scoured the internet for information about Jewish conversion.  A lot of what I've found so far tends toward the technical, what-to-expect, bland description.  I'm hoping to change that a bit.

This blog will be my personal experiences with conversion.  I'll try to keep it from being all about soul-searching and navel-gazing, because I don't think those things really help (or interest) anybody.  My intention is for this to be a series of posts about what I've learned.  You'll probably see summaries of discussions from conversion class, and probably some book reports for the Rabbi's suggested reading.

Monday, October 8, 2007

My Mom

As I mentioned in my previous post, my mom is a devout Christian.
She kind of expects me to be one, too.
I think this is partially because she basically became a Christian in order to facilitate, and later to encourage, my faith.  I encouraged her in hers, as well.

One of the most difficult things for me in considering conversion is trying to figure out how to tell her.  Christianity has been a big part of our relationship, because many of the things that we've done together, just the two of us, were somehow related to religion.

I've been trying to break it to her slowly, giving her hints along the way.  I'll mention a Jewish tradition that I've recently learned.  I told her that my Bible study has been, for the past six months, strictly Old Testament.

Well, I just got off the phone with her.

We were talking about my work schedule, and I mentioned that I usually work on Sunday mornings, because most of my co-workers want that time off.  She said that I should ask for more Sunday mornings, so I can go to church.  I used that opportunity to tell her that I go on Saturdays now.  Naturally, she wanted to know where, and what kind of church it was.  

I didn't tell her about the conversion class yet.  I think it might be too much.  And, seeing as it only started three days ago and will last for about a year, there's time.  Still, I feel like I made an important step today.  It felt very natural, and, to be honest, it was a relief.

A Seeker

In order to make sense of where I'm going, it's important to know where I've been.  Since this blog is about my conversion to Judaism, let's start with my religious and relevant cultural background.  I'll try to keep this as interesting as possible.

I'm a 26 year old woman, born and raised in a small town in Alaska.  I started believing in God about 20 years ago, back in the day when vacation bible school was a welcome break for my mother.  She didn't start going to church services until I was about 10, a few years after I got involved with a youth group.  I think it's important to note that I chose faith, and that it wasn't something that was forced on me.  It was very much a choice, because believing in God just felt...right.

As I got older, I stayed involved.  I was a member of my church's drama troupe, and I always performed in Christmas programs.  That's not to say that I didn't question my faith; quite the opposite, actually.  
I grew up in a Bible-based, non-denominational Christian church.  They were a bit fundamentalist, but that was at a time when I really didn't know the difference.  We will call this church by its initials, LMBC.  I left that church at about 13 years old, when it divided into two churches.

Most of my youth group leaders went to the new church, and I followed them.  Its initials were CCC.  By this time, my mother had become a Christian, and we very involved in both the church and in supervising my life.  She was instrumental in ensuring that I went to church at least once a week, and she generally attended with me.  The pastor of CCC did not grow up in a Christian home.  This made him really interesting, because he had never planned to become a pastor.  Originally, he was a forester, a scientist.  Because of this background, he encouraged his congregation to ask questions and challenge their faiths.  He believed, and understood, that doing so would ultimately serve to strengthen convictions, rather than allow seeds of doubt to take hold.  I stayed with this church until I moved away from my parents' house and commuting to this church was no longer possible, even though I had disagreements with some of their philosophies.  My mother still attends this church, and is very devout.

I went to college in North Dakota.  Generally, I did not go to church alone, as a result, I usually didn't go to services.  My best friend and room mate at the time is Catholic.  I believe that the first time I attended STANC, it was for Easter vigil.  I discovered that I really liked the priest.  I think he was a Jesuit, but I could be remembering incorrectly.  What I do remember is that he speaks seven different languages, seemed to be well-versed in science, and was a very engaging speaker.  He always seemed more interested in teaching than in preaching, which was something that I appreciated, even if I didn't always agree with what he was saying.  I attended a Catechism class under him, and ended up not converting to Catholicism.    This was partly due to my disagreements with dogmatic law, and partly because I became involved with a different extra-curricular activity which prevented me from attending further classes.

After graduating from college and moving away from home, I haven't regularly attended church.  I have visited several, but I haven't gone to one for more than about two weeks in a row.  I just can't find one that doesn't offend me somehow.  It seems like every Christian church I go to is set completely against providing equal rights to all (generally manifested in their stance against gay marriage).  The biggest church in my area is incredibly commercial, and has recently built a sports arena.  Initially, this project was to be partially funded by the government, which I feel is too much of an encroachment of the separation between church and state.

Between the politicization of faith, the commercialization of charity, and the basic human rights violations being perpetuated in the name of Jesus...I'm seriously considering renouncing Christ and Christianity and believing in God in his more ancient incarnation.

This is partly how I found myself in a synagogue on Saturday morning, attending a Jewish service and beginning my studies in conversion class at CBS.