Wednesday, November 28, 2007


My mom noticed that I didn't have any decorations around my apartment this year.
Usually, I do just a little something.
Mom's really into crafting, and so our family typically has a lot of handmade decorations all over everywhere at Christmastime.  She always puts up a tree that is completely covered in angels and other handmade ornaments.  I made some of them as a child; there are a lot of ornaments where we have two on the tree.  One is the one that mom made, and the other is the one that I did.  Until I turned about 12, mine are definitely a little sloppier than mom's, but she loves them anyway.  
Mom loves Christmas decorations so much that she started collecting angels.  At first, it was a Christmastime-only collection, but now she keeps some of them up all year.  She also has a crèche on display year-round. 
 So, obviously, she was going to notice that my place doesn't look very festive.  In typical mom fashion, she brought me some decorations that she had stored for me, and put them up.  I now have a string of quilted mittens at my fireplace, and a stocking hung by the chimney (with care).

Mom means the best with all of this.  She's trying to do things that she thinks will make me happy, and remind me of the beautiful things at a time of year where it can be pretty cold and bleak.  And she doesn't know that I'm pretty sure that I'm going to go through with the conversion; she still believes that I'm simply learning about Judaism.

It just goes to show that it's not going to be the easiest path.  I'll probably never be able to be completely traditional in my observances.  Instead, I'll have to find a balance between Judaic traditions and family traditions.  I'm sure it can be done, but it's going to take a lot of patience and understanding.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Saturday's Service: cancelled

When I went to the temple for shabbat morning service, there was no minyan, so we couldn't hold a proper service.  Instead, we talked about the torah portion (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43), which covered the rape of Dinah.

This is an interesting story.  It's not often talked about in Christian churches, and I'd never been taught the story before.  It's a really difficult and confusing passage.  We mostly talked about it in the context of honor killings, and of the marginalization of women in the biblical text.  The Rabbi mentioned a comparison to The Godfather again, this time in reference to Jacob.

I understand it as an unethical overreaction to an incredibly difficult situation.  Key parts of the story are missing.  We don't know how Dinah felt about Shechem.  Even that brings up the question of whether or not that matters.  If it were a date-rape situation, would that make it less wrong?  And if Shechem's actions weren't morally reprehensible, what effect does that have on the reaction of Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi?  It would seem that their reaction would be even more extreme and difficult to understand, and very unethical.
At the same time, Simeon and Levi come off very badly in the story, and it seems that the author is trying to paint them as unethical.  It's all very much a gray area, though.  Jacob rebukes them at the end of the story, saying that their actions have made him and his people look bad.  It's a very weak admonition, and it's not even the last word in the argument; Simeon and Levi get that, in defense of their actions.

It's an extremely challenging text, and I really don't know what to think of it, other than to realize that there are as many reactions to a situation as there are people.  Beyond that, there are a million ways to interpret the behavior, especially when it's recorded forever in a pretty cryptic fashion.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Blog Link: Faithhacker

This is a topic that I touched on in my opening post, when I talked about the reasons why I was considering conversion.  I'm concerned about the commercial endeavors of churches, the impact on the separation of church and state, and, ultimately, religious freedom.

Faithhacker posted about this very topic.  It's especially interesting to me, because I have attended the church at the heart of this discussion, and even mentioned it in that post.  The Faithhacker post brings up several of the issues which really do bother me: excessive evangelism, and the separation between church and state.

It's kind of sad, really, because I do feel that the ChangePoint people honestly think that they're trying to better the community, and a place like the Sports Dome really could have a positive effect.  I just wish that they had made it a separate entity, as opposed to an extension of the church.  I would want them to pay taxes at an appropriate rate (I don't know if it's for-profit or not).  I would want them to keep the preaching out of it, even though I agree that the code of conduct for their facility is appropriate.
Basically, if it's an athletic facility, it should be treated like one.  If it's really a church where people play indoor football, run track, and practice other sports, then it should be called one.  I don't like the idea of claiming to support religious freedom, but in the same breath talk about converting people to your religion.

If there's one thing that I've learned, it's that committing to a religion should be an act of free will.  It doesn't matter if it's a religion into which you were born, or one you chose for yourself.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving blogs

Faithhacker has a nice post on how Thanksgiving should be seen as a universal American custom, rather than something Jews should avoid for fear of assimilation:

The Chutzpah Chronicles on Faithbook compare Thanksgiving to Shabbat. She says that the way most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving is similar to how she saw Shabbat celebrated in Jerusalem.

These are good to know, particularly the faithbook link. I may not have the time to celebrate Shabbat completely now, but it's helpful to have a picture of how God might have intended us to observe the day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Accidentally Following Tradition

Another one from The Book of Jewish Practice:
"A biblical commentator, quoted by Nahmanides, noted that Judah chose the name for his first son while his wife named the second (Genesis 38:3-4).  On the basis of this passage he suggested that in ancient times the father named the first child, the mother named the second.  The custom, however is the opposite.  The mother has the choice of name for the first child, the father for the second, and so on."

Oddly enough, my parents followed the tradition.  I'm the oldest; my mother chose my first name.  It was a coincidence, though.  My mom won the right to name me in a hand of cards. could argue that it was destined.  If God does not play dice with the Universe, then my mother winning a card game doesn't have to be an accident.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Conversion Class

In class, we talked about Hanukkah, and we covered a lot of the same information I had written in my previous post on the topic.
New information:  Hanukkah or Chanukkah are the most correct transliterations of the word.  If you want to be as correct as possible, it should be spelled without the C, but with a dot underneath the H.  Nobody does it that way, though.
A menorah is different from a hanukkiah, which is the menorah used on Hanukkah.  The menorah was a ritual item found in the Temple, and it had 7 branches.  A hanukkiah is meant as a callback to that item, but it has 9 branches and is specifically tasked for the celebration of Hanukkah.

We talked about the two miracles of Hanukkah, and that the military victory story is probably the most true.  The Rabbi pointed out that when Hanukkah was first celebrated, the Jews were under oppressive Roman rule, and a victory against the ruling military would, at that time, have seemed like a miracle.  Eventually, the story of the cruse of oil was invented in order to create a "legitimate" miracle.

The Rabbi also pointed out that Hanukkah doesn't appear in the Torah, but it does appear in the apocrypha.  They talk about the Maccabee rebellion in I and II Maccabees, including the idea that Hanukkah was originally celebrated as a kind of belated Sukkot.
Because the Rabbi is so very interested in history, he pointed out that the story of the Maccabees' rebellion indicates that the Greek army was very disorganized, and that the victory was...more than a little bit based on luck.

The Rabbi also said that he likes to ask his classes about why we celebrate Hanukkah.
He said that the most common answer is "to celebrate the miracle of the cruse of oil burning for 8 days".
After he asks, he likes to continue the class discussion for a few minutes, and then ask, "who believes in miracles?"  He says that nobody ever raises their hands.
I would have.  I totally believe, but I also believe that miracles aren't always supernatural events.  I believe that "miracle" is another word for "luck".  I just don't understand how people can have hope if they don't believe in miracles.  Lucky there's a holiday just to celebrate miracles.

Saturday's Service: Mi Shebeirach

Given the news I received on Friday about my friend's son, the prayer for healing took on an extra significance.

Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M'kor habracha l'imoteinu
May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
And let us say: Amen

Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M'kor habracha l'avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with refuah sh'leimah
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit
And let us say: Amen

Holiday Cards

I ordered my cards today.  My inspiration for the image was a kind of deconstructed hanukkiah, with nine candles arranged in more or less a straight line.  
I like how peaceful and calm it looks.
I also like that it's not overtly for any holiday, really, but it won't look out of place in any Christmas card display.
My mother would approve, I think.  Then again, she'll probably just be happy that I'm sending out cards at all.

Friday, November 16, 2007

If you read this

A friend of mine just found out that her son has leukemia today.
She doesn't have health insurance.
The store where we work is going to put together a fund raiser for her, and hopefully that goes well.
It gets worse, too.  Her landlord has decided to sell her apartment, so she needs to find another place to live.  She doesn't know this yet; her mom is going to take care of it while she's in Seattle for 6 weeks for her son to get treatment.
Her mom has also signed her up for Extreme Makeover.  I hope that she gets it; she's a wonderful person who deserves something good to happen to her soon.

If you happen to read this, please pray for her, and for her son.  It would be a mitzvah, I'm sure.

My Notes: Hanukkah

Even though it's one of the few Jewish holidays that I could have named off the top of my head prior to considering conversion, I was surprised to learn that Hanukkah is actually a very minor holiday.  It's mostly just well-known because it's presented as a Jewish alternative to Christmas, but there's really very little correlation, other than a celebration of light.

Most of my information came from and their Hanukkah section.
In 164 BCE, the Greeks were forcing assimilation on the Jewish people.  The Greeks took over the Temple and started doing awful things, like sullying the altar by sacrificing pigs.  A family by the name of Maccabee started a rebellion against the Greeks, and eventually won.  Unfortunately, they were unable to clean and re-dedicate the Temple in time for the high holiday of Sukkot, so they decided to delay it a couple months.  This is why Hanukkah lasts 8 days....because Sukkot does, as well.  By this theory, Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory of a passionate, but weak, few against a mighty many.

One of the popular Hanukkah stories is that, when they were rededicating the Temple, they found only one jar of kosher oil, which was enough to light the traditional menorah for one day.  It would take 8 days to make more, so they lit the menorah, and God miraculously allowed the oil to last until more was ready.  By this theory, Hanukkah is a celebration of a supernatural miracle.

Hanukkah is about miracles and Jewish identity.  Not everybody believes the legend of the oil, but the successful rebellion of the Maccabees is much easier to swallow.  I think that both stories are important, and each ultimately boils down to restoring the ability to observe Jewish customs.
I think that people need to believe that the impossible can happen with supernatural intervention.  If you can believe in that, then you can always have hope, because even when things are as bleak as they can be, God can change it.  It doesn't mean that he will, and it doesn't mean that if he chooses not to intervene that you're not a righteous person, but it does mean that deus ex machina is possible.  
The other side of the coin is the more people-based miracle; the miracle of a few people defeating a well-trained, well-staffed army.  These are more along the lines of the miracles that happen every day, where people work as hard as they can, and with God's help, they are able to overcome obstacles.  It's important to remember that God doesn't just hand you anything on a silver platter; you have to do your part.

Even though one of the themes of Hanukkah is Jewish identity and the preservation of a unique culture against the pressures of assimilation, I'm going to continue to celebrate it alongside Christmas.
Before you think I'm just too rebellious, let me explain.

While I very much believe in God in a way that I think is fairly Jewish, and I have found nothing in Judasim with which I disagree, the fact remains that my family will always celebrate Christmas.  On December 25, my mom and dad will expect me to be at their house, sitting next to their Christmas tree, and going to a family dinner.  That's our tradition, and it's a tradition filled with love and bonding.  I'm not giving that up, even though the Christ part is much less significant to me.  We were never into the mass part of it, anyway.
I will have Hanukkah in my own home, and I will appreciate it for what it is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Blog Link: Faithhacker

From Faithhacker:
A post on the Bal Shem Tov.  The blogger tells a story about the Bal Shem Tov and a couple preparing to get married at an inn.  It's a great example of how mundane actions can become beautiful opportunities for Tikkun Olam (making the world a better place).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

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

This part covers Jewish history from the Holocaust to present.  There's only one part after that, and it appears to be more about prominent figures than about history.

One of the things that impressed me the most about what I read in Part 7 is the significance of numbers with respect to Holocaust victims and survivors.  I knew that Hitler killed 11 million people, and that 6 million of those people were Jewish.  I knew that Final Solution was the first genocide, but what I never knew was that Jews themselves were never counted.

Jewish law says that a person should never be reduced to a number.  Therefore, Jewish people were never counted.  When you needed to figure out if you had a minyan present, a special 10-word verse was recited, with each person saying one word.  If the verse got finished, then you had enough people to daven.  Even when it came time to take a census, the people themselves were never counted.  Each person paid half a shekel, and the money was counted in order to determine the number of Jews.
This, to me, makes the tragedy twofold; the people were killed when their names were taken from them and replaced with a number tattooed on their arms.   They were killed again when their bodies died.  This is one of the reasons why Anne Frank is such a powerful symbol of the time; she was an individual, not a cold statistic.

I'm not going to write much else about the Holocaust.  The true tragedy is the number of people who turned a blind eye and failed to act.  I'm not talking about immediately declaring war on the Third Reich.  If countries had simply opened their borders to Jewish people and allowed immigration, things would have been much different.

After WWII, Israel was founded as a place where the Jewish people could be free of persecution.  It hasn't been peaceful since, but it has grown amazingly quickly.  For a country that has only existed since 1948, much has been accomplished in the way of development.  I only wish that peace can be negotiated, and soon.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Conversion Class

Today we talked about how Judaism represented a very different way of thinking about theology.

In Babylonia, they built ziggurats, which were kind of like step pyramids.  They had a house on top, which was also a temple.  The god lived in that house, and was often physically present in the form of an idol.  If you managed to destroy the temple, then you destroyed the god's home.  If the god was in the temple and you destroyed that, then your god was clearly stronger and more powerful than that one.
Judaism, however, did something a bit different.  Their temple was a place for God to be when he is on earth, but there was no image of him there.  His name was simply written on the wall.  If you destroyed that temple, then you simply wiped his name away, but you didn't destroy God.  This innovation also allowed God to be present in more than one place at the same time.  The Rabbi describes it as an intentional correction in theology that came in the book of Deuteronomy, with the quote "I will show you a place where my name shall dwell".  Not I.  Just the name.

There were also some technical terms:
Polytheism: a relationship with multiple gods.
Monotheism: only one god exists, and any others are not real.
Monolatrism: a relationship with only one god, but recognition that others exist.

Polytheism was the standard prior to Abraham discovering that you could worship only one God and still be fine.  This is often thought of as monotheism but according to what the Rabbi taught us today, that's somewhat of a misconception.
Judaism started out as monolatrism, recognizing that there are other gods, but that they are not as powerful or special as the God of Abraham.  Monotheism appears in the Biblical text in Isaiah, which was written after the Babylonian exile.

Today's Service: Landmark

For the first time, I was able to participate in some of the prayers.  Some of this was because I'd heard the melodies and the words enough to feel confident in saying them.  Another part was because the woman who was sitting next to me was nice enough to show me where the transliterated versions of the songs were in the siddur.
I really want to learn the Hebrew, though.  It will mean more when I actually know what I'm saying.  At the moment, I feel like my prayers are slightly less effective, because even though I have a basic idea of what we're saying, it's still kind of gibberish to me.

For a Reform congregation, we use a lot of Hebrew, and I like it.  It makes me feel connected to the ancient tradition.  I also really love the idea of being able to read the Bible in its original language, so I don't have to rely on interpreting somebody else's interpretation of the text.
I'll get there.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I did a mitzvah today, and I'm pretty sure I'm un-doing it now by writing about it.
But I'll continue.

I was standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to buy my dinner. There was a guy in front of me, buying some deli food. His food stamps card didn't have enough money; there was a balance of $1.62. He asked his buddy for money, and the guy started cursing at him. I quietly handed the cashier the $10 I was going to use to pay for my food, and told the cursing guy to be quiet, because it was taken care of.
The guy who was buying the food turned to me, and looked kind of shocked. He asked if I had paid, and I said yes. He didn't say thanks.
I knew I did the right thing, though. When I paid for my food, I had the exact change I needed. I smiled while I walked the rest of the way to work. It felt good.

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

Still more history - imagine that!

Part 6 starts out with the French Revolution.  The motto of liberté, egalité, fraternité extended to the Jewish community, marking one of the first times that Jews were accepted into the mainstream of society.  This was due to the intellectualism of the time, exemplified by the works of Voltaire, Condorcet, and Rousseau.  On September 28, 1791, Jews were declared to be equal to all other citizens of France, so long as they considered themselves Frenchmen first and pledged to defend France.  Jews were also permitted to any job which suited their talents, which was another first.

In Germany, the Age of Enlightenment brought good times for Jews...kind of.  They practiced voluntary baptism, which some Jews saw as forced conversion and spiritual death.  Others saw it as a ticket to acceptance by the mainstream.  Reform Judaism appeared for the first time, although in a different form to the Reform Judaism practiced in the United States today.  Moses Mendelssohn (father of Felix Mendelssohn) worked to make the Jews more German and get them out of the ghettos, but without losing their religious identity.  It worked to some extent, but both of his sons converted to Christianity.  And the Jews invented communism.  It was an attempt to make a secular society based on Jewish values, but it failed miserably.  Still, Jewish genius flourished in Germany.

In England, Jews had a difficult time overcoming stereotypes.  Shakespeare's Shylock is a reflection of a common example of that.  The Rothschilds were a family of political leaders at the time who helped to create social reforms to allow acceptance of office.  Benjamin Disraeli did a lot to dispel the stereotypes of Jewish people, but he converted to Christianity in order to do so.

As for the United States, one of the first settlers was a Marrano Jew.  He went along for the ride with Christopher Columbus, who believed that he would encounter the Lost Tribes of Israel when he got where he was going and wanted to have a Hebrew interpreter.  Since the Jews had recently been expelled from Spain, the interpreter stayed behind in America.  Since the USA was being founded based on religious freedom, Jews found tolerance and acceptance in the new country.

These days, one can find Jewish people in almost every corner of the world.

Ideal Student

I found this in The Book of Jewish Practice, whose author says that it's from Ethics of the Fathers.  It's a list of the 48 qualities which make an ideal student:
  • mouthing the words of the text
  • pronouncing these distinctly
  • understanding the text and using discernment
  • studying in a spirit of awe, reverence, humility and good cheer
  • ministering to the wise
  • having good fellow students
  • arguing with students
  • serenity of mind
  • having a knowledge of Scripture and Mishnah
  • engaging in moderation in business, in worldly matters, in pleasures, in sleep, in conversation, in laughter
  • having patience
  • being good-natured
  • having confidence in the wise
  • tolerating one's suffering
  • recognizing one's place
  • rejoicing in one's lot
  • caution in speech
  • claiming no credit for achievement
  • being a lovable person
  • loving God and all His creatures
  • loving righteousness
  • straight dealing and rebuke
  • keeping aloof from fame
  • having no pride in one's learning
  • having no personal pleasure in rendering decisions
  • bearing the yoke with one's companions and judging them favorably and helping them in their pursuit of truth and peace
  • being composed in study
  • asking questions and attempting to provide solutions
  • listening and then adding to the information imparted
  • studying in order to teach and to practice
  • making one's teacher wise
  • attending carefully to what he says
  • repeating a teaching in the name of its author, giving the author the credit that is due
I think that a lot of these are very valuable, and most are qualities that I hope to possess.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Blog Link: Faithbook

Today I was reading Faithbook, which is a blog on religion written by college students.  They represent different denominations and faiths, and it's usually pretty interesting.

One of their contributers is Shari Rabin, who is Jewish.
I agree with her position.  I, personally, have tried to observe Shabbat recently, but it's almost impossible given my lifestyle and schedule.  I usually have to work on Friday nights, which is a no-no.  But since sundown these days is early (the official candle-lighting time for this weekend is 4:20 pm), I give myself a pass.  When I come home from work, I light my candles.  This is usually at almost 11:00 pm, but I think it counts.  On Saturdays, I have to drive.  Even in my car, it takes me 20 minutes to get across town to the nearest temple.  Walking would be unnecessarily onerous.  I try to avoid working on Saturday, but I'm doing well to get my boss to schedule me for the closing shifts which allow me the ability to attend Shabbat morning services and Conversion classes.

I think that the more important thing is to recognize that Shabbat is a gift, and let that be a day that can't stress you out.  I do spend a lot more time in prayer on that day, and I make time for independent Torah study.
This weekend, I'll have Saturday off, and I plan to spend it with a friend, having a pleasant dinner and playing games.  It will be great.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Lifecycle

Edited by Simeon J. Maslin

My introduction to Mitzvot.  They don't talk about mitzvot in Christianity.  You have commandments, but they aren't analogous.  Mitzvot are commandments, in that they are guidelines for life that come from a commander, but there's something more than that.  They're associated with blessings, and are meant to be a joy to perform.  Some are rituals tied to major life events, but others are about ethical living.

Events that have mitzvot are: birth of a child, education, marriage, and death/mourning.
The Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah is considered part of a child's religious education.  Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, but it's kind of a gray area.  It's not a lifecycle mitzvah, but it's not really an ethical one, either.

In Reform Judaism, it is more important to observe the ethical mitzvot than the ritualistic mitzvot.  This is in accordance with the idea that God is more concerned with how we live in practice than in how we live in show.  The intention is where the value lies.
There are a couple of essays on how to make mitzvah relevant in modern life.  The Reform movement believes that there is some freedom to choose which mitzvot to observe, because according to Isaiah and Micah, God is not satisfied by mechanical, empty-minded worship.  He wants his people to exercise their free will and choose to worship.  When viewed through this lens, some traditional mitzvot lose their power.

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

Still more history...

We left off at about 70 CE, as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple.
The Jews found themselves living among the Arab people.  This was at a time when Islam was developing.  For those who may not be aware, Islam also claims Abraham as a patriarch.  In the Quaran, Abraham is depicted as an Arab, not as a Hebrew.  Abraham was the father if Isaac and Ishmael.  Isaac is claimed by the Jews as their ancestor, while the Muslims claim Ishmael.  When you come down to it, the two religions are brothers.
As such, the Jews were accepted by the Arabs at that time.  They shared a key value, which was scholarship, particularly in science and philosophy.  The Arabs divided people into two groups: the intellectual and the ignorant.  Jews, as people of the book, were accepted, while other groups, including the Christians, were thought to be incapable of grasping higher truths.  While most cultures languished in the dark ages, Jewish and Arab scholarship flourished.
Under the rule of Mohammed, both Jews and Arabs experienced a Golden Age.  Maimonides (aka Rambam, aka Moses ben Maimon) wrote during this time, including the seminal work 13 Principles of Faith.

Then came the Christians and the Crusades.  Christians couldn't understand why Jews didn't believe what they believed, and began persecuting Jews in the name of saving their souls.    This included burning them at the stake and other tortures.  Judaism was outlawed.  There were, of course, people who refused to convert.  They were usually killed.  There were others who reluctantly converted.  Judaism managed to survive by people practicing the religion in secret.  In Spain, they were called "marranos" unclean animal.  But they still managed to preserve the religion and the culture.  In 1492, Spain exiled the Jews, which was the same year that they sent Christopher Columbus to the New World.  Jews helped to bankroll exploration and settlement there.

The Middle Ages became a period of expulsions.  After leaving Spain, many Jews moved to Russia, where the Khazars hosted the Jews.  Everything was happy until Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church exiled the Jews again.  Poland became the new host, and everything was happy again.  The Jews were permitted to self-govern, and Yiddish became a common language.  Then came the Chimelnicki massacre, and the Jews weren't so happy in Poland anymore.

The Middle Ages also saw the development of Kabbalah, Messianism, and Hasidism.  The Kabbalists sought to find escape from the ickiness of the real world by thinking about the next one and seeking divine truths.  Messianism found solace in believing deliverance was near, and that gave them enough hope to survive, although there were many disappointments as false messiahs arose.  Hasidism believed in the holiness of the common man and found joy in the worship of God, although it was seen as a threat to traditional Judaism because it de-emphasized the roles of Law and Study in the culture.  Generally, rabbis of the Middle Ages were both religious and secular scholars.

Coming next: the Industrial Revolution, Emancipation, and Enlightenment.

Conversion Class

Saturday's class started with an explanation of Minimalists and Maximalists, and how those points of view strongly influence a person's reading of the Biblical text.

First off, definitions.
Maxmialists believe that the Bible is literally true.  This group includes most clergy, Christians, and traditional rabbis.  The extreme maximalists will discount and/or attempt to discredit scientific discoveries in order to preserve their position.
Minimalists believe that the Bible is not 100% accurate as a historical document.  The extremists believe that the Bible was a created history.  These people place a high amount of value on recent archeological discoveries.
Now, the relevant part.
The Rabbi believes that minimalism and maximalism can be seen as a continuum.  He said that Reform (and Conservative) Judaism stand close to the middle of the continuum, attempting to find a balance between the traditional stories and the archeological record.  I can identify with that position, because I never could completely grasp the fundamentalist Christian point of view in that regard.

Speaking of which...
One of the tenets that the maximalist camp uses to justify their position is called "appearance of age", and believes that when the universe was created, it was created as if things had already aged and evolved, and light just appeared and didn't have to move at the speed of light to get from the stars to earth.
Of course, the Rabbi disagrees, and here's why.
Light was, as you may well know, created on the first day.  The sun, moon, and stars weren't created until three days later, on the fourth day.  He explained that this means that the depiction of the creation story was meant to be a poetic depiction.
On the first three days, God created things that are inanimate realms.  Day one was adding light to the darkness which already existed.  Day two was separating the sky from the sea, which apparently already existed.  Day three was rising the dry ground out of the sea, again, ostensibly pre-existing.  It is believed that vegetation came into the picture somewhere between days three and four, because it has some inanimate qualities, but is still somewhat animated.
On the second three days, God created things that move.  Day four was the sun, moon, and stars, which appear to move through the light and the darkness which we were given on day one.  Day five gave us fish and birds, in that order, which is a poetic reversal from the way things are described in day two, where we have the sky mentioned first.  Day six gave us land animals and humans, which rule over the dry land.

There's just no way the creation story is literally true.  It's completely illogical.  We get light before we get the source of that light.  We get vegetation before we get the sun that plants depend upon for life.  It just can't happen that way, not even for a day or two.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Saturday's Service: Haftarah

Today, we didn't go over the Torah portion for the week.  Instead, the Rabbi wanted to talk about the Haftarah portion, which was from the beginning of 1 Kings.
It was about the death of King David and the succession of King Solomon to the throne.  The Rabbi was particularly interested in the references to political machinations among Bathsheba, Adonijah, Solomon, and David himself.

This represented the second time I've heard the Rabbi compare the story of King David to The Godfather.  It's an interesting comparison, the way he tells it.  David had a protection racket going, which is one of the ways that the Mafia made money.  He also had a hitman in Joab, who he specifically instructed Solomon to kill, almost as a last dying wish.

It seemed particularly apt, as I watched American Gangster with my mom after I was done at the synagogue.  I will admit that it was the Magen David around Russell Crowe's neck that initially made me think of comparing the kingpin to King David, worked, at least on the surface.  I want to study more, because I probably don't know enough about either the Mafia or King David to be accurate.  My prior lessons in the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) are best characterized in one word: brief.

If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that the characters in the Bible were human.  They were good people who did bad things, and  sometimes bad people who did good things.  What I take away from it, more than anything else, is that I don't have to follow tradition to the letter; it's more important to learn, understand, and make things relevant.