Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Wandering Blog

I don't have much (if anything) to say expressly about Balak, this week's Torah portion. The only sort of thought-invoking bit of commentary in Etz Chayim is in regards to Balak's urging for the curse on the Israelites and Balaams persistent relaying of G-d's message that you cannot curse those who are blessed.

The text cites the Baal Shem Tov, who said "A Jew is never alone. G-d is always with every Jew." Then there is Abraham Joshua Heschel (not cited here, but all the same), who said "The Jew is never alone in the face of G-d; the Torah is always with him." Is G-d with us? Torah with us? Neither? Either? Both? Are they one in the same?

I was watching this episode of "Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?" on Style last night, and I was taken by one of the stories. It was a couple who had hastened their wedding vows after they'd started dating. Why? Well, she was diagnosed with an incredibly rare form of leukemia (.5-two people diagnosed each year worldwide) and given three-five years to live. She surpassed the time frame and six years after the diagnosis met the man. His story was that he'd been in a horrible car accident on an exit ramp on the freeway and had walked away. Less than a week later, because of a concussion and emotional trauma from the other accident, he rammed his car into the back of a city truck, completely decimating his vehicle and causing his near death. Then they met, realizing that they both were sort of knocking on heaven's door, fell in love, and got engaged. I don't consider it a miracle or necessarily a gift from G-d that either of them are bright, shining people who are giving back with a cancer scholarship and countless philanthropic activities -- they are the epitome of the perfect romance. However, I have to think that perhaps the everyday presence of G-d maintains some balance, some equilibrium. Then again, I don't even know if these two people were religious -- let alone Jewish (not that that matters).

If you Google "A Jew is never alone" ... you receive (at present) 76 entries (though only about 20 *really* show up). Many are variations on the Baal Shem Tov's famous words. Then there's random expressions of the Jew and his loneliness: "The Yarmulke is a constant reminder that a Jew is never alone. He walks with G-d. It is a feeling of assurance and comfort" (

It would seem that the Jew is never alone -- be it G-d or the yarmulke as a reminder of G-d or the mitzvot and laws of G-d in Torah. I imagine it is whether we accept or deny this as such. Does the denial of the constant presence make those moments in which we pray hard and fast for the protection of a sick relative or lover that much more effective and strong -- in OUR eyes? I often look at the religious Jew, he who is constantly swimming in Torah and wonder if -- when there are moments of desperation -- he feels as effective and firm and hopeful in his prayers as he who perhaps only calls on G-d in moments of crises. The constant presence may dull the effectiveness (in our minds, that is), nu? On the other hand, acknowledging the constant presence might allow us to take G-d for granted, to not appreciate the peace of mind.

Okay, so I lied. I had plenty to say about this tiny little quip of the Baal Shem Tov. I just didn't anticipate it.

I have quite a bit to say about the book I'm reading, Women and Jewish Law by Rachel Biale, but I'll save that for a little later this week or early next week. I have to say, though, that it's one of the most well-written Talmud-heavy texts I've read in a long time. Often I find such books hard to keep down, but Biale is BRILLIANT in her presentation of the texts. That is, she offers the Talmud text, then piece by piece explains in plain text (but not dumbing down) what exactly the sages were saying, then examines the evolution, importance, contradictions, and actual application of the laws. In the long run, I think this might help me if I decide to pursue/examine Rashi's daughters (or the women of Rashi's time/area in general) and the extent of his sentiments/interpretations of certain laws, including womens' study of the major texts.

Until then, shalom my friends. Stay cool in summer's heated breeze!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Welcome back, Chavi.

Ian has started school, and that gives me two nights out of the week to devote to Torah. Because of my sad dedication to Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," that knocks Monday night out. So Wednesday is now Torah Thyme (his slogan, not mine!). In the past three months I've neglected to read 3 or 4 of the parshah, which has given me this gigantic guilt complex. I loathe going to shul on Friday and not being previously knowledgeable on the topic at hand. I prefer to be prepared!

This week's Torah portion is Chukkat (חקת), and includes the dreaded moment when G-d tells Moses and Aaron that they won't enter the land, following the water/rock fiasco. I found a couple of interesting points and commentaries in Etz Chayim this week, including what could be construed as an allusion or validation of Christ in Christianity. But first, I have to mention an article I read in "Reform Judaism," the URJ's publication, regarding kashrut and an interesting take on the text.

In the summer issue, in "The Civilized Diet" -- a conversation with Rabbi Simeon Maslin -- the origins of kashrut are discussed and the text is addressed in a most interesting way. According to Rabbi Maslin, the instances of the law to "not boil a kid in its mother's milk" appear in relation to pagan sacrificial rituals, suggesting that such acts were forbidden to Israel so as to avoid practicing pagan rituals. He points out that the three times it appears in Torah, not once does it appear within the exhaustive list of dietary laws in Leviticus 11. The article is mostly dedicated to the idea of eco-Kosher, or "keeping with the spirit and intent of Torah." Eating, as it were, is an act that should receive much more attention than it does (i.e. appreciate and understand what you are eating prior to consuming it, appreciate the animal that died and where it derived). But his point about the appearance of this key component of kashrut is particularly interesting. He says he appreciates that many avoid mixing milk and meat as a respect for thousands of years of history or the idea of avoiding the food of persecution (pork, for example, because it was an identifier of Jews during the Inquisition), but for him the milk/meat "law has nothing to do with the prohibition against eating." There are a few thoughts here. In fact, Maimonides also suggested that in biblical times there were pagan cult rituals which involved the cooking of a kid in its mother's milk (Guide of the Perplexed, III-48).

On to Chukkat! I have just a few things I'd like to mention and a few questions I'd like to pose.

+ There are plenty, PLENTY of citations of ways to become unclean in the Torah. One, cited in this parshah, is dealing with corpses. Torah cites that one is unclean for seven days upon touch a corpse, but what I wonder is whether ... and perhaps this is a stupid question ... the number of days one remains unclean varies by the number of corpses one touches ...?

+ In Num 20:1-13 is the explanation of using the ashes of a brown (red) cow to atone for sins. The comments listed in Etz Chayim says something interesting: "Just as the ashes of the brown cow atone for sin, the death of a righteous person does the same (BT MK 28a)." The first thing I thought of when I read that was the concept of Christ and the basis for Christianity. I think it's interesting that the Talmud says such a thing about the death of a righteous person being akin to atoning for sin ... am I crazy here? Or could this be a valid citation for a Christian theologian to say "See! See! The Talmud says so!!! Jews for Jesus!"

+ I had another query, but then I Googled it and "Judaism 101" ( had the answer! I think it's quite interesting, and I hadn't a clue. Num. 20:29 has a notation that although the mourning period of losing a parent is 12 months, Kaddish is only recited for 11 months. I thought this was a *little* strange, but alas! Here's the explanation from the Web site:
According to Jewish tradition, the soul must spend some time purifying itself before it can enter the World to Come. The maximum time required for purification is 12 months, for the most evil person. To recite Kaddish for 12 months would imply that the parent was the type who needed 12 months of purification! To avoid this implication, the Sages decreed that a son should recite Kaddish for only eleven months.
Brilliant! Thanks Judaism 101!

+ I have to make a note about this appearance of "Oi!" in this parshah. I don't know if I've missed it before, but this is the first time I've seen it in Torah. In Num. 21:29, there's sort of a "woe unto you" spiel that says: "Woe unto you, O Moab!" and in Hebrew is אוי לך מואב! or "Oi-l'cha Moab!" Beautiful, nu?

And that's it for this week. I'm trying to get better about my studies, so here's to hoping for more regular posting, more Torah thought, and more Judaism, darn't! On that note, Ian and I are officially becoming members of Temple Sholom here in Chicago. It's the first time in my life I've paid "dues" to be a part of a religious organization (in Lincoln my monthly bulletin duties and the fact that I was a poor student got me by for temple dues). In the coming months, hopefully I'll be able to plan on participating in many of the synagogue's committees, activities, and perhaps what I'm most excited about -- Adult Education courses! Hoorah!

Here's to the weekend, and a relaxing Shabbos to my friends and readers!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Books! Books!

I became a member of the Seminary Co-Op, which entitles me to 10 percent off all purchases. It isn't much, but it's something. I promptly purchased two books: "Women and Jewish Law" and "Salonica," which I had wanted since last summer when I saw it at Kramerbooks in Washington. Here's to new books!

On a side note: The past three nights I have slept, solidly and soundly, throughout the night. This is abnormal (for those of you who know me), because getting even four good hours of sleep a night is rare for me. Amen for the sleep, though I think it might be related to either the antibiotics or allergy pills I'm taking. If that's the case, though, I suppose I should welcome it ... nu?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Jedwabne, where they killed their neighbors.

I finished Jan Gross's "Neighbors" this morning on the ride in and then while in the office. It's an incredibly quick read and doesn't strike me as harrowing as the short version that appeared in a magazine, which is what I read while taking an Ethnic Conflict course in college. What is striking, though, is the bounty of testimony from individuals about what went on and the words written in pleas for clemency by those who perpetrated the murder of (the estimated) 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne in Poland. It was not the Germans who committed the killing and torture, but the neighbors of the Jews, their Polish neighbors and -- at one time -- friends. The tragedy of the event, though, is that so few survived to tell the story and because of the tense nature of Jewish/Polish relations (even to this day), few speak about it or cite the truth of the incident as opposed to citing myths or false explanations/excuses for the death of nearly all of the hamlet's Jews.

As I finished up the book, I began to wonder about the Polish/Russian relationship, as so many of the excuses cited regard the Russians as the faulters, mostly because the Jews "supported" the Russians and the Polish were at complete odds with the Russians during the occupation. It was a question of the lesser of two evils, but part of me wonders whether the Polish still hold resentment against the Russians for the pain and anguish during the war. But this is for another time.

A few websites worth examining if you know nothing or are curious about the Jedwabne massacre, or the others like it in Poland during the occupation:

-- Articles about the controversy surrounding Gross's book and the massacre here. The controversy surrounding the book comes largely from deniers and unbelievers.
-- The Jedwabne memory book online is here.
-- And of course, there's always good ole Wikipedia clickin' here.

Next on the list is a book, "Solinca," about the disappeared Jews of Greece. I'm not on a Holocaust kick by any means, but the vanished presence of Jews in the tiny and great places in the world is fascinating. What's more so, is the idea of neighbors breaking down the doors of those they shared water wells and dreams with, only to strike them down because of ages-old myths and legends, jealousy, spite or for the sake of conformity. Explain that to me, neighbor.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

To be or not to be ... a rabbi?

Ian and I went to shul last night, not sure what to expect as it was the "going away" service for one of the rabbis, who is moving to a temple up in Skokie that is much, MUCH smaller and where she will be the only rabbi. Our shul has three rabbis (the leaving rabbi is being replaced by another female rabbi), a cantor, and about a bajillion members. It's location south of Evanston and north of downtown is convenient, if only we didn't live so far away. But we're joining and I'm sort of ... well ... glad the rabbi is leaving. Does that make me horrible? I blogged about her before here, and I don't know what to expect from the new rabbi, but I'm eager to see if she's a little more accessible. The service wasn't overly long, but included what the shul likes to call "Friday Night Live." We also weren't sure what to expect with this, but it turned out to be pretty sweet. There was a mini "band" that included a violinist, bongo drummer, clarinet player and pianist. The songs had a klezmer/middle eastern flare and it made the service incredibly lively. It also was held in the sanctuary, which I find much, much more inviting than the chapel, but that's me. The rabbi gave a speech about Shalom/Sholom and its various meanings ... and my conclusion afterward was that "every rabbi needs an editor."

But I think I have a negative predisposition for female rabbis.

When I first started my journey to Judaism, I was put in touch with the rabbi of the local reform synagogue, of which became my home, which I miss so dearly. The rabbi was a woman, and we sat down for coffee after I got up the nerve to make a meeting. The thing is, I'd read just about every conversion book on the planet and had gotten the spiel about being turned away, but I wasn't worried about that. What I was worried about was feeling warm and welcome. What I didn't feel immediately was just that -- warm and welcome. The people at the temple were the most inviting individuals I'd ever met, but the rabbi didn't seem to match that. I couldn't find that connection, and the coldness left a sour taste in my mouth ... so when she left and the current rabbi arrived, I felt so blessed. I was his first convert and our connection was immediate. Since then, I think I've had a predisposition to dislike female rabbis. The most interesting bit about this is that the rabbi I converted through used to -- and continues to -- joke about me going to rabbinical school. It's something I've thought of many, many times, but I always come back to my sentiments.

I know that it's more than just having a cold female rabbi, there's other issues there. I'm just still trying to figure out precisely what they are. In some ways I'm sure it's connected to my exploration of the roles of men and women in the synagogue, and I blogged on some of that in my entry about the mechitzah here. I think theologically I'm more on a conservative end. I ebb and flow, though. But I know that it has something to do with why I have hangups about female rabbis. There's a lot at work there, and I suppose I should spend some time figuring out what the heck it is.

Luckily, I've discovered the campus bookstore and it'll be a lot easier to do that now :) Maybe I'll start with Pamela Nadell's "Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination 1889-1985," though I might start with Ilana Bluberg's "Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books." The avenues are endless ...

Thursday, June 7, 2007


A few notes before I scoot out of work for home.

A grave in Southern Ukraine has been discovered. G-d knows this will carry on for years and years, and probably for even longer in Africa among Sudan and Rwanda ...
KIEV, Ukraine - A mass grave holding the remains of thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis has been found in southern Ukraine near the site of what was once a concentration camp, a Jewish community representative said Tuesday.

The grave was found by chance last month when workers were preparing to lay gas pipelines in the village of Gvozdavka-1, near Odessa, said Roman Shvartsman, a spokesman for the regional Jewish community.

The Nazis established two ghettos during World War II near the village and brought Jews there from what is now Moldova as well as Ukrainian regions, Shvartsman said. In November 1941, they set up a concentration camp and killed about 5,000 Jews, he said.

The second is more humorous and I'm going to buy one in about two seconds. Come on, who wouldn't want to own one of these?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Thunder and lightning.

So I have a problem. It could be worse, of course. I could be addicted to meth or speed or Doritos, but it's something less costly and more, well, intellectual.

I am addicted to buying books.

Now, I'm not up into the hundreds and hundreds like my friend Kat (cheers to packing 800 books, doll), but it's a lot. Or maybe it feels like a lot because when I go to the Borders in the Loop to the Judaic studies section I can find only a few books that I don't own (and they're mostly the ones on Kaballah/Jewish mysticism). But this overwhelming feeling has ended, as Kat introduced me to the Seminary Co-Op here at the University of Chicago. It is ... beautiful. There is a Jewish studies section, plenty of books and dictionaries on Hebrew, and more texts and Chumash in the religious studies section.

Simply put, it is a paradise where NPR is always on and the chairs are ready to be filled. I imagine days during the summer where the office grows old and I can wander on over and sit down with something new, just to tease myself.

So Kat and I went yesterday and I saw 20, 30, maybe 100 books I want. This is dangerous, of course, as there are more important things for my hard-earned (ha ha) money, such as credit card bills and student loan payments, not to mention the day to day needs. But books. My G-d, books. My own slice of heaven.

For the 20 percent off sale (thanks, Kat), I purchased a Hebrew-English dictionary (more than 18,000 words!) that is a little more handy for toting around than the one I got a few months ago (that is falling apart, btw). I also picked up a book in the Teach Yourself series. I'm a child of Seow's biblical Hebrew text, but I thought I'd branch out and see what the TY series has to offer (and it turns out they have just about every language on the planet, including Urdu and Zulu).

And finally, I picked up "Neighbors" by Jan Gross. I read a portion of it while in an Ethnic Conflict (aka the Genocide) class in college. That was the same class that my obsession and dissection of Ulysses S. Grant and his Orders No. 11 grew out of. "Neighbors" is a pretty must horrific story that, after reading, is hard to reconcile. It's merely a morsel of the never-to-be reconciled history of the Polish/Jewish people.

So here I am with some delicious gems. And in the future? There will be more and more and more. Feeding the addiction is what I can do. Amen.