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Giving Students a Jewish Future: Three Clichés for Summer

July 3, 2015 1 comment

A child visits our Sunday religious school planning to stay as briefly as possible. Once in class, she finds she likes school so much that she begs her parents to let her stay until the end.

A Hebrew school student on Wednesday afternoon spontaneously covers the whiteboard with graffiti: “I love this class.”

A student e-mails me to lament a canceled class.

A student guesses the password to my computer because I used a Hebrew word, and he knows it thanks to the effectiveness of his teachers.

A group of students asks if we can please extend the school year because they don’t want classes to end.

These are a few scenes out of many that remain prominent in my mind as I look back on the year now ending. They are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.

I know. It’s a cliché. And “good writers” don’t use clichés. But I like clichés, because they tend to encapsulate important truths. In this case: the part you see is supported by a much larger part that you don’t.

Much of my job is putting in place the parts of the school-iceberg that you don’t see. The staffing (rare for a religious school, we have a waiting list of teachers who want to teach here), the training, the ambiance (treat everyone with respect), the policies (only make rules about things that matter), the materials, the schedules, the vision. It’s on my mind, because summer is when I focus most on these things.

I’ll meet with the heads of the textbook publishing houses to ask, “what’s your absolutely best material?” I’ll plan content that best matches our faculty and student body. I’ll ask what I can learn from the other religious schools that I’ve visited during the past year. I’ll revisit everything that didn’t work to see if we can do better. I’ll solicit direct feedback from students, teachers, parents, and the leadership. I’ll apply my experience and training to make sure all of our ducks are in a row.

I know. It’s another cliché. But three paragraphs later, I still like clichés. In this case, it may not matter which way any particular duck faces, but they do have to be aligned (for travel and for sleep, it turns out). In terms of our school, we face dozens of seemingly arbitrary decisions, but even though each one admits of many successful resolutions, they still have to work together to further a single vision: “Giving students a Jewish future.”

For instance, there are lots of good 4th-grade text books. And lots of people available to teach 4th grade. But there are fewer successful combinations of books and teachers. Our incoming 4th-grade, too, is unique, different from last year’s or next year’s; its particular nature further limits our choices. And the 4th grade has to take its place in a progression from kindergarten to 12th grade; that limits the choices even more. The 4th-grade school duck has to line up with all the other ducks.

In this regard, it’s important to focus on the vision — giving students a Jewish future — and ignore the Siren song of programming.

Yes, I did it. Another cliché. The fabled Greek Siren, half bird and half woman, sang beautifully sweet songs that lured sailors off their safe sailing paths and into destructive island reefs. Many new programs are the same. Though individually attractive, their value is dubious if we let their beauty distract us from our vision. Or to look at things differently: Does a new program bring us closer to giving children a Jewish future? If not, our resources and energy are probably better spent elsewhere.

So even though I’ll examine dozens of new ideas, my enthusiasm will be reserved for a tiny fraction of them — the few programs or undertakings or materials that support the iceberg that lines up our ducks that point away from the Siren song. As I work on next year this summer, that will be my litmus test.

(Okay. So it’s four clichés.)




Originally published in the Vassar Temple monthly bulletin.

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Categories: education, Judaism

The Way of the Land: The Value of Doing Good

May 29, 2015 Leave a comment

There are at least two reasons to do something in Judaism.

The first is because we must. We must welcome the stranger, celebrate the holidays, work for a better world, study Torah, even teach our children to swim, according to the Talmud. Each of these requirements is called a mitzvah (plural, mitzvot), though common usage equates that Hebrew word instead with “good deed.”

The legalistic nature of Judaism gives many of these do’s and do-not’s technical names, and then elaborates their nuances. For instance, speaking ill of someone else — gossip — gets the name lashon hara, and we’re not allowed to do it, whether it’s true or not, and no matter how much fun it might be. But what if you feel you need to warn a friend about something? What if you’re just so frustrated that you need to talk things out? What about earning a living as a political humorist who mocks public figures? Details like these are fleshed out in discussions, commentaries, discussions on commentaries, and (yes) commentaries on the discussions. This is what we mean by “Torah” in the broadest sense.

These mitzvot are parallel to modern laws, which likewise dictate appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

By contrast, the second reason to do something in Judaism is because we can. This category goes by the Hebrew name derech eretz, literally “the way of the land.” And it refers to treating one another with the sorts of decency and propriety that can’t be legislated but are nonetheless desirable.

There’s no Jewish law against whistling mirthfully at a funeral, an addition to the Talmud explains, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. And there’s no Jewish law that requires us to tip a waiter, but that doesn’t mean we should skimp on tips, even though, of course, we’ll get our meal even without purposely paying an extra fifteen or twenty percent for it.

Unlike the American secular approach, though, Jewish derech eretz is on a par with Jewish law. “Derech eretz preceded the Torah,” according to tradition, which is to say, the path to the mitzvot of the Torah is paved with the practice of derech eretz. In America, “there’s no law against it” or “there’s no law making me” are often sound excuses. Not so in Judaism.

Curiously, this same term — “the way of the land” — also means “the way things work,” for better or for worse, as it were. In our hometowns, we are judged by our reputation. But — the Talmud warns — on the road we are judged merely by our clothing. Attire is rarely a reliable indicator of anything substantial, but that’s the way it works. Get used to it. It’s not going to change. Derech eretz.

Reading between the lines, we find a message in the way a single term refers variously to courtesy as well as reality. There’s an unspoken hope that the two concepts merge, that generosity, compassion, and civility become so ingrained in our society that we can’t even imagine things being any other way — a time when going the proverbial extra mile is so common that it’s no longer noteworthy.

Particularly at this season of Shavuot, as we acknowledge anew our acceptance of Torah, let us remember not to be satisfied merely doing the good things that we must. Let us also do the good things that we can.




[Originally published in the Vassar Temple Bulletin, June, 2015.]

Categories: Judaism, spirituality

Hanukkah, Miracles, Light, and Darkness (Or: “In Search of the Perfect Gift”)

December 12, 2014 1 comment

December is practically defined by Hanukkah.

Though technically a “minor” holiday, Hanukkah in America is huge. Kids look forward to getting gifts. Parents plan out the eight nights. Friends and relatives schedule visits. Everyone anticipates the glow of the Hanukkah candles.

Yet December is also marked by darkness — physical darkness, to be sure, and also a kind of mental darkness.

The days are short. The nights are long. In the morning we leave the house in darkness and in darkness we return at night. For many people, that darkness spills over into the realm of the emotional, actually making them less happy. “Seasonal affective disorder,” it’s called, the condition’s acronym (SAD) reflecting the way darkness makes people feel.

As with most things, SAD is a spectrum. Some people creep toward deep depression in the darkness of winter. Others just feel a bit down from time to time. But rare are the people who don’t notice the darkness.

So we have Hanukkah on one hand and winter on the other. The holiday of light and the season of darkness.

Alas, the bridge between the two in America is usually gifts. Things. Presents. Look at the packaging of almost any child’s game, and you’ll see the number one selling point: a photo of a deliriously happy family, bathed in several thousand watts of light that showcase an immaculately clean house in which children of various ages gleefully interact with their two smiling parents.

And there you have it. The only thing standing between you and that family is the right gift. The perfect gift, marketers like to call it. Find it, and your life, too, will morph into the one you see in the photo. The ideal gift doesn’t just banish the darkness. It fixes your life.

So most people spend December in search of that miracle cure. Good gifts abound, but are they good enough? Experience dictates that the perfect gift of advertising fame is elusive. Last year’s gifts didn’t do the trick, after all. So this year’s presents have to be even better.

It doesn’t work, of course.

There is no gift that will transform a life, no matter how much we might wish otherwise.

So I’d like to suggest another bridge, another way of mixing the season of darkness with the holiday of light: actual miracles.

Now, most people don’t believe in them. But then again, we know for sure that there’s no such thing as darkness. Darkness is just the absence of light — which is where we get the old joke about the photographer who opened the darkroom door and let all the darkness leak out. If darkness, which we know doesn’t exist, can have such power over our lives, perhaps miracles can, too.

Hanukkah, in fact, insists on it. The whole point of lighting the Hanukkah lights is to “advertise the miracle” of Hanukkah. This is why tradition prefers that the candles be placed in a window, where passers-by will pass by, see them, and be reminded of miracles.

Perhaps one reason most people reject miracles is that — as with the gifts — they expect too much. A parted sea, perhaps, or an unconsumed burning bush. Or at least a bit of oil that lasts longer than it should.

But I think miracles are more subtle.

So this Hanukkah season, give up on the perfect gift. And instead be on the lookout for a miracle coming your way.

[Originally published in the Vassar Temple bulletin, December 2014.]

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

President Rivlin’s Tragic Misunderstanding of Jewish History (Or, Will the Original Judaism Please Stand Up?)

June 25, 2014 3 comments

The current president of Israel rejects Judaism as practiced by most of the world’s Jews.

Already, that is an unfortunate state of affairs. But what makes it worse in my opinion is that the president’s narrow-minded beliefs are based in misunderstanding and are the result of (probably inadvertent) brainwashing.

According to the JTA, President Reuven Rivlin told the Knesset in 2006 that “the status of Judaism according to halachah [Jewish law] is what has kept us going for 3,800 years. Besides it there is nothing.”

He is factually incorrect in many ways.

PullQuote1To start, halachah was born after the Jewish exile in the year 70, so it is, at most, 1,944 years old, not 3,800. Judaism did just fine without it for about a millennium, when Jewish service to God took the form of animal sacrifice. The enactment of halachah was a reformation of Judaism, or, as we call it more colloquially, part of a reform movement.

In fact, most of modern Judaism’s public symbols — thrice daily prayer services, Sabbath candles, current dietary laws (“keeping kosher”), the familiar matzah, etc. — didn’t exist 2,000 years ago. They were all reforms.

President Rivlin’s gross misunderstanding of the history of the country that just elected him might be forgiven — after all, he’s a politician, not an historian — except that he chose to present his revisionism before the Knesset, and continues to promulgate it in his official capacity.

President Rivlin, like many people, is suffering from a double misunderstanding. He thinks that Judaism has never changed. And he thinks that Orthodoxy is more authentic than its alternatives. In other words, President Rivlin wrongly thinks of Judaism as a straight line from antiquity to modern Orthodoxy, with deviations shooting off from time to time in the wrong directions.

PullQuote3A more accurate view sees Judaism as a continuous series of branches, with, in fact, four particularly rich periods of innovation.

Two examples demonstrate. The first concerns travel on the Sabbath, the second, the ceremonial skullcap commonly called a yarmulke or kippah.

Jewish law used to forbid travel on the Sabbath. Then transatlantic ships were invented, and Jews had a choice: they could refuse to travel from continent to continent (because the lengthy journey necessarily included the Sabbath). Or they could update their laws. They chose the latter, retaining only a nod to tradition in the form of not embarking or disembarking on the Sabbath.

A detail is equally to the point: The Shulchan Aruch — the 16th-century authoritative compendium of Jewish law — prohibits setting out to sea within three days of the Sabbath (Orech Chaim 248). The reasoning there was that the Sabbath shouldn’t be marred by the discomfort and confusion that accompany the start of an ocean voyage. But even modern Jews who follow halachah break this aspect of Jewish law.

The second example is the kippah or yarmulke. Common perception is that Jews are always supposed to wear a kippah in public. But, in fact, it wasn’t until the 16th century (in the same Shulchan Aruch) that the wearing of a kippah was codified. Before that, the 12th-century Maimonides ruled that a Jew’s head should be covered only during prayer. For most of Jewish history, Jews did not wear a kippah in public.

PullQuote4These two examples show that modern Orthodoxy sometimes ignores old laws and sometimes invents new ones. That’s fine, of course, and my point here is not to belittle Orthodox practice. But, equally, let us not believe that only progressive Judaism purposely changes the past, or that Orthodoxy most closely resembles what used to be. In this case (by chance), the progressive practice of donning a kippah for worship services is older than the revisionist Orthodox pattern of wearing one all the time.

But the details are only important here because of the larger pattern they demonstrate: Judaism has constantly evolved. The president of Israel does a disservice to everyone when he confuses his personal biases and preferences with objective superiority.

As it happens, Judaism has seen four particularly productive periods of innovation (as I point out in one of my most popular presentations, “Four Exiles and Four Spiritual Revolutions”). The prophets revised Judaism, broadening Jewish attention beyond the Jewish community. The Rabbis invented halachah. And the Kabbalists created a unique form of Jewish mysticism, to say nothing of the bulk of the Friday evening worship service.

PullQuote2We are witnessing the fourth major period of Jewish innovation in 3,000 years. Contributing to it are formal movements like Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist; philosophical approaches like Modern Orthodoxy; organizations like Chabad; populist movements that define many mainstream Israelis; and more. I am convinced that historians someday will look back at the 21st century with the same awe and reverence with which we now view the eras of the biblical prophets and the Rabbis.

It is a privilege to live through this incredibly exciting time.

And the president of Israel is being left behind. But it’s not too late. President Rivlin can still choose to participate constructively in the millennial Jewish dialog. Or, at the very least, he can stop trying to impede it.

Categories: current events, Judaism

What’s the Deal with the Camels in the Bible?

February 12, 2014 2 comments

Camels-GenesisSo far this week, the New York Times and Time Magazine, among many other usually respectable news outlets, have reported on scientific evidence that camels weren’t domesticated until about the 10th century BCE. That’s true.

They add that this is a problem for the Bible because Abraham and the other patriarchs, who owned camels, lived much earlier. This part is wrong. And it demonstrates a pretty surprising naivete on the part of these and other mainstream news organizations.

First of all, let’s be clear. According to Genesis, Abraham lived to be 175 years old, so it’s not the camels that are hard to explain.

But the real misunderstanding is demonstrated by this line from the New York Times: “Abraham, Jacob and Joseph […] lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C.” No they didn’t.

As I’ve explained in detail in And God Said — and summarized on-line for the Huffington Post (“The Bible Isn’t The History You Think It Is“) — the Old Testament is divided into three sections: the creation of the world (Adam up to Abraham’s father Terah), the creation of the Israelites (Abraham to Moses) and life in Jerusalem (after Moses). Only the third part was meant as history. The first two parts — Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and all the rest — serve other purposes.

So Abraham didn’t live in the first half of the second millennium, just like the heroine in Song of Solomon didn’t have birds for eyes, in spite of the poetic line in verse 4:1 that her “eyes are doves.”

Though I’m regularly surprised that so much misinformation surrounds the Bible, this kind of widespread mistake does help explain why many scientists don’t appreciate the Bible’s value, and why many religionists increasingly have no use for science.

Why Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will Never Again Coincide

November 20, 2013 23 comments

[You can also read a version of this on the Huffington Post.]

Hanukkah-5774-Thanksgiving-2013Try to keep up with me on this.

I know that’s an ominous way to start, but it’s worth it.

This month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will overlap for a joint celebration that will never happen again. Here’s why.

Thanksgiving is the 4th Thursday in November. Hanukkah is the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

The 4th Thursday in November can range from the 22nd to the 28th. If the 29th is a Thursday, then so is the 1st, so the 29th would be the fifth Thursday, not the fourth. And if the 21st is a Thursday, then it’s only the third Thursday. On average, then, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th about every seven years. It will fall on the 28th this year, then again in 2019, 2024, 2030, and 2041, or four times in the next 28 years. (It’s not exactly every seven years because leap days throw things off a little.)

The Jewish month of Kislev can currently start as early as November 3 or as late as December 2, which means that the first day of Hanukkah can come as early as November 28 or as late as December 27.

The reason for the broad range of possible dates is that the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar. The months are based on the cycles of the moon. But the calendar changes the lengths of those months, and even how many months are in a year, to make sure that Passover always falls in the spring. This complex system — put in place by Rav Shmuel in the first half of the first millennium CE — ensures that the Jewish date and the secular date match up every 19 years. (By contrast, the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, which is why Ramadan can fall during any time of the solar year. The Christian religious calendar is almost entirely solar, but Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox [around March 21], a calculation that involves the moon as well as the sun.)

Because of this Jewish 19-year cycle, 19 years from now, in the year 2032, Hanukkah will again fall on November 28. But Thanksgiving in that year falls three days earlier, on the 25th.

On average, we would expect the 19-year Jewish cycle and the 7-year Thanksgiving-on-November-28 cycle to coincide about every 19×7 years, which is to say, approximately every 133 years. And they sort of do.

One-hundred and fifty-two years ago, in 1861, the first day of Hanukkah and the 4th Thursday in November were both on November 28th. But there was no Thanksgiving back then.

In 152 years from now, in 2165, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th, and you’d expect Hanukkah also to fall on the 28th, but it doesn’t.

If you you’ve been paying attention (and if you haven’t given up yet), you may have noticed that I said “currently” when I explained when Kislev can begin. Remember Shmuel, who fixed the details of our current Jewish calendar in the first place? He, like everyone else back then, though that the year was 365.25 days long. This is why we have a usual year of 365 days, but every 4th year we add a leap day in February to make 366.

But Shmuel — again, like everyone else — was off by a little more than 11 minutes. The year is not quite 365.25 days long, but, rather, closer to only 365.2425 days, or about 11 minutes shorter than 365.25 days. For a long time no one noticed those 11 minutes. For a longer time no one cared. But by the time of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, those 11 minutes per year — or about 3 days per 400 years — had added up to about ten days.

This meant that March 21, which had once been the approximate date of the spring equinox, was now 10 days later than the spring equinox. Or, conversely, the spring equinox fell on March 11. This was a problem for the Church, because the springtime holiday of Easter was shifting further and further away from spring.

Pope Gregory fixed the problem in two ways. First, he lopped off 10 days from the calendar. For Catholics, the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582 was Friday, October 15, 1582. Secondly, he eliminated 3 leap days every four hundred years. He decreed that years divisible by 4 would still be leap years, unless they were also divisible by 100 but not by 400. So 1600 would be a leap year (divisible by 100 and by 400), but 1700 would not (divisible by 100 and not by 400). This became known as the Gregorian calendar, and it gradually spread through the Christian world.

In 1752, the British empire adopted the Gregorian calendar, making the day after Wednesday, September 2, 1752 not the 3rd but rather the 14th. (An 11th day was necessary because 1700 was not a leap year in the Gregorian calendar.)

The Jews, of course, didn’t give a damn what Pope Gregory said. They kept using the Shmuelian calendar for their calculations. The Shmuelian calendar and the Gregorian calendar have been diverging at the rate of about 11 minutes a year, or 3 days every 400 years. Furthermore, the year 2100 will be a leap year in the Shmuelian calendar (because it’s divisible by 4) but not in the Gregorian calendar (because it’s divisible by 100 but not 400). So not long after the year 2100, the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar will diverge by an additional 1 day — though the details are even a little more nuanced, because Shmuel used a simplification of the final Jewish calendar.

This is why (remember the question from several paragraphs ago?) in the year 2165, when we’d expect Thanksgiving and Hanukkah to coincide again, Hanukkah will actually be one day later.

And that is why Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will never again coincide.

Well, almost never. If the Jews don’t ever abandon the calculations based on the Shmuelian calendar, Hanukkah will keep getting later and later — moving through winter, then into spring, summer, and finally back into fall — so that tens of thousands of years from now they will again coincide. But long before then the springtime holiday of Passover will have moved deep into summer, so be on the lookout for a memo with a calendar update in the next several thousand years.

And in the meantime, don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy an exceedingly rare confluence of celebrations.

Happy Hanukkah. And Happy Thanksgiving.

A Short Torah Story

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Torah DrowningIt was raining, so we started by talking about that. As it happens, one of the kids had just come back from Colorado, recently ravaged by floods, so the conversation naturally turned to flooding. That segued into flood damage, followed by what one might save in a flood, and, from there, saving a Torah in a flood.

It was Sunday morning, and I was teaching 7th graders.

“Would you save a Torah from drowning?” I asked the class.

“Yes,” all of the students agreed.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” one of the students replied, “it would do the same for me.” Tee hee.

The funny thing is that it would.

I explained why.

The Torah is one of the three parts of the Bible, the other two being the “prophets” and the “writings.” The students’ haftarah portions come from the prophets. The writings include well-known works like the Book of Esther (more commonly known as the “Megilah” and read or chanted on Purim), Psalms (such as the famous Psalm 23 that begins “The Lord is my Shepherd”), and so on.

The great Rabbis gave us two major kinds of commentary on the Bible, the first in the form of the Midrash, and the second in the form of the Talmud. It’s that second compendium that offers advice on all manner of things: when to light Shabbat candles and how to read the Torah, why some kinds of damages are like oxen but others like pits, what kind of damage an ox owner is responsible for and why only dead elephants can be used as a wall for sukkah, etc.

One passage in the Talmud section known as kiddushin addresses the obligations a parent has toward a child, including the stipulation that the parents are supposed to teach their children to swim.

Without the Torah, we wouldn’t have the Bible. Without the Bible, there’d be no Talmud. And it’s the Talmud that records the importance of knowing how to swim.

It’s a round-about result, but the Torah did save us from drowning. The student had it exactly right.

This is how a conversation about the weather and our weekend plans turned into a lesson about the centrality of Torah in our lives.



[First published in the Vassar Temple November 2013 bulletin.]