Posted on March 12th, 2013 No comments
You know how it goes, you learn a great piece of Torah and want to share it. Or maybe you have a big idea and you know just the mishna to exemplify it. Sometimes it is as simple as the source of the words to a new song you want the choir to learn. But standing between our understanding and interest in the text and the people you want to reach is that ever so finicky tool of the trade, the study sheet.
Sure the days of mimeographs and carbon copies are gone but even with Hebrew data bases and Hebrew language word processors the cutting and pasting, the margins, the fonts can all make one throw up their hands.
But, NO MORE!!!
There is a new kid on the block by the name of Sefaria, which is in my opinion the best thing since Moses brought us the tablet. Okay, an exaggeration for certain, but Sefaria is indeed a wonderful tool that every Jewish educator should be taking advantage of. Merging the best of what modern technology has to offer together with a well honed sense of what goes on when people study Jewish texts, they have created a site that allows users to create and share study sheets with ease. The texts are in Hebrew and in English. There are a few choices about how to lay out the material. You can see traditional commentaries or add your own annotations. And lickety split, you have a hand-out ready to go.
Okay, true not every text is there and you may not love the translations that are available. But, there is a great deal available and in the best of open source ie. collaborative tradition, if you want to add or contribute, you are welcomed and encouraged to do so. It was co-founded by Brett Lockspeiser who has worked in tech including places such as Google and Joshua Foer an author of many books including Moonwalking with Einstein. The main team includes rabbis from across the spectrum like Rav Yehoshua Kahan and Rabbi Ellen Bernstein. But they need more of us to get involved. If you don’t want to translate or enter text, then make some sheets and share them. Help build the future of Jewish learning.
And if you are the kind of person for whom learning a new tech tricks is hard, there are training videos and detailed instructions that lay things out pretty clearly.
Try it. It really is pretty cool and mighty useful too.
Posted on November 4th, 2012 No comments
From all the available evidence in front of us, there is only one logical conclusion – Lance Armstrong is a dirty cheater. Armstrong, who won cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, seven consecutive times, is accused of using performance enhancing drugs in order to achieve his amazing athletic successes. Recently, the Anti-Doping Agency released an over 1,000 page document detailing the vast orchestrated cheating campaign run by Armstrong’s US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. According to a press release, the agency claims that “the evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.” In addition, and perhaps most damning, the report contains detailed testimony from his former teammates, who paint a picture of rampant drug use within US cycling. His former friends and colleagues claim they were bullied into doping, told that they either needed to be injected with dangerous and illegal drugs or they would be kicked off the team. And those who attempted to expose Armstrong as a fraud faced threats, intimidation, and denigration if they tried to go public with their knowledge of his use of performance enhancing drugs.
Lance Armstrong’s goose is pretty well cooked. He has been stripped of his titles and banned from the sport that he loves. Due to the scandal, he stepped down as the chairman of Livestrong, the charity Armstrong established dedicated to fighting cancer and to helping those afflicted cope with their disease. His most prominent sponsor, Nike, has terminated its relationship with this disgraced athlete. Armstrong has become a pariah. But before we condemn him to sports purgatory with other drug cheats like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, et al, I think it is only fitting to take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Lance Armstrong, for there is more to his story than cycling.
For millions of people, Lance Armstrong was an inspirational figure. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which, as in the case of many men, went undetected for far too long. Had it been caught earlier, it would have been easier to treat. Unfortunately for Armstrong, the cancer spread into his abdomen, into his brain. His prognosis was not good. But he aggressively fought the disease and, amazingly, resumed his cycling career. Armstrong became a symbol of hope when, just three years later, he won his first Tour De France title. Those struggling with cancer looked at what he accomplished and said to themselves, “If he can do this, why not me?” Over the years, his “LiveStrong” foundation has raised almost $500 million dollars for the fight against cancer and has raised awareness about this disease. Armstrong was not merely a figurehead, a celebrity spokesperson – he has worked tirelessly to advocate for greater government funding for cancer research and treatment. I encourage you to visit www.livestrong.org to learn about this organization’s many programs and all the good it does for people living with cancer.
But now the very people he has inspired face a difficult question – knowing what we know now about Lance Armstrong, can they still find meaning in their fallen hero? Can anything good still be taken from his story?
The Talmud teaches that one day, Rabbah bar Rabbi Shila once met the prophet Elijah and asked him, “What is the Holy One doing?” Elijah replied, “God is reciting traditions concerning the law in the name of all the sages, but God is not reciting them in the name of Rabbi Meir.” Why not? Because Rabbi Meir was a student of Elisha ben Abuyah, also known as Acher! Elisha ben Abuyah was a sage and Torah scholar, but, later in life, he turned to a life of heresy. So according to Elijah, God does not quote Rabbi Meir because he was once a student of this wicked man. But Rabbah argued on Meir’s behalf, saying, “What does that matter? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, ate the seeds within it, and threw away the rind!” Rabbah maintained that Meir was able to learn matters of Jewish law and tradition from Acher while discarding the sacrilegious attitudes and profane actions of his former teacher. He kept all that was good within his teacher and rejected all that was bad.
When it comes to how we view Lance Armstrong, I suggest we need to emulate Rabbi Meir’s attitude toward his teacher. There is no doubt that Armstrong leaves behind a tarnished legacy. He has done irreparable damage to his reputation. He cheated his sport, his country, and himself. But this does not wipe out the tremendous good he has done for those battling cancer. His titles have been erased from the record books, but his work towards creating a world without cancer cannot be erased. Lance Armstrong, the athlete, may have been a phony. But there is nothing fake about the hope and inspiration Lance Armstrong has provided cancer patients all over the world.
Lance Armstrong’s autobiography is titled, “It’s Not About the Bike”, which, ironically enough, is still true, just not in the way he intended. For now when we think of him, we cannot think of his accomplishments in the world of cycling, for they were an illusion, a doped- up scam. But, despite it all, we can still remember the man in the yellow bracelet, who reminded us, in the face of cancer, of our obligation to “Livestrong.”
Rabbi Joshua Lobel is the associate rabbi at Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.
Posted on October 24th, 2012 2 comments
I remember when I first seriously looked into the textual basis of “Kol Ishah.” I used my computer concordance of all of rabbinic literature (here defined as Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and midrash collections) to look for the term. I expected to find a long list of sources. I found three hits. I thought, “Well, I must have looked it up wrong.” So I tried “kol ha’ishah”, “kolot nashim” and other variations. No matter what I tried, I still I came up with just three hits in all of rabbinic literature. And each of those citations is a repetition of just one statement. So the prohibition comes down to this single statement:
If one gazes at the little finger of a woman is it as if he gazed at her secret place!? No, it means in one’s own wife, and when he recites the Shema.
Rav Hisda: A woman’s leg is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Uncover the leg, pass through the rivers (Isaiah 47:2)” and it says afterwards, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, your shame shall be seen (Isaiah 47:3).”
Shmuel said: A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, “For sweet is your voice and your countenance is comely (Song of Songs 2:14).”
Rav Sheshet said: A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, “Your hair is as a flock of goats (Song of Songs 4:1).” (B. Berachot 24a//B. Kiddushin 70a//Y. Hallah 2:1; Shmuel’s saying)
This passage talks about things that might distract a man while reciting the Shema. I think reasonable minds would agree that a man might be distracted by seeing his wife naked before him while he was attempting to recite the Shema. But what comes next is, in essence, a list of what different sages find most enticing about women…a sort of sidebar to the main conversation. Since Shmuel’s statement is included in this sidebar, later generations took it to mean that hearing a woman’s voice is as distracting as having one’s wife sit naked before him.
When I realized this, I contacted one of my mentors and asked, “Is this really the entire basis for not allowing women’s voices to be heard?” He told me it was. I must admit, I was flabbergasted. We had been hung out to dry on the flimsiest of pretexts. I asked a fellow teacher what he thought of this and he said, “Well, when I was 15 I’d have been distracted by a woman’s voice.” To which I replied, “Why should I have to shut up for the rest of my life because you used to be 15?”
The prohibition is all the more surprising because Scripture and rabbinic literature assume that women sing publicly. Of course, Miriam and the women sing at the shores of the sea (Exodus 15:20-21). Women are public musicians (Psalm 68:26) and take part in loud public rejoicing (Nehemiah 12:43).
In Mishnah, it is assumed that women sing professionally, publicly and liturgically:
Women may raise a wail during the festival [week] but not clap [their hands in grief]; R. Ishmael says, those that are close to the bier clap [their hands in grief]. On the days of the New Moon, of Hannukkah and of Purim they may raise a wail and clap [their hands in grief]. Neither on the former (i.e., the festival week) nor on the latter occasions do they chant a dirge. After [the dead] has been interred they neither raise a wail nor clap [their hands in grief]. What is meant by “raising a wail”? When all sing in unison. What is meant by a dirge? When one leads and all respond after her. As it is said: And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation (Jeremiah 9:19). But as the future [days] to come, [the prophet] says: “He will destroy death for ever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces. (Isaiah 25:8)” (M. Moed Katan 3:9//B. Moed Katan 28b)
So, weighing our evidence, we have Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic testimony that women sing publicly and liturgically as opposed to a single statement by one sage which does not, in context, ban women’s voices at all. I believe there is far more textual support affirming the right of women to sing in public and at services than there is for banning it. “May the the sounds of joy and salvation be hear in the tents of the righteous (Psalm 118:15)!”
This week’s author, Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD., is the director of Maqom an online center for adult Talmud study.
Posted on October 3rd, 2011 No comments
Today I got a request from a listserve to which I subscribe, asking that I forgive them for any wrong they may have done in the last year.
Clearly in this era of social media it was only a matter of time before repentance and forgiveness went online. But while the format of the request was somewhat surprising and sent me off to reflect on the nature of virtual community, it was the broad nature of the request that really caused me to think more generally about the nature of apologies and mehkilah. I neither know the manager of the listserv personally nor do I feel aggrieved by this individual, so in this case it is easy to be big hearted and forgiving. But most of the work we do during this season is more complex than that.
Our tradition has much to say and this is a case where I think it best to let the sources speak for themselves. As many of us prepare to teach over Yom Kippur and all of us are hopefully taking some time to take stock individually, it is my hope that these will serve as either a resource or a reminder of some of what our tradition says.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah,
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. (Micah 7:18)
One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend. (Proverbs 17:9)
“One who has sinned against another must say to him or her, ‘I’ve acted wrongly against you’.” (Talmud; Yoma 45c)
“If you’ve done another a small wrong, let it be great in your eyes…” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)
“If another has done you a great wrong, let it be small in your eyes.” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)
“If one has received an injury, then, even if the wrongdoer has not asked for forgiveness, the receiver of the injury must nevertheless ask God to show the wrongdoer compassion, even as Avraham prayed to God for Avimelech, and Job for his friends. Rabbi Gamliel said, ‘Let this be a sign to you, that whenever you are compassionate, the Compassionate One will have compassion on you.” (Mishnah; Baba Kamma 9:29-30).
A bad tempered person gains nothing but the ill effects of anger; a good tempered person is fed with the fruit of the deeds. (Kiddushin, 40b – 41)
“All who overlook what’s owed to them, Heaven overlooks their sins in return.” (Talmud; Rosh HaShanah 17a)
Forgive your neighbors [their] transgressions, and then when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. (Ben Sira 28:2)
No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra
“Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: “I am Adonai.” – “You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find Me; not in his love for you but in your love for him.” He who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you. For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world. –Martin Buber
Posted on August 17th, 2010 No comments
This week, Professor David Levine,the Sonabend Associate Professor of Talmud and Halakhah on the Jerusalem campus reminds us that the contemporary debates about immigration are not new. Indeed from ancient times, Jews have faced questions of how to deal with those who move from place to place. Drawing on his deep understanding of history and text, Levine explains what our tradition has to teach us for today.
After the epoch-making generation of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch at the turn of the second and third centuries, rabbinic activity split between two geographic settings, Late Roman Palestine and Sassanian Babylonia. The reasons for this do not concern us here, but an important point to remember is that this development is not to be construed as reflecting a dwindling Jewish community in Israel. This community would continue to thrive demographically, economically and culturally for another four centuries. The novelty of two geographic locations was first-and-foremost internal to the world of the talmudic rabbis. The traditional hegemony of Eretz-Israel was not about to relinquish its established role, and a budding creativity from across the Euphrates would soon assert its confident self-perception.
One result of this new configuration was the migration of students and scholars between the two locales. The Bavli expresses this phenomenon when it calls the migrants ‘nehotei’ (descend-ers) and identifies certain traditions as having been stated when a certain rabbi arrived (ki ata rabbi ‘peloni’ amar). Two anecdotes from the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud) portray the towering figure of Rabbi Yohanan as having difficulty understanding and dealing with his Babylonian students. These traditions convey the hardship of emigrants in a new social-cultural context, with people around them often indifferent, sometimes unfriendly.
In a thrice told tale (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:1 4b; Shekalim 2:7 47a; Mo’ed Katan 3:6 83c), Rabbi Yohanan (=RY) sees Elazar ben Pedat avoiding him and complains to another student Ya’akov bar Idi (in Shekalim: ‘Hiyyah bar Abba’), ‘These two practices of this Babylonian [are improper], one is that he does not greet me and the other is that he does not quote traditions in my name’. RY thinks that this type of behavior conveys disrespect, and he associates this disrespect with Elazar’s country of origin, Bavel. Ya’akov bar Idi is quick to correct this impression. In Bavel, students do not initiate a greeting to their masters: ‘The youth saw me and hid’ (Job 29:8) is a prescription for conduct. At worst there is a different cultural code at play, at best an acknowledgment of the esteem in which Elazar holds his master RY. The second correction that Ya’akov bar Idi offers, is instructive. When a student quotes his teacher’s opinion without attributing that opinion to the teacher, he is conveying dependence and intimacy. Everyone knows of the relationship between RY and Elazar, all are aware of the source of Elazar’s knowledge. The fact that this is assumed rather than stated, is a mark of intimacy. We can discern criticism of RY. Where he perceived alienation and repudiation there was actually a student in full recognition of all he owed his teacher, and who was acting with humility. RY is portrayed as being unable to transcend his own perspective. This anecdote challenges its audience to see situations through the eyes of others, empathizing with strangers whose experience is different and not easily accessible to others.
This is not the only time we hear of inattentiveness to the hardship and the behavioral nuances of Babylonian disciples in Israel. Kahana came from Sura to Tiberias to study with the renowned RY (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:8 5c). Probably dressed strangely, maybe with shoes instead of the usual sandals, the youth encountered an unfriendly reception from people on the street. ‘What voice [did you hear] in heaven?’ a ruffian threw out at him. Kahana retorted, ‘[I heard that] your verdict is sealed’. And indeed the ruffian died. It happened again, and Kahana thought to himself that this was not what he had bargained for: ‘Did I come to kill off the people of Eretz Israel? I will return to where I have come from’. However, one does not depart from his master without asking his permission. Kahana carefully formulated his request to RY, ‘If a person’s mother demeans him, but his stepmother respects him, where should he go?’. ‘One should go where he is respected’, was the unassuming reply. Kahana returned to Babylonia. Not realizing what he had sanctioned, RY asked why Kahana had departed without taking leave. The reply was ‘The conversation you had with him was his way of taking leave’. The master was unaware of what the young man had been going through, and even when Kahana expressed this hardship RY could not hear it. The parable of the mother and stepmother begs to be unraveled and understood on additional levels. The cry for protection of the parent-figure is almost explicit. It is lost on the rabbi. Mockery in the street is ironically paralleled by insensitivity in the study hall. One would have expected the beit midrash to provide this sense of safety. Not for Kahana. He is always alert, never able to trust his surroundings. The foreigner cannot find a place where he can feel protected and let his guard down. The ending is a pessimistic one, for the situation is not resolved.
These two traditions – Elazar’s misunderstood behavior and Kahana’s unwelcoming reception – choose RY as the target of their implicit criticism. Like biblical narrative, talmudic stories have no problem casting their protagonists in uncomplimentary light. Unconcerned with historical accuracy, these rabbinic figures are employed to teach. Edifying behavior invites emulation, problematic conduct posts a warning sign. RY is a linchpin figure for the Amoraim of third and fourth century Palestine. Selecting him as the butt of this criticism raises the stakes. An indictment of RY stands for a condemnation of an entire community. The allegation is in the absence of a secure ambiance where a stranger might be included.
In another context the Yerushalmi records a predicament of the small community of Cappadocian Jews in Sepphoris (Shevi’it 9:8 39a). Hailing from the Asia Minor these people did not seem to integrate easily into the social fabric of Sepphoris. The laws of Shevi’it – the agricultural sabbatical – require forfeiting ownership of produce (bi’ur) at a certain point during the year-long hiatus of work in the field. The produce would then become legally ownerless (hefker) with anyone permitted to gather it for themselves. A loop-hole was offered and a person could forfeit ownership of the produce in the presence of three trusted acquaintances, and immediately re-acquire this produce. In this way, a third party would not have the opportunity to act on the ownerless property and acquire it for himself. The ‘Cappadocians of Sepphoris’ asked Rabbi Ami how they could go about this particular detail of halakhic behavior. ‘Because there is no one who cares for us (literally: no one who loves us) and no one inquires about our well being, how are we to act?’ The technical solution which is offered should not mitigate this searing emotion of loneliness.
Talmudic tradition challenges itself and its students to hear these voices, empathize with the feelings they express, and act to lessen the hardship. The biblical idiom of ‘ger yatom ve’almanah’ (the foreigner, orphan and widow) is a trope for those who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Who are the ‘ger yatom ve’almanah’ in our midst? Do we step up and assume responsibility for incorporating them in society?
Posted on November 4th, 2009 1 comment
This week Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD. takes a new look at a familiar text. A Talmudic scholar, Dr. Abrams is the founder of Maqom a program for spiritual searching and serious Talmud study. She teaches Torah in a variety of settings and is currently delving into the Yerushalmi. We are glad that she will be sharing her wisdom with our community.
One of the things I love about studying Talmud is that it’s like a kaleidoscope: take a look, shake it up, turn it around, take another look and you see a whole new picture.
We all know that there are 4 things that benefit you here and in the world to come:
1. honoring father and mother
2. doing deeds of kindness
3. bringing peace between people and
4. the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)
The Yerushalmi, in its gemara to this mishnah, shakes the kaleidoscope and show us the other side of this teaching, i.e., the four things that hurt you here and in the world to come:
3. inappropriate sexual relations
4. lashon hara is equal to them all. (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1, 8a1 in the Artscroll Elucidation)
Each of the four good things is paired with its photo-negative. The links are easy to see: Honoring ones parents includes honoring one’s divine parent, i.e., God. So idolatry is the anti-honoring parent deed. Deeds of kindness show we treasure life. Murder, of course, is the farthest from that that we can get. Peace between people depends on appropriate boundaries and inappropriate sexuality dismisses such boundaries as meaningfless. What I especially love is that gossip turns out to be the photo-negative of Torah study. It’s words that can do so much good or so much harm.
But here’s the real catch-22: according to the Bavli (Baba Batra 164b-165a), everyone gossips to some extent every single day. Unless you’re going to stay in a cave somewhere and never speak again, your going to at least do the “dust of lashon hara” everyday. Since you couldn’t live anywhere near a complete Jewish life in such isolation, there’s only one thing to do: add more Torah words to your life. In that context, Torah study isn’t just a good thing…it’s the one thing that tips the balance back into your favor, shoring up the imbalance that inevitably follows gossip.
So Torah study isn’t just good for you lishmah…it compensates for lashon hara.
- Practical: if you had to teach this concept to kids, how would you do it? If lashon hara are the feathers, would Torah be the vacuum or the leaf blower?
- Spiritual: How could you get yourself/your children/your community to think about this balance as they go through their day. I know some people use rubber bracelets to remind themselves of different causes. What are some other ways we could really put this into practice?
Posted on July 7th, 2009 No comments
This week we are excited to have Rabbi Judith Siegal as our guest blogger. In the first of a series of posts following her adventures in learning this summer, Rabbi Siegal provides us both with a reminder of the importance of making time for study and the joy and inspiration that we as professionals working in the Jewish community can find in Torah study.
I sincerely feel blessed to have the opportunity to study, Torah Lishmah! Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to do this nearly enough during the rest of the year. To be able to sit at the table and in the room with so many others who, like me, came here to Jerusalem to find some spiritual nourishment, is energizing and exciting.
I arrived in Tel Aviv this afternoon, and took the sherut straight to our apartment that we are renting off Emek Refayim (with a beautiful mirpeset) to drop off my bags and get right to Hartman to start the learning! I will be here for eleven days.
Tonight, there was an award ceremony recognizing the Rabbinic Fellows of the Shalom Hartman Institute, rabbis who have been coming to this seminar for more than ten years (good inspiration for us newbies)! It was wonderful to see the collegiality and to be in a room with so many rabbis out of their regular busy lives, sitting at the tables ready to learn. One rabbi leaned over to me during a powerful session to say, “wow, rabbis just don’t get the chance to do this when we are running congregations, taking care of our families, and doing all the things we do.” So true!
The main speaker tonight was David Hartman. His lecture was titled, “The Contingent Feature of the Jewish View of History – Reflections on Biblical and Rabbinic text”
The main idea was that some philosophers would argue that there is an imminent thrust and structure to where this is all going (a set course for history, leading to a messianic time), but Hartman wants to undermine that idea. His theory is that there is NO certainty and anything is possible. That is what we have learned and continue to learn from Jewish history.
He taught from a text from BT Sanhedrin 7:2 that there is no predictive history to determine the future and no formula to predict messianism. He called the idea a tragedy in Jewish history that we think we know when the messianic time will come or that it is connected to our behavior.
He proposed that dreaming of potential is what moves history forward. The knowledge that anything is possible, both good and bad is what we get when we have no certainty. This idea came to Hartman after Entebbe, where it was clear to him that we Jews, had no special protection because we were Jewish. The possibility of anything happening is his messianism, a norm telling what is the social structure of reality, where hunger is overcome, for example.
The will of our people to live after Auschwitz, THAT is the messianic spirit.
The belief that human beings can change is Hartman’s messianism, If you believe in your own ability to change and grow, now THAT is living!
What a great message for all of us. Laila Tov!
My favorite David Hartman quote of the evening was “I believe in God, but I don’t trust Him!”