Chavarah- Jewish Community Learning

A blog of Jewish study and traditions. Notes from classes: Torah Study with Rabbi Marder, Toledot and Shabbaton as well as other details found of interest.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sociological Chaos in Israel

1/28 - Paul Liptz

Jewish Peoplehood was the title of the topic but it might have been called 130 years of Society Evolution in Israel. Paul Liptz continued his lecture series to help us better understand the people in Israel.

Giving us the historical hindsight from the perspective that Israel started and grew so fast that it really didn't have a proper basis or core defined properly to help guide it's development. (I think the phrase from Gone With the Wind, 'grew like Topsy' is appropriate). With each aliyah there were new challenges and changes in direction. Liptz described Israel today as in its adolescent period.

Starting from 1880's once the Ottoman Empire ends, the Jews in Palestine start the journey into what is Israel today. The first Jewish residents really were a religious group that kept to their own community. The early pioneers after the turn of the century were young enthusiastic 17 to 23 year olds with lots of 'chutzpah' and zeal for Zionism. It was extremely difficult and Kibbutz life made them into a very solid community.

There was a major change in 'who they were' as they were not what their parents were, they moved from city to rural life and had to learn all the skills again since the Jews had not been an agricultural society since around 70 CE! They learned out of desperation and they were clever and articulate and took on challenges that were beyond their experience. (Example here was the not so perfect roads they tried to build!)

In the 1930's the German Jews arrived in force and brought 'dignity' along with their skills to create successful institutions.

By 1948 there were 650,000 Jews but in 1951 that number doubled to 1.2 million. The fact that this happened without total collapse was astounding. One of four residents in Israel were Holocaust survivors who were overcoming trauma and yet had to live in a world that was confused and not ready to accept their issues. Israel was a lonely country in the early 50's with few allies. They overcame many difficulties of a country made up of immigrants from conflicting cultures.

In the 1980's and 90's there was the new influx of Jews from the FSU (Former Soviet Union) and the Ethiopian Jews. Language differences and extreme cultural differences made life confusing at best. It was pointed out that this culture clash leads to many misunderstandings. For example, the Ethiopians are very patient and take things literally while Israelis of European cultures tend to exaggerate and are pushy. When some Ethiopian soldiers were told that they had to run to a tree in Jordan if they disobeyed an instruction, the next time they were called on for disobedience they took off running for that tree, and they run fast! The officer had to chase after them in a vehicle.

The growth of Israel’s population of immigrants continues. Most recently there is a quieter rise in immigrants from France arriving. These people are not quite ready to give up their lifestyle in France for the lower standard of living they would have to adopt in Israel. So they keep their residency in Israel quiet and travel back and forth. And yet, there is so much anti-semitism in France now that it is very difficult especially for the more orthodox Jews there.

Today when looking at the Jewish Peoplehood it seems that the situation is really quite good despite the conflicts that are evident. Relative to the Jewish historic experience overall now Jews have options. For the most part Jews can choose where to live and with whom. Israel has many allies and even has friends among some of the "enemies". While there are still threats and security issues, the country and the people of Israel are strong.

One important thing Paul noted, we should work to strengthen the bonds and understanding between Israelis and Americans. So meet Israelis and form bonds with them, host students, correspond with people in Israel. There are many ways we can work to build the relationship.

Keep up with what is happening in Israel

Watch news in Israel on a regular basis:

If you want to host a student from Technion PLEASE contact me, ATS has a great exchange program!

** Thanks to James Jeffries for the photo of Paul!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Religiosity in Israel

Paul Liptz – Our Teacher This Shabbat

The secular Jews in Israel are not really secular. 80% light candles on Shabbat, 95% light candles on Hanukkah and 98% have a mezuzah on the door.

There is a blending of different kinds of Jews in Israel including Haraedi Ultra Orthodox which is only about 12% of the population of Israel, Modern Orthodox, Progressive, Secular (who are not really secular) and Ideological Secular (1 – 2%).

Jews are about 80% of Israel population. We reviewed each of the Religious segments and even within them there are many ideological differences. There are at least five different groups within the Ultra Orthodox segment. Differences in each group are based on where they came from and their cultural basis. There is only 1 -2% Ideological Secular Jews who blame the religion for all the bad things that happen. And all these differences present new challenges in Israel every day.

Paul Liptz’s explanation of the process to get married in Israel and reading of excerpts from the “Handbook on Family Purity” and “Happiness in Married Life” which confirmed that his 4 children were ‘blemished’ brought much laughter. But the fact that every person in Israel who wanted to get married received this instruction and information is absolutely amazing. And it is the reason Paul suggests that he is “Reform” and probably counts for the wide range of “Secular” Jews in Israel.

The evolution to contemporary Judaism started in 70CE with the destruction of the Temple and the influence of the Greeks and Romans in Jewish society. Our blending of Torah, Talmud and our environment where we have lived makes for many different beliefs and traditions. This leads to the wide range of Religiosity we see today in Israel and the Diaspora. And also helps to explain the “sociological chaos” that was the subject of the Sunday lecture.

Hassidic Jews Dress in the style of 18th Century Polish Nobility!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Jews News!:

According to Scholar In Residence, Paul Liptz
A reporter from Mars comes to research the Jews for a story; this was the topic of this week’s Shabbat sermon at Beth Am. What does this reporter find out? Well these Jews must be pretty important. They must have lots of influence because there are daily stories in the New York Times focused on Jews such as an "important" story about finding a note from Ann Frank's father. And CNN had an 8-minute story on how the price of marijuana in Israel is rising in contrast to a 2-minute story on a disaster in Sri Lanka. And Hebrew must now be the second language in Kazakhstan as indicated in the movie Borat (as the outrageous anti-semite character speaks Hebrew throughout the movie)!

There was much laughter at the Shabbat talk by Paul Liptz, professor at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, as he described some of the uncanny ways in which the world sees Jews. When in reality we make up less than ½ of 1% of the world population, Jews seem to be everywhere. (I often wonder about how this happens) The humor of Paul Liptz keeps us engaged as he continues to point out the impact of Jews in today’s world in both serious and trivial ways. Notice the dominance of Jews in the list of Nobel Prize winners and amazing amounts of investment in Israel in the past few years. And there was visualized humor as he described the dress of the Hassidic Jews as 18th Century Polish Nobility who put their trousers in their socks to keep them clean from the muddy 18th Century streets and still do that today for some unknown reason!

The picture of Jews in 2007 that the reporter from Mars sees is a diverse one that covers a full range of looks, opinions and locations and we hope the friendly Martian sees it with the humorous point of view from Professor Liptz. With all our range of diversity, it seems, for some unexplained reason, that Jews is News no matter what!

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Harshest Curse of All

Torah Study led by Adam Allenberg 1/20/07

Deuteronomy 28:68-69

IF you don't follow the mitzvot -

You will go back to Egypt, you will offer yourself into slavery but no one will buy you.

On one level this doesn't even seem that bad. You are still free. Or are you?

Think about it: This says that you are entirely useless and worthless and you have gone backwards to the life of your predecessors and you can't even live to their standards. Being an unemployed slave is the absolute worst situation you could be in.

Recall that these are the children and the grandchildren of those who were enslaved in Egypt. Only a couple of people are still alive who knew that slavery first hand. It is somewhat similar to being the next generations of Holocaust survivors and victims. You need to be reminded of what can happen, you have a sense of what history did but you were not there so you need to be told again and again.

The discussion reviewed some of the other curses that might seem even worse, like a mother eating her own child. "That could never happen", or did it? Adam pointed out that yes it was part of the history in 2nd Kings. (As I am reminded that some say Deuteronomy was written later and much was put in there because of the things that happened during the time of the Kings)

Then we skip forward just a bit to Chapter 29:8 (the previous 8 verses are a summary/review) then it says "Therefore observe faithfully all the terms of this covenant, that you may succeed in all that you undertake." Other versions translate differently: the translation of the word with the root (Shin Kaf Lamed) sechel actually means, "to understand". So if we follow law we will truly "understand".

The other place this word is used in Torah is back in Genesis speaking of Eve gaining "understanding" from partaking of the fruit. So if knowledge is the goal, we better follow the mitzvot.

And in fact, KNOWLEDGE is the antithesis of the ultimate curse. For if we do truly understand, we will be in the best place and the best of life. I do believe that 'knowledge' and 'understanding' should be held at as the highest of the blessings.

It seems that is what we are still seeking, a worthy goal.

And thus the translation to the word "Success" rather than "Understanding" in Plaut makes sense!

This is the transition section before Moses takes back the podium from the Levites for his final soliloquy.

While other interesting comments and tangents in this Torah Study session, like "What does AMEN really mean?" and "How this section is speaking to the whole group and the next will shift to the individual." and "It's all about the land, and God owns the land.”, that is all the review I can do for today! Save these for other blog posts!

BOOK suggested by Adam:

Commentary on the Torah: Books: Richard Elliott Friedman

A Pertinent Reference:

Hasidic story to remind us of our obligation to remember the traditions and history of previous generations


Friday, January 19, 2007

A Clash Between Right and Right

Amos Oz spoke at Beth Am on Thursday night.

He spoke of the need to make Peace, not Love. He spoke of 'Compromise' as the lifeblood of Peace, to meet half way in disputes. He spoke of moderates as the only force that can contain the fundamentalist in any segment of the population whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jew.

Amos Oz's suggestion for making Peace in the Middle East is to strengthen the democracies like Jordon and make them even more productive and successful. Then they will be a 'showcase' for the other Muslim, less stable countries around them.

This eloquent speaker who has experienced the highs and lows in the history of Israel, told of his ideas and experiences in trying to make Peace Now a reality. He reminded us that there is no way to sort out the conflict from looking at history. The focus must be to move forward and deal with the future.

The Middle East conflict is a Tragedy because it is a clash between Right and Right. Those who take a one side over the other vantage are not helping to find a solution. There is so much mistrust and anger on both sides it can lead to total despair. Nevertheless, violence is not the answer. What can work is to take away the motivation for violence and to work toward a compromised solution.

Peace Now Link - Amos Oz is a founder.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Curses vs Blessings 54 - 14

Torah Study led by Cantor Bandman
Deuteronomy 28: 1 - 14 vs. Deuteronomy 28: 15-69

Picture this: The Israelites all still standing at the mountain listening to hear their plight and trying to understand what is being told to them. Remember they are still looking at those two mountains (one lush and one barren) representing where the blessed and the cursed will go. Now Moses has turned over the stage to the Levite Priests for a bit and they are chanting so it might be a bit more entertaining or memorable. But what they are chanting is very disturbing.

They started with a positive picture of all these wonderful blessings that will be theirs in the new land where they will live, about 14 verses of painting a very nice picture. But then they start a list of 54 verses of curses that could destroy them if they don't follow the rules. Some rabbis count 98 curses in this parashat. And these curses are a virtual horror story reminding them of things they have heard of or seen in the past but worse. They state that death, disease, destruction, cannibalism, servitude, outliving one's children, pestilence, and untold suffering will all surely descend upon us if we do not listen to God and obey the mitzvot.

This was the topic. Cantor Bandman posed the question to explore why there were so many more curses than blessings and that turned to an exploration of these awful curses from both a literal and a literary vantage point. Were they exaggerating to make a point? Were all these negative threats a real forecast into the future or were they a reflection on what had already happened within the collective memory of those who were there? Was this all about relationships of the individual within the community?

These curses strike everyone in some way or another as the very worst things that could happen. One comment held true: "we must recognize that all these curses described are very wrong. When we encounter these things it should be a warning for us to do something about it." Another comment focused on the need to maintain a balance that leans toward the blessings.

Then Cantor Bandman pointed out that many of the same topics of the curses were mentioned in Deuteronomy 20:5 when they were addressing the rules for going into battle. Certainly something to ponder and possible discuss next week.

I found that typically, reform web discussions of Ki Tavo would focus on different parts of the parasha from these curses. It makes a very uncomfortable impression.

Two commentaries on this topic from the reform perspective.

Very interesting site and analysis


Monday, January 01, 2007

Contemplating the Calendar

Happy New Year!

It is 2007. But it is 2007 years from what or when? Some say the birth of Christ, but now most agree that probably wasn’t when he was born.

And another question is why there wasn’t a year 0 or zero. That one was pretty easy when they realized that there is no Roman numeral for zero. And most of the influence on what is today's secular calendar system stems from Roman influence.

There is an interesting accounting of this history excerpted from Wikipedia:

Bede was the first historian to use a BC year and hence the first to adopt the convention of no year 0 between BC and AD. Previous Christian histories used anno mundi ("in the year of the world"), or anno Adami ("in the year of Adam", beginning five days later, used by Africanus), or anno Abrahami ("in the year of Abraham", beginning 3,412 years later according to the Septuagint, used by Eusebius), all of which assigned "one" to the year beginning at Creation, or the creation of Adam, or the birth of Abraham, respectively. All began with year 1 because the counting numbers begin with one, not zero. Bede simply continued this earlier tradition relative to the AD era
Bede did not sequentially number any other calendar units (days of the month, weeks of the year, or months of the year — but he was aware of the Jewish days of the week which were numbered beginning with one (except for the seventh which was called the Sabbath) and partially numbered the days of his Christian week accordingly (Lord's day, second day, …, sixth day, Sabbath in English translation).

And then what about the months on the calendar most of us refer to?

The names of the months on the Gregorian or Julian Calendar are usually understood to be Greek and Roman based. July and August are named after Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, while the rest are Latin for the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months, i.e., “sep” means seventh, “oct” means eighth. This of course is no longer true, as September is the ninth month from January. However, the calendar originally consisted of only ten months, and two were added at a later point. May is named after Maia, a goddess of spring and fertility, and June is named after Juno, a mother goddess. Why would this basis be so universally accepted in today’s world where we don’t believe in those gods and the time of the Caesars is long gone?

The names of the days of the week present similar histories. According to infoplease: "The seven-day week originated in ancient Mesopotamia and became part of the Roman calendar in A.D. 321. The names of the days are based on the seven celestial bodies (the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn), believed at that time to revolve around Earth and influence its events. Most of Western Europe adopted the Roman nomenclature. The Germanic languages substituted Germanic equivalents for the names of four of the Roman gods: Tiw, the god of war, replaced Mars; Woden, the god of wisdom, replaced Mercury; Thor, the god of thunder, replaced Jupiter; and Frigg, the goddess of love, replaced Venus." These names are still problematic to observant Jews today.

The Hebrew calendar is 5767 years since Adam, or some say Abraham and others say since creation. And who knows which is really true? Does it matter?

During the Babylonian exile, immediately after 586 BCE, Jews adopted Babylonian or Persian names for the months. The Babylonian calendar was the direct descendant of the Sumerian calendar. These names were brought back when the Jews returned and rebuilt the second Temple. The Torah specifically did not name the months, rather called them by number, The Babylonian names are more common today rather than names dictated in Tanakh. In fact there are a few months that have alternate names, Iyar is also referred to as Ziv and Nissan is also Aviv.

When is the first month in the Hebrew calendar? This also has history and some controversy. The first month (today's Nissan) had always started following the ripening of barley; according to some traditions, in case the barley had not ripened yet, a second last month would have been added which compensated for the difference in the cycle of the year. Only much later was a systematic method for adding a second last month, today's Adar I, adopted. Nevertheless, the first month of Nissan is specifically set to remember the time when we left Egypt or Mitzrayim. Giving the months names does not contradict the mitzvah to count the months from Nisan. We can call the first month Nisan and the second month Iyar. With the Babylonian names of the months on the calendar it is also a reminder of the return from Babylonia.

The Jews resisted the use of the ‘secular’ calendar. This would be understandable because they were not to recognize those pagan god’s whose names represented the months on the Julian and Gregorian calendar. It is noted that it was only about 300 years ago when Jews started putting secular dates on grave stones which was very controversial. Even today the most Orthodox Jews do not feel comfortable with the secular calendar and debate its use due to the understanding of the year implication of its connection to Jesus as well as the pagan names of some of the months. Some even now will write “l’minyanom,” “according to their counting,” when referring to secular dates to emphasize the fact that we are not following non-Jewish practices.

There is much more on this subject to explore. Then there are many other calendars to consider:
Chinese calendar
Islamic calendar
Hindu calendar
Iranian/Persian calendar
Icelandic/Old Norse calendar
French Republican calendar

Sources: wikipedia . com, infoplease . com, Halacha Talk Using the Secular Date By Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal