Rabbi Jennifer Jaech of Temple Israel of Northern Westchester in Croton-on-Hudson, NY heads up our weekly Torah Study sessions. This podcast offers a (typically) 5 minute summary, created and presented by Tara Keiter. Sometimes we have guest leaders but this is, mostly, Rabbi Jaech's class.
Professor David Sperling led our group today—on a day we were remembering the September 11, 2001 catastrophe at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania—on an exploration of how Jewish people have recalled catastrophes in Jewish history.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is almost upon us. Today we read about the reprehensible behavior of Joseph's brothers. And we also read about how Joseph was able to overcome any desire to seek revenge. Could any of us be as forgiving?
The word "tithe" shares a root with the word "tenth." This week we looked at a passage from Deuteronomy that explains how the tithe goes toward the operating expenses of the temple, in order for the Levites to continue their work of bringing God's presence to the community.
When it comes to warfare, the Torah does not hold the male members of the Jewish population to the high ideal we might prefer. The Torah recognizes that abducting women is considered part of the "spoils" of war. But, at a minimum, the Torah tries to give the woman time to grieve, as well as some protection. As we go into the High Holidays, we can all strive to hold ourselves to the high ideas we would prefer to see reflected in society.
The ancient rabbis understood that human nature inclines toward both good and evil. The rabbis understood that the evil nature—which could also be identified as self-serving—is important in humans because it gives us a drive to thrive. However, the rabbis also pointed out that—for the good of the community—there are times that individual wants must be put aside.
The Torah is clear, in the book of Leviticus, that a wife found guilty of adultery shall be put to death with her adulterous lover. But what if the husband only suspects his wife of adultery? The book of Numbers offers a nifty bit of sorcery to address that question. The Rabbis, whose teachings are founded in Torah—but expand upon texts and offer a wide variety of interpretations—give reasons for why a husband may want to be more forgiving.
Politics and religion have always gone hand-in-hand, and whether we are open to warnings or not has a lot to do with who is in power politically. Today, Americans are on opposite sides of the debate on vaccinations, masking, and global warming. In biblical times people were on opposite sides about how to properly worship God.
Impalement as a form of punishment meted out by conquering armies was a fact of biblical life and, according to the book of Joshua, something that the Israelites also practiced. But the book of Deuteronomy states that, "an impaled body is an affront to God." Today, we took a closer look at this strange dichotomy.
Dichotomies in the Bible—slight differences, or outright contradictions—make it possible for people to use the Bible to argue positions for or against any number of issues. For example, the book of Joshua give two very different versions of the conquering of the walled city of Jericho.
We continued our Pride Month exploration of Jewish text that addresses non-binary people. This week we focused on transgender people and we might be surprised to find that the belief that a person might not fit their outside shell is not a 21st century phenomenon. We finished with 14th century poem by a man who seems to, heartbreakingly, wish he had been born a woman.
In the United States, the movement to embrace non-binary people for who they are has received a lot of traction. Our listeners may be surprised to learn that the issue of non-binary people was a question the earliest Rabbis also grappled with. Not in the "gender identity" sense that we read about today, but it was true for the place in society of intersex people.
This week we learned about a woman named Rahab who was a successful, non-Israelite businesswoman. She chose to join the Israelite people, which signified to our ancient sages that she had become a convert, and she is the ancestor to many important people in our Bible, including the Prophet Jeremiah and the Prophetess Huldah. And the Christian Bible tells us she was also an ancestor of Jesus.
When the people were liberated from slavery to Egypt, a "mixed multitude" left together. The medieval sage Rashi identified this "mixed multitude" as one that included converts. This led Rabbi Jaech to look at what some of the ancient Rabbis have to say about converts - a group of people which Rabbi Jaech and I, your podcaster, are proud to be!
The social distancing and isolation required due to covid-19 appears to be coming to an end in the US, beginning a time of reunions. This caused Rabbi Janet Roberts to look at reunions in the Torah. Reunions can be events full of conflicting feelings. But our ancient sages taught that old friends offer an opportunity to celebrate your "aliveness."
The U.S. recently completed a census, and this week's Torah Portion calls for a census to be taken. This is one of several biblical tales that require a counting of the Israelite people. Some of our traditions recount the census-taking as a point of fact. Other's indicate that counting the people can only lead to bad things. People are different today, just as they were different in biblical times. Our Torah stories come from different traditions and reflect a variety of beliefs.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle had a belief that hearing "contributes most to the growth of intelligence," making Aristotle dismissive of the intelligence of deaf-mutes. Many of our ancient sages seemed to agree with that assessment. But others showed more evolved thinking, and appreciation for the humanity of differently abled people.
Yup - it's in there: rules about what should be done regarding menstruation are in the Bible. Rabbi Janet Roberts led us on an exploration of what is in the Bible, how those rules were changed in post-Temple times, and what they might mean to us today.
Ancient thinking reflects the belief that medical afflictions were punishments from God to show his displeasure, and that displeasure had to be carefully managed lest God seek to punish the entire community! This week we looked beyond physical afflictions and took a closer look at mental afflictions. There are numerous examples of mental illness in the Bible and references to it in the wisdom of the ancient sages - so we know mental illness is as ancient as our people. However, unlike in biblical times, today we know that mental illness is not a punishment from God, but a real, medical condition for which we should have compassion.
At first glance, the poetry in the biblical book the Song of Songs appears to be erotic love poetry. Some claim that the poems were actually meant to be allegories of the love between God and the Israelite people. Today we had a group discussion, led by one of our Torah Study regulars, which looked at the words, the debates of the ancient Rabbis, and what scholarship has revealed about these extraordinary passages.
Priests in biblical times were instructed to wear special clothing when they entered the Holy of Holies to perform a sacrifice to God. The clothing identified the priests, possibly giving them a form of protection, and, at the very least, honoring God by their beautiful vestments. The clothing we chose to wear reveals much about us, and about the community of which we are part.
The Torah tells us that on Passover we should eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs. But the Torah makes no mention of drinking four cups of wine. Four! That's a lot of wine. The ancient Rabbis said drinking the wine was an obligatory part of the Passover celebration. Rabbi Jaech led us on an exploration of where that tradition might have started.
As the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, their hearts were moved to create a place for God to dwell among them. And, because they were still traveling, it had to be portable. Everyone in the community was involved in its innovative construction, making it the ultimate community-building event. The priests were able to meet the needs of their community, no matter where they went. This is what we still look for from our leaders - an ability to meet our needs. Since the beginning of the Reform movement, Reform Judaism has remained innovative in its quest to meet the needs of the people, a quest that continues today!
The story of Aaron creating a golden calf for the Israelites to worship is considered a great sin of the people. But, was the original story so sinful? We looked at ancient stories and archeological finds along with the biblical passages to examine how this might have once been a positive tradition that later became frowned upon. Customs change and people change with it and, sometimes, what was once deemed appropriate is denigrated. (Please excuse the loud cheers in the background - there was some serious sports watching going on in my house.
Last week we celebrated the holiday of Purim, which is typically (in non-covid times) a holiday for laughter and merrymaking. Rabbi Jaech lead us in a closer inspection of the story which starts with the premise of rounding up the virgins to see which could pleasure the king the most. This is very disturbing to our modern minds. The ancient Rabbis were also disturbed by this story - but not for the same reason!
The holiday of Purim will be celebrated this week. In the story of Purim, the evil Haman determined by lot - or the throwing of dice - the day of destruction of the Jews. This led Rabbi Janet Roberts to wonder more about the use of lots in biblical times. We learned that the throwing of dice has been around since the 3rd millennium BCE, and was sometimes used to try to divine the will of God. The throwing of lots also became useful in Temple times to determine which priests had the honor of particular Temple functions.
There are laws that address the possible goring to death of a person by an ox that date to the 18th century BCE, long before the Israelite dating of the passage we read in Exodus 21. Penalties in other Near Eastern cultures required a monetary payment, but the ox was allowed to live and continue to provide value to the owner. In the Israelite law, an ox that gored a human must be killed. And maybe the owner would be, too!
Jethro, the father-in-law to Moses, has a surprisingly important role in Jewish tradition. Surprising because Jethro was not an Israelite at all - in fact he was a priest of the Midianite religion. Even so, Moses respected Jethro and accepted his advice on the organization of a judicial system for the Israelites. This week we looked at the midrash, or traditions meant to fill in the gaps in biblical stories, that try to explain how a non-Israelite came to be so important in the Israelite story.
Much of the Bible is historical narrative text, but there is also poetry which sometimes repeats the narrative. The poetry may not elaborate on the historic facts, but it does convey a sense of emotion and it allows readers to experience the story in a different way. Many of the prayers in our prayer books are taken from lines in biblical poetry. The prayers do not reflect life as we know it, but offer something aspirational for us to strive toward, and a way to connect to something bigger than ourselves.
Pharaoh does not want to hear the words of God as delivered by Moses and Aaron. Similarly, the people in the Bible rarely listen to the words of God as delivered by a prophet (with the exception of Jonah). Because they do not listen, devastation often rains down. God seems to expect this. As he tells Isaiah, the people will "Hear, indeed, but do not understand. See, indeed, but do not grasp." God may even be content with the devastation brought on his people. God believes that, out of the wreckage a "holy seed" will help to establish a new beginning and, hopefully, build back better. American's are entering a new beginning - let's all try to be part of a better future for our country.
One of the Ten Commandments states that You Shall Not Murder. But there are many stories of killings in the Bible. We looked at two killings that were specifically ordered by God and carried out by prominent members of the community. Our modern minds may struggle with this dichotomy. Today we looked at both modern and ancient text that also struggle with it.
In the story in Genesis, the biblical hero Joseph is married to a non-Jew. Apparently, this interfaith marriage was not a concern for the author of the original tale. But, we can see from later midrash by the Rabbis, that the interfaith marriage did cause concern to people. The Rabbis created midrash, not found in the Torah but based upon the same characters, that give reasons why Joseph's wife was acceptable. Is interfaith marriage really a threat to Judaism today? Some people might think so. But Rabbi Jaech disagrees. She believes the biggest threat to Judaism today is relevancy. Is the Judaism we practice relevant to people? Does it matter?
In our biblical traditions there are instances of interfaith marriage. In our own Temple Israel community, about one third of our congregants are in interfaith marriages. This week we looked at the policy of the seminary where Rabbi Jaech was ordained and found that they will not accept as students anyone in an interfaith marriage. Given our traditions, we pondered this policy. What are your thoughts about it?
Today we reviewed the traditional Hanukkah story, and the historical Hanukkah story, and what more we know about Hanukkah, the Maccabees, and winter celebrations of light and greenery. Rabbi Janet Roberts led our discussion today, concluding with a question of where the use of evergreen trees might be for the Jewish people, say, 200 years from now.
In this week's Torah portion, Jacob prepares to meet with his brother, Esau, who he has not seen in 20 years. Jacob wonders if Esau still want to kill Jacob. Already anxious the night before his meeting with his brother, Jacob is confronted by a man who wrestles with Jacob all night long. As the dawn breaks, we learn that the man is really an angel who wrestled with Jacob. The angel gives Jacob a new name, Israel, which means "God is just." Maybe this story will turn out all right. Or maybe it is a way of showing how the writers personified things we might be anxious about.
This week our scholar in residence, Professor David Sperling, led us on an exploration of the patriarch Jacob. At one point during his narrative, Jacob left his home to travel toward Haran. There are two different traditions at work in the Bible that provide two different possible reasons for why Jacob left home. Along the way, Jacob made a stop at Bethel, where he dreamed of angels going up and down a staircase (known as Jacob's Ladder). Jacob realized that Bethel is a sacred place. In other books of the Bible, Bethel is also identified as being sacred. Again - there are two traditions at work here. We examined which story is older, although it appears to be younger. There is more than meets the eye (or ear!).
The Bible is our foundational text, and these are the stories that our ancestors chose to tell. Rabbi Jaech does not try to shield our congregation from the ugliness in the Bible. This week we looked at some of the stories that show dubious behavior by our patriarchs, acknowledging that our ancestors do not need to be excused and we can learn from their stories, without having to approve of all their actions.
God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness and depravity. What, specifically, was the evil done there? The Bible relates a story about the men of Sodom demanding to rape two foreigners who had entered the town. Was it the fact of the rape, or maybe something else?
Mysterious figures who are not fleshed out leave a lot of room for interpretation in an effort to find meaning or connections, where meaning or connection might not exist. We see this today in the news with wild conspiracy theories like QAnon. This week we looked at a figure in our own sacred scripture who has been ripe for these type of theories, and we look at the theories that have propagated over the centuries. We introduce you to: Melchizedek.
Biblical literalist chronology tells us that Moses received the Laws in roughly the 18th century BCE. But, using the same chronology, in the Noah story we are told that the people living in roughly 21st century BCE were wicked and lawless and God determined to destroy them by bringing a Great Flood. The ancient Rabbis came up with a way to address the paradox of how people, before a law code was given, could have been held guilty for being "lawless."
The final book in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) is Deuteronomy, and it tells us that no one knows where Moses was buried. Scholars have learned that absolute statements in the Bible should raise a flag in our minds. When we are told "no one knows," does that mean that, at some time, someone claimed to know? The Moabite Stone, a 9th century BCE artifact, contains a passage that might hint at an important burial site.
The pandemic affecting the world has brought changes to everyone. Rabbi Janet Roberts led us in an exploration of biblical passages that teach us about the cataclysmic events impacting the ancient Israelites, and how the ancient Rabbis used creativity in the times of crises to create something new, meaningful and lasting.
Throughout history, people have thought about the future and what it will mean to future generations. What is important to us? What do we want to leave behind? There is a rabbinic saying that it is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to refrain from it. What task can you take on to ensure a bright future for our community?
When there is so much going wrong in the world, we may question what God is doing. Is this punishment for our misbehavior? Or is this a terrible tragedy at which God is also weeping? What if we can form a partnership with God - through our tears. Crying with God can make us stronger, and may lead to empathy and social change.
Although Elisha ben Abuyah had been declared a heretic, his student Meir still sought to learn from him and, also, to try to get Elisha to repent. Elisha tells Meir that he has heard directly from God that he cannot atone. The fact that God will not accept his atonement, as Jews worldwide are approaching Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - is alarming. According to Maimonides, what are the actions that do not allow repentance and atonement?
What would the ancient Rabbis do with a rabbi who had gone rogue?! This week we looked at the Talmudic record of one such rabbi, Elisha be Abuyah, who, after having risen to a position of prominence, decided to stop following the commandments. The Rabbis had the important job of keeping the community together. This heretic would have damaged the foundation of the religion and the sense of community it provided. Then we looked at our own community and the sense of community it provides today - a community we hope you will continue to support.
In the case of a murder, a family is expected to avenge the death. But in the case of an accidental murder, the murderer is allowed to flee to a city of refuge, where he (she) may reside until the death of the High Priest. Why does the death of the High Priest, a man who had no involvement with the murder, give atonement for the death of another?