Monthly Archives: September 2019

Standing Together: Nitzavim 5779

One of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of a rabbi is to train candidates for conversion to Judaism. Such people are often spiritual seekers, and their questions challenge teachers whose Jewish identity and practice are well established. Why do you do this? What do you believe? What does this text mean? Will this practice make any difference? Faced with such inquiries, it becomes harder for teachers to treat ritual as habit, and faith as dogma. The questions posed by converts, children, or adults who are first discovering the depths of Judaism are exciting to those of us who teach Torah, forcing us to reexamine our own beliefs and practices.

In a sense, the convert challenges their teacher to detach from group habit and encounter Judaism as an individual standing before God. This is a healthy shift of focus for people who are deeply embedded in community. But the opposite is also true—teachers of Torah must infuse their students with a sense of collective purpose and identity. It is wonderful to be a spiritual seeker, but if one’s journey remains solitary, that is not the Jewish way. Judaism is intended to be communal and cannot be fully practiced all alone. The conversion process therefore includes participation in communal worship, festivals, and meals, as well as learning about Jewish history.

For this reason, the Talmud instructs teachers to ask candidates for conversion why they want to join the Jewish people (BT Yevamot 47a). Don’t you know of our historic struggles? Only when the convert acknowledges the suffering of Israel and states that they are not “worthy” to share in it, are they accepted “immediately” and then taught “some” commandments. The Talmud’s examples of which commandments should be taught to the proselyte are surprising—we teach them about leaving the corners of the field, dropped and forgotten fruits, and tithes for the poor. Not Shabbat, nor kashrut, nor prayer, but tzedakah is the essential commandment for those joining the Jewish people, just as it was for Ruth (see Ruth chapter 2). According to this Talmudic presentation, the key to conversion is neither theology nor ritual, but social solidarity with the Jewish poor. Of course, as Maimonides hastens to add, we do teach them the principles of faith and the essential practices of Judaism, but first comes community (Mishneh Torah, Laws of forbidden relations, 14:1-2). Continue reading

Tithing for Today: Ki Tavo 5779

What do the Torah’s tithes have to do with us? Is there a straight line connecting verses that call for support of the Levite, stranger, widow and orphan to the forms of charity practiced today? Our portion includes an emphatic command not only to mitigate poverty, but also to help the vulnerable achieve satiety: When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements (Deut. 26:12). This is a high standard, and quite distant from our current practice, but the Torah insists.

Back in Deuteronomy 14, a chapter focused on permitted and forbidden foods concluded with the command to share food with those most in need. There too the standard was to feed them to satiety, that the Lord will bless you in all your work that you do. This claim is reminiscent of Isaac telling Esau to feed him so that father might bless his first born son  (Gen. 27:4). Here too food is a pathway to blessing, but instead of “feeding” God at the altar, we are asked to feed the poor and vulnerable. Does this command apply only to field crops, or does it also cover salaries and capital gains? Continue reading

Perfect and Whole in a Broken World Shoftim 5779

What’s our position on mediums? Years ago in Detroit some in the Jewish community were drawn to a woman who claimed that she could channel conversations with their deceased relatives. Families who with my help had faithfully followed the Jewish traditions of hesped, levaya, shiva and kaddish were, some time later, meeting with her to check in with their loved ones. I get the appeal, but really? Do we resign ourselves to a “whatever works” approach, or speak out against practices that seem misguided?

It goes against the grain of our times to criticize others for their spiritual practices, no matter how strange they may seem. On a pastoral level I would never chastise a bereaved person who sought comfort in this way. And yet, when people would ask me, “Does Judaism approve of this?” I felt bound to answer honestly: Certainly not! Our portion warns the people Israel not to imitate such customs, including consulting ghosts or familiar spirits or inquiring of the dead (Deut. 18: 9-12). Instead, we are commanded, “You must be wholehearted (תמים) with the Lord your God.” (18:13) Continue reading