Conversion in Judaism – Part III: How It’s Done

December 10, 2010 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

How to become a Jew is perhaps almost as contentious as the question of “Who is a Jew?” because the two questions are not mutually exclusive. The one informs the other.

Halakhically – that is, according to Jewish law – one becomes a Jew when one follows a certain process. This involves:
1. Learning about Judaism with a rabbi. This is not as easy as it may sound. Learning the history of the Jewish people is indeed important. The history of Jewish people will hopefully teach the potential convert what the future may be for his/her potential future people and himself/herself – he/she learns what he’s/she’s getting into. But this is only part of the picture. One must also learn the many rules, rituals, and laws that will pertain to the potential Jew. Examples of issues one must become familiar with are the rules of kashrus, the Jewish calendar, the Jewish festivals (and the rituals in each), Jewish prayer, the rules on ritual purity (taharah), and the rules of “family purity” (taharas hamishpokha).

2. The potential convert must indicate he/she knows what he/she is getting into, and evince a continuous desire to become a part of the Jewish people.

3. The potential convert, once prepared, must be examined by a panel of rabbis (beys din), who will ask questions to test him/her, and to make sure he/she is truly accepting the yoke of Heaven (qabbalas ‘ol malkhus shamayim). If he/she passes, the panel approves he/his conversion.

4. Men must undergo circumcision (bris milah if they are not circumcised, or undergo a symbolic bloodletting (<hatafas dam milah).

5. The convert must immerse in a mikvah (tevilah b’miqvah) to become ritually pure.

After all the requirements are met, the beys din will issue a certificate certifying the person’s conversion. The convert is also given (or chooses) a Hebrew name. (For various purposes, Jews use a formula of (Hebrew name) son/daughter (ben/bas) of (father), and sometimes (Hebrew name) son/daughter of (mother). The latter is used mostly for prayers of healing. In such a case, converts will use “Avraham” (Abraham) for the father’s name and “Sarah” for the mother’s name, indicating their spiritual descent from the Patriarch and Matriarch.)

There is also a tradition among Orthodox rabbis to thrice reject a person’s request to begin the process of converting to Judaism. This is to ensure the person really, really wants to become a Jew.

Now, the contentious issue is under whose authority can or ought one to convert? The government of Israel does not recognize conversions done under non-Orthodox rabbis. (In fact, the situation has become worse: the government of Israel recognizes only those US conversions that were under the auspices of a certain list of Orthodox rabbis.) Conversion under Orthodox Judaism is harder, longer, and more intensive. While Conservative and Reform Judaism relaxes some of the requirements, Orthodox Judaism does not. And so the issue remains: are people who convert under a Reform rabbi not really Jews? The Orthodox would say that would be the case. The Reform Jews, understandably and obviously, would be highly offended and would disagree. Orthodox Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on the definition of a Jew. However, this is what it seems the government of Israel is saying.

In any case, this is how the conversion process works in Judaism.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Conversion in Judaism – Part II: Theory

December 8, 2010 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

Why would someone want to become a Jew? There are a number of reasons.

1. Many people – perhaps the bulk – convert to Judaism because of marriage. Whether for familial acceptance or a desire to unite the family under one religion, non-Jewish partners do convert. Rabbis make sure they say their spiel on ensuring the person is converting out of love of Judaism and not for any other reason (such as marriage), but that’s all they can do. And even if someone is converting because of marriage, and not because his/her heart is in it, rabbis probably recognize that it’s better for the children in any case to be raised by two Jewish parents, even if one is not thoroughly Jewish. The statistics of the affects of mixed-faith marriages with Jews – with Judaism eventually being forgotten – alarm rabbis enough that they permit this to happen. (Why am I talking about rabbis? More about this on Friday.)

2. Some people actually do fall in love with Judaism, and desire to become a part of the religion, the people, the history. People find fulfillment in Judaism. This is not a new phenomenon, as the Talmud comments on conversion indicate: evidently some people were lukewarm in their dedication and devotion, but others, although born non-Jewish, feel fulfilled in Judaism. Conversion in Judaism thrives in the West, where it is common for people to leave the faith of their birth for another religion, so people feel more open and daring to join Judaism. (In the East, leaving the religion of one’s birth is a far trickier matter.)

There is a theory among some Jews that those with a nefesh yehudi (Jewish soul) are drawn to Judaism. Most are born into Judaism. Others must find it and join it. A nefesh is Jewish (yehudi) when it was present at Mt. Sinai as God gave His revelation. All Jewish souls participated in that event. Some souls were not born into a Jewish body, so the body must change its status to agree with the soul. Thus, there is no such as a conversion to Judaism but rather the recognition of having a nefesh yehudi and bringing oneself into compliance with that. (This is somewhat similar to the theory in Islam that there is no conversion to Islam – it’s a reversion because all souls are born Muslim.)

But one cannot simply declare oneself as Jewish. Almost all forms of Judaism – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Conservadox – have a process a person needs to go through in order to officially convert to Judaism or to be recognized as a Jew.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Conversion in Judaism – Part I: History

December 6, 2010 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

Contrary to what people may think, Judaism had a pretty active missionary program at one point in time. Egypt was a major hub of Jewish culture and activity – they weren’t all descendants from people born to Jews: many were converts or children of converts.

The Talmud discusses conversion to Judaism – it would discuss it if it weren’t a phenomenon worth discussing. (For that matter, the Talmud’s views on conversion are interesting, but that will be discussed on Wednesday.) Furthermore, there is the phenomenon of the God-fearers – a group of people who agreed, to one degree or another, with the claims, beliefs, and practices of Judaism but did not fully convert.

Perhaps the most famous convert was Ruth (from the epynomous book from the Bible) who was a Moabitess but then essentially converted to Judaism.

But conversion to Judaism no longer occurs at the pace it once used to. People don’t really complain today, as they did then, that people joined for mercenery reasons or corrupted Judaism. The reason that is often given is because of the persecution Jews experienced: people didn’t want to convert, and then Jews began discouraging conversion to avoid claims that they’re out to convert the world. One reason many people were taught not to trust Jews or associate with them was because one would be seduced into their ways.

But now, the phenomenon of conversion to Judaism is increasing. A lot of it is in the modern movements (such as Reform Judaism and Conservative (Masorti) Judaism), but it’s rising in Orthodox Judaism as well. (More on the differences between forms of Judaism will be discussed on Friday.)

Permalink Leave a Comment

Intro – Posts on Conversiob

February 23, 2010 at 12:07 am (Christianity, History, Islam, Judaism)

(It’s still Monday on the West Coast!)

Having recently attended two conversion ceremonies to Islam, I thought I might throw up some posts on conversion in the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), discussing the history of conversion, the theory behind conversion, and what actual conversion entails.

The history of conversion in Islam will come tomorrow (or today, depending on one’s timezone).

Permalink Leave a Comment

Why ultra-Orthodox Jews are not weathermen

February 26, 2009 at 10:40 am (Amusement, Judaism)



Permalink Leave a Comment

Halakhah can be amusing!

February 10, 2009 at 12:30 am (Amusement, Blogs, Judaism)

Can I play Wii with my wife while she is a [niddah] since our cars may touch each other?

— Physical touching is to be avoided, interaction is ok.


You might not get this if you’re not Jewish, but I thought that was really hilarious!

More here: “Ridiculous Halachic Answers” on February 6, 2009, on Mystical Paths.

Permalink 2 Comments

Honoring the dead – teh Joooooooooooooooz part I of II

January 28, 2009 at 12:30 am (Judaism, Religion)

When someone dies, there are a number of conventions Jews use.

One is, upon hearing the death of someone, is to pronounce the “blessing”: Barukh Dayan emes. It means, “Blessed [be] the True Judge.” It is unique among the “blessings” of Judaism in that it does not follow the usual pattern (“Barukh atta haShem…” “Blessed art Thou, O L-rd”). In fact, it has none of the proper names of God. It seems a little strange, but is an important reinforcement of the belief that God is just, truly just, in all He does.

As it is written: “HaShem nosan, v’haShem loqoch; y’hi sheim haShem m’vorokh” (Iyyov 1:21), which means “the L-rd gave, (and/then) the L-rd takes away; blessed be the name of the L-rd” (Job 1:21).

After the names of the deceased, various honorifics are added. This is part of honoring the dead. (There are some abbreviations or statements added after the names of evil people who have died as well, but I won’t get into it.) The most common is a”h from alav hashalom” or aleha hashalom”, which means “upon him be peace” and “upon her be peace” respectively. It may be used for anyone.

Another honorific is: z”l from zichrono livrakha” or zichronah livracha” which means “may his memory be a blessing” and “may her memory be a blessing”, and sometimes translated as “of blessed memory.” It is often used for rabbis or other prominent people who have died.

Another one is ztz”l from zecher tzadiq livrakha” which means “may the memory of the righteous be a blessing”. This is used for particularly prominent and/or pious people.

Tomorrow: the Kaddish.

Dedicated to the memory and zechus of Cranky z”l. May the souls of the the deceased merit a place in Gan Eiden. Omein.

Hu ya’asei sholom bimoromov, Hu ya’asei sholom oleini v’al kol Yisroeil. V’imru: omein. Omein!

Permalink Leave a Comment

Cabinet or minyan?

December 6, 2008 at 12:30 am (Amusement, Judaism, US Government)

From a Jewish jokes e-mail list I’m on:

So far we have Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Ronald Klain, Larry Summers, Paul Volcker, Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag. Maybe it’s just because I’m Jewish, but am I the only one noticing that Obama and Biden are not so much assembling staff, as gathering a minyan?

Warning: there’s a sermon-like post coming up on Sunday. Something that’s been on my mind.

Permalink Leave a Comment

What to do at a stop sign? A Jewish perspective.

December 4, 2008 at 2:26 pm (Amusement, Judaism)

Suppose you’re traveling to work and you see a Stop sign. What do you do?
(Source unknown: see also “The Meaning of a STOP Sign” on February 25, 2008, by Izzy of Techno Yid)

An average Jew doesn’t bother to read the sign but will stop if the car in front of him does.

A fundamentalist stops at the sign and waits for it to tell him to go.

An Orthodox Jew does one of two things:
Stops at the sign, says “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast given us thy commandment to stop”, waits 3 seconds according to his watch, and then proceeds.
Takes another route to work that doesn’t have a Stop sign so that he doesn’t run the risk of disobeying the halakhah.

A Haredi does the same thing as the Orthodox Jew, except that he waits 10 seconds instead of 3. He also replaces his brake lights with 1000-watt searchlights and connects his horn so that it is activated whenever he touches the brake pedal.

An Orthodox woman concludes that she is not allowed to observe the mitzvah of stopping because she is niddah [menstruant]. This is a dilemma, because the Stop sign is located on her way to the mikvah.

A Talmudic scholar consults his holy books and finds these comments on the Stop sign:
R. Meir says: He who does not stop shall not live long.
R. Hillel says: Cursed is he who does not count to three before proceeding.
R. Shimon ben Yehudah says: Why three? Because the Holy One, blessed be God, who gave us the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.
R. ben Yitzhak says: Because of the three patriarchs.
R. Yehudah says: Why bless the Lord at a Stop sign? Because it says: ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’
R. Yehezkel says: When Jephthah returned from defeating the Ammonites, the Holy One, blessed be God, knew that a donkey would run out of the house and overtake his daughter; but Jephthah did not stop at the Stop sign, and the donkey did not have time to come out. For this reason he saw his daughter first and lost her. Thus was he judged for his transgression at the Stop sign.
R. Gamaliel says: R. Hillel, when he was a baby, never spoke a word, though his parents tried to teach him by speaking and showing him the words on a scroll. One day his father was driving through town and did not stop at the sign. Young Hillel called out, ‘Stop, father!’ In this way, he began reading and speaking at the same time. Thus it is written: ‘Out of the mouths of babes.’
R. ben Natan says: When were Stop signs created? On the fourth day, as it is written: ‘Let them serve as signs.’
But R. Yehoshua says: …” [continues for three more pages…]

A Breslover Hasid sees the sign and prays, saying: “Ribbono shel Olam, here I am, traveling on the road in Your service, and I am about to face who knows what danger at this intersection in my life. So please watch over me and help me to get through this Stop sign safely.” Then, “looking neither to left nor right” as Rebbe Nachman advises, he joyfully accepts the challenge, remains focused on his goal, even as the car rolls backward for a moment, then hits the accelerator and forges bravely forward, overcoming all obstacles which the yetzer hara [evil inclination] might put in his path.

A Lubavitcher Hasid stops at the sign and reads it very carefully in the light of the Rebbe’s teachings. Next, he gets out of the car and sets up a roadside mitzvah-mobile, taking this opportunity to ask other Jewish drivers who stop at the sign whether they have put on tefillin today (males) or whether they light Shabbos candles (females). Having now settled there, he steadfastly refuses to give up a single inch of the land he occupies until Moshiach comes.

A Conservative Jew calls his rabbi and asks whether stopping at this sign is required by unanimous ruling of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards or if there is a minority position. While waiting for the rabbi’s answer, he is ticketed by a policeman for obstructing traffic.

A secular Jew rejects the sign as a vestige of an archaic and outmoded value system with no relevance to the modern world, and ignores it completely.

A Reform Jew coasts up to the sign while contemplating the question, “Do I personally feel commanded to stop?” During his deliberation he edges into the intersection and is hit from behind by the secular Jew.

A Reconstructionist Jew reasons: First, this sign is a legacy of our historic civilization and therefore I must honor it. On the other hand, since “the past has a vote and not a veto,” I must study the issue and decide whether the argument in favor of stopping is spiritually, intellectually, and culturally compelling enough to be worth perpetuating. If so, I will vote with the past; if not, I will veto it. Finally, is there any way that I can revalue the Stop sign’s message so as to remain valid for our own time?

A Renewal Movement Jew meditates on whether the stop sign applies in all of the kabbalistic Four Worlds [Body-Emotion-Mind- Spirit] or only in some of them, and if so, which ones? Must he stop feeling? thinking? being? driving? Since he has stopped to breathe and meditate on this question, he is quite safe while he does so, Barukh HaShem.

A biblical scholar points out that there are a number of stylistic differences between the first and second halves of the passage “STOP.” For example, “ST” contains no enclosed areas and five line endings, whereas “OP” contains two enclosed areas and only one line termination. He concludes that the first and second parts are the work of different authors who probably lived several centuries apart. Later scholars determine that the second half is itself actually written by two separate authors because of similar stylistic differences between the “O” and the “P.”

Because of difficulties in interpretation, another biblical scholar amends the text, changing “T” to “H.” “SHOP” is much easier to understand in this context than “STOP” because of the multiplicity of stores in the area. The textual corruption probably occurred because “SHOP” is so similar to “STOP” on the sign several streets back that it is a natural mistake for a scribe to make. Thus the sign should be interpreted to announce the existence of a commercial district.

Yet another biblical scholar notes that the stop sign would fit better into another intersection three streets back. Clearly it was moved to its present location by a later redactor. He thus interprets the present intersection as though the stop sign were not there.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Jewish prayer: II of V

October 29, 2008 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

What are the prayerbooks used in Judaism?

In Judaism, there are two types of prayerbooks: the siddur (plural: siddurim) and the machzor (plural: machzorim).

Of the siddur, there are three types: the siddur for the Sabbath (siddur l’shabbos), the siddur for weekdays (siddur l’chol), and a siddur that contains prayers for both (siddur shalem). The prayers recited during the Sabbath is somewhat different from what is recited during the day. In addition, there are additional rituals and prayers recited on the Sabbath (and just before and just after it) that do not apply to regular weekdays. So, in most siddurim the prayers for the Sabbath are written in their entirety. I mention that because during certain festivals or seasons, certain elements of certain prayers change. This is indicated in the text of the weekday prayers. But because the order and, in some cases, content of the prayers are completely different on the Sabbath, doing this with the weekday prayers would cause immense confusion, not to mention cluttering up the prayerbook. So, they simply put the Sabbath prayers, in their entirety, in a separate section (in a siddur shalem) in a separate volume (in a siddur l’Shabbos).

A machzor is used during certain festivals or seasons. There is a machzor for each of the following: Rosh haShanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Sukkos (Festival of Booths), Pesach (Passover), and Shavuos (Festival of Weeks, commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai). As mentioned before, certain elements in certain prayers change based on the festival or season one is one. In these special prayerbooks, the prayers are presented with the relevant changes in text, thus not making it necessary to pay attention to changes that one may need to make. In addition, these prayerbooks contain prayers and rituals specific to the festival or feast, and some even contain special poetry or texts which one may recite. They may also include a summary of what rules and practices apply during the relevant feast or festival. (There is no machzor for Chanukah as it is not, from the perspective of traditional Jewish law and learning, a major holiday.)

Permalink Leave a Comment

Jewish prayer: I of V

October 28, 2008 at 12:10 pm (Judaism)

This week, I’m going to talk about the Jewish prayerbooks.

While people focus a lot of attention and detail to the beliefs and practices (namely, the commandments or mitzvos) of Judaism, a large part of Jewish observance has to do with prayer, mainly the three canonical prayers. These three prayers are: the morning prayer (shacharis), the afternoon prayer (mincha, literally “offering”), and the night prayer (ma’ariv or aravis). The morning and afternoon prayer replace the morning and evening offerings made in the temple. It is also at these times that one should or must recite the Shema.

Prayer is known in Hebrew as tefilla, and involves praising God and asking for His blessings. Other recitations are part of what is commanded, and serves as a reminder of what a Jew is supposed to do.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Talmud: IV of V

October 17, 2008 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism, believes strongly in “studying Torah” for the sake of it. This becomes quite clear when it comes to studying the Talmud.

Although the Talmud is the basic text from which Jewish law, practice, and even beliefs come from, people who study the Talmud do not establish themselves as experts. Instead, they rely on poskim (plural of posek, which is an authority certified to issue rulings).

This is unique to Judaism. As mentioned before, Jews even study actual books of Jewish law, such as the Shulchan Aruch and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. There are many other commentaries (midrashim) and other books also studied. But those who study them do not become experts on them. Perhaps the debates in the Talmud tell why: despite all being of somewhat equal authority, various Talmud authorities constantly bickered over rulings and rules. This means that not even the greatest of sages could agree on rulings. How, then, can the common man/woman expect to become an expert on his/her own? Poskim are followed because someone has to be consulted, and various poskim even today disagree with eahc other. But a Jew has to stick to a posek. If every Jew thought himself a posek, the contention within Judaism would be fatal.

There are three purposes for studying the Talmud:
1. Become familiar with Judaism. By studying these texts, especially the Talmud, a Jew can learn what Judaism believes and practices (and, often, why). In some cases, the person learns the rules of what to do and what not to do.
2. Continuation of the past. By studying these texts, some of which are many centuries old, historical knowledge is preserved and passed on. It remains living knowledge. In this way, Jews are able to drink deeply from the well of past wisdom and knowledge, using it to refresh themselves today.
3. Derive merit. Studying Judaism, particularly the Talmud and midrashim (but most especially the Talmud), accumulates merit for the person doing the study. This merit helps them win points with God and makes Him more compassionate on the person. This merit can be used to ask for healing and some special blessing. Similarly, this merit can be transferred to someone else, who may need healing or a special blessing. And the merit can be transferred to the dead, to help them advance through the levels of the afterlife to reach Heaven, the Garden of Eden.

A small note on “following the rules”. Many books caution that while the person should study its contents, the person must go by the practices of the locality, and if there is any question he/she should consult a certified authority. Judaism places great emphasis on following the traditions of one’s locality and especially of one’s congregation. Departing from these traditions, even if the new practice conforms with established Jewish law, could cause contention.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Talmud: III of V

October 16, 2008 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

So, what is studying the Talmud?

When an Orthodox Jew says he’s studying the Torah, that’s pretty vague. “Torah” could refer to many things: the Five Books of Moses, the entire Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, or the vast library of commentaries (primarily the midrashim, particularly sifrei Midrash Rabbah). Usually, he means the Talmud.

This is quite unique to Judaism. For, notwithstanding the fact that it contains stories and accounts, it is essential a repository of Jewish law and legal discussions. The Rabbis are constantly going back and forth on what seem to be quite trivial matters. And yet, this is what Jewish men study every day, laymen as well as rabbis and scholars. Everyone studies the Talmud.

In contrast, only Muslim experts and jurists study shari’ah, and only canon lawyers study Catholic canon law. Lay people do not study religious law, except in Judaism.

And it isn’t just the Talmud either. Other texts, such as Shulchan Aruch and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, which are compilations of laws relating to Jewish practice, are studied daily.

It’s quite different and facinating.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Talmud: II of V

October 15, 2008 at 12:30 am (Judaism)

So, what exactly is the Talmud?

The Talmud is a multi-volume set of books. It is a combination of three important elements: Mishnah, Gemara, and commentary on either or both.

The Mishnah is a compilation of statements, rulings, laws, and so forth. It is usually in Hebrew. The Mishnah is published and used separately. The Talmud, however, revolves around the Mishnah.

The Mishnah is divided into six sidrei (plural of seder, meaning “order” or “arrangement”), which are: Zera’im, Mo’ed, Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, and Tohoros. Each seder deals with a certain area (agriculture, marriage, the Temple); each seder is comprised of masechtos (plural of masechah, meaning “tractate”), and each masechah usually deals with a specific issue (marriage, slaves, property). However, a seder could contain information or rulings completely unrelated to the original seder, and same within a masechah.

The masechtos of each seder are:
Of Seder Zera’im: Berakhos, Pe’ah, Dema’i, Kilayim, Shevi’is, Terumos, Ma’aseros, Ma’aser Sheni, Challah, Orlah, Bikkurim

Of Seder Mo’ed: Shabbos, Eruvin, Pesachim, Shekalim, Yoma, Sukkah, Beitzah, Rosh HaShanah, Ta’anis, Megillah, Mo’ed Qatan, Chagigah

Of Seder Nashim: Yevamos, Ketubos, Nedarim, Nazir, Sotah, Hittin, Kiddushin

Of Seder Nezikin: Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, Bava Batra, Sanhedrin, Makkos, Shevu’os, Eduyos, Avodah Zarah, Avos, Horayos

Of Seder Kodashim: Zevachim, Menahos, Chullin, Bekhoros, Arakhin, Temurah, Keritos, Me’ilah, Tamid, Middos, Kinnim

Of Seder Tohoros: Keilim, Oholos, Nega’im, Parah, Tohoros, Mikva’os, Niddah, Makhshirin, Zuvim, Tevul Yom, Yadayim, Utzkim

The Gemara is the Rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah. Certain Rabbinic figures, usually referred to as “sages” (although not all sages were such Rabbinic figures), issued commentary, rulings, and clarification on what the Mishnah said. Many of these sages held extensive debates on how one came with a ruling, what rules applied in what cases. In many cases, there’s quite a bit of disagreement. One Rabbi says one thing, another counters with another. In many cases, there is not resilution, so the Talmud ends the discussion with “teiku”, which means that it’s unresolved.

So what the Talmud has is a quote from the Mishnah (usually in Hebrew) followed by the Gemara, which is commentary or discussion (usually in Aramaic). These comprise the core text of the Talmud.

Around (literally) this core text are other commentaries (significantly, by Rashi and his disciples), cross-references to other parts of the Talmud, cross-references to the Hebrew Bible, and other notation.

The core text of the Talmud is written in a very terse style. It’s not written in whole sentences, and what makes it more complicated is that there is very little punctuation. Certain oft-used phrases are abbreviated. A lot of the commentaries are simply expositions on what the core text is talking about, filling in the words, phrases, and references the text leaves out.

The Talmud edition I have, Artscroll’s Schottenstein Talmud is a translation of the core text of the Talmud into English. It does not contain a translation of the text surrounding the core text for two reasons:
1. Space. It already takes many volumes (73) to translate just the core text; it would have to be hundreds of volumes if all of the commentaries were also translated.
2. Most of the commentaries are included in the translation. Because a literal translation would make no sense, the translation includes the explanations and clarifications provided by the commentaries. Thus, most of the commentaries are already included in the translation without having to translate the commentaries separately.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Talmud: I of V

October 14, 2008 at 1:26 pm (Judaism)

Over five days (including today, albeit late), I will be talking about something quite random: the Talmud.

In my undergraduate studies, my focus was on Judaism (specifically, Second Temple Judaism and a few centuries thereafter). I also studied contemporary Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism (particularly the more chassidic forms thereof). I knew that in order to understand Judaism the best, I would need to study the Talmud. It seemed so daunting, I never did it. And I was afraid that if I liked it, it would be an expensive habit. But I finally bit the bullet, as it were, and bought a volume of the Talmud. Studying it is fun as well as instructive! So, I found a well-priced set and bought it.

The Talmud is the core sacred text of Rabbinic Judaism. Jewish writers refer to it and quote it constantly. Most of halakhah (religious law) is based on the Talmud, as well as a lot of aggadah (traditions, stories). In order to become a rabbi, or be considered an expert in Judaism, one has to be very familiar with the Talmud. (More details about the composition of the Talmud will come tomorrow.) In fact, in certain ultra-Orthodox circles, rabbinic ordination or credentials are not used: the standard of leadership is Talmud knowledge.

The Talmud is fascinating and quite different. I look forward to boring you all about it.

Permalink Leave a Comment

What is Torah?

May 14, 2008 at 11:14 pm (Hebrew, Judaism, Religion)

Inspired by a question asked by BrewFan, I believe, in the IB thread: “Isaiah Manuscript On Display”.

Learning about Judaism as understood by Orthodox (and especially ultra-Orthodox, and even more especially haredi ultra-Orthodox) is very difficult because of specialized language and unspoken assumptions. For example, for the furthest right on the Judaism spectrum (which was normative until the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism), “Torah” (literally “Law”) referred to:
1. The Pentateuch (also known as the Five Book of Moses, specifically the books known to English-speaking people as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and known in Hebrew as B’reshis (In-the-Beginning), Shemos (Names), Vayiqra (And-He-Called), B’midbar (In-the-Wilderness), and Devarim (Words)); or
2. The Law as written (Torah she bi-khtav, Torah that is written) in the scrolls (Sifrei Torah) and as passed down orally (Torah she be-al-peh, Torah that is from the mouth) in Talmud (Mishnah and Gemara).

Thus, Torah could refer to a few books from the Hebrew Bible or to the entire corpus of authoritative literature (the entire Hebrew Bible and the Talmud), which comprises a lot of written material. If one includes the Midrashim, as most on the far right of the Judaism spectrum do, then “Torah” comprises a few hundred books.

The importance of the non-Biblical literature should not be underestimated.

A criticism I have read and heard a number of times during my studies of Judaism, lodged against ultra-Orthodox Jews, is that they do not study and are little aware of the Hebrew Bible. To a degree, this is true. The Hebrew Bible is studied insofar as the weekly portions (singular: parshah, plural: parshiyos) are read and studied. Nevertheless, even the weekly portions are not extensively studied in such great contextual depth as other Jews and non-Jews are wont to do. Instead, when ultra-Orthodox refer to “studying Torah”, they usually mean studying Talmud or Midrashim. This is because it is believed that the words of the Written Torah (the Hebrew Bible) are explained authoritatively and practically by the extra-Biblical authorities, which comprise the Oral Torah. Thus, although not part of the scrolls, these books and commentaries are just as authoritative as the part of Torah written on scrolls. Indeed, a common assumption is that if one studies the Written Torah, one must study the corresponding elements of the Oral Torah in order to grasp what it’s talking about, while if one studies the Oral Torah (which quotes and refers to the Written Torah), one need not bother with the Written Torah. It is as if the Written Torah is just the framework for the Oral Torah.

And no cannot discount the Oral Torah. Let us use an example. Torah says (Deuteronomy 6:8-9):

Uqshartom l’os al yodekho, v’hoyu l’totofos bein eineikho. Ukhsavtom al-m’zuzos beisekho uvish’oreikho.

Translated as (KJV):

And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

Or as (Artscroll):

Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be tefillin between your eyes. And write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

A more literal translation would be:

And bind them as a sign upon your hand, and let it by totofos between your eyes. And write it on the post of your house and upon your gates.

What on earth does this mean and, more importantly, how is it implemented? While the Written Torah provides no details whatsoever, the Oral Torah has pages and pages of details, from how it is to be done, from what materials, how those materials are to be prepared, what requirements makes an item for use in this endeavor valid and invalid, and so on. It is nothing short of amazing that from a few words from the Written Torah, we get the intricate ritual items known as tefillin (and, frankly, unless one has studied what tefillin are and what rules are behind their construction and use, it is not possible to appreciate how intricate and detailed this is). The point being that the Oral Torah fills in the very, very many blanks left by the Written Torah.

Modern-day Judaism, even the far left forms, are all a product of Talmudic Judaism (or, properly, Rabbinic Judaism, as the Rabbis created Talmud).
Pirqei Avos says in its very first verse:

Moshe qibeil Toro mi-Sinoy, umsoroh li-Hoshua’, vi-Hoshua’ lizqeinim, uzqeinim linviim, unviim m’soruoh l’anshei kh’neses hagedolo.

Which means:

Moses received Torah from Sinai, and he passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly (Sanhedrin).

As a bit of trivia, the rest of the verse says:

Heim omru sh’losho d’vorim: hevu m’sunim badin, v’haamidu talmidim harbei, vaasu s’yog latoro.

Which means:

They say three things: Be generous in justice, accumulate many students, and make a fence around Torah.

S’yog la-Toro refers to the practice of creating rules around key rules so that the key rules will not be violated. Thus, it is forbidden to walk on grass on Shabbos because doing so might push a seed into the soil, thereby planting a seed, and planting is forbidden as active/creative work on Shabbos.

So if you ask a Jew, “What is Torah?” the answer depends on many things, and in the end it may refer to a few books from the Hebrew Bible or to a veritable library, all of which contains the revelation of God as passed down successively through generations of experts and teachers known as the Sages. The Torah inked on the scrolls is the same as the Torah given by God to Moses orally (which he passed down, as Pirqei Avos demonstrates) and passed down to Jews today, now also in written form (the volumes of Talmud and Midrashim).

Now, “Torah” literally means “law” but specifically to authoritative law or the sources of Jewish law (the Written and Oral Toros). It is from Torah that Jewish law (“halakha”) is derived. And so “Torah” refers to a more abstract notion while “halakha” refers to specific examples. Thus, when explaining the origin and justification of why the straps (“retzuos”) of the tefillin have to be black, the response is “halakha l’Moshe mi-Sinai” (“the law given to Moses from Sinai”, in other words it was revealed as is without any explanation or extrapolation) rather than “Torah l’Moshe mi-Sinai”.

Permalink 1 Comment

About Jihad, Section 4 of Part II: A Brief Note on Textual Sources

February 13, 2008 at 12:30 am (Christianity, Islam, Islamism, Judaism, Religion, Religions)

Section Four: A Brief Note on Textual Sources

Much has been said about the textual sources of jihad by force (hereinafter simply “jihad”) in Islam. This is, of course, and important question or issue because like the other “revealed religions” (mainly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, although perhaps Zoroastrianism and some Hindu movements may be included), what the textual sources say determine orthodoxy and orthopraxy (correct belief and correct practice respectively). This issue in Islam will now be discussed along with brief remarks on what Jewish and Christian scriptures and textual sources say about war. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink Leave a Comment

About Jihad, Section 2 of Part II: Comparison with Other Religions

February 11, 2008 at 12:30 am (Christianity, History, Islam, Islamism, Judaism, Religion, Religions)

Section Two: Comparison with Other Religions

An issue often brought up by Muslims (and the odd non-Muslim) seeking to legitimize jihad by force (hereinafter simply “jihad”) or to deflect criticism thereof, is the issue of holy war in Judaism and Christinity. The issue of holy war and violence in the Scriptures of Jews and Christians will be dealt with in a few days. Today we will discuss war in Judaism and the Crusades. (Scriptural issues will be dealt with in a later post.)

(This is the fourth version of this post: the last three were quite long. There is much to discuss when it comes to war in Judaism and Christianity, but simply not enough space to discuss them in detail here and then compare them to jihad. But as war in Judaism and Christianity are issues that are worth our attention and scrutiny, especially what with people revising history to demonize Jews and/or Christians or otherwise inaccurately protray war in Judaism and Christinity, it is a series I am thinking about doing later. Nevertheless, I apologize if the issues here are not more fully described.) Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink Leave a Comment

A problem with metonymy

February 2, 2008 at 12:30 am (Arabic, Christianity, English, Hebrew, History, Islam, Judaism, Languages, Religion, Religions, Urdu/Hindi)

In the English language (and, in this specific regard, many other languages), “church” is a versatile word. It can refer to a particular building (or building style); it can refer to a particular congregation; it can refer to a particular denomination. So when someone says “the Catholic Church” (and here “says” is more important than “writes” because capitalization provides more clarity than the spoken word in this case), one can be referring to a particular building (St. Mary of the Angels Parish Church, perhaps), to a congregation (those that meet in St. John Cantius Parish Church), or to Roman Catholicism as a whole. The same applies to other denominations, almost all of which can be described as the “X Church” (the Lutheran Church; the Mormon Church; the Episcopalian or Anglican Church; the United Methodist Church; the Presbyterian Church; the Church of Christ, Scientist; the Orthodox Church; the Reformed Church; perhaps even the United Church of Christ). (Obviously this does not apply for everyone: exceptions I can think of are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Pentacostals, Evangelicals, Christadelphians, Disciples of Christ. With Baptists, often “the Baptist church” refers to a specific building and/or congregation as there is no united Church of Baptists, each congregation being autonomous even in conventions or groups.)

But this is something only in Christianity. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink Leave a Comment

Of “racial” profiling

August 24, 2007 at 12:38 pm (Arabs, Christianity, Cold War II, Islamism, Judaism, Pakistan, The United States, The West, World War III)

It is important for all of us to remain vigilant.

An issue that is somewhat thorny is that of so-called “racial” profiling. This is the belief (or practice) that certain “races” (that is, people appearing to be of certain ethnic origins) should or ought to receive especial attention and scrutiny to prevent or thwart criminal activity. With regard to Islamist terrorism, the “races” or ethnicities targetted are often said or considered to be those of the Arabs and South Asians (namely, Pakistanis).

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink 1 Comment

Next page »