Storing Holiness

In Jewish tradition,the name of God is sacred and must be treated with reverence in all its forms, which is why strictly observant Jews avoid writing it down lest they then mistreat the item upon which it is written (this is also why you might see even the word god written as “G-d” in some spaces).

When items that contain the name of God have become too worn to be read, are torn, soiled, or otherwise made unusable, they are to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Obviously, it makes much more sense to bury these items together rather than one at a time, so the items are typically stored (according to rabbinic sources “with reverence”) in a special storeroom called a geniza.

The most famous geniza is the massive, two-story silo located in the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Founded sometime prior to 882 CE, the good people of congregation Ben Ezra apparently tended to let things go. So much so, that they managed to put off cleaning out the geniza for a jaw-dropping 850 years.

Despite having documents that pre-dated the synagogue itself by at least 150 years, including some of the only extant original writing by medieval Torah scholar Maimonides, the geniza remained more or less ignored until the 1800’s. Then came a series of scholars, all of whom had a hand in uncovering the magnificence of the storeroom’s trove.

First among them was Jacob Saphir, a wandering Romanian Jew based in Jerusalem. He was commissioned to go on a fund-raising mission for his community, which brought him (among a host of other countries) to Egypt, where he was the first researcher to realize the significance of the Cairo geniza.

Next were the remarkable Smith sisters, Agnes and Margaret, who between them knew a dozen languages. They recognized that the geniza probably contained untold wonders, but as their focus was elsewhere, they brought the room to the attention of their rabbinic friend, Solomon Schechter. In 1896, Schechter made two trips to the geniza, bringing back more than 100,000 pages of rare manuscripts, including pages of the Book of Ben Sirach in Hebrew. That text had only been known to exist in Greek or Latin previous to this discovery, and another Hebrew version would not be discovered until the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed almost a century later.

Schechter’s work to sort and publicize the documents within the Cairo Geniza revolutionized Jewish scholarship, particularly medieval scholarship. His work was a literal, real-life treasure hunt of absolutely unimaginable proportions.

One modern, sadder version of a geniza making headlines happened in the United States in 2013, when thousands of trash bags mysteriously appeared on a roadside in New Jersey. Found to contain scrolls, prayer books, and other ritual objects, the bags were traced back to a local Jewish community, which had apparently hired a contractor to bury the sacred items. Legal and environmental restrictions stalled the process, and the bags–dubbed “God’s Garbage” by Tablet Magazine–remained in limbo.

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Conversion Thoughts

The first time I felt the pull of Judaism, the first time I felt my soul crowd forward eagerly toward something that described how I felt, it was while watching the Showtime series Weeds when I was a wayward 22-year old.

I know, it’s not exactly what I expected either.

A character is in the hospital, venting his frustrations to a stranger who turns out to be the hospital chaplain on duty, a rabbi at the local congregation. The character, an unobservant Jew, expresses his disbelief in G-d, and the rabbi responds: “You want an easy answer, go Jesus, go Allah, go atheist. I’m a Jew. My obligation is to wrestle, to engage. It’s not to just blindly believe. That’s how I see it.” That quote, in the least expected of places, turned on a light in me that I thought had long gone dim.

When I was younger, I prayed every day. It was something I learned from my parents, who would have each of us kids clasp our tiny hands and bow our heads before bed and every meal. They belonged to a Presbyterian church out in rural Pennsylvania, built like a boat and full of Mennonites. My prayers in those days always followed a pattern and had the kind of urgency that comes with the belief that you are tapping in to something eternal. I would pray the Lord’s Prayer first, because the Bible said it was the correct way to pray and I wanted to make sure not to get anything wrong in front of G-d. After that, I’d begin a new, personal prayer, starting with the words “Dear G-d.” Like a letter, I would open with niceties—thank you for today and the blessings and so on—and then move on to brass tacks. Sometimes I’d ask for help in school or for my friends that I thought were struggling. I prayed for people in other countries that I believed were going to hell because they didn’t pray the right way. When I got a little older, I prayed that my parents would get back together, that my dad would stop drinking.

The process of falling away from the religion of my birth was a slow and painful one. I remember bits and pieces of it, but I don’t have a clear sense of how the entire puzzle came together. I remember learning about other religions and wondering how my family could be so certain that we were the ones getting it right. I remember a conversation with my dad where I tried to express that everyone believed in the same G-d, but approached it differently. I remember how afraid I was of my own doubt—in the religion I grew up in, lack of faith was punishable by an eternity in Hell—and how empty I felt feigning belief out of that same fear. I remember trying to read more in order to find a way out of my questions, but only feeling less and less certain.

Finally, I walked out of church one Sunday—literally, during service—and that was it. I was an atheist. I rejected not only the religion I had been raised in, but all religion, all ideas of spirituality.

The problem was, as long as I could remember, I felt a pull toward the divine. I couldn’t then, and cannot now, put it into words exactly, but there was something in me that was thirsty for a connection. For a while, I fed that need with books and documentaries that reinforced my atheism, like those by Christopher Hitchens, or that explored religion from an almost third-party perspective, like those by Karen Armstrong.

Perhaps not coincidentally, although I do not necessarily connect it in this way, this was the same period of time in which my own alcoholism and addiction took root and flowered. I was young and unmoored, and resisting a pull I did not want to answer. I was also, of course, in the middle of a nationwide epidemic that would claim the lives of many of my peers.

Thankfully, I found my way into recovery. Part of that involved meeting a nun named Sister Laura, who used to smoke meth and who consequently lead a recovery-focused retreat I went on a few years after I first tried to get sober. I wasn’t raised Catholic—in fact, my family viewed Catholics with old-fashioned Protestant suspicion—but I still had (and have) a great reverence for nuns. I had been struggling with the concept of belief again, although I had identified as an atheist for a number of years by that point. I explained to Sister Laura my worries, chief among them that if I softened on my position that G-d wasn’t real, it would open the door to hell also being possible. If hell was real, I thought, surely I would go there.

 

She listened in a still way, like an animal does, and then told me it was okay to seek. That there isn’t a wrong way to “do” god. “Is that your word as a nun?” I asked her, looking for some sort of iron clad insurance, some get-out-of-hell-free card. “That’s coming from a nun,” she laughed.

At that retreat, I prayed again. I prayed that I would find a way to connect, that the part of me that was also a part of the universe would again catch fire.

I had never forgotten that quote from Weeds, and on a whim I decided to start reading about Judaism. I wish I could remember what, exactly, sparked it, but in all honesty it just felt like the next reasonable thing to do. It felt obvious. I picked up the book To Be a Jew by Hayim Donin, and could not put it down. It’s not exactly thrilling reading—it’s a bit more instruction-manual than anything else—but everything about it made such perfect sense.

From there, I read every book I could find—some of them more than once. I loved the Jewish approach to time: the cycle of the Jewish year adding structure and meaning to the turning of the seasons, the ceremonies that mark and commemorate events in a lifetime, the use of ritual to divide holy time out from the rest of the week. I loved the focus on deed and action as a way to work towards connection and understanding, but also as being ends in and of themselves. I loved the different brachot used to express gratitude for everything from the birth of a child to the sound of thunder to the successful use of the bathroom first thing in the morning.

After a while, I worked up the nerve to go to services for the first time as an adult. I had been to synagogue once or twice before with a Jewish friend when I was growing up, so I called her parents and asked them if it would be okay if I came to a Friday night service sometime. My friend’s mom was thrilled; in fact, she said, she was going to be leading the service that week.

Out of nerves, I asked a friend to go with me. That night, despite not knowing the tunes, despite fumbling through the transliterated Hebrew and keeping half an eye on everyone around me to make sure I was doing things correctly, I felt completely comfortable. It felt like coming home. I was so excited that I ran a red light on the drive home, too busy excitedly enumerating for my friend all the things I had loved during the service.

That was in the summer of 2016. It wouldn’t be for another two years that I would decide I needed to move forward in some way.

It hadn’t been that I was unsure. Ever since reading a midrash about how the souls of all Jews were present at Sinai at the giving of the Torah, converts included, I had been certain that I had a Jewish soul, even though I don’t usually think of things in terms like that. I had already learned to read Hebrew—slowly, haltingly—and had invested countless hours in studying. I followed the weekly parsha, I kept as many holidays as I could, I attended services. I knew that, in a sense, I had to be Jewish. There was no other way that made sense for me to be.

The problem was, formalizing the process would mean, at some point, that I would have to tell my family. I had hurt them so much through my addiction that the thought of adding more pain was almost unbearable. According to their belief system, lack of faith in Jesus as the savior of mankind—and the specific doctrines of faith that go along with that—was punishable by an eternity in Hell. I no longer believed or feared such an outcome, but for them the threat remains heart-stoppingly real. Here I was, several years into sobriety, facing the fact that I would have to tell them I was hurting them again, that I was rejecting forever something that they held as fundamentally true.

But it was now 2018. The world in general, and America in particular, was mired in a period of terrifyingly heightened anti-semitism, and my conversion felt like it took on a new urgency. So connected did I feel to this people and this religion, that it felt important to throw in my lot with them completely. It might seem counter-intuitive, and I suppose it is, but it seems to me that the best response to hatred is to embrace fiercely and passionately that which those who hate would take from you.

So, I enrolled in an intro to Judaism course offered online from the URJ (the only option in my area at the time), and contacted that same friend’s mother for suggestions on a rabbi. She put me in touch with hers, and he and I set up a time to meet.

 

I don’t remember what that conversation looked like, but I remember feeling so excited afterwards. Here again was that feeling of my soul crowding forward, eager to take in everything that it could. The prospect of actually being Jewish, of being part of something so beautiful, so ancient, so moving, was more than I could take in.

It has been a year since then, and I have only recently mustered the courage to tell my parents about my conversion.

They had been planning on visiting my house—not for anything serious, just a visit—and I knew I had to either tell them, or do a lot of redecorating. My home, at this point, is identifiably Jewish. I have a Tanakh in Hebrew on my desk, an Artscroll Chamash displayed on the top of my bookshelf, and dozens of books on Judaism throughout. I have a print of Chagall’s twelve tribes windows hanging, a calendar that combines Hebrew date-keeping with Gregorian, and a mezuzah. Not to mention, they were coming on a Friday.

So, I called them. Not ideal, I know, but I can’t change it now. I told them, and they were as crushed as I expected. The conversation was painful, and I took no pleasure in what I knew for them was significant grief.

Afterward, I was anxious and upset, but I was also immensely relieved. They knew, and the only way to go from there was forward. I was no longer keeping something from them that had been such a massive part of my life.

I chose the name Ruth for reasons that are both obvious and personal. Ruth was the most famous convert—a woman who left the land and religion of her birth to follow what felt right to her. To my reading, she was also a woman who prioritized female relationships and support, who blazed her own path rather than do what was expected. When Naomi felt abandoned by G-d, Ruth helped her find a way forward—in taking action when the path was unclear, Ruth showed faith and loyalty.

The reasons for my choosing Judaism are many, and hard to explain in one place. I found in this religion a beauty and meaning that I did not expect to find everywhere—that I thought I had stopped looking for. I feel a part of a millenia-long conversation, the constant struggle of a people to define and understand and connect with the unknowable. I havebarely scratched the surface of the conversation, and I am so excited by the lifetime of learning that I am just beginning to explore.

It feels appropriate that I close with a quote from another silly TV show, one that happens to have been created by the same writer behind Weeds, Jenji Kohan. The quote comes from a scene in Orange is the New Black which a character is arguing her own conversion, which started out as a ploy to get kosher meals in prison, but became so much more: “Honestly, I think I found my people. I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. And if I was good, I’d go to heaven. And if I’d ask Jesus, he’d forgive me and that was that. And here y’all are saying there ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as G-d’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like … you do G-d. And that’s a lot of work, but I think I’m in, as least as far as I can see it.”

The Age of Our Stories

Storytelling is like the city of London, or Terry Pratchett’s mythical city of Ankh-Mopork. The newest stories we have are built upon untold layers of other stories, piling one on top of each other into the distant past.

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It was this realization that first made me interested in learning about the Bible. I was taking a class on the Romantic poets, and started to realize that all of them leaned heavily on the weight and beauty lent by earlier works. A poem would be pretty by itself, but start to become profound when you learned that one line referred to this medieval epic, and the other made allusion to some ancient myth.

For many of those romantics, the Bible was the ultimate source of inspiration. The richness of ancient storytelling gave a power to their poetry that they could not conjure on their own, and so they would sprinkle in Biblical verses, references to Biblical tales, and wording borrowed directly from the book itself. I started to learn the Bible in order to try to catch all of these references on my own–both in the works of the romantics, but also in literature in general and modern culture at large.

It turns out, I needed to cast a wider net. In a study published in 2016, but newly making the rounds this week, researchers Sara Graca da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani found that the origins of fairy tales go back much farther than originally assumed. Using research methods originally pioneered for biological studies, the team discovered that familiar fairytales in various forms could be traced back to ancient roots, rather than originating in medieval times as previously thought. Many of these tales, it is reasonable to think, could have co-existed with the stories from the Bible.

Would ancient people have recognized the divide we place between fairy tales and sacred stories, or was it all co-mingled? Can we find fairy tale themes in Biblical stories?Why were the stories in the Bible canonized and others with just as much history were not? I’m hoping to delve into those questions in future posts, as I read more about this extremely interesting idea, but if you know some of the answers please get in touch!

 

 

 

 

My Parents Will Believe I’m Going to Hell

And I’m too afraid to talk to them about it.

In 2016, after years of identifying as a lukewarm atheist/agnostic (depending on the day), I began the process of converting to Judaism. I’m going to write more about that at some point, but there’s far too much there to get into it now.

The problem is, my parents are Presbyterian, with strong Puritan influences. They believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, and that the salvation He promises is a tangible reality. They believe in a literal hell where everyone who is not saved–everyone who does not believe in Jesus’ divinity–spends eternity.

They don’t take joy in that belief. It worries them immensely that so many good people will be condemned to eternal damnation because they never saw the truth of Jesus Christ, but, as my dad once told me “We didn’t make the rules.”

For them, my conversion to Judaism will mean that I am officially and formally forsaking Jesus and salvation. It will mean that I am making a conscious and informed decision to accept eternal damnation.

And I don’t know how to tell them that. I don’t know how I could sit across from them and explain that I am making a choice that–to them–endangers something far more precious than just my life.

The thought of hurting them in that way is almost impossible to bear. But at the same time, I don’t see how I could stand before a beit din and say “Yes, I want to be a part of the Jewish People…but please don’t tell my mom.”

Isaac’s Bride vs Hagar

I visited my parents on Sunday after church. They’re Presbyterians–the frozen chosen–and their pastor is currently taking them story by story through the book of Genesis. Sunday was the story of how Isaac wed Rebekah.

Once again, if it’s been a while, the basic outline is this: Abraham sends a servant back to Ur to find a suitable wife for Isaac. The servant prays that God send the woman He has appointed for Isaac to the well so that the servant can meet her and tell her his plan.

My parent’s pastor used this as an example of how his congregants should pray to God, and thank God when things go right, but they still need to do the footwork. Abraham’s servant, the pastor says, didn’t just stay home and pray that God send a woman–he went to Ur, he went to the well, he met people and explained his business.

A perfectly serviceable interpretation, and one I’m sure people have been pulling from this story for centuries. However, maybe because it’s another woman-and-a-well story, it made me think of the story of Hagar.

Hagar was the handmaiden of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Sarah had instructed Hagar to sleep with Abraham in order to conceive a child, since Sarah was convinced that she herself was too old to do so. After Sarah does in fact have her own kid, she grows worried that Hagar’s son will negatively affect the inheritance situation. So, she tells Abraham to kick Hagar out, which he does reluctantly.

After Hagar and her son drink the water Abraham had given them, she resigns herself to dying in the wilderness, and separates herself from her son so that she doesn’t have to watch him die. Fortunately, God notices their distress and provides a well (or points out a well, depending on how you read it) for Hagar and her son.

In that story, Hagar most certainly does not do the footwork. No disrespect to the woman, as I’m sure I wouldn’t have fared much better in her situation, but the moral of “pray, but do the work too” just does not fit in her tale.

So, here’s what interests me: is there a way to interpret these two stories so that they have complementary meanings? What would that meaning be? If you have thoughts, please let me know. I would love to hear them!

What the Heck is a (the?) Targum

In embarking on this project, I’m stepping into a rich and intimidating pool of history. People have been translating, interpreting, and expounding upon biblical texts since before a written bible existed. Some of the earliest known biblical interpretations are known as targumim.

Targumim: The plural of targum. Targum relates to the Akkadian word for interpreter or translator. Targumim were oral translations of biblical text from Hebrew into another language–usually Aramaic.

A targum would be relayed by a meturgeman, a professional interpreter, who would frequently add in his own or others’ commentary on a given passage or section. This extremely early exegesis is still studied by some religious traditions, although a prohibition against writing them down means that many interpretations were likely lost to history.

On Biblical Literacy

I received an article this week in my inbox dealing with the American president’s tweets supporting teaching Biblical literacy.

My knee jerk reaction was “oh no, something I agree with him on.” I love the idea of teaching Biblical literacy to high-school aged students, and would have jumped on such a class if it was offered in my school. I think most people are lacking in Biblical literacy, especially those who grew up with a Biblically-based faith tradition. I group myself among them. The Bible is an ancient, cobbled together text with roots in a hundred fertile grounds, and it is incredibly difficult (although worthwhile!) to even attempt to understand it.

The problem with these classes, and this is something the linked article brings up, is that people promoting these kinds of classes are rarely teaching a genuine kind of literacy. Instead, the curriculum deals with a narrow presentation of stories that support one particular view of the text–a treatment that does a tremendous disservice both to competing faith traditions, and to the Bible itself.

The thing that lit a spark in me for this subject, the thing that made me want to learn everything I could about the Bible and its origins, as well as the millenia of exegesis and commentary surrounding it, was learning that there is not one but actually two creation stories in Genesis.

If you haven’t read it in a while or if, like me, you grew up with a tradition that only taught the one, let me refresh you. (if you know what I’m talking about, you’ll have to forgive me the recap. I genuinely get excited about this)

So Genesis 1 starts with God on his lonesome, above a formless void. He creates light, then the sky, then the land and the seas, then swarms of living creatures and plants, and so forth until finally, on the sixth day, “God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” It continues “So God created humankind in his image/in the image of God he created them;/ male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26 to 1:27, New Oxford Annotated Bible).

But then, record scratch, in Genesis chapter 2, there’s a whole new version of events. In this one, “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils.” So we have a different timeline, and a completely different manner of creation. Before, God spoke and it was so. In Genesis 2, God has to form man, and give him breath. We have a more physical picture of God here. Perhaps most importantly, as this is the detail that was stressed in my learning of the story, and the thing that continues to echo today, it is not until Genesis chapter 18 that woman is created. “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Notice the depiction of God questioning his own creation). God presents man with all of the beasts of creation (another difference from Genesis 1), before finally putting him to sleep and creating woman from one of the man’s ribs.

That’s the version I learned, the version that was used to teach me why women were subservient to men and why wives had to obey their husbands. Learning there was a second version, a completely different version, was exhilarating to me. This text that I thought I knew–that I thought, frankly, was pretty boring–came alive to me then. How interesting, how complex could my Sunday school discussions have been if this information had been included? How exciting would it be for interested students to learn the challenging and engaging truth behind a book that many of them see as stodgy and monochromatic?

That’s the way Biblical literacy should be taught, but the prospect is scary for people who think that the text will lose meaning if you begin to point out the inconsistencies. The truth is though, something doesn’t last for thousands of years just because nobody noticed its faults. It lasts because generation after generation discover the mystery and the wonder wrapped in and around those perceived mistakes–it lasts because people have engaged with it.