A few books you need to know about. But more importantly, learning about how we as Jews understand those books!
The Hebrew Bible
We recommend students purchase two copies of the Hebrew Bible:
- JPS Tanakh – Jewish Publication Society Tanakh is Hebrew and English. It does a great job of translating the English in a plain way. Note that this translation can be found online for free on Sefaria.org so buying this is not really crucial
- The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter – this is a more poetic English translation, but Alter takes into account ancient near eastern culture, his experience as a translator of biblical poetry, etc. The footnotes in this book are a great sermon “cheat sheet” for Rabbi Patrick. It does not have Hebrew, which we would want you to have, and why we mention JPS above. Of course, you can always buy this one then use the app or website for the JPS translation.
So what is the Hebrew Bible?
- Tanakh aka The Hebrew Bible. It’s composed of three sections:
- Torah (law)
- The Five Books of Moses (even though Moses isn’t in the first one and it’s likely Moses wrote none of them)
- Each week we read a section of torah called a parshah. Some congregations in Reform and Conservative circles will cut the amount of the parshah in thirds and thereby make a full torah reading in a “triennial cycle”
- Neviim (prophets)
- Every parshah has a corresponding piece of neviim. We call these partner nexts haftarah
- Reform Judaism at one point called itself “Prophetic Judaism” based on an interpretation that the prophets rejected the strict ritual legalism in favor of universal morality
- Ketuvim (writings) – morality tales, books like Ruth and Esther. These help shed a light on Jewish life throughout the ages and express what Judaism looked like
- Torah (law)
Suggested Assignment: The Hebrew Bible
Seems like a lot. Well, it is. So let’s call in some professionals. Choose one of these video series to watch AND please read the link.
Choice 1: Kingdom of David: Saga of the Israelites
If you’d rather watch a documentary series and are more interested in a briefer overview of the history of the creation of the text, and not the individual texts themselves. You may want to watch this playlist (four part series) directly on YouTube.
Choice 2: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible with Christine Hayes
If you’re more of a classroom type of learner and are interested in going deeper into the individual texts.
You may want to watch this playlist (twenty four part series!!!!!) directly on YouTube.
Current Approaches To Relevation and Torah
“So rabbi, if the Bible is all a series of ‘made up’ stories, what is there to believe?” This is what a critic asks.
And here’s how secular and Orthodox Biblical scholars answer: https://www.thetorah.com/article/current-approaches
After reading the link, ask yourself which of the approaches to Biblical scholarship best resonates with you and why.
Rabbi’s Opinion: I reread this link at least twice a year. It helps me think through different aspects of the Biblical texts and how to approach them when I teach and preach. Bullet point number eight, Aspects Theory, best sums up how an often contradictory text, reflecting ideas that may seem at times foreign to me, still captivates me spiritually.
As it reads:
Noting that the Torah writes from a number of perspectives and in a number of voices, this model suggests that the multi-vocality of the Torah is original, purposeful and divine.
This point has been argued both at the literary level as well as the theological level.
On the literary level, it has been argued that complexity and multivocality can be understood as a literary style; just because it does not fit well with contemporary notions of consistency and narrative flow does not mean that it doesn’t have a logic of its own.
On the theological level, an infinite God may have created a text that reflects more than one authorial voice and more than one perspective on the meaning of revelation and the nature of covenantal law. The stories about the ancestors may also be said to benefit from having been told from multiple perspectives.Emphasis added
God may be understood to be infinite. From this point of view, God is not bound by our rules of time and logic. The Bible, with all its contradictions, logical gaps, its evolving sense of right-and-wrong, all reflect how an infinite God would experience God’s own reality as Creator, Creation and the process of Creating. It’s not perfect, because it is the product of human creation, but its enduring power is a testament to how closely it reflects the Divine…flaws and all.
But that’s just me. What about you?
- Talmud, an abbreviation for Talmud Torah, or “studying the Torah”. It has two pieces: mishnah (the core oral law) and gemara (commentaries on the mishnah)
- Talmud is a hybrid of Jewish law (halacha), storytelling (aggadah), commentary and often feels like it makes no linear sense
- It’s a lot like a Facebook post. The original most is the mishnah. All the replies are gemara. You post a picture of your favorite burrito, and somehow the last reply is about how much someone hates their congressperson. That’s how Talmud works, too!
To be a Jew today is to be a “rabbinic Jew”. The religion of the Jewish people is more talmudic than it is strictly biblical. We are the people of the interpretation of the text, which is what Talmud does.
Suggested Assignment: Talmud
The authority to interpret Jewish text is often said to come from this story. Please watch and enjoy. It’s cute how Judaism uses a line from the Bible (frankly out of context) to argue its point.
Then watch this video (it’s short, don’t worry). This gives an overview of the various Jewish texts beyond the Bible.
The best way to learn about Talmud is to actually play around with it. No amount of history books or guides really helps. You just have to dive in and get lost.
- Get familiar with Sefaria.org (also an app). This is by far the best tool to play with Talmud.
- Read sections of Pirkei Avot (ethics of the fathers/ancestors), which is in the first book of the Talmud called Brachot (blessings)
- You can find the text of Pirkei Avot in Sefaria here
- Read a few of the lines and see what you are drawn to
- Notice that first verse. It tells us that Judaism of its time has continuity all the way back to Moses! See how the Sages wanted to affirm rabbinic Judaism as the authentic Jewish voice
- Play around with Sefaria. New feature: you can even find topics of interest like sexuality, gender, Israel, Jewish perspectives on joy and more
PARDES is a method used to interpret Jewish text. It’s a GREAT tool to get you started in understanding the Jewish interpretive tradition. Read more about it and consider using it as you go through Sefaria.
Rabbi’s Opinion: I used to be a member of a Conservative synagogue that placed a heavy emphasis on adult education. I had the pleasure of teaching every few months as well. During that time I was very interested in halacha. As I have gotten older, I have moved away from that and have had more interest in aggadah, talmudic storytelling.
A liberal halacha is important to understand, and can be a great source of spiritual connection when you realize your own capacity to interpret Jewish law. For some, that doesn’t matter as much. As one of my mentors, Rabbi Ron Herstik told me, “I believe in a God who sustains life. That other stuff isn’t as important to me.” When Rabbi retired, he gave me just about every book on halacha that he owned.
There are no further suggested assignments beyond this point, but please have a look at these items briefly.
Codes of Jewish Law (halacha)
- Different codes of Jewish law or commentary including Mishnah Torah, Shulchan Aruch, the mystical Zohar, the writings of famous rabbis and hasidic rebbes and many, many, many more
- Which ones are authoritative and which ones are not? Depends on the era and the people.
- Maimonides (also known as Rambam) was considered a heretic for writing his book Mishnah Torah, which was the Jewish law book “for dummies” of its time. Now its considered an authority of halacha
- Who we today would called “Modern Orthodox” dismiss the ideas of Hasidism. Some Hasidic movements reject the Modern Orthodox belief in a secular Jewish State of Israel
- Liberal commentators would be, at least in some sense, rejected by more traditional practicing commentators
A favorite example of how halacha can be interpreted is the question: what makes milk kosher certified? From the Orthodox Union (OU) website:
Milk has Chalav Yisrael (Jewish Milk) status when the milking and bottling is done under the supervision of a reliable Jewish person who ensures that the milk comes only from a kosher animal. The OU follows the opinion of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and others, that government inspection of dairies is equivalent to a [kosher surpervisor’s] supervision, whereby the status of the milk from these dairies is halachically equivalent to that of Chalav Yisrael.https://www.kosher.com/lifestyle/confused-ou-d-ou-d-cholov-yisroel-859, some emphasis added. A kosher supervisor is called a mashgiach
Again, not required, but below is a piece written before the advent of progressive Judaism called Torah Hayim. It’s a really interesting take on the halacha of a liberalized version of Judaism, written long before we had any kind of German, UK or American Reform movement. Great to see how non-Orthodox leaders wrote their own commentaries.
It’s also worth reading the Conservative Movement’s writings on Jewish law, as they do a good job of embracing the present, while being rooted in the past. This is very different than the Reform perspective, which tends to focus more on Jewish ethics as humanism through a monotheistic lens.
- Siddur, the Jewish prayer book. We have free copies for you below
- Machzor, a siddur for the Jewish High Holidays
We will focus on all this later. For now, have a look through them and write down questions if you have any.