Talmud This Shabbat: The Prophet of Restoration — Zechariah

To date the prophets we have studied have prophesied destruction. The Babylonians are coming. The Assyrians are coming. The locusts are coming. Destruction and exile are coming! All of those prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Micah, Habakkuk) lived and preached before 721 BCE (Assyria destroys Israel) or 586 BCE (Babylon destroys Judea).

By contrast, our prophet this coming Shabbat, Zechariah, is the first prophet who prophesies restoration.

Zechariah has a tall order. In 538 BCE, Persia conquered Babylon, and Cyrus, the King of Persia, allowed the Jews to go home to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. Zechariah walks onto the pages of history eighteen years later. It is 520 BCE, and after eighteen years, still no Temple. Instead, demoralization, in-fighting, turf, ego, longing for what once was, fear about what will be. No Temple. Rubble.

Zechariah starts preaching and prophesying. Four years later, the Temple is built.

What was Zechariah’s message? How did he get a depressed and demoralized people dialed in to their future again?

We need to hear what he has to say.

Access the texts here.

See you on Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.

Chag Sameakh,

Talmud this Shabbat: Having Faith When Faith is Hard to Have–The Prophecy of Habakkuk

In some ways, Habakkuk channels the angst of a pandemic age. A deeply disrupted present. A deeply uncertain future. No clear path to a better place. And it feels like he has been stuck in that muck forever. Here is how his prophecy begins:

How long, O lord, shall I cry out
And You not listen,
Shall I shout to You, “Violence!”
And You not save? (1:2)

Habakkuk lives in the era of an ascendant Babylon. He decries how Babylon conquers and slaughters nation after nation, and Judea is next. Meanwhile God does absolutely nothing:

Why do You countenance treachery,
And stand by idle
While the one in the wrong devours
The one in the right? (1:13)

The pathos of Habakkuk is that he wants to have faith in God, but the world cries out just the opposite: Godlessness. Might makes right. The vicious are the victors. The righteous are the dead.

Our sages picked Habakkuk as the Haftarah for the second day of Shavuot. Somehow, the Haftarah ends with the prophet’s affirmation of faith. The world did not change. He lives on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple, the burning of Jerusalem, the murder of its residents, and the exile of those who survived. He feels the dreaded end in the air. But something within the prophet himself changed. He has faith.

Yet I wait calmly for the day of distress,
For a people to come to attack us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
And no yield is on the vine,
Though the olive crop has failed
And the fields produce no grain,
Though sheep have vanished from the fold
And no cattle are in the pen,
Yet will I rejoice in the Lord,
Exult in the God who delivers me.
My Lord God is my strength:
He makes my feet like the deer’s
And lets me stride upon the heights. (3:16-19)

Look at the two yets italicized above. Yet I wait calmly for the day of distress, for a people to come to attack us. (verse 16) And Yet will I rejoice in the Lord, Exult in the God who delivers me (verse 18). How do these two verses work together? How does he wait, pit in stomach, for an enemy to destroy his homeland and, at the same time, he rejoices in he Lord?

How do we have faith when faith is hard to have?

The texts from Habakkuk are here.

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.


Talmud this Shabbat: Does God Really Care Whether We Observe Jewish Law?–The Voice of the Prophet Micah

Thirty years ago, a young Rabbi Brad Artson got to Congregation Eilat, a Conservative shul in Mission Viejo, California and discovered a cultural pattern that was both lovely and so troubling to him that he could not live with it as it was. Congregants would brew fresh pots of coffee and enjoy their coffee and bagels as part of Kiddush—the social encounters that we all today miss so much. The lovely part was friends coming together to pray and to schmooze. The part he could not live with was brewing fresh pots of coffee.

Jewish law (halakhah) prohibits cooking on Shabbat because we are not to perform melakhah, labor, on Shabbat. The Talmud lays out 39 forbidden labors, one of which is cooking. The rationale is that the Sabbath is a day to be, not to do; to leave the world as it is, not to change it. The other six days, we change it; on Shabbat we rest with it as it is. When we cook, we change the nature of the food from uncooked to cooked. Hence no cooking. According to Jewish law, while one cannot brew a fresh cup of coffee on the Sabbath day, one is allowed to put boiling water (from a hot water urn that is turned on before Shabbat) into freeze dried coffee. Freeze dried coffee is already cooked. There is a principle ein bishul achar bishul, you cannot cook something on Shabbat if it were already cooked before Shabbat.

In an article he wrote thirty years ago, Rabbi Artson argued that rabbis have to pick their spots when they are going to really fight for something they believe in, and when they will look the other way. This was something he really believed in. He could not be a rabbi at a Conservative shul where there was cooking done on Shabbat. He had to do training and education to get his congregants away from brewing pots of coffee to using freeze dried coffee. No fresh brewed coffee, no cooking on Shabbat, was a deal breaker for him.

Roll the film forward thirty years. This past December, Michelle and I had dinner with Rabbi Artson. I asked him did he still feel the same way about a Conservative shul not brewing coffee on Shabbat? Absolutely, he said. He still cares deeply about Jewish law, and not brewing coffee on Shabbat is an expression of that commitment.

Rabbi Artson still cares. But I have two questions for you. Do you care about Jewish law? And did the Biblical prophet Micah care about Jewish law?

Tomorrow we are going to encounter Micah’s most famous passage:

God has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God. (6:8)
What does Micah think about religious rituals like using freeze dried coffee over fresh brewed coffee as an expression of fidelity to God?

What impact, if any, has the Covid-19 crisis, and the pandemic, and the suffering, and the loss of life and livelihoods, had on your own sense of the importance of religious ritual? Did you experience Passover cleaning differently this year? With so much suffering all around, do religious rituals still matter? With screens and technology so intertwined with our religious services, will not devices continue be a part of our services forever?

How should we be thinking about halakhah, and religious ritual, today? I am attaching the Micah texts as well as an important article authored by Rabbi Harold Kushner in 2007 entitled Conservative Judaism in the Age of Democracy, in which he argues that the Conservative movement is not (and never was) a halakhic movement, and that we should reconceive mitzvot as things we do not because we believe God commands us to do them, but because we believe that doing them adds meaning, purpose and holiness to our lives. If that is your lens, what’s in your cup of coffee this Shabbat morning?

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: When We Hate, It Only Makes Us Smaller–the Case of Obadiah

If there were a contest for least inspiring prophet, the hands-down winner would be Obadiah. His entire prophecy consists of 21 verses and is the Sephardic Haftarah for parshat Vayishlach.

The other prophets we have studied demand that we look inward and change our game. Hosea decries our faithlessness and pleads with us to recommit and betroth ourselves to God. Joel tells us the locusts came as condign punishment for our failings, and that if we assemble, fast, pray, and improve, God will restore what the locusts consumed. Amos castigates us for not seeing and caring about the poor, and for hypocrisy. We care about ritual, not about justice. He demands justice and righteousness. If we heed these prophets, we have to do better.

Not so Obadiah. He asks nothing of us. His entire prophecy is about hating on Edom, which rabbinic tradition took as an exemplar of either Rome or, later, Christendom. Edom gloated when Jerusalem was sacked. What happened to Jerusalem will now happen to Edom. Edom that once gloated will be crushed. That’s it.

Reading Obadiah, one wonders why is his prophecy even in the Bible? What were the people who canonized him possibly thinking? What is aspirational or inspirational or educational in an angry revenge fantasy?

And yet, Obadiah has the last laugh. Not only is his angry fantasy in the Bible, and further canonized as a Haftarah for Sephardim, the last line of his prophecy, Obadiah 1:21, is a fixture in our daily morning service.

What do we learn from this flawed and odd prophecy?

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.


Talmud this Shabbat: What the Prophet Amos Teaches Us That We All Need to Hear Right Now

Amos, the 3rd of our twelve prophets, has much to teach us as we enter the 7th week of our lockdown.

Amos was overwhelmingly negative. Doom and gloom. Mr. Pessimism. He literally tells the King of Israel you are going to die by the sword, the kingdom is going to be destroyed, your sons and daughters will all fall by the sword, the people will be exiled. More than 90% of his prophecy is unrelievedly dour and sour. Our Amos texts are here.

What’s so interesting is that nobody reads Amos’ grim pronouncements but Bible scholars. Amos is famous for two things. He is quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the I Have a Dream speech. He has a rare optimistic chapter that is chosen as a Haftarah and from which language is taken for the grace after meals.

His overwhelming pessimism does not stick.

His rare sparks of optimism are what we remember.

Seven weeks of lockdown wear anyone down. But Amos teaches us that pessimism accomplishes absolutely nothing.

Find your glimmer. We need hope.

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.

Talmud this Shabbat: Joel – The Prophet of Disaster and Recovery

To appreciate Joel, the second of our twelve prophets, you have to know something about locust infestation.

Locusts—the damage they do, the terror they inspire, the forlornness they leave behind—are the central theme of his prophecy.

Take a look at these brief, evocative, and ghastly links showing the plague of locust infestation in Africa, in 2020.

YouTube:  video 1, video 2, video 3, video 4, video 5

Gross. Scary. Terrifying. And still a problem today. Not just a biblical relic. Locust infestation breaks a society, depleting it of crops, food, livelihood, hope.

How does a biblical prophet like Joel understand the plague of locusts? Joel is not a scientist. He does not understand how agricultural conditions, like ample vegetation and moist atmosphere, are conducive to massive locust breeding. Joel sees this plague in theological terms. Please read the attached texts. What is Joel’s explanation for how locusts come to be, and how is Israelite society to get rid of them? What was it about his message that earned him canonization in the Hebrew Bible? Is there any wisdom in Joel for us today as we contend with our own different infestation?

Is this prophet’s message of utter disaster, followed by a blessed and full recovery, credible and realistic? Does it give you any hope now?

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Livestream.


Talmud this Shabbat: God’s Curious Commands That a Prophet Marry and then Hire Prostitutes

In our Talmud class this coming Shabbat, we are going to start a multi-week series on what is called the trei asar–Aramaic for the number twelve. The trei asar refers to the twelve so-called minor prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadia, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zecharia, and Malachi. We will study highlights from each prophet.

Our first prophet is Hosea, who immediately confronts us with complexity and problematics that you would never dream would be in the Hebrew Bible—unless you read it. Attached are the texts from Hosea, the commentary from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic The Prophets, and Haftarot: JPS Bible Commentary edited by Michael Fishbane.

Not only does God command Hosea to marry a prostitute, and to have three children with her.

God seemingly commands Hosea to hire a second prostitute, too. Or is that just a retelling of the command to marry the first prostitute? It is unclear.

There are so many problems and questions with these episodes.

Why would God command anyone to marry anyone else to make a point?
That would seem to not respect the humanity of the prophet or the prostitute.

Why bring children into the world and saddle them with weird names? That does not seem to respect the humanity of the children.

Why not one, but two, prostitutes?

And here is the most rich question of all: Out of this hot mess, out of this morally very complicated and challenged material, come the beautiful verses we say every morning, that I personally say every morning too, that Shira said to me under our wedding canopy:

I will betroth you forever:
I will betroth you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy.,
And I will betroth you with faithfulness,
Then you shall know the Lord.

How should we understand these crucial words of our daily faith and daily prayer life coming from this disturbing story of a prophet marrying a prostitute, and being followed almost immediately by a prophet hiring out a second prostitute?

Yuck. Or pashnisht, as they would say in Yiddish. Out of yuck and pashnisht, can you make a recipe for the holiest, most beautiful and sacred commitment of all?

See you virtually on Shabbat morning at 8:30. Gann Chapel Live Stream.

Moadim l’simcha,

Talmud this Shabbat: Resurrection

This coming Sunday, April 12, is Easter. Our Christian friends celebrate the resurrection of their Lord and Savior, who had been crucified on the cross, who had been dead, and who was resurrected. “He is risen” are very important words in the Christian faith. Andy Stanley, the pastor at North Point Church in Atlanta, speaks passionately about how the physical resurrection of their Lord and Savior is a foundational tenet in Christianity.

What do Jewish sources have to say about resurrection? It seems implausible that somebody who was dead could get resurrected.

Perhaps surprisingly, not only do foundational Jewish sources accept the physical resurrection of the dead. Our sources democratize resurrection. It is not only one man who gets resurrected. All of us get resurrected. This is not some minor side doctrine. To the contrary, resurrection of the dead is absolutely front and center in Judaism’s most important prayer. The second paragraph of the Amidah, known as gevurot, because it extolls God’s strength, affirms five times in one paragraph that God resurrects the dead, mechayei hameitim. We daven the Amidah three times a day on week days, a fourth time on Shabbat with Musaf, the additional service. In other words, 110 times a week, in the daily and Shabbat Amidot, we affirm that God resurrects the dead.

We say it, over and over and over again. But do we mean it? Do we believe it? And if not, why are we saying it?

Mordecai Kaplan, the great teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who would go on to become the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, taught that when we pray, we should say what we mean, and mean what we say.

On Shabbat, Michelle, Aliza, Elias, Dan and I will be in a conversation about resurrection of the dead. Do we mean it when we say it?

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy Pesach, and look forward to being with you virtually on Shabbat morning at 8:30.

Chag kasher v’sameakh,

Talmud this Shabbat: Stay Awake for The Second Half!!

Football games are won in the second half. Basketball games are won in the fourth quarter. Baseball games are won in the last inning. (One day we will see these games again.)

So too the seder’s deepest meanings are gleaned from the second half. Ironically, many American Jews miss it. We do our talking and sharing in the first half. We eat. We drink. We are tired. We bail. The second half of the Haggadah is often unloved and not experienced.

After our Talmud class last week, Michelle pointed out that the second half of the Haggadah has deep wisdom for this surreal season.

Tomorrow, Michelle, Aliza, Elias, Dan and I will each present our favorite teaching from the second half of the Haggadah. If you are struggling to get your head in the game, if Pesach is not yet where you live, if you can’t yet make yourself feel like Pesach is coming, if you cannot make yourself care like you usually care, this class is for you.

The texts are here. Additional resources here. The link for our 8:30 virtual class is here. The second half of the Haggadah can lift us all up now.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: How to Do a Zoom Seder When No One Has Ever Done a Zoom Seder Before?

Zoom seder? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Zoom is about screens. Distance. Long-distance. Seders should be about face to face.

My own family has an absolute rule, which we had never violated until two weeks ago: no screens at the table! Dinner is about face to face, all the more so a seder is about face to face.

And yet, like many other families, this year we will be doing a zoom seder. Shira, Sam and I are in Newton. Our other children are in San Francisco and Los Angeles. If we want to share a seder, we have no choice but Zoom. Many other families have shared that they are in the same predicament and plan on using Zoom for the first time at their seders.

How do we do a Zoom seder when nobody before has ever done a Zoom seder?

Tomorrow morning, Michelle, Aliza, Elias, Dan and I will talk not only about how to do a Zoom seder, but more generally how to do a seder that is responsive and helpful to this surreal moment.

Each member of the clergy team will share his or her best single move for a meaningful seder. It could be a text, a song, a recipe, an idea, a poem.

From our seder table to yours, with love. May all of our families find in this dystopian time seders of surpassing beauty and meaning and joy and love that transcends all.

See you tomorrow morning virtually at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,