Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Big Books...

These days, I spend Wednesday evenings in a "Big Books" class I teach at a local synagogue where we read and talk about some seminal/slash conservative texts of rabbinic Judaism, from the Bible to Heschel. Our texts were:

- The Jewish Study Bible: featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. Edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, Michael Fishbane.
Rabbinic Stories (Classics of Western Spirituality) by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Shaye J.D. Cohen, Paulist Press, 2002

- Lonely Man of Faith by Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Image Publisher, 2006
-The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Susannah Heschel
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005

Last night, a number of my friends crashed our little class and put the rabbis to the test, or better, turned them into gladiators, and us into the crowd that got to decide their fate. Mostly they gave them the thumbs up.

Over the years, I've fallen in love with those guys, and the longer I teach in the Deep South, the more I appreciate their ideas. I like their pluckiness, and, as a teacher in an intensely anti-intellectual climate, I even came to like their unabashedly elitist nature. So fine, they would have been horrified to see our motley crowd of men and women of all ages from 25-85, observant/secular/Shoa surviving Jews from Argentina, Poland, NYC, Puerto Rico, Germany, and oh, yes, a few local southerners, plus converts, actual, potential and those in the making, and Christians, including a priest candidate who usually endures me in a weekly Greek NT reading group. But one of the beauties of living when and where we do is that we get to pick and choose. We can reshape tradition, and we can (and should) learn, as the Jenglish speakers say, or, more precisely: study. Or at least that's what I hoped to convey.

Judging from my (College) students' I could imagine what people knew about the Oral Torah. Just as a taste:

"Being Jewish and growing up in a conservative Jewish synagogue I had never heard of the oral torah. I just thought that the Talmud was like a real big prayer book that was written differently."

" In analyzing this text in class--the Harlot--I learned that many texts can be seen as deeper than face value. I know the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover," but apparently you can't judge it by the words in it, either."

We have our work cut out! Last night, we looked at a number of seminal texts such as the Oven of Akhnai, one of my favorites. It's an audacious text in which the rabbis basically tell God to stuff it because they had received authority at Sinai--it also continues (though I haven't found that text online) to criticize the rabbis sharply for humiliating and rejecting a great sage. My students usually are shocked by the rabbi's refusal to listen to God ("But it's God speaking! How could they not listen?"), but they often come to enjoy the rabbi's wit and creativity. Yesterday was no exception, and we spoke about the rabbis and their role today. Not surprisingly, many would like to forget the rabbis and "return" to a Biblical Judaism that is more in line with American ideas of religiosity and conformity. But all loved the idea of writing our own midrash, with our lives, and thoughts.

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