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DAILY MIRACLES NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE

At my very first talk at Florida International University, about my new book: The Wondering Jew My Journey into Judaism, there was an elderly rabbi in the audience. I spoke about Judaism, reincarnation and angels. After my presentations people shared their own experiences.

The rabbi stood up and said, “All Judaism believes that the soul lives forever.”

When everyone left the rabbi came up to me and shared the following, and I paraphrase:

“I died twice,” he said softly. “The first time I saw this amazing white light and I felt myself being drawn into it. It was so peaceful and I wanted to go into that light. But I was drawn back.

“The second time I died, I was hovering over my body. I could see myself and I could hear everything that was being said.” He smiled and waiting a beat before adding, “Yet, here I am.”

Wishing he had shared these comments with my audience, I asked, “Rabbi, are you afraid to die?”

“Not at all,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Not at all.”

Daily Miracles: the Kiss

The following story is short and very touching. After a talk, while on my book tour for The Wondering Jew My Journey into Judaism, a woman came up to me.

“I have a story to tell you. I was too embarrassed to stand up and share it in front of everyone, but I want you to hear it.

“I was very close with my father. I adored him,” she said softly. “When he died I was devastated and having trouble getting on with my life.

“About three months after he passed, I was lying on my bed trying to meditate. I closed my eyes and suddenly I could see my father. I even recognized his clothing.”

She gently touched the side of her face. “He kissed me on the cheek.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I could feel his kiss. I can even feel it now as I am telling you this.”

He father had been gone for over twenty-five years.

DAILY MIRACLES

Daily Miracles

A rabbi told this story to me. It will touch you heart: I promise.

Samuel was a Survivor of the Holocaust and a man who did not believe in G-d. He sat on a plane bound for Israel waiting for the door to close. The seat next to him remained vacant and he was hopeful it would remain that way.

The very last person to enter the airplane walked slowly down the isle, looking for his seat number. He had a full beard and was obviously a religious man. The religious man settled into the seat beside Samuel and introduced himself. He was a rabbi.

The flight would be thirteen hours and while our Survivor had no intention of carrying on a conversation, he knew it was inevitable.

“Are you going to Israel for the holidays?” The rabbi asked. The High Holiday of Yom Kippur was only a few days away.”

“Actually, I am not,” Samuel replied. “I am going on business.”

“But surely you will be attending services.”

“No. I won’t. I lost everyone I ever loved in the Holocaust: My mother, father, my wife, my two young daughters and my son. I do not believe in G-d. So please, do not try to convince me otherwise.”

The rabbi did not bring the subject up again until they were getting off the airplane.

“Perhaps you will reconsider and just go to Yizkor, (the memorial service where Jews remember family that have died).

“I am not interested,” Samuel said trying to keep the angry edge from his voice.

Days later, on Yom Kippur, the rabbi took a break from services and walked to a nearby park. As he turned to head back toward the synagogue he noticed Samuel from the airplane sitting on a bench eating his lunch.

“It is nice to see you again,” the rabbi said, scowling at the food. Jews were supposed to fast on Yom Kippur. “Yizcor will be taking place in a short while. Why not come with me to shul?”

Samuel shook his head.

“It is a mitzvah to pray for the souls of the departed. Do this for your family.”

Samuel could find no way out so he accompanied the rabbi.

As was the custom of this particular synagogue, the Gabbai, a man who assists in the services had the congregants call out the names of their dead. When it was Samuel’s turn he called out each name, tears streaming down his face. The last name he called out was the name of his five-year-old son: Tzvi Hirsh ben El Yokim.

When the services ended Samuel was rushing for the doors when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

Excuse me the Gabbai said, “but you called out the name Tzvi Hirsh ben El Yokim.

“Yes,” Samuel replied.

“That is my name!” the Gabbai said.

Samuel had found his son. The son he thought had died in the Holocaust.

This is a true story.

The Wondering Jew, My Journey into Judaism
https://goo.gl/trVSeM
Available in Audio version on Audible.com, iTunes and Amazon: goo.gl/VsYAr8

Daily Miracles

On my book tour for The Wondering Jew My Journey into Judaism, I speak about reincarnation and angels in Judaism. I am a very private person, when it comes to my writing. And yet, because I am daring to share my life experiences with my audience, after I speak, others are sharing theirs. It feels like everywhere I turn, other stories are being revealed to me. I feel deeply compelled to not let these stories just drift away. They are inspiring and they remind us of G-d’s daily miracles. So here I go again, doing that thing they call blogging at https://ellenbrazer.wordpress.com

Whatever your religion, I hope that you will decide to write down miracles that have happened in your life. The world needs this now more then ever. It will make the sun shine brighter and help us to open our eyes to the daily miracles that surround us all!

Here goes:

A few weeks ago my rabbi asked if I would give a short sermon on the daily Torah portion for Shabbat services on Saturday morning. He was going out of town. That in itself was a huge giggle: me, the baby Jew, doing a sermon. As it turned out this portion included the Shema, the centerpiece of Jewish prayer: Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

I have a new friend named Mimi. She was going out of town to visit her children. She told me she was taking my book to read when she arrived. Three days before my talk I got a text from her. She told me she could not keep reading the book because she couldn’t stop crying.

My stories where bringing back memories, that had slipped from her mind for years. Mimi wrote that her father was a survivor of the Holocaust. He was hiding in the woods in Germany when he was captured by two Nazis and forced to dig his own grave. He begged the Nazis to let him say a prayer before they shot him. As unbelievable as it is, they agreed. Mimi’s father sang out the Shema, the last words a Jew is suppose to utter before dying.

There were partisans hiding in the woods who heard her father singing the Shema. They came and rescued him. Her father’s belief in G-d never faltered for the rest of his life!

Mimi had no idea I was giving a sermon, much less about the Shema prayer. When I texted and told her that I was going to make her story the centerpiece of my talk, she cried.

When I came into the synagogue on that Saturday morning, Mimi was there. She had come home a day early so she could listen as her father’s story was told.

The Wondering Jew, My Journey into Judaism
https://goo.gl/trVSeM
Available in Audio version on Audible.com, iTunes and Amazon: goo.gl/VsYAr8

 

JEWISH ANGELS? WHO KNEW?

Chapter 7

Jewish Angels? Who Knew?

I always believed that angels were a symbol of Christianity. As a matter of fact, when I thought of angels, I thought of death. And so, I never bought a single card, a stuffed animal, a doll or a picture that depicted an angel. I wanted them nowhere near my children.

But a prayer we read daily confused me. O Fashioner of ministering angels; all of Whose ministering angels stand at the summit of the universe and proclaim with awe, together, loudly the words of the living G-d and King of the universe. They are all beloved; they are all flawless; they are all mighty, they all do the will of their Maker with dread and reverence (Page 86 Artscroll).

I remember clearly a conversation I had with the rabbi after I asked him to explain the prayer to me. I remember thinking, what’s with the angels? That is obviously not how I phrased the question, but that is how the question was rolling around in my head.

“It’s about the angels,” he said.

“There are angels in Judaism?” I asked. I had always believed that I was protected by something, but I never gave that something a name. Now that I could, I was more than willing to claim angels for myself.

He then told me a glorious midrash (story) taught in Judaism. According to our Sages, whenever you fulfill a mitzvah (a commandment), you acquire an angel. Say a kind word, give a sincere compliment, offer assistance, visit a sick friend, give charity, and the angels will come to love and protect you. Conversely, commit a transgression, and you will acquire an angel-accuser.

I would have let the words angel-accuser slip right on by, not wanting or needing an explanation but my writing group insisted on knowing more. So I was forced to delve deeper.

First thing I learned was the word Satan is the Hebrew word for accuser. Satan? No way! I wanted to write about angels, and now, I was being forced to research the devil! I am a full-blown Pollyanna. I believe in goodness, my glass overflowing and the sun always shinning. I do not believe in the devil: period, end of story.

Thank goodness, as I researched, I found myself taking a glorious sigh of relief. Judaism does not see Satan as the Christians do: a fallen angel who challenges G-d.

In Judaism, Satan is merely another angel whose mission is to be obedient and subservient to G-d. We believe Satan is our evil inclination, testing us, tempting us into sin and then testifying against us in the Heavenly court when we die. That is why, Satan is known as the accuser. He is also the Angel of Death charged with taking human souls from this world. There is no direct reference in the Hebrew Bible to the Angel of Death. We do, however, find many references in rabbinic literature.

Here is the important thing to remember, we do not have to bend to the will of this angel. We have free will, and we have the ability to fight all temptation.

Ok, enough. I am going to make sure I am surrounded by lots of angels. And so, I try and do good deeds and keep the bad stuff to a minimum. Sometimes, I am really good at it, and other times, not so good. That said, I want to share an event that happened to me just last week.

I live in Miami, and we have a lot of traffic. I mean big time traffic, the kind you see on TV and you think to yourself, I’m glad I don’t live there. Only, Miami is a glorious place to live, and so you keep coming, thus the horrific traffic. But forgive me for I digress.

So there I was inching along on the causeway that leads from Miami Beach to the mainland. There is a tiny Fiat in the lane next to me. The girl driving is texting, hitting the brake and then texting again. I kept glancing at her. In truth I was feeling somewhat self-righteous since I didn’t happen to be looking at my phone like I sometimes do. Then, to my horror, she turned around and spoke to what was obviously a young child sitting in a car seat. She then went back to her texting.

I went from upset to furious. The cars began to move a bit faster, and she was no longer next to me. Still, we were both going in the same direction and were now in an area with traffic lights. I was a madwoman on a mission. I kept trying to pull up next to her. I was going to give her a piece of my mind and rectify the situation. Finally, we were beside one another at a light. I motioned for her to lower her window. She did. Now, try and imagine what happened next.

“Do you love your baby?” I called from my car to hers.

She gave me the evil eye and yelled, “What are you talking about?”

“I said, “If you love your child, then put the phone down before you both get killed!” (Don’t you think that should have brought a good angel to my side?)

She shot me a dirty look and a bird, you know, a middle finger. What came out of my mouth next even mortified me. (one of the words began with an F). She screamed something back as her window went up.

I can assure you, that any good angels that were coming my way were shoved aside by the angel accuser. This story does not make me proud. In fact, it made me ashamed of myself. I tell you this because even when I try really hard to do nice things, I have to sometimes step back. I will continue to call in the angels and bully away those bad guys. And along the way, I hope I will learn to control my temper and my mouth.

After my conversation with the rabbi, I had lots of questions about angels: who are they and what are their jobs? Angels are defined as metaphysical beings—messengers of G-d. They are spiritual, but they have no free will. They can only do exactly what they have been commanded to do by their Creator. In our medieval rabbinic literature, it is said that every human being is assigned an angel (Pesikta Rabbati 44:8).

It is written that the Jewish soul surpasses that of the angel. The reason: angels have no free will. They do as they are instructed by G-d. Conversely, we do have freedom of choice. When we perform a mitzvah (a commandment), it is of greater value than that of the angels because we made the decision to act as G-d commanded.

According to Maimonides, the great Sephardic Torah scholar who lived from 1138-1204, angels have certain tasks. Some are dispatched on missions of kindness, and some are sent to heal. Some angels are even created by G-d as a result of our actions. I guess that means, if we do something really fabulous, angels can actually be created.

I can’t help but think about September 11, 2001. When those firefighters and police officers ran into those burning towers I know they created angels that carried them into heaven.

Whenever I hear the word angel, I immediately imagine a human form with wings. In fact, that is a description in Exodus 25:20 when the Jews are told how to make the Ark that will hold the Ten Commandments. The cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another; [turned] toward the ark cover shall be the faces of the cherubim. (Exodus 25:20)

There are many other examples when angels are given a human form, but why? How else can we conceive the essence of angels? It is much the same when the Torah describes G-d as having a strong hand and outstretched arm. G-d does not have an arm. This is said, so we may begin to comprehend G-d’s might.

When you read the words heavenly court in the prayer book, it is referring to the heavenly court of angels. G-d makes the plans, and His angels carry them out. That is their job.

I love the following line. Read it once, and then let it sit with you for a moment. One thousand angels will sit at our Judgment Day. We need only one to vote for us to avoid punishment. They must all be unanimous to convict.

Even though, I don’t like the thought of punishment, it is said there are angels charged with executing G-d’s severe judgment. Severe judgment makes me cringe. What is a good Jew? Maybe by the end of this book I will have come a bit closer to that answer.

In HaTorah 2:7, it is noted that there are ten levels of angels, based on the angel’s comprehension of G-d. Until Maimonides, these varieties of angels were not described. It was believed we lacked a vocabulary able to define them.

I know what comes next might be pushing the envelope a bit. A few minutes ago, you may not have even known there were Jewish angels. Now I am telling you there are different levels of angels. Oy Veh! I have to admit, I am just beginning to try and embrace this notion, but it does fascinate me.

I actually did not intend to list Maimonides’ descriptions of the angels and their ranks, but I have to confess, I am a big fan of the man. Here goes my simplified version:

Chayos: Created to be G-d supporters. They are the highest level of angels. They are known for their great enlightenment.

Ophanim: They never sleep. They are prepared for action and guard G-d’s throne in heaven.

Areilim: Known for courage and understanding.

Chashmallim: Known for their love, kindness and grace.

Seraphim: Known for justice.

Malakhim: Known for their beauty and mercy.

Elokim: Commitment to the victory of good over evil.

Beni Elohim: Child-like, represent the pure ideals of transformation.

Cherubim: Known for helping people deal with sin that separates them from G-d so they can draw closer.

Ishim: Rank of angel closest to the level of human beings. Here to build G-d’s kingdom on Earth.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a modern day Reform rabbi of blessed memory, wrote the following, and I find no reason to try and improve on something this good.

Allow me to paraphrase: “In the Hebrew Bible, angels speak, sit, stand, walk and climb ladders. They fly, ride horses, use weapons, escort people to heaven, bring prophecy, dialogue with G-d, and act as G-d’s cabinet—as a sounding board and in advisory roles. The angels worship G-d and sing in G-d’s heavenly choir. They do G-d’s bidding, record our deeds in the Book of Life, carry divine messages, and act as heavenly janitors and security guards. Other angels lift people’s spirits and help people in time of need. They serve as G-d’s escort service to heavenly realms and even to death.”

I will close this chapter with a lovely midrash: No blade of grass grows without an angel telling it to grow. It is the Jewish belief that everything on earth has a spiritual counterpart—even a blade of grass has an angel insuring that it obtains nourishment and dies at its appointed time.

My prayer for you is that you will always be surrounded by mitzvah angels.

 

 

 

 

 

I AM A JEW SEEKING KNOWLEDGE. NOW WHAT?

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Chapter 6

Reincarnation. I will be back!

We will go back to the Hebrew Bible later. For now, I am going to hit the pause button and shift gears.

I think for that first year, as I sat during daily services, all I did was try and recognize words and stay on the right page. I would read the English once in a while, but most of the time, I was in a fugue state, shut down and shut off. Whatever feelings I had were shoved down so deep I couldn’t have accessed them if I had wanted to. I knew I was in synagogue to heal from my grief, and I guess that happens differently for different people.

At home, I tried to act normal. And the normal me always had plenty to say about other people. Whenever I would say something judgmental or nasty about someone in my life, my husband would ask, “Want to tell me what you are getting out of synagogue?”

How could I tell him the truth?

I was simply taking up a seat.

Then one morning, I read a prayer that included these words: Who sustains the living with kindness, resuscitates the dead with abundant mercy. At first, I thought I had read it wrong. Resuscitates the dead? Brings them back to life? Did that mean if I prayed hard enough, I could bring my father back, my mother? I knew that was ridiculous, but what did it mean?

When my granddaughter, Emma, was born two months after my mother passed away, we all felt sure she had my mother’s soul. When my daughter gave birth to Jacob, three months after my father passed away, we all felt that connection again, this time with my father’s soul.

I have always believed that death is like birth. Imagine a baby floating and growing inside its mother’s belly. It is safe, warm and well fed. But soon the baby begins to outgrow its home and knows that there is only one way out. Imagine how terrified that baby is. It looks down the birth canal and thinks; there is no way I am getting out of here alive.

Conversely, every day that we live takes a toll on our bodies. We all know that someday our bodies will no longer be able to sustain us. We know that death is inevitable, but we find this truth hard to grasp. We don’t know what will be coming next. I have always chosen to believe that death is simply a rebirth.

This morning I told the rabbi that I was writing about reincarnation and angels.

“Let me show you something,” he said, taking out two Artscroll Siddurs, the Orthodox prayer book.

I am a bit ashamed to admit that my first thought was, Ok Ellen, you have officially gone over the edge. Next thing you’ll be doing is quoting scripture!” Then I let go of the image that had flashed in my mind and found myself really enjoying the discussion with the rabbi. It was pretty cool. (I know that expression dates me. But it is from my generation and it is the perfect expression for what was taking place.)

The rabbi had me turn to the Bedtime Shema (prayer). I grew up saying: “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I had never read this one before. It was beautiful.

“I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me-whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely, whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration– I forgive. . .Page 289 of the Artscroll Siddur for the rest of the prayer.

Transmigration: I certainly had never heard the word before. Transmigration is a translation from the Hebrew word gilgul, referring to the doctrine of transmigration of souls, or the recycling of souls, if that makes it easier to understand. The idea comes from one of the most mystical doctrines in Kabalistic literature. It refers to the soul reincarnating for physical life on earth.

The Talmud alludes to a mystical school of thought. Just like the Oral Torah, these teachings were not written down until the Middle Ages when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote the Zohar. The Zohar is a mystical book that is an integral part of Kabalistic literature yet, I venture to say that most of us had never even heard of Kabbalah before Madonna came on the scene and made it so popular.

Reincarnation is a Kabalistic belief system embraced by Orthodox and Ultra- Orthodox Jews. Having never been taught anything about reincarnation makes me feel left out—as though I was given a taste of a delicious piece of cake but was not allowed to finish it.

I think it is important that we have a clear understanding of Orthodoxy before we move ahead, since they are the ones who have held staunchly to this belief of reincarnation.

Orthodox Jews believe they are the authentic Jews. I am not going into what that makes the rest of us who are not Orthodox. It does not matter to me. I respect this group for carrying on the religion in the manner that they do. It is not an easy life. So, I say mazel tov and wish them all great blessings.

There are two distinct groups in Orthodoxy. One group believes that their lives can be compatible with the society around them. They will live among us while maintaining their religious and cultural values. This group includes Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionists.

The second group is known as the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim). They see present day culture as a direct threat to their way of life. They will work beside us, but their communities are separated from our society. Their lives are filled with Torah study, prayer and family. There is no television, movies, Internet or secular reading. The ultra-Orthodox men dress in black suits and black velvet yarmulkes or black hats and they have beards and payot (sidelocks). Women dress very modestly and once married they cover their heads with wigs, hats or scarves.

Now, back to reincarnation. Below are a few scriptural passages that allude to reincarnation. Let’s look at the Book of Job (we will get to examine this book later).

Behold, all these things does G-d do—twice, even three times with a man—to bring his soul back from the pit that he may be enlightened with the light of the living. (Job 33:29)

Does this refer to G-d allowing a person to come back from death and try again?

Another example from the bible is in Daniel 12:13: now go your way to the end and rest, and you shall arise to your destiny at the end of days.

According to the Zohar 1186b, As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again.

You decide what you believe. But let me share with you the philosophy of the Orthodox and see if it resonates with you. The best way to do this is for me to just give you a direct quote from the Zohar:

All souls are subject to reincarnation; and people do not know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He! They do not know that they are brought before the tribunal both before they enter into this world and after they leave it; they are ignorant of the many reincarnations and secret works which they have to undergo, and of the number of naked souls, and how many naked spirits roam about in the other world without being able to enter within the veil of the King’s Palace. Men do not know how the souls revolve like a stone that is thrown from a sling. But the time is at hand when these mysteries will be disclosed (Zohar II 99b).

Reincarnation is seen as an opportunity for the soul to achieve what it did not achieve in a previous life. It can be a time of reward for fulfilling one’s mission or a time of punishment. I guess this gives us good reason to try and live an honest life.

There are many Jews who are going to read this entire section and perhaps, see it as nonsense. That’s fine. Just don’t get mad at me because I love the idea. In fact, I have always believed in reincarnation, even though I have no idea why or even where that idea came from. It must just be a part of my soul memory (smile).

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I Am A Jew. Now What?

Please Join my blog at https://ellenbrazer.wordpress.com In the lower right hand corner of my blog is a PLUS sign with the word Follow. Simply click and put in your email address and you will be following my blog! 

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Chapter 5

The scattering of a people

Teachers not books taught our traditions. The Oral Torah was the mainstay of Judaism for over a thousand years. During that time, we managed to remain a cohesive nation: despite Assyria conquering the Southern Kingdom and forcing our people to settle elsewhere: despite Babylonia and the destruction of the First Temple; and despite Alexander the Great conquering Judea.

Then in 37 CE, Rome conquered Israel, and Herod the Great came to power. Known as the great builder, he enlarged and refurbished the Second Temple. But the edicts set forth under his rule inflamed the Israelites, and the First Jewish War ensued. That war ended with the Romans sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple.

Some forty years later, the Jews rebelled yet again against Rome, in what was called the Bar Kochba Revolt. I wrote an entire book about this. I am not going to elucidate except to say when Rome decided to put the full force of their army against the zealots in Judea, over a million Jews were massacred. Those that survived fled Israel.

Terrified that through death and the scattering of our people we might loose the Oral Torah, Rabbi Yehuda Hansasi, known as Judah the Prince, an amazing man—wealthy beyond description and a friend to emperors, framed and edited a book that became known as the Mishna.

It was a massive undertaking, gathering the writings of hundreds of rabbis from across the generations and then editing, explaining and organizing those writings into the Mishna. The Mishna is a greatly shortened version of the Oral Torah, certainly the cliff-note version when compared to the books that would follow it.

Mishna, Mishna, Mishna! I know that I am using the word over and over again—I could just write the book. If you are pulling out your hair and thinking to yourself, she is a terrible writer who thinks her readers are dim-witted, please forgive me. I really don’t. But I know how often I read non-fiction and find myself turning back a page because I have become distracted and have no idea what I was reading.

So, here we go again. (Smile) The writings in the Mishna were contributed by an academy of great scholars (known as teachers). They lived from 100 BCE-200 CE, all experts in specific areas of the Oral Torah. Some were experts on the Sabbath, others on tort law and damages, etc. They were not much different from our doctors and lawyers who specialize today. Mishna is written in classic Hebrew, often times magnificently concise and at other times, cryptic and hidden.

The book covers six main subjects:

1) Prayers, blessings and agriculture laws.

2) Sabbath and the holiday laws.

3) Women, issues of marriage and divorce.

4) Civil and criminal law.

5) The Temple. Dietary laws and sacrifices

6) Laws of purity and impurity.

I think it is fair to say that Judah the Prince’s genius was in his ability to organize the Mishna systematically by subject. Before the Mishna, if you wanted to know about the Sabbath, you would have had to memorize every place it was mentioned in the Torah. In the Mishna, the Rabbi had a heading for the Sabbath where you could find all the doctrine in one place.

Tucked inside the pages are the Pirkei Avot, (The Ethics of the Fathers) famous proverbs and sayings. While much of the Mishna is dry legal recitation, Judah the Prince was a man who looked to inspire later generations. He told stories, and he added minority views that he knew would lead to enlivened commentary.

Enlivened commentary. When did Jews ever need an excuse for that?

In the centuries following the Mishna the rabbis began to worry that the deeper meanings of the Oral Torah were being lost. These rabbis were known as explainers. They had been recording their opinions and discussions on the Oral Torah and the Mishna and passing them down. Remember, the Torah was so difficult to understand that even Moses had to be taught directly from G-d.

The books that emerged from those writings are known as the Talmud. There are six thousand two hundred pages in the books of the Talmud. If we were to study just one page a day, and that would be a feat, it would take seven years to read the entire Talmud.

There were actually two Talmuds written: one by a group of rabbis in Babylonia (Iraq), and the other by rabbis in Jerusalem (actually Tiberias). Unfortunately, due to Roman and then Christian persecution, the Jerusalem Talmud was never finished. And so we study the Babylonian Talmud.

Here is what you need to know: When Jews study Judaism, we do not study Torah—we study Talmud.

I know what comes next is a bit confusing. It was to me too. Just hang in with me for several more lines while I explain how the Talmud is laid out. First let me show you a picture:

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What you see in the center of this page is from the Mishna. All the writings surrounding it are opinions and commentaries from the rabbis over the generations. The additional writings (six thousand two hundred pages) are known as the Gamara. Gamara in Hebrew means completion, and in Aramaic it means tradition. Basically, the Talmud includes arguments and stories offered by rabbis in different time periods of Judaism. Commentaries were added as late as 1,000 CE -1,500 CE by names you may have actually heard: Rashi, Maimonides and Nachmanides.

Recap: Talmud includes the Mishna and the Gamara. See, not so hard to grasp. And by the way, you will probably hear someone call it Talmud, and someone else will say Mishna or Gamara. Don’t let that throw you. They are all speaking basically about the same thing: Talmud.

As you can see from the photo of the Talmud page, learning is non-linear and multi-layered. No wonder the scholars spend a lifetime with these books. The Talmud is the cornerstone of our religion. Over the last one thousand years, it is the one book that the enemies of the Jewish people have consistently searched for and burned. With all the enemies that we have had throughout history, wouldn’t you think as a people, we would be united in what we believe about the basics of our religion? I thought so but . . . .

I sat in services this past Saturday morning listening to a Reform rabbi say that perhaps the Exodus was nothing more than a myth like the Wizard of Oz.

At first, I thought I must have misunderstood. I had just finished writing about Moses in the desert and how millions of our people had witnessed the parting of the Reed Sea. G-d had spoken to them from Mt. Sinai. Now a rabbi was telling me that it was a fable, a bubba meisah! How dare he? I felt as though I had been personally assaulted—a baby Jew just learning to walk was slammed off her feet! How could I feel so strongly? Where were these emotions coming from?

The next morning at our Conservative services, I told Rabbi Marc what had transpired and how upset I was. I expected him to be incensed as well. Instead, he was calm and gentle. He pointed out that perhaps there was a need for a rabbi like that, a rabbi who would draw people into Judaism, people who believed as he did. I was flabbergasted. Rabbi Marc was so rational, and it was making me crazy. I wanted him to agree with me. We either have faith all the way, or we don’t really have faith? Right?

As I was leaving the synagogue, Rabbi Marc said softly, “As for me, I believe that every letter and word in the Torah was inspired by G-d.”

Yeah, Marc!

As fate would have it, that night we went out to dinner with new friends. They are from South Africa. They keep a kosher home, and the husband puts on Tefillin (more about that later) and prays every morning. I told him my saga of what the Reform rabbi said, again expecting a great discussion on how terrible his remarks had been. Instead I hear: “I don’t believe the Torah was written in the desert either.” Oy gevalt! This is a man I really respect as a Jew. Yet, as I listened instead of being angry I felt as if a window had opened, and the breezes of acceptance were stirring my self-righteous indignation.

Here is my takeaway.

I am on a raft drifting across uncharted seas. Some days are calm and I am lulled. Other days I am forced to hold on for dear life. Across that journey I need to remember: My beliefs belong to me.