I Am A Jew. Now What?

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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:


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.


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