Judaism - Torah

The Storm that is Real Teshuvah

We spend this month of Elul doing teshuvah and cheshbon hanefesh – a personal accounting of our soul and our deeds from the past year.

That’s the start of the drash that many people will hear from rabbis at this time of year. As if to say – we all know how this works. We turn inward; do some meditation and mindfulness. Jot down some thoughts about the things we regret. And then we’re good to go. Soul accounted for!

This is not that drash.

I recently heard it put that: “Teshuvah may well be one of the most deceptively simple concepts in the whole of the Jewish canon. We dumb it down… But teshuvah is un-bearably difficult, and the seeming elusiveness real teshuvah can be downright tragic.”

So here’s the version of teshuvah I‘m grappling with:

Do you believe that deep within you is a fundamentally good version of yourself, cleansed of the messiness that the world layers on top? Untarnished by all of our misdeeds and human failings?

And do you believe – truly believe – that you have the capacity to embody that version of yourself? Not just to not mess up, and then to apologize for doing so. But to undergo a radical shift of character so that you return (in Hebreew, “shuv“) to being the kind of person who wouldn’t have messed up in the first place? And then to forgive yourself when you inevitably do?

That’s teshuvah. It is hard.

I want to ask: Can we do this on our own? Can we really just have this be a personal project?

We know where we want to go; who we want to be. But often, we have such a hard time knowing exactly how to get there. Our human souls are cast about by turbulent storms, and the path ahead of us often appears to be completely washed out.

Is it surprising that so many of us just want the children’s version of teshuvah? Or to just say to ourselves: “I can’t do it”

Real teshuvah demands we open ourselves to the vulnerability of having others present to our spiritual growth. Even this year – especially this year – teshuvah can’t be something that we do in the seclusion of our personal sanctuaries.

Three weeks ago, Stephanie, my wife, and I were driving home to DC from a trip to New York, and we got caught in the most frightening rainstorm I have ever been in.

The torrent that showered down upon us was truly unlike anything I’ve ever been in. Continue reading “The Storm that is Real Teshuvah”

Judaism - Torah

Can We Really Be Comforted Right Now?

This drash offered in memory of my Zaidy, Jack Cahan, Yitzchak Ya’akov ben Shlomo v’Esther, whose yahrtzeit just passed.

*          *          *

From the perspective of the Jewish calendar, with all its ebbs and flows – the past few weeks have been devastation. In the weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av – this time called bein hameitzarim, the time of living between the straits – we read haftarot describing the destruction of Jerusalem. The palpable sense of lament leaps off the page – the rabbis crafted an almost theatrical timeline, designed to help get us in the frame of mind appropriate to the season.

Of course, it’s also true right now that we don’t need a special haftarah to feel a sense of destruction and calamity around us.

So what do we do as the season turns now thematically toward hope?

We shift away from the destruction of the past weeks towards a vision of redemption. This is Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of Comfort.

The next seven weeks are filled with haftarot of consolation. “The relationship between the people and God—strained almost to breaking on Tishah Be’av—is slowly rebuilt,” teaches Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, “allowing us to stand before God once again on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Allowing us to work toward a more redeemed sense of self and community.  

Can we really do it right now? Will it work this year?

Do we believe that beautiful words – yet still just words – of comfort will suffice?

נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם

Comfort, oh comfort My people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated…

To be honest – I don’t know if I buy it. While life locally is slowly returning, that is not the whole story. We may be entering a period of consolation, but for many, it’s still the bein hameitzarim – the dire straits.

What does it mean to be turning to words of comfort right now? To say nachamu, nachamu?

Does it work? Can we believe it?

There’s a remarkable midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Nach 443) that asks this very question:

Continue reading “Can We Really Be Comforted Right Now?”
Judaism - Torah

What am I bringing with me?

A few years ago, I travelled to Azerbaijan and Georgia with the Joint Distribution Committee to learn about and from the Jewish communities there. Recently, I spoke about my time there at the JDC’s Global Variety Hour storytelling festival. Here’s my story.

(Learn how you can support the JDC’s amazing humanitarian work)


I’m standing in line at a customs and immigration checkpoint in Frankfurt, Germany. I love traveling. I love airports and flying. I have a thing for Germany, too. But border officials make me extremely nervous. I feel a gut-wrenching anxiety when I cross the border back and forth between the US and my home in Canada. Like the guards are searching my eyes to see what I’m hiding. Like I’m assumed to be bringing something nefarious with me:

“Where are you coming from?”

            “New York City”

“Why are you coming to Germany?”

            “I’m connecting flights to Baku, Azerbaijan”

“Why are you going there?” 

            “On an educational trip.”

“What are you brining with you into Germany?”

            “Nothing, just my baggage.”

Once I clear customs, I let out a sigh of relief. And go back to my previous state of excitement. I know that in 72 hours or so, I’m going to fulfill a dream I’ve had for a long time.

Ten years ago, I was stuck in the middle of one of those late-night deep-dives into the depths of Wikipedia – where you initially go to find some quick bit of information – maybe the cast of a show you’re binge-watching – but then you emerge three hours later, learning all about aquatic life at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, the strange history of men’s water polo, and the list of famous celebrities from your hometown.

That’s how I learned of the one place in the world outside of Israel whose entire population is Jewish. And that this place is in the remote mountains of Azerbaijan. In a village called Gyrmyzy Gasaba. And that this means “Red Town.” And that the people who live there are known as Mountain Jews. And that they’ve been living there for close to 3,000 uninterrupted years.

I can’t remember what I was originally searching for, but boy was I tickled to learn about this. As a student of history and religion I was fascinated by the idea of an entirely Jewish town – the world’s last surviving shtetl: Did they speak Hebrew? Were their customs the same as mine? Are their ancient practices more authentic? They predate most of our Jewish communities by thousands of years! And why don’t more people know about this?!

Continue reading “What am I bringing with me?”
Judaism - Torah

May You Always Be Surprised

A few months ago, a group of students asked me why I decided to become a rabbi. Turnabout is fair play – I had just tasked them with penning their own spiritual autobiographies.

I playfully evaded their question. But I’m going to answer it now.

While my desire to become a rabbi was rooted in my sense of spiritual connection to the Holy Blessed One, how I understand Jewish obligation, and my love of teaching, there’s another reason.

It’s not one that I talk about much at all. I’m a little embarrassed by it. And it’s not one that you might think would naturally lead to wanting to become a rabbi.

One of the moments I first started thinking about becoming a rabbi reaches back to my own childhood anxieties.

I was definitely an anxious child – even long before the notion of seeking a diagnosis for an anxiety disorder ever occurred to me or my family. Not just the usual fears or worries, mind you:

I used to be afraid that my heart had stopped beating, and would rush to my parents and ask them to check my pulse.

I wasn’t scared of the dark in a “monsters in my closet” way, but I wasn’t a fan of the night. As a teenager, I would often stay up all night experiencing existential dread, waiting for a glimmer of sunlight before I felt normal.

And I was terrified of dying. Most of us are of course, but I would have moments of crippling panic as I contemplated my own mortality. That anxiety, in particular, took on an interesting flavour.

In 1992, Canadian peacekeepers were dispatched to Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Croatia. Reports back were harrowing: “Canadian troops, because of their peacekeeping status, were not allowed to intervene, and found themselves forced to watch as civilians became victims.”

I distinctly remember riding in the car with my parents, listening to radio news of the death and destruction emerging from Europe, and knowing that there were Canadians like me who were being sent there.

I was terrified of that war, and also that the broader Cold War would escalate; that I would get drafted and be sent off to die.

Heavy things for a nine-year-old to panic about.

But I had a sense – I must have learned it somewhere – that clergy couldn’t get conscripted. So that was my way out – how I wouldn’t get shipped off to war. I would become a rabbi.

This is not why I am a rabbi, today. And I didn’t tell this story on my rabbinical school entrance exam. It surely would have raised some eyebrows.

But there was something about that war on the other side of the world that profoundly distressed me. It wasn’t just the potential loss of my own life.

There was an awareness – that seeped across borders and time zones, absent any internet to speak of, and reached into the mind of an anxious nine-year old – that there are those in the world who act upon an ungodly motivation to utterly destroy the sanctity of human life.

I knew this, as a young child. We all did. Children see more than we enlightened adults remember.

Continue reading “May You Always Be Surprised”
Judaism - Torah

Everything Comes Into Focus

Have you heard about or experienced synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon where senses are cross-wired? Imagine that when you look at the Washington Monument, you hear the musical note “G.” Or that Wednesdays are the color red. Or that listening to “Eleanor Rigby” tastes like blueberries. People who experience synesthesia tell of this kind of mysterious integration of their experience of the world. Hidden connections are revealed.

The ancient Israelites, it seems, were synesthetes. Lucky them. The Torah describes their visceral experience of Revelation at Mount Sinai: “All the people saw the thunder…” (Exodus 20:15).

Whatever you believe about the nature of how the Torah was given, can you imagine feeling such a profound moment of connection, where all of the synapses of the universe seem to snap together? Where everything slots into place in a way that it changes how you experience the world?

The Chassidic Berdichever Rebbe describes the moment as having become so real in the lives of the people, that it affected a fundamental change in sensory perception. Everything comes into focus.

Hidden connections are all around us.

Nature, it seems, works similarly. Sometimes charged particles on the ground and in the sky randomly find each other, and jump across space and time, connecting in a burst of electricity. The result? Thunder and lightning. Today, scientists really don’t know how this works. It’s still a mystery. But that doesn’t make it less real.

That’s what Shavuot needs to be this year – a chance again to try to grasp at some of these hidden connections. We bridge the physical distance between us with the sparks of learning Torah all night long.

Judaism - Torah

What Remains the Same: Shabbat Behar-Bechukotai

There’s a beautiful new wooden ship, built in the year 1800 that goes out to sea on a journey.

When it returns, the crew discovers that some of the shipboards in the hull are damaged.

So they replace them. Then head out on their next journey.

Months later, the ship and its crew return to port. After so long at sea, some of the hull has started to rot.

So the crew replaces the wood, and readies it to go back out to sea.

And just like this, year after year, the ship goes off on its journeys, returning back to port safely, where its upkeep is maintained with care.

After many decades in service, the wooden boards of the ship have been replaced so many times. It’s now the year 1900, and there is not a single part of the ship that was original to its building.

Here’s the question:

Is the ship in 1900 the same ship as the one that was built in 1800, if no parts of it are the same?

This is a famous thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus, after it’s ancient Greek origins.

There’s lots of fun variations:

John Locke imagined what would happen to his favourite pair of socks, if he had to continually patch its holes over and over again until all of the fabric of the originals had been replaced with patches. Are they the same pair of socks?

George Washington’s famous axe is the subject of an apocryphal story: is it still George Washington’s axe, if both its head and handle have been replaced?

Here’s a doozy of a different version:

The cells of your body each have their own lifetimes. Skin cells last two to three weeks. Red blood cells – four months, white blood cells – more than a year. Over the course of every seven years or so, your body’s cells have completely regenerated.

The body you’re in now is not the same as it was then.

Here’s the kicker:

Are you truly the same person? Continue reading “What Remains the Same: Shabbat Behar-Bechukotai”

Judaism - Torah

Gevurah: Sacred, Life-Giving Boundaries

I have found myself these days reminiscing a lot on my adolescence.

I’ve been listening to my favourite 90s bands. Peeking in on high school friends on Facebook. Even playing retro video games for escapism.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the joys and even the anxieties of those unbridled years.

Stephanie, my wife, caught me yesterday looking at old photos: “You’re very steeped in nostalgia,” she teased me.

She’s so right.

Why? Thinking about home – about my childhood and teenage years – it’s a fondness for a time that seemed boundless.

I’m not the only one escaping into the past. “I’m nostalgic for February, which feels ridiculous,” writes Kaitlyn Tiffany in the Atlantic.

No wonder that in a time of seclusion we crave immersion in memories of an open, boundless past. Continue reading “Gevurah: Sacred, Life-Giving Boundaries”

Judaism - Torah

What I’ve Learned from my Anxiety & Staying Awake until 2:30 am

I rarely – perhaps never – have written about my experiences with anxiety on these pages. But here we are, in an age of anxiety, and for me, it’s 1:05 AM in between Sunday and Monday. I’m looking ahead to another week, wondering how we’re going to get through it all. Knowing that we will, but wondering how. Oh hey – rabbis have anxiety, too! Even rabbis who meditate…

I saw a meme or a comment a couple weeks ago which reflected that the population doing best with the changes to our world are – perhaps counterintuitively – those who suffer from crippling anxiety. “Hey, we’ve had a whole lifetime of preparation for a moment like this!” Dark humour aside, I get it. My anxiety’s not cured and probably never will be, but I’ve figured out ways to cope, work through it, and live. And remarkably, this is grounding me at a time when it’s not uncommon to feel as though the ground has been pulled out beneath us.

So, here’s what I’m thinking. I’m going to write more about my own anxieties. If it’s just for me and my own writing therapy, great. If someone’s reading this, and it helps you out – so much the better.

I’m going to begin back when I first realized I had something that I would later come to learn was anxiety, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.

But actually, we start tonight.

 


 

It’s after 1:00 am again and I’m still not in bed. I’m starting to play chicken with my internal clock.

The game goes like this: since I know that every night, mostly without fail, I will wake up – somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00 am in a cold sweat of anxiety and generalized fear fuelled by whatever chemical imbalance or chromosomal abnormality or inherited trauma of which I am the beneficiary – if I can make it to 2:00 am or so, I might be able to head off the exasperating jolt of awaking, and stay blissfully unconscious until the morning. The alternative means opening my eyes, bathed in the red light of my clock-radio and the irrational fear of both everything and nothing in particular.

I used to stare at that same clock-radio as a child. I received it for Chanukah one year, back when my prescribed bedtime was before 7:30 pm. I would fall asleep to the excitement of Joe Bowen calling Leafs games (his “HOLY MACKINAW!” emerging from the speaker, a far cry from a meditative encouragement to lull me off to sleep).

Now the clock is still next to me in Washington DC, its digits flashing the exact same hours of the same time zone, in the same red glow: 3:27 am, 3:28 am, 3:29 am. 3:30 am. Still awake.

I stared at that same alarm clock as a teenager, staying awake late into the night, chasing a glimpse of the sunrise, at which point I would know it would be safe to fall asleep for a few hours. Some nights, deep into the Ontario winter, as the clock crept toward 7:00 am, and it still wasn’t yet getting brighter, I would worry: “what if it doesn’t become day, today? what if I’m in a world where the sun isn’t going to rise?”

But mostly, my nighttime anxieties were not astronomical – not, scientifically, at least. On these routine late-night journeys, I would frequently occupy myself by reading the Chicken Soup for the Soul… series, their short stories just short enough to keep my attention one after the other after the other. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul III. Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul. Anyone who has read these books might recall them being a step down from Joe Bowen level excitement, but not exactly fodder for encouraging restful sleep. Many were heart-opening stories of pain, suffering, broken relationships, and coping with all sorts of anxiety. Lots of overcoming of those experiences, too. But at 3:30 am to a fifteen-year-old with undiagnosed anxiety, it wasn’t easy to internalize that side of the stories. What remained was dread. Lots of dread. Like my 3:30 am wakings today, dread of both everything in general and nothing in particular.

This snapshot might be recognizable, perhaps even passé, to anyone familiar with this kind of anxiousness around sleep. But at the time, I wasn’t aware that there were reasons, diagnoses, and definitions for the nightly pit in my stomach, the cold sweats, and the turbulent sleep cycle. Not knowing this, most of the time, I bore this anxiety alone. “Maybe I’m having a hard time growing up,” I could tell myself. That must be it. It’s just me not being able to shake a fear of nighttime or of being alone.

But most of the time, I would go it alone, struggling through the night.

There were times when I didn’t. A memory of one time when I didn’t came raging back to me recently in a most unexpected way. More on that in a moment.

On these nights, if I wasn’t reading Chicken Soup, then I was likely staring out my bedroom window, trying to catch glimpses of lights on in peoples’ homes. It was soothing to know that nearby, there were people awake and engaging in the world. It still is. This is why I adored living in Manhattan – knowing that within looking, walking, and shouting distance, there were dozens, hundreds of people awake with their lights on, going about their business from sunset to sunrise. It’s also why I was devastated when I found out in high school that Bob Parlocha, the overnight DJ on 91.1 Jazz FM, wasn’t staying up all night with me from a studio in downtown Toronto, but was broadcasting in syndication from Los Angeles.

So back to gazing out the window as a panacea, then. My graduating playwriting from my High School Drama programme was a play about the world – real and imagined – that I saw outside my window in these inky hours. The capstone to five years of intensive theatre education for me turned out to be a piece of writing therapy, though at the time, I didn’t know it. I was still a decade away from being told by a doctor: “it sounds like what you’re experiencing are panic attacks.” Without that diagnosis, I just typed up what I saw outside and what was wizzing through my head, because at the very least, it seemed interesting.

One night – one of the nights when I just couldn’t go it alone – I was looking into the window of our neighbours across the street. The lights were on. “Good. I’m not alone.” I looked down. The clock blinked 3:28 am. “If the light stays on past 3:30 am, I’ll be okay.” Frequently, I negotiated with myself in this way – finding ways to assure myself that everything would be okay. I looked up. Light still on. Looked down – the familiar red glow of 3:29. Looked up and out. The light was out. My body panicked. There really aren’t words to describe the kind of fear I experienced, because it was irrational, imprecise, and without a reference point for most people.

But there I was – careening down the hall to my parents’ room, out of breath, trying to explain to them the catastrophe of the neighbours’ light going out, and what it must mean, and wondering why nobody believed me that something was wrong.

I don’t remember how I calmed down, though I did. I don’t remember what my parents said to me, though it must have worked. I don’t remember the resolution, much as I don’t remember the resolution to the Chicken Soup stories. I just remember the fear and panic and anxiety.

And it all came flooding back recently, as I was binge-watching Black Mirror. An episode explored the consequences of a brain-implanted augmented reality video game that heightened one’s own anxieties. One scene played out as if it were pulled from my own memories: Far past midnight in an overnight stay in a decrepit manor (in his augmented version of reality), the protagonist gazes at a painting of a decrepit manor that looks eerily similar to the one in which he is lodging. He looks away from the painting. Looks back. The painting has changed. Now, a light is on in an upstairs window. He looks away. Looks back. A figure now in the window. Footsteps upstairs. Footsteps growing louder. Even now, as I write these words at 1:23 am, goosebumps raise on my arm and I look over my shoulder. I know I’m safe; I know it’s just entertainment; but then, hey, that’s not how these things work, is it?

If I can just stay awake for another thirty-seven minutes, then I’ll be okay – I’ll probably stay asleep until the morning.

I have tried different ways to avoid having to go through this nightly negotiation, many of which have worked blessedly well: no more coffee after 12:00 pm. Mostly kicked the using-the-cell-phone-before-bedtime habit. Lots of meditation. Praying bedtime Shema. Sometimes alprazolam is a good backup (thanks, 2009 diagnosis). A few years ago, we got one of those lights that fades on and intensifies in the morning as a way of gently awakening you more aligned with your sleep cycle. We used it for a while, enjoying the novelty of waking up in the winter to a room full of warm light. Maybe it was better for my circadian rhythm. But last year, I swapped it out for the same old red-LED clock that has for years accompanied me into the swampy hours of the morning. What does Panasonic know from nighttime anxiety, anyway?

Here I am, in some ways very much the same person as I was twenty years ago, feeling the same pangs, playing the same games against myself as I did as a teenager. It’s 1:33 am. And part of me very much wants to listen at my apartment door for the sounds of my awake neighbours and stay awake myself until the sun peeks over the apartment building across the street, when I know that I’ll be safe.

Isn’t that what we all always want, in some way? To know that we’re still here amongst each other, and that the sun will still rise?

Isn’t that want, that need very much the source of so much (perhaps all) of our physical-and-social-distancing anxieties? Aren’t we all, in a way, confronted with the terrifying questions: “What if I’m alone right now? What if nobody’s here tomorrow? What if it doesn’t become day, today? What if I’m in a world where the sun isn’t going to rise?”

Thanks to my decades of nighttime journeys of the mind, it turns out I actually know the answers to these questions. They’re probably the most valuable lessons – still applicable – that I’ve drawn from my teenage years. Here’s what I can tell you:

1. Learn more about yourself. And be compassionate with yourself. So much of my own learning about and coping with anxiety was just getting to the starting point of knowing that there were names for what I was experiencing. For so long, in this absence of awareness, I just assumed that something was wrong with me. I imagine many find themselves in a similar position now, confronting new and strange feelings and being unsure of what they mean.

For me, meditation has been a gift. Prayer sustains me. Mindfulness grounds me. Of course, everyone and their anxieties are different. So talk to a mental health professional. Or contact me here, and I can help connect you to systems and/or tools of support.


2. Nobody is alone, truly. Cosmically, we’re just not.
 It can be hard to remember this at times – particularly in the darkness and narrowness of a 3:30 am anxiety attack, or a global pandemic. But guess what? We’re all made of exact same bits of star dust. And if you were to zoom in close enough, you’d have a hard time telling where you stopped, and the oxygen molecules in front of you began. Judaism calls this idea Tzelem Elohim – being created according to the blueprint of the Divine. We’re all mirrors of the Infinite; all God’s twin; all fundamentally equal; all in this together. The gift of this bizarre moment is this inescapable knowledge, this Truth, despite what economics, and politics, and technocrats might tell us.

(Of course, there are people who are physically alone right now, and precisely because of this, it’s our job to be present with them in the best ways we can).

This is not something I am making up. It’s also a Truth that Pablo Neruda landed upon, tossed about by his own turbulent world. He shared it during his Nobel acceptance speech:

There is no insurmountable solitude… All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”


3. We’ll be here tomorrow.
There’s loss and sadness and devastation. But we’ll be here tomorrow, together. God-willing. And we need to do more to remind each other of that. Too much makes it hard to remember. For me, realizing that the news was making it hard for me to remember this was a revelation. I am a news junkie and have at least 11 news apps on my phone, but I have all but stopped watching the news and have disabled virtually all notifications on my devices. And now I remember.

When I was 16, it was hard to believe that I’d make it through the night. Each night was a new uncertain journey. I wish I knew at the time about clinical anxiety and panic attacks and alprazolam and not drinking coffee in the afternoon. That would have made my life so much easier. But even without knowledge and tools, each morning, without fail, there I was… a little worse for wear, but I was there. So ask yourself: what do you need to do to remind yourself that we are here now, and we’ll be here, tomorrow?


4. The sun will rise and it will shine. 
This is not blind optimism or false hope. No matter how hard I convinced myself on winter mornings at 6:00 am that the darkness inside and around me was indicative that I had landed in an alternate world where the sun wouldn’t rise in the morning, we don’t live in an alternate world. We live here – in this world – where each new day is amazing proof that life renews itself.

In another eerie alignment, Pesach (Passover) this year overlaps our current isolation. And what is the story of Pesach if not the indefatigable belief that return lies ahead, and that we will march forward together? My people’s story is one of a certain kind of stubborn conviction that while much about life is unknown, uncertain, and unfair, this much is certain: belief in our collective acts of redemption is not naive, but part of the very fabric of the universe. Why?

Because every day the sun rises. Without fail. We are created. And creation is magnificent.

It’s 3:24 am. I’m going to sleep. See you in the morning.

Judaism - Torah

Heart Wisdom in Uncertainty

One of my absolute favourite Jewish teachings is the question asked by our rabbis: “Who is wise? Eizehu Hacham?”

In a world of isolated thinking and wanting to listen only to people just like us, I find their ancient answer to be a much needed modern tonic: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone. Halomed Mikol Adam.” 

But for the past few weeks, to be honest, this teaching hasn’t been serving me well.

I’m overwhelmed.

Too much news.

Too many press conferences.

Too many predictions.

Too many people giving me new reasons to worry.

It feels like the idea of learning from everyone is a recipe for a perfect storm of anxiety and uncertainty.

And that’s the heart of it, isn’t it? Everything seems so uncertain right now.

So it’s natural for us to want to try and absorb as much as we can, as we try to get some sense of stability and certainty.

We watch, we read, we click, we watch some more, we reach for more and more and more, grasping for anything to hold on to. Anything to help us feel like we know what’s going on; what to do. What is “wise.”

But I think, perhaps, this is not the route to wisdom we need right now.

Maybe what we need is the kind of wisdom described in the Torah this week. Continue reading “Heart Wisdom in Uncertainty”

Judaism - Torah

Talmud Starter Kit!

If you’re new to learning Talmud, it can be a bit disorienting to just start reading. Whether you’re thinking of joining Daf Yomi (it’s not too late!) or just want to immerse yourself in some rabbinic wisdom, the Talmud is both the on-ramp, and can also be an incredibly challenging road-block for beginners: the narrative is meandering, it has unique methods of argumentation, and is filled with obscure and arcane terminology.

As Shulem Deen poetically notes:

We have to grapple with ways of thinking that are so far from our own, and still find the resonant chords; make sense of a logical system whose premises are archaic and confounding and dogmatic, but still see its elegance; imagine a world in which life’s mysteries and uncertainties are nearly unimaginable to our modern minds, and still see, in those who lived with them, the same human impulses as ours.

So on the one hand, you should feel empowered to pick up the Talmud and go – it’s our heritage, after all! On the other hand, you want to be primed to glean as much as you can.

Why not start by diving in with this quick article: How to participate in the longest-running Jewish book club (even if you can’t read Hebrew) – which answers questions like these:

  • Do I need to be religious — or Jewish — to study Talmud?
  • Can I study Talmud even if I have little or no Hebrew background?
  • What version of the Talmud do you recommend I use, and where can I find it?
  • What resources and study aides are most helpful?
  • How do you keep track of everything you learn?

To get you started after that, here are some introductory and supportive materials that I’ve found to be helpful. I endorse them all. These all mostly assume that you’re starting Talmud study as a beginner, and reading the text in English translation. You don’t have to go in order, you can pick up an introductory book and listen to the podcasts together.

I. Where to Start?

1: Understanding The History of Jewish Texts and How They Work

41vJDuDoa+L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The Talmud is built upon an earlier text – the Mishnah – which itself is the early rabbis’ discussion on how to actualize the even earlier laws of the Torah. It’s hard to understand one without the other, so pick up the book Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, by Barry W. Holtz, which will help you out with the history, context, content, and methodology of these texts, and more.

2: Who Were the Rabbis, and What did They Do?

the-evolution-of-torah-a-history-of-O04SoKa8MXy-bv2FSNLh3wy.1400x1400.jpgThe Jewish Theological Seminary has a fantastic new short podcast series – The Evolution of Torah: A History of Rabbinic Literature. I highly recommend these five podcast episodes as a launching point for your journey into the Talmud. They are an easily-digestible, but comprehensive introduction that answer such questions as: What led to the emergence of the group of scholars and teachers we call the Rabbis? What motivated them and what did they value?  How did the Babylonian Talmud become the most influential book in the Jewish world? 

3: Dive Into the Sea of Rabbinic Literature

51RsGVxK5jL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIf you’re ready to go deeper into how the Talmud itself functions, pick up the classic Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, by Hermann L. Strack and Gunter Stemberger – it’s a dense, but good academic introduction to the Talmud. Stemberger discusses the historical framework, the basic principles of rabbinic literature and hermeneutics, and the most important Rabbis.

4: Understand the Features of the Talmud

412NPDDCiYL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_This is still my go-to when I come across an obscure concept or argumentation theory. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s Reference Guide to the Talmud is an indispensable resource for students of all levels. This edition is fully revised, and clearly and concisely explains the Talmud’s fundamental structure, concepts, terminology, assumptions, and inner logic. It provides essential historical and biographical information, and includes appendixes, a key to abbreviations, and a comprehensive index.

5: Looking for Something More Personal?

513YbB8WAgL._SX286_BO1,204,203,200_Barry Scott Wimpheimer’s new The Talmud: A Biography provides “a concise biography of this quintessential work of rabbinic Judaism [that] takes readers form the Talmud’s prehistory in biblical and second-temple Judaism to its present-day use as a source of religious ideology… He describes the books origins and structure, its centrality to Jewish law, its mixed reception history, and its golden renaissance in modernity.” (from the book jacket). I found the book to be a bit overly-technical in its approach to dissecting the Talmud, but it’s a great, shorter introductory text that also introduces readers to a lot of other contemporary literature on the Talmud.

6: Want an Online Class?

Coursera has a 4-session online course run in partnership with Northwestern University – The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction. It’s taught by Barry Wimpheimer (author of The Talmud: A Biography), and this would be a natural way to continue some of your learning.

 

II. Read the Talmud!

Which Edition?

noe_brakhot_talmud_english_koren_eng_gold_removed_2_2_600xIf you’re planning to study in English, there are a few translations available, but I don’t think you can do any better than the recently-completed Koren Noé edition, which is based on Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s monumental Hebrew edition of the Bavli. You can get it in print individually by masekhet (tractate/volume), or as a complete series (it will set you back a pretty penny, but it’s a beautiful addition to any Jewish library).

The other leading English option available is from Artscroll, but I don’t think it compares to the Koren in terms of accessibility, commentary, user-friendly design, and scholarship. There’s an ongoing “Artscroll vs. Koren” debate, but in my opinion, it’s been handily won (perhaps not yet in sales, but certainly in beauty, grandeur, and integrity) by Koren.

Head’s up: in the Koren Noé / Steinsaltz editions, the Hebrew/Aramaic and English text is broken up and punctuated into into smaller chunks by argumentative unit. This is different from a standard print edition of the Talmud that doesn’t have similar punctuation or section breaks, but it makes it much easier to follow the internal logic.

Print or Digital?

I don’t think you can compare studying the text with a book in your hand to using a screen – there’s something about the traditional way of encountering the text on the page, with all the marginalia, centuries of added wisdom, and the ability to add your own notes in as you go. But, hey, it’s 2020! If you’re not up to shelling out $1,000, Koren also offers the ability to purchase PDFs of the same beautiful printed text.

Thanks to Sefaria (an online library of Jewish texts and easily my most-used website/app as a rabbi), the entire Koren English translation of the Talmud is available online for free. Don’t underestimate the significance of this fact – it’s truly a momentous landmark in the entire history of Jewish education. Don’t take my word for it, check out what The Washington Post had to say.

Using Sefaria

A few helpful notes on using Sefaria to study Talmud:

You can find the text of the Talmud here. Or, if you’re doing Daf Yomi, you can scroll down on the main page and link directly to today’s daf:Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 11.21.38 AM.png

The text appears differently than in a standard printed Talmud – rather than laid out page by page, you’re going to get a continual stream of the text, with subheadings telling you when you cross a corresponding printed page.

Like the Koren English print edition, the Hebrew/English text on Sefaria is broken up into smaller chunks by argumentative unit. The bold text is the literal/idiomatic translation of the Aramaic/Hebrew, while the unbolded text rounds out the sentences with additional context and commentary from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Aramaic is notoriously terse, so these additions are very helpful.

Most importantly, if you click on the text itself, you’ll bring up the Resources menu, where you can find links to later commentaries and other texts that make use of the passage:

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Other helpful hints: if you click the title of the daf (e.g. Bereakhot 3a in the screenshot below), you can jump to other pages throughout the Talmud. If you click the small in the top right, you can change the layout and display options.
Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 11.27.37 AM.png

 

III. Daf Yomi Podcasts

These are my two go-to podcasts for catching up on Daf Yomi and adding to my own learning, but there are dozens out there. Just know that you’re almost always getting the Gemara filtered through a particular religious worldview – so do your research and choose wisely! Download these ones on iTunes, or your favourite podcasting app (I’m a big fan of Castro and Overcast).

55-Minute Daf Yomi with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Rabbi Herzfeld does a great job of distilling the ikar – the central ideas of each daf – into a 5-minute podcast. He asks a few bigger thematic questions, so we can grapple with the relevance of what we’ve just learned. You also get to hear his reading and translating of the talmudic text in the traditional lyrical, almost song-like way of helping memorize the words. While there’s a lot of jargon and insider language (legal terminology, names, later commentaries) in this podcast, it’s easily digestible, and if you’re okay with looking up any concepts you want to know more about, this is a great way to keep up with the pace.

Daf Yomi for Women (Not just for women!)
daf-yomi-for-women-דף-יומי-לנשים-english-DOwlr7Z03bh.1400x1400From Michelle Cohen Farber and Hadran, the only organization dedicated exclusively to inspiring and enabling Jewish women across the world to learn Talmud. You can read about them in this great New York Times profile on the women-driven revolution in education. This is a longer podcast (usually ~45 minutes), quite fast-paced, that goes more in depth into each daf. If you have the time, and are also willing to look up any new concepts that aren’t defined, it’s a great way to hear the voices around the table. The first episode for this cycle also includes a great introduction to the Talmud, and is a good place for beginners to start.

 

IV. What’s Next?

Check out my own Instagram account Daily Talmud (shameless plug!), dedicated to Daf Yomi and follow along with the wisdom of the Talmud.

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We are blessed that this is the golden age of new books and learning about the Talmud’s place in our lives – both spiritual and academic. Here are just a few of my favourites that are good for beginners:

Author and NYU Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein has a number of books teaching about the amazing stories (aggadah) from the Talmud. Two ones I wholeheartedly recommend are: The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud.

Rabbi Benay Lappe’s TedX and ELI talks on how “every religion comes into being to create meaning, and meaning comes by way of a “master story,” like Torah. But every master story will eventually…crash.” Rabbi Lappe’s wisdom here provides a great entry point into understanding how it was that something like the Talmud could even come into being.

If All the Seas Were Ink: This is a really beautiful memoir written by Ilana Kurshan, who tracks her experience of doing daf yomi, exactly as she was going through a divorce and thought her life was falling apart. From the introduction: “A deeply accessible and personal guided tour of the Talmud, shedding new light on its stories and offering insights into its arguments―both for those already familiar with the text and for those who have never encountered it.

In his text, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, Moulie Vidas suggests that the redactors of the Babylonian Talmud had an overarching message that they desperately wanted to convey. He probes the multivalent text to search for what it is that they urgently wanted us to feel. A beautiful and penetrating academic, yet spiritual, search into the text.

Shulem Deen’s Why Talmud is the Way To Be Jewish Without Judaism offers a provocative and intimate look into the experience of studying Talmud every day. One salient piece of advice Deen has bestowed upon me is to be weary of the liberal tendency to “reduce the vast body of our traditional literature to proverbs and aphorisms unearthed from deep within, so deep that their context is often unknown, their original meanings replaced with a vapid overlay of modern sensibilities, fashionably recasting ancient rabbis…” As Deen notes, “We do this with good intentions,” but “with profound ignorance.” It’s a humility-inspiring text.

The Tal­mud of Rela­tion­ships, Vol­ume 1 & 2: Enter the Tal­mu­dic study house with inno­v­a­tive teacher Rab­bi Amy Schein­er­man and con­tin­ue the Jew­ish val­ues – based con­ver­sa­tions that began two thou­sand years ago. The Tal­mud of Rela­tion­ships, shows how the ancient Jew­ish texts of Tal­mud can facil­i­tate mod­ern rela­tion­ship-build­ing, asking such question as: How can I tame my ego? How might I con­trol my anger? How might I expe­ri­ence the spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of sex­u­al inti­ma­cy? How can I bestow appro­pri­ate hon­or on a dif­fi­cult par­ent? How might I accept my own suf­fer­ing and the suf­fer­ing of those whom I love? How can I lead oth­ers with author­i­ty and kind­ness? How can I strength­en my self-con­trol? How can I bal­ance work and fam­i­ly? How can I get along with dif­fi­cult cowork­ers? How can I best relate to peo­ple in need? (From the Publisher)