Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Textual Confusion - Counting the Omer and Shavuot (Part 4)

As noted in earlier posts, the Torah itself indicates that Shavuot is an agricultural holiday commemorating the wheat harvest and involving a grain offering. However, the later rabbinic literature links the holiday to the giving of the Ten Commandments (or perhaps the whole Torah) on Mount Sinai. This claim is found nowhere in the Torah or any early literature, and the precise date of this event was disputed from an early period. Let's review the facts and then figure out what to make of them.

As noted in the second post in this series, Shavuot is 50 days after the day after "the shabbat" after the barley offering. One key question is what does "the shabbat" mean here. The answer gives us the date of Shavuot, or if we know the date of Shavuot, reasoning backwards will give us the date of "the shabbat."

"Shabbat" usually means the seventh day, sundown Friday night through sundown Saturday night. But in some contexts, it means a generic day of rest. For example, later in Leviticus 23 (the chapter mentioning the counting of the omer and Shavuot), the Torah calls Yom Kippur a "shabbat shabbaton" or a "sabbath of complete rest." (Lev. 23:32.) Similarly, Leviticus 25 discusses the sabbatical year, where no planting or sowing is permitted and the land is to rest. God commands that the land will keep a "sabbath" (Lev. 25:2) and calls it a "shabbat shabbaton".

Back in Leviticus 23, there are three holidays mentioned before the omer-counting passages. The first holiday listed is shabbat, and it is decreed to be a "shabbat shabbaton." (Lev. 23:3). The second holiday is Passover, and it is decreed to be a "mikrah kodesh" (or holy convocation) and no work is permitted. (Lev 23:7.) Importantly, even though no work is permitted, the day is note called a "shabbat." The third holiday is the seventh day after Passover, and this too is called a "mikrah kodesh," no work is permitted, and is not specifically called a "shabbat." (Lev 23:8.) Then the counting of the omer and Shavuot passages noted earlier occur (Lev 23:9 ff), and this counting is to start the day after "the shabbat". Which one?

There are three possibilities: (1) the normal Friday/Saturday shabbat, (2) Passover, and (3) the seventh day of Passover.

As a simple matter of textual interpretation, the first argument seems the strongest. After all, shabbat is the only day that is specifically called "shabbat." The second best argument is the third one. The holiday where no work is permitted that immediately precedes the omer counting command is the seventh day of Passover. The one the rabbis went with, Passover itself, is the weakest argument, at least as a purely textual matter. But of course there is a lot more to understanding the meaning of this passage than simply interpreting an ambiguous passage, and the historical tradition is quite important. I will look at that next.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Creating Authentic and Relevant Meaning

In re-reading the last two posts, I realized that I never explained my basic point. Here it is.

The (simplistic) Orthodox world view is that God wrote the Torah and commanded the commandments. Our job is simply to decode the text, follow the oral law, and do the mitzvot. We might have some discretion in borderline or ambiguous cases, and there may be some complexity in the particulars of tough cases. But for the most part, the general approach is all very straightforward.

But that is not the way it actually works in practice, or the way is has worked in history. The act of not only figuring out exactly what a mitzvah entails but figuring out how it is meaningful and important involves a lot of judgment and discretion, and often a lot of creativity. We have several thousand years of people creating these idea, acts, interpretations, and discussions, and then reacting to others. It is a rich tradition.

Authenticity involves learning about this tradition, then doing mitzvot (or even sometimes changing mitzvot) in light of this tradition. That type of authenticity is equally available to Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews.

Relevancy involves an evaluation of mitzvot or texts in light of that tradition. This requires some flexibility and even playfulness with the texts, the mitzvot themselves, and even the ideas behind the texts. This is not some wacky left-wing New Age idea --- it is exactly the approach taken by the Talmud, the midrash, the kabbalists, and even contemporary Orthodox rabbis.

So far, I have claimed a lot more than I have proven. But rather than discussing all this in very general terms, I thought I would discuss it in light of a particular mitzvah, counting the omer. So stay tuned ....


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Inauthenticity, Irrelevancy, and Counting the Omer: The Basics

In the first post on this topic, I laid out two basic problems that liberal Judaism seems to have. Jewish practice either seems to be irrelevant (or insignificant or unimportant), in that there does not seem to be much benefit in doing it. Jewish practice also seems to be inauthentic, in that we do not take seriously the traditional claim that God literally commanded us to do these things by speaking commandments on a mountain 3,400 years ago. That leaves non-Orthodox Jews in an intellectual mess, to say the least, and the result is what we often see in non-Orthodox synagogues: low levels of observance, knowledge, practice, and most of all enthusiasm.

I claimed in the first post that there is at least one way out, and I would use an odd and under-appreciated (and under-practiced) mitzvah---counting the omer---to illustrate this. In this post, I would like to explain the basics of counting the omer and its Torah origins. I will discuss the historical evolution of both the mitzvah itself and ways of understanding its significance in later posts.

The mitzvah of counting the omer is straightforward. After reciting a short single-sentence blessing ("Blessed are you, Lord our God, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the omer"), Jews count the days and weeks, from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot. For example, on the second day of Passover, we recite the blessing then say "Today is the first day of the omer." The next day, "Today is the second day of the omer." On the seventh day, "Today is the seventh day of the omer, which is one week of the omer." On the 23rd day, "Today is the 23rd day of the omer, which is three weeks and two days of the omer." We continue until we reach 49 days. The next day is Shavuot.

Not very complicated. Here are a few additional rules. We should count the omer at night. Someone who forgets to count the omer at night can say it without a blessing the next day, and remains on track. But if someone forgets to count for a full day (that is, skips one day of counting completely), that person can continue to count, but without saying the blessing.

Aish HaTorah's website has a good page on the basics of this mitzvah.

This mitzvah is not complicated, and can be done each night in about 15 seconds. Non-Orthodox Jews cannot claim that the mitzvah is too difficult or complicated or onerous to do. The problem is that it seems silly.

Before jumping into the problem of significance, let's take a careful look at the historical origins of the mitzvah. And this requires a little bit of elaboration about Shavuot.

The mitzvah of counting the omer comes from the Torah. In Leviticus 23, God tells Moses to tell the children of Israel about several biblical holidays. After Shabbat and Passover (on which Jews are commanded to do no work), God then explains that when the Children of Israel enter the land of Israel, they should bring an "omer" of the first reapings to the priest as an offering. (Lev. 23:9-10.) (An omer is a unit of measure of grain.) After some instructions about this (Lev. 23:11-14), the Torah then explains the counting:

"And you shall count unto you from the day after the shabbat [ha-shabbat], from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even to the day after the seventh week shall you number fifty days; and you shall present a new meal-offering to the Lord." (Lev 23:15-16).

Deuteronomy contains a similar description of the counting, and explicitly identifies this second holiday as Shavuot. After discussing Passover (Deut. 16:1-8), Deuteronomy explains:

"Seven weeks shalt thou number to yourself; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn you shall begin to number seven weeks. And you shall keep the feast of weeks [hag shavuot] to the Lord your God after the measure of the freewill-offering of your hand, which you shall give, according as the Lord your God blesses you." (Deut. 16:9-10.)

Just to clarify: the word "shavuot" literally means "weeks" and is related to the Hebrew worked "sheva" which means "seven." So Hag HaShavuot literally means the Festival or Holiday of Weeks, and this comes from the fact that it occurs seven weeks after, . . . well, something.

These two passages from the Torah raise (at least!) two important questions. First, what day does the counting start? Leviticus says it is on "the shabbat". Does this mean a regular Friday evening and Saturday day Shabbat, or does it mean more generally a day of rest? And if so, which day of rest? And Deuteronomy says from the time the sickle is first used, but what day exactly is this? Second, once we figure out when it starts, do people have to literally count (that is, say "one", "two", "three", etc., on each day) or is this instruction (count 49 days) just an elaborate way of setting the date of Shavuot as 49 days after the starting point. I will cover those next.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Two Foundational Problems With Liberal Judaism (And the Solution)

Liberal Judaism is stuck between two foundational intellectual problems: inauthenticity and irrelevancy. They usually manifest themselves in an attack from the right and an attack from the left. I do not think the problems are intractable. But rather than arguing in generalities, I will take a ritual that is easily subject to both of these attacks---counting the omer--- and see if we can not only defend against the attacks but show how counting the omer can be meaningful and important, regardless of its historical origins.

Here's the basic problem. Liberal Judaism generally accepts the conclusion of modern Bible scholarship that the Torah was written well after Moses and by multiple authors. In doing so, it rejects the traditional historical claim that the Torah was literally written by God. It adopts a more flexible approach to halacha and rituals, and in doing so runs into two quite serious foundational problems.

The religious right argues this type of Judaism must be inauthentic. If liberal Jews do not believe in the literal historical truth of the foundational story of Judaism---God gave the Torah to the Jews on Mt. Sinai---then nothing solid remains of Judaism. Under that view, the Torah is just a bunch of stories and laws written by ordinary people a long time ago. There is no compelling reason to do any of it. Sure, it might contain some wisdom or good ideas here and there, but Jews cannot take it too seriously if they do not believe that God told us to do these things.

The non-religious left makes the opposite argument. Jews should do certainly do the parts of Judaism that are "good" ideas, like don't steal, be nice, and give charity. But one should do them because they are good ideas, not because Judaism says to do them. And there is no reason to do the "bad" ideas, or the "neutral" ideas, or most rituals. That knocks out things like keeping kosher, fasting on Yom Kippur, and putting on tefillin. And once a Jew does the good practices because they are good, and avoids doing the other practices because there is no reason to do so, there is nothing left of Judaism. Thus, the non-religious left argues that Judaism is irrelevant.

This is the scylla and charybdis of liberal Judaism: inauthenticity and irrelevancy. And these two manifests themselves in much of liberal Judaism. I attend a Conservative synagogue, and I certainly see both of them. Many Jews my age (mid 40s) simply opt out of many traditional Jewish practices. They do not keep kosher, attend synagogue, celebrate many holidays, daven, wear tefillin, etc. The attitude of many of my friends is simply that it seems irrelevant, sort of silly, and a little strange to do these things. After all, God did not literally said to do these things, and there just does not seem to be a good reason to do so. And when they do do these things (for whatever reason), it lacks authenticity. So someone might to go synagogue (say, for a bar-mitzvah), but will not feel elevated by the davening, does not know what the Torah parsha says, and does not expect these things. They feel a little like a religious tourist, watching and even going through the motions without really participating.

The result is what we see in the Conservative movement. Synagogue membership is declining, and adults who were raised Conservative become less religious and unaffiliated with a synagogue (in lots of cases) and Orthodox (in a handful of cases).

The solution to the twin problems of inauthenticity and irrelevancy is (not surprisingly, and, in fact, definitionally) authenticity and relevancy. The issue is how to achieve these.

For liberal Judaism to be relevant, Jewish practices and beliefs must reflect divinity (however understood), elevate us spiritually, help Jews live much deeper and richer lives, and contain some insights into life that are not generally available in secular culture. And to be authentic, it must not be dependent on the historical origins of the Torah, but on how it has evolved and been interpreted for the past 3000 years, regardless of its historical origins. Jews must be able to feel fully engaged when doing these things.

I think that Judaism for the most part meets these challenges. The problem, as I see it, is that most liberal Jews lack even the most basic education about what Judaism is, and this ignorance is too often (but fortunately, not always) fostered by ineffective religious schools. The problem is not inherent in liberal Judaism itself.

I have detailed some general thoughts on these ideas in many other blog posts. But rather than arguing from a general level, I thought I would take a particular example of a simple mitzvah and show this works in practice. My example is counting the omer. In the next few blog posts, I will explain the mitzvah itself, it biblical and historical origins, and its subsequent history. In doing so, I hope to show how this seemingly odd mitzvah is highly relevant to life and how liberal Jews can authentically count the omer.