Sunday, December 12, 2004

Adventures in Judaism II

During the cocktail and latkes hour at Temple Sinai (Adventures in Judaism II program co-sponsored by the University of Judaism) Sunday afternoon from 4-5pm, I spent much of my time (while clutching David Horovitz's book Still Life With Bombers) talking to two women who are married.
Then I spotted a beautiful blonde with curly hair down past her shoulders. She had a peaches-and-cream complexion. She looked smart and witty and elegant. I was about to walk over and hit on her when I realized that she was rabbi Naomi Levy (author of two books I've enjoyed) and married to Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman.
At 5pm, rabbi David Wolpe moderated an hour-long panel discussion between Orthodox rabbi Pinchas Giller, a professor at the University of Judaism and an expert in kaballah, rabbi Levy and rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist shul Kehillat Israel.
Rabbi Wolpe has the ability to speak to people, particularly young people, in ways that no other rabbi can. I sensed a palpable disappointment in the Friday Night Live crowd a few months ago when he was away at the General Assembly (of Jewish organizations) in Cleveland.
Rabbi Wolpe began the panel by noting that as you grow up, you discover that everything you learned in Hebrew school was wrong.
I believe he referred, among other things, to the miracle of the oil (supposedly it was only enough to burn for one day, but it burned, according to Jewish legend, for seven days for the Maccabees over 2000 years ago so they could rededicate the Temple). A history professor at Yeshiva University was almost excommunicated in the 1960s for voicing disbelief in the miracle writes rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book Jewish Literacy.
Scholars say that the Maccabees were trying to celebrate Succot when they cleansed the temple. Rather than their struggle being primarily against the Syrians and Greeks, it was against Helenizing Jews.
All Jewish holidays have historical, national, agricultural and religious elements interweaved, much of them based on pagan customs but transformed by the Jewish commitment to ethical monotheism.
That's why it is pointless to say Christmas is pagan. You can just as easily say Succot (a Jewish festival in the fall) is pagan. The important thing is that for the religious Christian and Jew, pagan rituals have been transformed by belief in the one God.
Rabbi Reuben talks about how people can misunderstand each other. It's not a big deal if historical events did not occur as the Bible depicts them.
Rabbi Wolpe says he knows about being misquoted.
What he did not say was how deeply he feels he was burned by Los Angeles Times reporter Teresa Watanabe, who, in the most famous article on Judaism in a decade, seemed to say that rabbi Wolpe told his congregants that the Exodus from Egypt did not occur.
What I believe the rabbi said, or certainly meant, was that the evidence suggests that the Exous did not occur as the Bible says it did.
Rabbi Wolpe pressed the panelists if they believed in the seven-day miracle of the burning oil, and if they believed in miracles against the laws of nature (such as the sun standing still in Joshua). The panelists all gave disappointingly vague answers. Frankly, they did not answer his question. They just orated about the miracles that around us every day, such as a child's smile.
I am agnostic about miracles happening against the laws of nature. I believe in God and that he created nature and that he has the ability to stop the sun from rotating around the earth and to raise the dead. I would never publicly dismiss any of the miracles of Jewish sacred text (that is part of my obligation in living within the Orthodox community, not to publicly dispute its essential teachings even if I privately have my doubts).
I found rabbi Giller the most interesting panelist. As an Orthodox Jew, he has obligations that are numerous and specific and frequently go against the bent of disinterested scholarship.
Rabbi Giller said the rabbis of the Talmud coined the notion of the miracle of the oil (I think he does not believe that a one-day supply burned for seven days, which would be heretical in fervent branches of Orthodoxy).
Nothing rabbi Giller said could be disputed by modern scholarship.
Rabbi Levy: I believe in the idea of the miracle.
I wonder how her husband would react if she said, "I believe in the idea of loving you."
It's like those leftists who say they believe in the idea of the United States. They believe in the Constituation. But when it comes down to practical matters, they diss America (credit this thought to Dennis Prager).
Rabbi Levy talked about the magic of meeting a Christian female pastor in Westwood who is married to a Jew. Rabbi Levy holds a monthly Friday night service in her church. Rabbi Levy felt magic when she met the women.
Rabbi Levy said she did not feel magic when she met her future husband. "It took him months of work. He wore me down."
Pinchas Giller pointed out that in the '50s and '60s, the religion of most non-Orthodox Jews was Israel. Then it became the Holocaust, so that Holocaust scholars became pundits (does he mean Michael Berenbaum?). Now it's spirituality.
Rabbi Giller looked perplexed through much of the discussion. His lips formed silent responses as the other rabbis spoke.