Archive by category "Judaism Basics -- Everything You Wanted to Know..."

To Move or Not to Move: That is the Question

To Move or Not to Move: That is the Question

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

In California, we have been experiencing a season of drought-related wildfires that are historically the worst in years. Many people in devastated areas have sadly lost their homes — or worse, their lives. Others a little more fortunate, those with homes that are damaged but not destroyed, and hopefully with their families intact, are questioning whether or not to restore what was once whole. When do you rebuild? When do you walk away? How do you redirect your hopes and dreams?

A small section – known as a tractate – from the Talmud is called Bava Metzia. This section deals, not with life and death issues (although it can be extended to those issues), but with the loss of property, of things. Among other issues, it raises the question of giving up hope of recovery of that property. More than that, it raises these questions: In what circumstances and at what point, do we abandon hope? When do you move on?

The Jewish tradition has a name for the abandonment of hope – despair of retrieving lost property; it is called ye’ush. And there is a further question that is raised. Can we abandon hope without knowing it? This is called ye’ush shelo medat (hope without knowing, unconsciously). And even further, can ye’ush be retroactive? In other words, even if we were unaware of the loss of property at the time it happened – if we had known facts that were revealed only later – would we have given up hope at the time the property was lost?

These questions were famously debated by two Amoraim (fourth-century C.E. Talmudic rabbis) known as Rava (his opinions were always stricter) and Abaye (more liberal opinions). Although the Talmudic decisions on other matters usually favored Rava’s arguments, in the case of lost property, they agreed with Abaye. Much depended on the intentionality of the identified owner in claiming (proof of title) and restoring the lost property. Does he or she want to restore it for comfort (i.e., to live in it, in this case) or profit (to sell or rent it, possibly at a steep hike because so many people are looking for housing in California)? Intentionality is a huge issue in the Talmud.

Also taken into account is the degree of effort required to recover or restore the property, and whether it has the necessary monetary value to make the effort worthwhile. It turns out that it is hard to decide these issues for someone else, because (said the rabbis), although as an individual, I know what my own motives are, how can I assume what motivates someone else? There are too many variables to determine the motivation of an individual. So the question is left undecided, known as teiku in the Talmud.

But it still leaves you, the one who sustained the loss, in limbo. Whether or not to restore your own destroyed property? Only you know what it is worth – physically and mentally, monetarily, sentimentally – to put in the effort and finances to bring it back, to recover the memories. So what has more weight to you and those you love? Do you have the strength or the money to sustain the effort? Can you leave out the sentiment and consider it only from the point of view of practicality? Hard to do. So, in the end, everyone else’s wisdom – even ancient wisdom — is not what matters. Only you know when you can still maintain a deep reservoir of hope. Only you know when it would be better to move on.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

Holding Multiple Views Simultaneously

Holding Multiple Views Simultaneously

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Did you know that every single opinion cited in the Talmud is respected? This is a Jewish value that we would do well to follow in America in contemporary times. The rabbis of the Talmud listened to all sides of a matter and were inclined to make their joint decision (which became Jewish law, called the “Halakhah”) based on majority opinion. However, just as in the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the minority opinion was still respected and remains a valid point of view. There may come a time in history when the minority opinion makes more sense.

Actually, when we examine how Jewish rabbis/judges exercised the law so many centuries ago, we find that American law has many resemblances to rabbinic law.  As contemporary lawyers will appreciate, the rabbis argued vigorously and persuasively, enjoying the different points of view and, indeed, the argumentation itself, just as if they were in a debating club.

But the situations they tackled were serious ones, even if sometimes they were hypothetical, and the decisions they made had consequences of which they were keenly aware. Sometimes there was not enough evidence to make a decision, and the discussion was termed “Undecided” and tabled. Sometimes rabbis who had greater scholarity or prestige carried the day, but what is essential to remember (as I was taught in rabbinic school) is that these were loving disputes, with the argumentation presented in order to make the best decision. Acrimony was usually avoided because the rabbis recognized that there could be multiple truths, depending on one’s perspective and knowledge of a situation.

What I am stressing is that every point of view, sometimes expressed with hyperbole to make the point, was given consideration. That is why only one point of view out of many, a single sound byte, cannot be cited as the conclusive rabbinic position. It is all too easy to take words out of context and manipulate them to suggest what was never meant. With this in mind, it is essential not to take a statement made in the Talmud out of context (all too often done by its detractors) because it will not reflect the whole Talmudic view on a particular situation.

The Talmudic method is to listen to all sides of an argument before making a decision, respecting everyone’s point of view, taking from each what is valuable, and then deciding on a well-considered position. It’s a useful method for our current U.S. legislators to emulate.

©️Rabbi Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

So What IS the Talmud, exactly?

So What IS the Talmud, exactly?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

When you have a chance to look at a Talmud page, you’ll notice that the Hebrew or Aramaic text is in the middle surrounded by commentaries from various learned rabbis, often in different centuries. The idea is to give depth, diversity, and continuity to the original interpretations (with what we would today call Hyperlinks to an Internet page). In addition, there are multiple published volumes of later commentary that amplify each text.

This text in the middle is itself usually found in two parts (the Mishnah and the Gemara) separated by about 400 to 600 or so years. While the earlier Mishnah is in Hebrew, the Gemara is often in Aramaic, which had become the vernacular of the Israelite people, just as it was in the time of Jesus in the first century C.E.

Then, after the destruction of the Second Temple (72 C.E.), which the Romans razed to the ground so that there would be nothing left, including most of the leadership, a small group of rabbis gathered together to set down Jewish law, just as if the Temple still existed – in the great hope that remained essential to the Jewish religion in every country to which the Jews were scattered, that someday they would return to the Holy Land. Although the rabbis had some remnants of scrolls, most of their combined knowledge came from memory. And much of what they established as rabbinic Jewish law was also committed to memory and later transcribed. Students of both the Torah (the five books of Moses) and the Talmud are aware that both an Oral Law and a Written Law existed. Now there was a need to set the Oral Law down so that it would not be lost. This took about four centuries to complete, and it was called the Mishnah.

However, after a few centuries had passed, the rabbis of those years considered that some of the views of the Mishnah needed updating since they reflected an agricultural society, while the Jews who remained in the Holy Land (despite propaganda to the contrary, there has always been a Jewish presence in the Holy Land) as well as the much greater number of Jews in the Diaspora, were now living a more urban life, although they were usually persecuted and earning their often meager livings through  various trades. In most cases, they could not own land. So the earlier text of the Mishnah needed additional opinions.

This new text, which follows on each page right after the Mishnaic text, is called the Gemara. In other words, the rabbis of different centuries are picking up earlier arguments and adding their own, more sophisticated opinions to it, just as if no time had passed. Together they are called the Talmud. (The redactors of the Talmud were very ingenious in their ability to link together opinions expressed over the years.) In many ways, this process is similar to the way we argue the finer points of the U.S. Constitution today, and very carefully some amendments have been added over time.

©️Corinne Copnick, 2017, Los Angeles. All rights reserved.

Short Need to Knows

When I initiated my pluralistic study group, Beit Kulam, I discovered that some participants were unsure what the following terms actually meant. But they were too shy or embarrassed to ask in more formal groups. So here are some brief explanations to keep in a handy place:

What is the Torah?

Torah means “instruction” or “teaching,” and Rabbi means “teacher. The Torah consists of five “books,” often referred to as the five books of Moses (who lived around 1800 BCE). Sometimes it is called the Chumash — which means five in Hebrew. The Greeks called it the Pentateuch —which means five in Greek.

What are the five books about?

They contain stories about the beginning of Jewish history, morality, and nationhood, and about the eternal Covenant (binding agreement) between God and the people of Israel.

1.  Genesis — stories about the Creation of the world and the development of human relationships.

  1. Exodus — The Exodus from Egypt story represents the liberation/freedom principle that is an essential tenet of Judaism. This book shows the development of a nation through 40 years in the desert.

3.  Leviticus — sets out the rules by which a civilized and moral society — Israel — should live. This book is assumed to have been written by the priests.

4.  Numbers — begins with a census so that the Israelites can prepare themselves to enter the Promised Land (Canaan).

5.  Deuteronomy — a summary of the previous four books that ends with Moses’ farewell speech as he turns over the leadership of the Israelites to Joshua. A new generation will enter the Holy Land.

What is the Tenakh?

The word “Tenakh” is an acronym (TNK) for: Torah (instruction), Neviim (prophets), and Ketuvim (writing), the three parts that make up the trilogy called the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is the Bible of the Jews.

What is the Old Testament?

Although Christians read and believe in the Hebrew Bible, they call it the Old Testament because many believe that the New Testament, the basis of Christian faith in Jesus, supersedes it. When Christians say “the Bible,” they usually mean both Old and New.

What is the New Testament?

It contains selected gospels about Jesus purported to have been written by his 12 disciples, but which only appeared about 300 years after his death (he was killed by the Romans in the first century CE).

What is the Talmud?

Written by the rabbis (sages) from the first century CE (it may have started in the last couple of centuries BCE) to the early Middle Ages, the Talmud is an extensive commentary on the Torah. It consists of two parts: the Mishnah (written in Hebrew) and the Gemarrah (written later, mostly in Aramaic).

What is Midrash?

Midrash are rabbinic stories created from the imagination to fill in the gaps in understanding the Torah, which was first recited orally and only written down, collated, and edited in rabbinic times. Some of these stories relate to Jewish law (the halakhah), but others are intended to illustrate moral points or just to have some fun (aggadic stories).

What is your idea of what God is or isn’t? Don’t write anything. Just think about it…. 

Suggested Books:

Brettler, Marc Zvi. How to Read the Bible. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Who Wrote the Bible? New York: Summit Books (Simon & Schuster), 1987, 1997.

Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Jewish Literacy. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.