on leyning

I leyned for my Reform bat mitzvah, but I was taught my parsha like a song rather than with individual notes, so while I am familiar with the notes I couldn’t leyn something new (or even my portion, given that it was five years ago and I can’t remember it anymore. Which is really sad, actually).

When at egal services I’ve been asked to leyn a few times. I decline, because I can’t leyn, and my previous position had been… well. Leyning, and leading services, and making kiddush, and to a lesser extent having an aliyah (which I have been offered, and accepted, in most egal services I’ve been to) and leading benching, all of these things feel like A Big Deal. Like, that’s - that’s representing this community to God and being their agent to pray for them and complete their obligation, that’s a really, scarily big power to be invested with. 

(Note: I don’t know the halachic mechanism behind a lot of those things – for them it’s more of an amorphous feeling of unworthiness than the above)

I’ll do the Torah blessings if asked, because I figure that’s more about me than the community, and it’s rude to say no, but I do always feel weird knowing that I don’t have complete faith in the things I’m saying (even if I try to) and yet there I am. I don’t feel weird for me – I pray, and I say blessings over my food, and stuff – but more for the community, for the ba’al/ba’alat/ba’alx koreh, and, well, for the sefer Torah itself (obviously I don’t personify it, but like, in the same way as one can disrespect tefillin or a siddur or something by dropping them or acting improperly around them, that I might be disrespecting the Torah or something). And I’ve done kiddush a very few times in a family setting, cause I figure that, having talked to everyone there about religion in the course of my life, I’m probably no less unorthodox in my beliefs than any of them. Although that’s uncomfortable for the separate reason that my dad and my grandpa are there, and they are my seniors, and it just feels rude. (My mum and grandma don’t have the Hebrew literacy, and don’t seem to have the inclination, to make kiddush)

Anyway. This was a post about leyning.

At the Ohel Mo’ed, there was some sort of screw-up with the leyning organisation (the person who organised who was leyning which part didn’t show up, and people were down as leyning who hadn’t said yes, or something) so that there weren’t enough people who could leyn (in the end they had one person leyning from a chumash loudly and one person murmuring the words from the Torah, in order that we hear the correct words with the trope as well as fulfil our obligation of hearing it read from a Torah scroll. I think.)

So when they were calling for leyners, a lot of people said “I’m sorry, I don’t know how” and the pool of people who were able to leyn on the spot was, like, three or four (at a service of thirty). This made it really difficult to do the Torah service, obviously, so with a view to changing this the organisers started asking people if they wanted to learn. The first time I was asked I sort of indicated I wasn’t super up for it,  but the second time I was thinking, you know, this community’s been incredible to me and I owe it to myself and other congregants as well as the general community to try to perpetuate it – if I want a functioning Ohel Mo’ed community with services, then it’s wrong of me not to help in making that happen. So I said yes.

I mean, there’s obviously a possibility that the lessons, being as they will require a lot of logistical smarts, won’t happen. And then the question is, I know of other ways to learn to leyn – should I do those?

It would be amazing to help Torah readings happen, in a situation where an (egal) community is in need, and it would help me feel like I was giving something back. But I feel like learning to leyn for, like, smooth-running-of-services reasons, sort of takes away from the spiritual significance of reading from the Torah. Like, I would be reading the Torah being nowhere near spiritually ready to do such a thing. 

Unless I coupled the learning to leyn with like, working on my hashkafa and stuff. That’s a consideration.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at. Sort of.

Is it lawful?

It was the beginning of another college semester. He had signed up for a full load of classes, and as usual each class took time to look over the syllabus. They covered the class objectives, learning outcomes, assignments, schedule, tests, grading, and so on. He noticed, however, that they failed to address one item of particular importance, to him at least. He thrust his hand into the air and blurted, “How many absences are we allowed to take?”

Though this is only a parable, I’ve often wondered what kind of message this sends to a teacher. Essentially, the student is saying, “Though I signed up for this class, I’m not at all interested in you teaching me. So, how often do I have to be here and still pass the class?” Pretty much a slap in the face.

A similar question was asked to a teacher a long time ago.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Mark’s account of this conversation in chapter 10 seems to have a different focus than Matthew’s (in chapter 19). The Pharisees asked in Matthew’s account, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” This was more in line with the current rabbinical debate when considering the prevalence of divorce during that time. However, Mark chooses to simplify the question even more, perhaps to focus on the root of the matter.

The Pharisees, seeking to test Jesus, essentially ask him, “Can a man divorce his wife and still be keeping the law?” As usual, Jesus fires a question right back at them, “What did Moses command you?” They answer, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” Notice how Jesus asked what Moses commanded and how the Pharisees answered with what Moses permitted them to do. The word for ‘commanded’ here is entellomai, which carries a sense of urging someone with instruction, and it emphasizes the end-objective or purpose of the command. The word translated as 'permitted’ is epitrepó, which means to ‘allow’ or ‘entrust.’ It’s root word, tropé, means “a turning, change, or mutation.” This root word is used only one time in the Bible; found in James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” God does not shift or change like shadows.

Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ argument with, “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law. But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.’ 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus is quoting Genesis (1:27 and 2:24), another ‘Book of Moses.’ Jesus wasn’t asking what Moses allowed them to do but what he commanded them to do. What did God say from the beginning about marriage? A man is united to his wife. The word ‘united’ here means “to glue or cement together” or “to cleave.” Literally, marriage is the cementing of a husband and wife together, they are not to be separated. The word for ‘joined together’ literally means, “yoked together,” as in the yoke used for oxen. Among the ancients, they would often times put a yoke upon the necks of a newly married couple to symbolize that they both were to equally pull together in all concerns of life. Marriage is about sharing life with someone.

Later on, Jesus discusses the matter further with his disciples, and says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” During Jesus’ time, there were two main schools of rabbinic thought on the idea of divorce. The school of Shammai argued that the passage in Deuteronomy 24 (the scripture the Pharisees used for their argument) allowed divorce only if one’s spouse was unfaithful, while the other school, Hillel, said that a man could divorce his wife if she burned the toast. During his ministry, Jesus sided with Hillel on many matters of interpreting the law, but on the issue of divorce Jesus clearly sides with Shammai. But, he doesn’t stop there, he takes the law even further with the idea that divorcing someone and marrying another is the same as adultery.

Perhaps the reason Jesus doesn’t offer this last bit of teaching to the crowd or Pharisees is because of timing. During this time, a scandal had broken out between Herod and his newly acquired wife, Herodias (the wife of Herod’s brother). John the Baptizer spoke out against Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6:18) And, because of this, Herod put John in jail, and eventually beheaded him at the request of his wife’s daughter. Jesus has already claimed that the Son of Man must suffer many things and die at the hands of the chief priests and teachers of the law, but it isn’t the time or place, yet.

Back to the law. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once described the polarity of Jewish thought and theology in terms of a body and spirit. Thus, the law (or mitzvah) was meant to be balanced between the deed (halakhah) and the intention (agadah) behind the deed:

“There is no halakhah without agadah, and no agadah without halakhah. We must neither disparage the body nor sacrifice the spirit. The body is the discipline, the pattern, the law; the spirit is the inner devotion, spontaneity, freedom. The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost. Thus a mitzvah is both a discipline and an inspiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of agadah.” (Between God and man: an interpretation of Judaism, p.178)

N.T. Wright put it this way, “Hardheartedness, the inability to have one’s heart in tune with God’s best intention and plan, thwarted God’s longing that Israel should be his prototype of renewed humanity.” (Mark for Everyone, p.132)

Therefore, is it lawful? If by that, we mean, “Does it fulfill God’s will and original intention of creation?” Then, no, a man divorcing his wife is not lawful. No, putting any other gods or idols before God is not lawful. No, ignoring the cry of the oppressed in this world is not lawful. The law was put in place so that we might live beyond the deed and practice its intention of renewed humanity.

To live out God’s kingdom and will on earth as it is in heaven.

Attention LA Residents: Community Service Event THIS SUNDAY (Feb. 12th)

Do you live in LA? Are you interested in community service? Do you want to experience the special feeling once you’ve performed a mitzvah (good deed)? Join members of YALA (the Jewish Federation’s young adult group) on Sunday, February 12th from 2-4PM at Vista Del Mar (3200 Motor Avenue, LA). Details are below:

Super Sunday just got a whole lot better with YALA!
In honor of IAM (Inclusion Awareness Month) for children and families with special needs, volunteer with YALA at Vista Del Mar with HaMercaz program participants as we participate in an array of fun community service projects! Activities include:

-Painting kippot to help support Vista Del Mar’s Nes Gadol Bnei Mitzvah program for teens with special needs

-Designing cards and writing notes for patients at Children’s Hospital

-Painting sets and props for The Miracle Project - a theatre program for teens with special needs


We ask that all program participants bring non-perishible food items and/or toiletries that will then be donated to Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles/SOVA.


Photos: ‘Mitzvah Tank’ Visits Front Line

As the Israel Defense Forces mobilize for what looks to be an imminent ground offensive to root-out Gaza-based terrorists, troops on the front lines were joined by a different kind of “tank”.

A group of Chabad activists traveled to the border with Gaza in their “Mitzvah Tank” - a truck loaded not with weapons or ammunition, but with holy items to provide spiritual and moral support to the soldiers who at any minute could be called into battle.

It’s a scene which has become increasingly common before major operations, as even otherwise secular soldiers line up to “lay tefillin”, say prayers and thank their guests, who expressed their gratitude to the men and women risking their lives for the people of Israel.

Shalom Moskowitz , a young boy from Romania, often went to bed hungry. One night , when there was only soup for supper, he gave away his bowl to a poor man who knocked on the door of the Moskowitz home.

Explained the little Shalom: “ If I eat my soup, it will be gone and nobody will remember it. But if I give my soup to a hungry man, that mitzvah will stay with me forever because HaShem will always remember it.”

May we merit to , not only raise such children but to be such children!

NCJC's turn to volunteer for the Kosher Food Pantry

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NCJC’S Turn To Do A Mitzvah For The Kosher Food PantrySunday, August 21st, 2011 New City Jewish Center will meet at The Jewish Community Center  to pack and distribute food products to the more than 100 families that the Kosher Food Pantry services.  

Come by yourself or with your appropriately aged children to participate in this mitzvah opportunity that you could do together.  

Starting time is 9:00 AM, but you can come later and stay as long as you wish.  For more information or questions please contact Steve Schulman 845.638.0532 or Alan Beitler 845.323.4701