Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Before and after you read Halakhah, by Chaim Saiman: what should you know? What will you learn?

I have written in glowing terms about the book  Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, by Chaim Saiman. It's a novel explanation of an important topic, and the author writes well. But it is still not easy going.

If you plan to read it (and I hope you do!), think about acquainting yourself with these terms first:

  1. Torah
  2. Rabbi
  3. Mishnah
  4. Gemarah
  5. Talmud
  6. Midrash
  7. Halakhah
  8. Aggadah
  9. Shulchan Aruch
  10. Responsa
The Judaism 101 and My Jewish Learning websites would be good places to start.

And here's your reward: in addition to being able to follow Saiman's ingenious arguments and examples, you'll learn about topics like the following!
  • The way that Jewish interpretation of text changed from Talmudic times through the early and late medieval periods and into the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
  • How Ashkenazi Jews thought and wrote about halakhah differently from Sephardi Jews.
  • Quick sketches of major thinkers like Maimonides, Nahmanides, and the sages known as the Rif, the Ran, the Tur, and the Brisker.
  • The difference between Talmud, codes of law, and responses to particular questions (and the way that all those differences can get blurred sometimes by creative interpretation).
Honestly, you could spend years of study just following up the introductions that Saiman gives you in this book. But if you only read this book, you'll get a road map that you never had before.

Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, by Chaim Saiman

This might be your story.

You grew up in an environment where Christian culture was the norm. Even if you weren't religious yourself, from an early age, you heard people contrast Jewish legalism with Christian spiritual freedom. You heard that the letter of the Law killeth and the Spirit brings life.

Even today, you dimly recall Bible stories where it sounds like Jesus is throwing off the chains that the "old covenant" put on the Jews. In the back of your mind, you wonder why the Jews stubbornly clung to their dried-up set of rules.

Then you read Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, by







Then you read Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, by







, when you get detailed rules about how to light the Shabbat candles at home, that's one thing. But when you get equally detailed and elaborated procedures for judging murder cases when no Jewish courts had jurisdiction over them...or instructions for how the priests should offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, debated after the Temple had been destroyed and Jews weren't even allowed by the Romans to enter Jerusalem...then this is not "the Law" as we know it.

What is it? In a word, it's Torah.

Torah doesn't mean law. It means teaching: by God to us, about the right way to live.

That teaching can take all the different forms I mentioned above:


The Talmud assumes that the story is always already going on, and that you are a character in it. You don't need abstractions. You need to know how to play your part.










If you decide to ask, "What is the Shema? Why is it said? Why is it said at set times? Why the evening? Who were the priests, what was their consecrated food, and when did they eat it? What were the watches of the night, and what was the first watch? Who was Rabbi Eliezer, and what do we know about his methodology? Who were "the sages"? Who was Rabban Gamliel? What were their methodologies, and how did they arrive at differing conclusions? What did later generations do to decide among them? What practical implications did this question have, the one about when you have missed your opportunity to say the evening Shema? What ethical implications does it have? What does it tell us about our relationship to God?"...then you are part of that age-old partnership with God.

And if you are not, at least you can now stop thinking of it as just a set of rules!

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Whenever I hear (or more likely, read) the argument that the God of the "Old Testament" is a god of vengeance and the God of the "New Testament" is a god of love, I think of a passage from my favorite novel of 1968, Heaven Help Us, by Herbert Tarr.

Rabbi Abel and his junior-youth group attend a service at St. James Episcopal Church, where the pompous Dr. Larrabie expounds the theory of Swelling Revelation. Then, at the end of the service, the Rabbi is invited to say a few words.

I can't tell you how happy my class and I are to join you today...It was especially interesting to hear about the theory of Swelling Revelation. Because different sets of quotes might suggest another swell theory. For example...in the Old Testament: "Thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy." But in the New Testament: "He that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation."
In the Old Testament: "The Lord of Hosts is exalted through justice...Do justice to the afflicted and destitute, rescue the poor and needy." But in the New Testament: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved."
In the Old Testament: "Let the oppressed go free...break every yoke..deal thy bread to the hungry...bring the poor that are cast out to thy house...cover the naked...hide not thyself from thine own flesh." But in the New Testament: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire."
Swelling Revelation?
Just to be abundantly clear, neither the fictional rabbi, the author (also a rabbi), nor I are saying that Judaism is all sweetness and light and Christianity is all hellfire. We just resent it when Christians oversimplify both their religion and Judaism at our expense.

"Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" https://biblehub.com/matthew/7-3.htm

Monday, June 5, 2017

This is an Uprising

Are you part of the Resistance? Did you become "political" only after an election result you couldn't imagine ahead of time and still can't accept? Or, like me, have you been pressing for social change in the U.S. for decades, whether it was popular or not?

Either way, you must read this book. Mark and Paul Engler help all of us understand what we're doing, how we fit a pattern that has happened before in history, and how to learn from traditions of revolt to create a winning strategy.

Particularly important right now: read this book to make sense of the rush of activity in the first half of 2017 and what will come next, to be prepared for highs and lows and periods when it feels like nothing's happening and we might have wasted our time--but if we use the quiet times wisely, we come back stronger.

The authors tell us that there are at least two important models for creating social change. The one that has received most study is the long-term systematic community organizing, power building approach associated with Saul Alinsky. That model has proven itself, but all by itself, it doesn't give us enough insight to understand what's happened since the November 2016 election in the U.S. (or during the Civil Rights Movement, or the Arab Spring, or the movement that overthrew Milosevic in Serbia, or Earth First!, Occupy Wall Street, or the movement that won marriage equality in the U.S.).

The other, more decentralized approach is what they call "momentum-based organizing" or "protest movements" or simply, "uprising." Frances Fox Piven is the writer most associated with this approach. It calls for creating "moments of the whirlwind" when the whole debate changes and what seemed impossible suddenly becomes a widely-supported demand.

Yes: creating. These moments don't arise by themselves. Movement strategists get them started, or at very least, keep them growing. This book is about how we can be movement strategists.

It's impossible to create a formula for uprising, and the authors wisely don't try. What they do give us is a set of lessons about what worked.
  1. Shared strategy, spread through mass training. 
  2. A firm commitment to nonviolence.
  3. People working in parallel to get the pillars of society ("the military, the media, the business community, the churches, labor groups, the civil service, the educational establishment, and the courts, among others") to withdraw their cooperation from the regime.
  4. Symbolic demands that dramatize the injustice of the current regime.
  5. "Escalating, militant, and unarmed confrontation."
  6. Being willing to make a visible personal sacrifice to gain the sympathies of the public.
  7. Being willing to polarize opinion and face opposition.
  8. Making strategic judgments about what kind of bad press not to encourage.
  9. Understanding that movements will go through cycles, from peaks of activity to fallow times when long-term institution-building may be the most powerful thing we can do.
  10. Finding ways that movements, institutions, and countercultures can all support and build off one another.
Not all efforts to create change prevail over the long term. But those that do tend to see themselves as part of an ecology that is made healthier when different traditions each contribute: mass mobilizations alter the terms of political debate and create new possibilities for progress; structure-based organizing helps take advantage of this potential and protects against efforts to roll back advances;  and countercultural communities preserve progressive values, nurturing dissidents who go on to initiate the next waves of revolt.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What do we do now that Trump has been elected?



On election night, a friend asked on Facebook, “So what do we do if Trump wins?” It seems that many people had not thought about it before that moment.

I had. I’m not saying my first thoughts are great, and they should not be definitive. Here’s my list, if you’re looking for somewhere to start. Please add to it.


  1. Organize to protect Muslims, Latinos, and other immigrants and vulnerable groups from violence. Safe spaces in homes and places of worship. 
  2. In Congress, build bipartisan coalitions for the rule of law and against dictatorial excesses. 
  3. Win over non-"deplorable" Trump voters by showing them their legitimate economic concerns have been heard.
  4. Push to win state legislatures and governorships to destroy Republican gerrymandering when it's time for redistricting four years from now.
  5. Use federalism and states' rights to assert the authority of state governments to have more progressive laws than the federal government does, particularly around marriage and health care.
  6. Stop saying the country is full of idiots. Listen to On the Media’s “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” read  Arlie Hochschild's book Strangers in Their Own Land, and talk to people you think might hate you. Some of them do. (I'm not that naive.) But some of them think you're the one who hates and looks down on them, and you could both be surprised.
  7. Create Medicare-for-all health systems at the state level, because if Trump wins, the federal system is going down.
  8. Reorganize underground railroads to help women in need of abortions get to states that still have clinics performing them.
  9. Find sympathetic members of the police and National Guard who will resist unconstitutional orders. Support them. Pay their legal fees if necessary.
  10. Build a Popular Front Against Fascism. Everybody from the Greens to the Libertarians needs to find ways to work together.
  11. Form a compact of coastal states that will mutually aid one another to adapt to rising sea levels.
  12. Protect journalists. Trump has been whipping people into a frenzy against "the media" at rallies all year. More than ever, we're going to need honest reporting, investigation, and analysis. We can't get that if the journalists are in jail.