Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Potpourri of Questions About Judaism


Q: Dear Rabbi,

Hi! I’m not Jewish, so I haven’t asked questions of a Rabbi before today. But for a long time there have been things I’ve been really wanting to know about Judaism.

Here are six questions I REALLY want to know the answer to. If you could help me, I’d really appreciate it.

1. Judaism is big on regularly-occuring holidays and observances that mark and/or remember various events in Jewish history (e.g. Passover, Hanukkah, Lag b’Omer). But Jewish history has been continuing even up to this day, and has included even more recent events that maybe are as significant as anything else in the history of the Jewish population – such as the Holocaust, or the founding of Israel as a modern nation state. So: why are the pre-existing holidays and observances the only ones considered “official” (if that’s the case)? Is it that those are the ones that are from the Bible? Is it that Judaism has already decided that the pre-existing holidays and observances are the only ones they’ll ever need? Is there any process by which other holidays and/or observances can become as an “official” part of the Jewish calendar as those that are already there?

2. The Hebrew alphabet has some uncommonly-used letters that have dot-markings close to them; perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m of the understanding that these are used to write out the Bible. Is this true? Are those letters ever used in writing out anything else? Do they have any religious significance? Would it be an offense to use them to write out anything mundane, such as a shopping list? Also (because my own name is Adam) I’d like to know: Is the name “Adam” written out in the Bible differently (like, using those letters) than it would be for any non-religious writing?

3. In the Bible, in Leviticus chapter 14, there are instructions about what is to be done if a Jewish person spots mold in their house and points it out to a Jewish cleric; that cleric is to inspect it and make a determination about the cleanliness (or not) of that dwelling. Is this still done nowadays? Do Jewish clerics still have mold-inspection as one of their tasks?

4. In the Bible, in Deuteonomy 13:6-10, it is instructed that anyone, (even a close relative), who suggests that you go along with them in serving other gods (other than the god of Judaism) is to be killed for making that suggestion. Jewish people don’t enact such a punishment anymore (not even in Israel, as far as I know) - why not? Not that I think such a punishment is at all a good idea (I’m more for unfettered freedom of religion for adults), but I want to know: What is the reason that Jewish people don’t do this anymore? Do they think it’s an old-fashioned idea, fit only for an ancient time? Do they simply think it’s a bad idea, or at least that allowing freedom of religion among adults is a better one? Are they simply conforming to current civic laws?

5. All the unleavened bread eaten during Passover that I’ve ever known to be used is of a dry, crispy kind, like a large cracker. Is this just a cultural thing, it being that it’s dry and crispy like a cracker? Is there any other kind of unleavened bread, such as one that is soft and pliable (were it even possible to bake such a thing) that would be acceptable to use during Passover?

6. Do Jewish people who permanently reside in Jerusalem say, at the end of the Seders they hold there, “Next year in Jerusalem.”?

Thank you for any help you might give me with this!

Adam S.


A: Dear Adam,

These are all excellent questions and I will do my best to answer them.

1. Although Jewish holidays all have an historical basis, the historical events that precipitated them represent stages or aspects of human development as well. For example, Passover is a commemoration of the Exodus, but we do not look at the Exodus merely as a specific set of events that took place at a specific point in time. Rather, it is representative of the notion of freeing oneself from the bondage of artificial human culture, expectations, ideologies and values in order to follow the principles of God's wisdom. This is really the first stage in any thinking person's growth - extricating himself from the physical and intellectual bondage that human society places upon him. Then he is ready to discover true ideas and the path of wisdom - not the ideas he is indoctrinated with, or that "everyone else" believes or accepts - in order to secure the most satisfying and enriching life for himself. This is commemorated on Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, which is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. Finally, an individual must take the abstract understanding he has developed and transform his lifestyle in accordance with it, finding security not in the approval of human beings but in his knowledge that he is living in line with God's will, i.e., knowledge and wisdom. This is represented by Sukkot, which commemorates how the Israelites dwelled in the wilderness (and eventually settled in the Holy Land) in a manner that was utterly unconventional because it did not fit the accepted fashions of human civilization.

This is why we do not believe that, after the Bible, any truly official holiday can be created. Since the holidays are rooted in the nature of humanity, and the cycle of the holidays is designed to inspire us to continually revisit and refine our passage through these specific stages of development, there is no room for extra "mere commemorations" on our calendar. Purim and Hanukkah are exceptional in the sense that Purim is considered the conclusion of the Biblical saga of the war against the Amalekites and the completion of the embrace of the Torah by the Jews, and Hanukkah teaches that Judaism will survive regardless of the profound level of assimilation to which the Jews themselves might sink. Again, though, these events are remembered not just because they are interesting occurrences in our past, but because they represent fundamental ideas that we must review and reflect upon, year after year.

2. I am not sure exactly what you are referring to in your question about the alphabet. The letters are always the same, although when writing scrolls of Scripture we use a special kind of script, like calligraphy, and we omit the vowel points. In normal books a different form of script is utilized and vowel points are sometimes included.

3. This is a description of a supernatural phenomenon called "tsaraat", not mold. The Bible describes certain afflictions of garments, homes and skin that God would bring upon the people to make them aware of certain moral or ethical issues that required their attention and correction. Generally speaking, the terms "purity" and "impurity" are misnomers. In the Torah, these classifications mean "allowed to enter the Holy Temple/fit for a holy purpose" or "not allowed to enter/not fit", and are not a commentary on the physical goodness or badness of anything, although these terms are occasionally borrowed to refer to moral fitness/unfitness. The priest determines whether the discoloration of the person, garment or wall meets the criteria that indicate that it is in fact legally significant for these purposes - in other words, whether dwelling in that house, wearing that garment, etc., would render a person temporarily forbidden to enter the Temple or have contact with sacrificial offerings. We do not practice this today, since observance of the laws of purity and impurity is only relevant when the Holy Temple is in existence. Furthermore, these divine manifestations only occurred when the Jews lived in Israel and at a very high spiritual level, such that they would actually serve as inspiration for reflection and self improvement. Nowadays, they would not achieve this objective.

4. Capital punishment was only allowed (very rarely) under the auspices of the Sanhedrin - High Rabbinical Courts - during the times of the Temple. Nowadays we do not have rabbis who are qualified to judge such cases, thus we do not have courts qualified to administer such punishment. Judaism views idolatry as the worst evil for mankind, because it promotes the belief that the physical and material is the ultimate reality. This leads people to veer away from the intellectual and the abstract toward the superficial and the concrete, and undermines the development of individuals and civilizations. Without conviction in the notion that there is an abstract, metaphysical reality beyond the senses that can be apprehended by the mind alone, we would have no science, no philosophy, no principles of ethics or morality. In short, we would be primitive cavemen practicing superstition, astrology, etc., with no future.

5. Yes, such unleavened bread exists, and is generally found among Jews of Middle Eastern descent, although the average American Jew has probably never encountered it. I love it and make sure to have some on hand every Passover.

6. Yes, because "Next Year In Jerusalem" is not a reference to a physical location. It means that we hope that, by next year, our society will achieve the level of perfection and sense of direction that is represented by the ideal Jerusalem - a society devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, justice, and compassion above all other values. We hope that our celebration of Passover will be just one part of an ongoing communal/global process of intellectual and moral growth that is illuminated by the truth of the Torah. This is symbolized by the notion of being "in Jerusalem", i.e., living in the Messianic era and fulfilling the commandments as they were meant to be practiced.

I hope you find these answers helpful in your quest for knowledge.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof