Explore Your Judaism: HISTORICAL RESOURCE

1. What is the difference between reform judaism and reconstructionist judaism? Unfortunately I have not actually studied the intricate details of these two sects, at least not in comparison to each other, but I can give it a try! My impression is that the primary difference between them is their impression of G-d. I believe the predominant Reconstructionist theory is that G-d is not anthropomorphic, personal, or perhaps even sentient, whereas Reform Judaism does view G-d as a personal and sentient being. There are probably many more differences concerning customs, prayers included in services, requirement for ordainment as a rabbi, etc., but alas, I am not very familiar with the nuances! 2. What is the significance of jewish weddings being performed under a chupah? Shelter in case it rains! But really, as with pretty much all Jewish customs, there are myriad explanations concerning why most Jewish weddings are performed under a chuppah, or canopy. Two explanations that I have been told are: 1) the purpose of erecting a chuppah compares to that of wearing a kippah, i.e., to remind everyone of G-d’s holy presence; 2) another explanation I have heard is that the four corners of the chuppah represent the four corners of a Jewish home, and the reason there is no furniture beneath the chuppah, but only the two individuals getting married, is because a home is created by the love between people, not inanimate objects. 3. What is the significance of the groom breaking a glass during a wedding ceremony? In one sentence: this custom symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., which we remember even during our most joyous hour. In a few more sentences, and from a somewhat mystical standpoint, this breaking of the glass refers back to the time when you and your soul mate were one, and then split apart into two individuals. Even the metaphor of previously having been one soul and then being split into two reflects the spiritual chasm caused by the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was considered a meeting point between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the mundane, G-d and us. When it was destroyed, that connection was, at least in a way, severed. Now, why remember all this at such a happy occasion as a wedding? Perhaps we hope that some of the joy and unity that are present at the wedding will extend to the rebuilding of our Temple. 4. Why is hebrew read from right to left? Why is English read from left to right? Because it is written that way! But actually I have no idea. I was told by a Hebrew professor that it is because Hebrew, a language more than 4,000 years old, was obviously around before pens and paper. So, it was chiseled before it was written. The majority of people are right-handed, so it is possible that, rather like when you are hammering a nail into a wall, it was easier and more precise to hammer with the right hand and hold the chisel in the left. Or, maybe the first person to write down the language was left-handed and a major trend-setter. 5. Do jews believe in an afterlife? I cannot speak for all Jews, but I can provide a very basic analysis of what I have learned via interactions with rabbis and Jewish educators. My overall impression has been that Jews simply do not preoccupy themselves with what follows death. Even the Mourner’s Kaddish does not mention an afterlife. I believe we toast L’chaim, to life, for a reason: we will focus on this life and what we make of it before we worry too much about the next one. There is a phrase that may be indicative of an afterlife dogma, however, and it is Olam Ha-Bah, the World to Come. This phrase is often associated with the Messianic age (the time when the Messiah is here); however, it is also used in the Mishnah (basically a written compilation of Jewish oral tradition) and the Talmud (a compilation of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah) in excerpts that seem to describe a world/state of being to which this life is a predecessor. This world is not described in great detail; rather, it seems to be left for our own personal interpretation. A couple other phrases that pop up now and then are Gehinom and Gan Eden, which refer to places of spiritual punishment and spiritual perfection, respectively. These, too, are not described in much detail, but left to us and our rabbis to interpret. Something that is important to note is that many, perhaps even most, Jews are not religious. Judaism is interesting in that, for the most part, one does not need to be religiously observant to be recognized as Jewish by the community. Then again, that is an incredibly general statement given how diverse the Jewish community actually is, how every congregation and sub-community is different, and there are likely myriad standards of “belonging” for each.. 6. Is it true that jews aren’t supposed to get tattoos because it’s against the religion and does that mean they can’t be buried in a Jewish graveyard? if so, why? There are many, many different interpretations of Jewish law concerning tattoos and other body art. Here is the passage believed to have started this debate: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:28). Thus, tattoos can be viewed as a permanent violation of G-d’s laws. Visit this passage in the Mishnah and you will see just how many rabbis have argued over it. Some interpret this to mean you cannot receive a tattoo if it bears the name of G-d, others interpret it to mean any tattoo, and still others find this law as negligible as eating shrimp (considered not kosher) your whole life. An interesting opinion that has only appeared in the last 69 years is that getting a tattoo is disrespectful towards Jewish victims of the Holocaust who had no choice in the matter when they received their numbers. This question has even appeared in pop culture: see Magneto in “X-Men: the Last Stand.” (Yes, I am that much of a nerd.) Although nothing in the Torah forbids Jewish people with tattoos from being buried in Jewish cemeteries, Jewish cemeteries may have varying laws concerning who can be buried within their parameter, and those may prohibit people with tattoos. However, this is NOT the majority of Jewish cemeteries. My piece of advice: before you make any decision that will have permanent consequences, think it through, think it through again, and then act. 7. What is the true origin and significance of the phrase “the chosen people”? Ooooh I could literally fill volumes with my thoughts on this. For the sake of brevity, however, I will just provide a couple passages from Torah and then some political/cultural context. There are many, many passages—I would argue the entire Torah—depicting the “chosen-ness” of the Jewish people, and the consequences of this status. Perhaps the earliest passage we have that describes the Jewish people as unique and “chosen” is Genesis (Breishit) 17:7, a conversation between G-d and Abraham which reads, “ I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your G-d and the G-d of your descendants after you.” This is perhaps the first instance when Jews are defined as set apart from all other peoples, and are consequently commanded to present this physically by circumcising all male children. Another passage which comes to mind precedes the laws of Kashrut in Deuteronomy (D’varim) 14:2: “For thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy G-d, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be His own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth.” These passages beg the question: Why? What made the Jewish people so worthy of a special covenant with G-d? What set them apart? From a religious textual standpoint, especially the Talmud, what set us apart was our willingness to enter into a covenant with G-d, to obey His laws and worship Him exclusively. This is perhaps best demonstrated in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son. I am particularly in favor of the belief that G-d chose us because we chose Him, as it makes us more active participants in this covenant and the determination of our fate. Bearing in mind the political and cultural context of the era, however, during which the societal structure was predominantly tribal, the continuation and sustainment of one’s community or tribe depended on the prevention of defection from the community. An effective modus operandi to dissuade potential defectors is to scare them out of it, to make belonging to other communities an incomprehensibly horrible concept, or to entice them to stay, such as by associating one’s community with a G-d who is omnipotent and willing to exclusively protect and defend the community. By illuminating the unparalleled benefits of belonging to the Jewish community as well as the perilous consequences of not belonging to it, leaders effectively dissuaded members from absconding. I could literally go on and on about how the concept of “Chosen-ness” has helped and harmed the Jewish people as a nation throughout history. It is a fascinating concept! 8. How do most Jews view Jesus? Unfortunately I cannot say I have met most Jews, but I can at least provide a brief summary of the opinions of many people with whom I have spoken about this, as well as my own opinion. For the most part, it seems the (non-Messianic) Jewish people with whom I have spoken about Jesus acknowledge that he was a prominent political figure, but disagree on all accounts that he was the Messiah, son of G-d, or a prophet. I agree with this general opinion; there are many descriptions within Isaiah concerning the Messiah that Jesus did not fit (especially that there would be peace on Earth, Isaiah 2:4). However, there is compelling historical evidence that Jesus existed and was quite the political rabble-rouser, which is neat. 9. Do you think that holocaust education will ever be mandated in all 50 states? I am torn. One the one hand, I strongly approve of the notion that every child in this country should receive a sound introduction to the Holocaust and training regarding how to combat bullying/prejudice. On the other hand, the idea of nationalized education criteria terrifies me, given the role it has played in constructing and sustaining some of the worst political regimes this world has seen, including that of the Third Reich. Not to mention it limits instructors’ creativity and can lead to an “industrialization” of education, meaning we become more focused on meeting national requirements and balancing numbers than the actual growth of the student. It seems to me that, with the appearance of more and more standardized tests and common applications, the U.S. is already well on its way to this point. 10. What is the significance of the Hebrew name “Esther”? It is shared by a pretty kick-ass biblical figure who saved the Jewish people from imminent destruction! There is even a holiday—Purim—dedicated to her story, which is depicted in the appropriately-named Book of Esther. I believe the name “Esther” itself means a type of tree or plant, which could be viewed as life-sustaining, which is essentially Esther’s most well-known accomplishment: preserving the lives of the Jewish people.

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