Because God

It is this, my blogging project, which truly makes daily shul attendance tolerable. It is the reading, the feeling, the thinking, the learning, the weaving…

Suddenly, I’ve realized: my study and reflection sustain my practice. What shall I do with myself when kaddish has ended? What shall I do with my Judaism?

‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ (#25), Jan. 12, 2019

Not long after completing my year of mourning, I joined a Talmud class taught by a friend of mine, a young rabbi.

At first, I felt reignited. Years had passed since I’d last studied Talmud, and my year-long kaddish writing project, which had been firmly grounded in Jewish learning, had whetted my yen.

Soon after, I was struggling.

After my year of self-directed reading and reflection, the group learning felt inhibiting.

I tend to pick apart the letters and roots of words, to compare them to other languages and time periods; I also delight in grammar and sentence structure. The words and their personal relationships are beautiful to me. Which of them are intimate lovers? Which are parent and child?

Beyond this, I’m not one to inherently accept the ancient sages’ interpretations of the text, and they are often wont to make their cases precisely by playing with words and language. (I still recall my disagreement with the great Rashi over his language-based interpretation of Psalm 119:113.)

It soon became apparent that our group’s goals conflicted with my learning style. The rabbi was aiming to cover particular Talmudic passages (known as sugyot) during class time, and my nitpicking was impeding us.

Now, there are those for whom the holiness they experience in the study of traditional texts is motivating. Given my close relationship with Rabbi Daniel Landes, for example, himself a teacher of Talmud for nearly half a century, I know that he experiences the (self-)revelation of and by God bursting forth from the Torah. This, he explains, is how he teaches his students.

If revelation is not bursting forth from the Torah, he asks, why bother?

Why indeed? I ask myself because the truth is that I do not experience God in Talmud study. Perhaps I do not experience God at all, and certainly not bursting forth from anywhere.

There were times in years past when I managed to convince myself that I was “experiencing” God, but those moments were very few and were primarily born of my desire to motivate myself to adhere to the strictures of a religious Jewish lifestyle. That’s really what it came down to.

Some people, at birth, are dealt external factors like religious upbringings and parental expectations, drawing them to religious observance. For others, like me, every step towards greater observance of halakha is inevitably another step away from even the most understanding of non-traditional families.

Nevertheless, I am motivated, to an extent, to observe Shabbat traditionally, to live in Israel, to engage with Jewish texts, etc. I regard world Jewry as my far-extended family; and preserving our heritage and sense of peoplehood is, therefore, of utmost importance. Given, there are many different strategies for instilling children with strong Jewish identities; but I am convinced that a family’s commitments to Shabbat observance and residing in Israel are the most effective.

The problem, of course, is that most strategies arising from such a motivation as mine are prone to falling apart because they don’t necessarily infuse religious practices with meaning. In other words, going through the motions only because they happen to belong to one’s own people rings hollow. Why, as Rabbi Landes would ask, bother?

Let’s consider Shabbat, for example. If I am only keeping the Sabbath to inculcate my daughter with the values of Jewish tradition, family time, and [invaluable] weekly respite from our daily commutes along the information superhighway, what’s to stop me from breaking the Sabbath when she isn’t looking? After all, my personal desecration of Shabbat could be subtle; it could go unnoticed, leaving my daughter’s experience of the ‘Day of Rest’ intact.

Text study is much worse.

Whereas most religious observances are performed in family or community, and a simple Jew may find or assign plausible personal meanings to such lifestyle choices in these contexts, traditional text study is only inherently appealing to the devout and the bookish.

Actually, this is untrue. Most students of Talmud sit in seas of other talmidim, awash in a self-reinforcing Torah culture, buttressed by the talmidim’s families and communities. They need not actually reflect upon what they believe in or be inclined towards study; it’s enough for most to “know” that they are playing out their heavenly assigned roles in perpetuating the culture of their ancestors.

So my quandary bears framing:

Given that neither my family, nor my community, encourage me to learn Torah, and given that I do not experience God bursting forth from the texts of my beloved heritage…

In fact, given that I don’t think God actually cares whether or not I am studying Torah, and given that I don’t think God is in any way invested in the banal details of the Jewish religious laws that I am studying under my friend’s kind and knowing guidance…

What
is
left
for
me?

I don’t wish that I believed in God’s investment in our lives for Truth’s sake (because this isn’t true), but it would certainly make my commitment to living a religious lifestyle so much easier for me. Alas.

“Because God” is the most unarguable, compelling rejoinder – it’s no wonder that religious Jewish communities and their leaderships are so invested in perpetuating this ancient axiom,
but my heart rejects it,
and it’s not for lack of trying.

I’m 40 now. There are people in our learning group who are younger than I am and seem enthusiastic towards and energized by Talmud study. They remind me of myself when I was in my mid- to late twenties and early thirties… back when I was occasionally able to convince myself that I was experiencing God for a moment.

For me, the dry, technical details in the text are just that – dry and technical. All too rapidly, they dissolve upon the roof of my mouth like communion wafers. Now, that’s not to say that they have a bit of the devil in them,
but they don’t contain God either.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 37

Traditional Jewish prayer is fast-paced, and there’s too much of it. Not only do I fail to derive meaning from reeling off prayer after prayer after prayer as quickly as possible in an effort to keep up, but doing so in fact detracts from my ability to find meaning in those prayers I do recite.

If I’m not the one leading services, I don’t attempt to run through all the prayers along with the congregation. I do the basics: the Shema, the Amidah, and (obviously) the Kaddish. Beyond these, I recite whatever moves me, or else I stay silent.

There are some prayers I can’t bring myself to utter at all, including joyful ones like the celebratory Hallel at the start of every new Hebrew month and the upbeat Kabbalat Shabbat service at the cusp of the Sabbath. Their familiar tunes continue to draw me. I fondly remember myself singing and swaying to these prayers in years gone by; but festiveness seems not to become me.

Two weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself singing the Kabbalat Shabbat tunes for the first time in many months. Maybe it was the whiskey, I thought – I’d been sipping Jameson in the kitchen that Friday afternoon while cooking for Shabbat.

Then, the following week, it so happened that the holiday of Purim fell on Friday in Jerusalem (Shushan Purim); and tradition encourages us to drink alcohol on this day. Why not? I thought. It worked last week.

I came to shul on Friday afternoon, led mincha before Shabbat, and returned to my seat for the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Unexpectedly, I spent the entire service crying, wiping my eyes with the back of my sleeve to avoid attention. So much for alcohol.

* * *

Consolation is elusive.

My writing makes the strictures of Jewish religious tradition more palatable to me, but only just. Producing more; investing more; pushing the limits of my creativity, intellect, and soul – is numbing the pain, but my experience increasingly reflects the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’. Wikipedia:

The law of diminishing returns states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant… will at some point yield lower incremental per-unit returns.

I pour more of myself into my writing, but the process has been yielding lower incremental relief per-post. In my darker moments, the hours I’ve spent on this project feel like a ‘Sunk Cost’, but I recognize the voices of my grief and self-doubt in such ruminations.

In truth, my writing continues giving me strength enough to sustain my traditional mourning practices:

1) I feel myself more than a mere cog in the apparatus of Jewish tradition by providing this public platform for my grappling and incredulity. 2) Rote prayers and rituals are imbued with some greater degree of meaning through my personal reflections. 3) It comforts me to feel that I am honoring my father to the best of my ability. 4) Papa deserved (deserves?) no less than this from me. 5) My daughter deserves no less than this from me. 6) Our tradition owes no less than this to us.

* * *

This week, I am exploring the stanza of Psalm 119 that represents the final Hebrew letter of Papa’s name: Alexander (אלכסנדר).

Originally, this was the extent of what I had intended to study; but I realize now that the tradition goes a bit further. Formally, he was Alexander son of Mosheh (אלכסנדר בן משה), amounting to four additional stanzas (ב, מ, ש, ה). It is also accepted practice to recite the stanzas corresponding to neshama (נשמה) – ‘soul’ at the gravesite, but thankfully these four letters are already included in ben Mosheh (בן משה).

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PSALM 119:ר (verses 153-160)

[CLICK for glossary]

Semi-stanza ר-A

קנג רְאֵה-עָנְיִי וְחַלְּצֵנִי: כִּי-תוֹרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי 153 O see mine affliction, and rescue me; for I do not forget Thy Torah.
קנד רִיבָה רִיבִי, וּגְאָלֵנִי; לְאִמְרָתְךָ חַיֵּנִי 154 Argue my argument, and redeem me; vitalize me for the sake of Thy imrah.
קנה רָחוֹק מֵרְשָׁעִים יְשׁוּעָה: כִּי חֻקֶּיךָ, לֹא דָרָשׁוּ 155 Salvation is far from the wicked; for they seek not Thy hukim
קנו רַחֲמֶיךָ רַבִּים יְהוָה; כְּמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ חַיֵּנִי 156 Great are Thy compassions, O Lord; vitalize me according to your mishpatim.

Semi-stanza ר-B

קנז רַבִּים, רֹדְפַי וְצָרָי; מֵעֵדְוֺתֶיךָ, לֹא נָטִיתִי 157 Many are my pursuers and my adversaries; yet have I not turned aside from Thy eidot.
קנח רָאִיתִי בֹגְדִים, וָאֶתְקוֹטָטָה— אֲשֶׁר אִמְרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁמָרוּ 158 I saw them that were traitors, and quarreled with them; because they observed not Thy imrah.
קנט רְאֵה, כִּי-פִקּוּדֶיךָ אָהָבְתִּי; יְהוָה, כְּחַסְדְּךָ חַיֵּנִי 159 O see how I love Thy pikudim; vitalize me, O Lord, according to Thy kindness.
קס רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת; וּלְעוֹלָם, כָּל-מִשְׁפַּט צִדְקֶךָ 160 Thy first utterance is truth; and all Thy righteous mishpat is for ever.

Several elements of this stanza pique my interest, but I’m unsure of how they connect to one another. If I grind them up together, will I get a sausage?

* * *

Much like the previous stanzas that I’ve read through, Radak’s (1160-1235) glossary of keywords for Psalm 119 is immediately helpful in identifying patterns among the verses in stanza ר. Every verse includes one of the keywords, but only two of the keywords are repeated: mishpat (מִשְׁפַּט) in verses 156 & 160 and imrah (אִמְרָה) in verses 154 & 158. This double repetition suggests two semi-stanzas of four verses, as in previous stanzas. The second verse of each semi-stanza contains mishpat and the fourth verse of each semi-stanza contains imrah.

Two other words are repeated more than once, both of which occur three times in this stanza. ‘See’ (רְאֵה) is found in verses 153, 158, & 159; and ‘vitalize me’ (חַיֵּנִי) is in verses 154, 156, & 159.

Twice (153 & 159), the Psalmist asks God to ‘see’ something (verses 153, 159), by which he expresses his hope that God shall take active note of the Psalmist’s affliction and devotion. This sheds light upon the language of ‘I saw them that were traitors’ in verse 158. In my reading, the Psalmist didn’t simply ‘see’ the traitors in passing – more likely, he was actively looking for them. Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) himself sees the parallel between verses 158 & 159:

ראה – כנגד ראיתי; וחיני – כנגד ואתקוטטה ‘See’ (159) – opposite ‘I saw’ (158); and ‘vitalize me’ (159) – opposite ‘I quarreled’ (158).

Now, if I were to write my own glossary for Psalm 119, the word ‘vitalize me’ (חַיֵּנִי) would be among the first entries. This term has been included in nearly every stanza I’ve explored, but never more than once, let alone three times, as in our current stanza. Also, unlike ‘see’ (ראה), which begins with a ‘ר’ and finds its natural habitat in stanza ר, ‘vitalize me’ begins with a ‘ח’, suggesting that the Psalmist emphasized it here deliberately. In their commentaries on verse 154, Radak and Rabbi Altschuler (1687-1769) write:

הרב אלטשולר: לאמרתך. חַיֵּנִי לקיים אמרתך, ולא בעבור הנאות עולם הזה Rabbi Altschuler: ‘For the sake of your imrah’. Vitalize me to fulfill your imrah, and not for the pleasures of this world.
רד״ק: ריבהלאמרתך חיני. בעבור אמרתך, כלומר לשמור אמרתך אבקש החיים, לא לתענוג העולם Radak: ‘Argue… for the sake of your imrah vitalize me’. For your imrah, that is to say – to guard your imrah I ask for life, not for the pleasure of the world.

The Psalmist, you see, is only in it for God’s imrah.

Recall that imrah is found twice in this stanza – in verses 154 & 158, and in each of these instances, there is reference to some form of argument. However, the Psalmist is being remarkably subtle here.

Of these two verses, the easier one to parse is 158. The Psalmist writes that he quarreled with those who were traitors to God’s imrah, using the verb לְהִתְקוֹטֵט, which can also mean ‘to tussle’ or ‘to come to blows’. This is straightforward.

Verse 154 requires a more careful read. My translation of ‘רִיבָה רִיבִי’ as ‘argue my argument’ is most precise, but this is not how mainstream translations elect to “tussle” with this phrase; they air, rather, on the side of the literary. ‘Champion my cause’ and ‘Plead my cause’ both capture the Psalmist’s intent, but distract from the definitions of ‘רִיב’: quarrel, feud, dispute, contention, etc…

It bears noting that the rabbis incorporated the language of verses 153-154 into the eighth benediction of the weekday Amidah prayer, which is recited three times daily:

רְאֵה בְעָנְיֵנוּ. וְרִיבָה רִיבֵנוּ. וּגְאָלֵנוּ מְהֵרָה לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ. כִּי גּואֵל חָזָק אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, גּואֵל יִשרָאֵל See our affliction, “plead our cause”, and redeem us soon for your name’s sake, for You are a powerful Redeemer. Blessed are You, Lord, the Redeemer of Israel.

Essentially, the stanza is drawing a distinction between two forms of argument. In the first scenario, I ask that someone make the case for my cause. In the latter, I am nearly at fisticuffs in defense of my principles. Perhaps the Psalmist is suggesting that one must seek out another’s advocacy, lest the best of the second person’s intentions be misapprehended and lead to unwanted conflict.

A terribly unfortunate and mutually crushing quarrel with my father was among several factors that precipitated my religious crisis some three years before Papa’s death. In the following years, we both moved beyond that dispute, but the memory of it hurts me to this day. I’m sorry for hurting you, Papa.

* * *

One final thought:

Let’s take a look at the concluding verse of the stanza. Verse 160 is among several, which are recited before the shofar is blown on Rosh HaShanah; and its first three words were also included in the liturgical poem Anim Zemirot, sung on Shabbat.

It is not entirely clear from the text itself what exactly is meant by ‘רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת’. Rashi’s (1040-1105) translation is ‘The beginning of Your word is true’, which I think is most accurate. Rashi’s analysis lends support to Radak and Ibn Ezra who conclude that this is a reference to the first of the Ten Commandments: that God is the Lord our God (note: the “Ten Commandments” in Hebrew are known as the “Ten Utterances”). Ibn Ezra puts it most simply:

ראש – תחלת דבור שצויתני הוא האמת. ורבי ישועה אמר: רמז לדבור אנכי בהר סיני First / beginning – The beginning of the Utterance that you commanded me is the Truth. And Rabbi Yeshua said: This hints at the Utterance ‘I am [the Lord thy God]’ at Mount Sinai.

In my mind, as a son in mourning and as the father of a little girl, I think: how far beyond powerful are the earliest words we speak to our children.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 36

Several weeks ago, my four-year-old daughter decided to once again start coming to shul with me on Saturdays for mincha and ma’ariv services. Last autumn, this became impossible for her when daylight savings time ended, as the timing of her afternoon naps wouldn’t allow it (blog #22). Now, as the days lengthen steadily, my child has already recommitted to joining me.

Her attendance commenced upon my return to Israel from Papa’s funeral and shiva last July when I began going to minyan every day to recite kaddish (after a hiatus of more than three years). Back then (she was not yet three-and-a-half), my daughter did not appreciate my extended daily absences; and she determined that she would join me – at least on Friday and Saturday afternoons and evenings (blog #5).

While those in mourning customarily lead the worship, I was determined at first to avoid this (blog #5). On Shabbatot, I would sit with her towards the back of the sanctuary, but several months later, I became comfortable enough to lead mincha before Shabbat (blog #18). Eventually, I started leading ma’ariv at the conclusion of Shabbat (blog #24) and unexpectedly even led shacharit one morning (blog #25). More recently, I’ve come to make my peace with leading shacharit on weekdays when there is no Torah reading (blog #34).

In retrospect, I see that all of these developments only began once daylight savings time had ended and my daughter had stopped coming to shul. Now that she has rejoined me on Saturdays, I’ve come to a realization – I can’t lead services intentfully when she’s with me. Twice since her recent return to services, I’ve led ma’ariv at the close of Shabbat, but I was unable to simultaneously focus on my duty to the congregation and be present for her.

Daylight saving time will begin in Israel in less than two weeks, and I am fully expecting my little girl to triumphantly declare that she’s back in the game for the long haul. Most likely, she’ll once again take to coming with me to shul on Friday afternoons, just as she used to. I am looking forward to that.

Sitting with my daughter at services has been one of the most meaningful experiences and one of the most wonderful aspects of my return to the synagogue. Her development as a Jew and as a person fascinates me.

In Israel, she breathes Jewish culture in a way that I never did as a child in America. The Jewish calendar is fully integrated into her life, including our family’s weekly Shabbat observance; and regardless of the tragic circumstances that brought me back to shul, my child has also developed a familiarity with the synagogue and prayer services. At four-years-old, she is aware of countless Jewish rituals and customs that I hadn’t known of in my childhood; and in many cases, she understands far more than what her parents and teachers have explained to her.

* * *

In every conceivable way, I have never been so aware of another person as I am of my daughter. It’s not only her development and her growth that I notice – it’s her ways of communicating, her shifting moods, her learning style, her manners, her energy levels, her… everything. Such, it seems, is parenthood.

Among her many habits, I’ve noted a cute and consistent quirk of hers: she eats pizza upside down, placing the cheese and toppings directly onto her tongue. I haven’t mentioned this to her or asked about it, but every time I watch her eating pizza I immediately think of Papa.

My father greatly delighted in the simple and the elegant; he was a staunch believer in humankind’s ingenuity and potential. This is precisely why he was inspired to name his acclaimed ‘Cut the Knot’ website after the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot and why he so admired creative innovations like the ‘inverted umbrella’, which he spoke of with such admiration.

In this same spirit, one of my father’s favorite Soviet era stories ends with a man coaching the main character on how to best eat an open deli sandwich – upside down with the meat directly on your taste buds. In the late 70’s, this same folk wisdom was immortalized by the classic Soviet cartoon ‘Three from Prostokvashino’, in which Matroskin the Cat shares these words of wisdom with the young boy nicknamed Uncle Fyodor:

I do appreciate this bent towards the simple solution, but it also bores me somewhat.

As I study the verses of Psalm 119 in Papa’s honor, my greatest pleasure comes from the multitude of possible understandings of the text. It satisfies me to sift through numerous opposing interpretations and unearth personal meaning in any, in none, or in all of them. Textual contradictions and inconsistencies entice and excite me; they stretch the boundaries of one’s imagination. It is only on their account that the Torah may yet hold relevance.

I’d like my Judaism complex, with a side of creativity please.

I have a tendency to complicate things, and [Papa’s] approach tended towards a rational simplicity that I did not relate to.

– Me, blog #2

* * *

In Jewish tradition, there are four classical methods of Jewish biblical exegesis (PaRDeS). Of these, peshat (פשט) is widely considered the most straightforward method of interpreting biblical text, accounting for its historic and literary context. When I find myself bemused or skeptical of the medieval commentators’ conclusions, I take a look at the source text in question. What might the words have been intended to mean? How do the verses fit together?

Still, peshat interpretations don’t always satisfy me. As a Jew, my soul often wants something more from the text than a plain reading. After all, if the Torah is intended to hold meaning  for all Jews of all generations, it must, by definition, support disparate understandings and means of interpretation. The best Jewish educators are those who beckon us to engage intimately with Torah – to seek ourselves in its letters.

The exegetes often favor another of the four methods called drash (דרש). This is a comparative approach to biblical interpretation, aimed at expounding meanings based upon occurrences of similar words and phrases throughout the bible. While I may occasionally roll my eyes at conclusions derived by this method, I can always sink my teeth into them. Agree or disagree, they invite responses – the creativity of the rabbis encourages my own.

* * *

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PSALM 119:ד (verses 25-32)

[CLICK for glossary]

כה דָּבְקָה לֶעָפָר נַפְשִׁי; חַיֵּנִי, כִּדְבָרֶךָ 25 My ‘self’ cleaveth unto the dust; vitalize me according to Thy dvar.
כו דְּרָכַי סִפַּרְתִּי, וַתַּעֲנֵנִי; לַמְּדֵנִי חֻקֶּיךָ 26 I told of my drakhim, and Thou didst answer me; teach me Thy hukim.
כז דֶּרֶךְ-פִּקּוּדֶיךָ הֲבִינֵנִי; וְאָשִׂיחָה, בְּנִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ 27 Make me to understand the derekh of Thy pikudim that I may talk of Thy wonders.
כח דָּלְפָה נַפְשִׁי, מִתּוּגָה; קַיְּמֵנִי, כִּדְבָרֶךָ 28 My ‘self’ drips away of sorrow; sustain me according to Thy dvar.
כט דֶּרֶךְ-שֶׁקֶר, הָסֵר מִמֶּנִּי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ חָנֵּנִי 29 Remove from me the derekh of falsehood; and grant me Thy Torah graciously.
ל דֶּרֶךְ-אֱמוּנָה בָחָרְתִּי; מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ שִׁוִּיתִי 30 I have chosen the derekh of faithfulness; Thine mishpatim have I set [before me].
לא דָּבַקְתִּי בְעֵדְוֺתֶיךָ; יְהוָה, אַל-תְּבִישֵׁנִי 31 I have cleaved unto Thy eidot; O Lord, put me not to shame.
לב דֶּרֶךְ-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ אָרוּץ: כִּי תַרְחִיב לִבִּי 32 I will run the derekh of Thy mitzvot, for Thou dost broaden my heart.

Thus far, I have been providing commentary and analysis on the stanzas of Psalm 119 based primarily upon my use of peshat. However, this week’s stanza strikes me differently. The peshat isn’t speaking to me.

I could point out that the word דֶּרֶךְ (derekh) – ‘way’ occurs five times in this stanza, emphasizing, perhaps, the Psalmist’s trajectory and ways of living and thinking.

I could point out that the stanza’s first verse (25) is structurally identical to its 4th verse (28). Both describe the Psalmist’s נפש (nefesh) – ‘self’ in a humbled, sorrowful state, as he petitions God for support according to His dvar (word / promise).

Dvar is one of Psalm 119’s keywords, as listed in Rabbi David Kimhi’s (1160-1235) specialized glossary for this Psalm, so it bears particular attention. As for ‘nefesh’, many translate it as ‘soul’, but I’ve encountered this term before (blog #28), and I now know, particularly in light of Ibn Ezra’s (1089–1167) commentary on verse 25, that:

דבקה, נפשי כמו עצמי, כמו: נשבע ה’ צבאות בנפשו Cleaved, my nefesh  [it’s] like my ‘self’, like [the verse]: “The Lord of hosts hath sworn by Himself” (Jer. 51:14).

I could point out that the first verse also connects to the 7th verse (31) of the stanza, for they share the word דָּבַק (davak) – ‘cleaved’. This may, perhaps, serve to underscore the theme of humility. In the first verse, the Psalmist’s ‘self’ is humbled by cleaving to the dust, and in the seventh verse, he asks that God not shame him. In this context, the implication may be that ‘cleaving unto God’s eidot’ is itself an act of humility and self-nullification.

Perhaps I could point out that these same three verses (the 1st, 4th, and 7th) are the only ones that don’t include the word דֶּרֶךְ (derekh) – ‘way’, thereby drawing the reader’s attention to the stanza’s structure: [A, B, B] – [A, B, B] – [A, B… ?], wherein each ‘B’ verse contains the word דֶּרֶךְ. The discerning reader may reasonably wonder at why the Psalmist would divide this stanza of eight verses into two sets of three [A, B, B] and a single, awkward set of two [A, B].

I could point out that a look at the very first verse of the following stanza (verse 33) reveals that this third set [A, B… ?] actually spills over into the next stanza and is thus comprised of three verses with the same [A, B, B] pattern. After all, this verse also contains the word דֶּרֶךְ:

לג הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דֶּרֶךְ חֻקֶּיךָ; וְאֶצְּרֶנָּה עֵקֶב 33 Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy hukim; and I will keep it eikev.
(Remember ‘eikev’ from last week?)

Anyway, I could, perhaps, do all of that, but the peshat of stanza ד doesn’t draw me. Where are the Psalmist’s enemies in this verse? Where is the action at?

* * *

For stanza ד, the action can be found in the medieval drash, for much of it focuses on the dramatic story of King David. I’ve been inclined to move past such commentaries, for nothing I’ve read in the verses of Psalm 119 suggests Davidic authorship, but as I’ve written (blog #33):

Traditional religious authorities attribute the Book of Psalms to King David who ruled the first Israelite Kingdom, but scholars suggest that the majority originated later – in the kingdom of Judah.

Clearly, the traditional notion makes for very compelling religious narrative; and one can well imagine why the Psalmist would want his works attributed to the most beloved King of Israel. After all, how better to justify the inclusion of this book in the Jewish canon?

I may be a skeptic, but the medieval commentaries on stanza ד are particularly unified in their drash: these verses, they claim, are from the quill of King David. While I can’t suspend doubt or reason, my imagination is now chomping at the bit. So let’s get into it with Rashi (1040-1105), Radak (1160-1235), and Rabbi Altschuler (1687-1769):

רש״י: חיני כדברך. כמו שהבטחתני על ידי נתן הנביא טובה Rashi: Vitalize me according to Thy dvar. Like You promised me via Nathan the prophet [as an] act of grace.
רד״ק: דבקה. כשהיה בסכנה, והיה בורח מפני אבשלום, והיה קרוב למות כאילו נפשו דָּבְקָה, היה מתחנן לאל יתברך, ואומר חַיֵּנִי כִּדְבָרֶךָ שאמרת בתורתך (דברים לב, לט) אֲנִי אָמִית וַאֲחַיֶּה. או פירוש כִּדְבָרֶךָ שהבטחתני על ידי נתן הנביא (שמואל-ב ז, יב), כִּי יִמְלְאוּ יָמֶיךָ, וְשָׁכַבְתָּ אֶת-אֲבֹתֶיךָ Radak: Cleaved. When he [King David] was in danger, and he was fleeing from before [his son] Absalom and was close to death, as if his ‘self’ cleaved [unto the dust], he entreated the Blessed God, and said ‘vitalize me according to Thy dvar’, as you said in your Torah (Deut. 32:39), ‘I kill, and I make alive’. Or [an alternative] interpretation of ‘according to thy dvar’ is that which you promised me via Nathan the prophet (II Samuel 7:12): ‘When thy days are fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers…’
הרב אלטשולר: דבקה. שחה נַפְשִׁי ודָּבְקָה עד לֶעָפָר, ואשאל ממך חַיֵּנִי מהצרה כִּדְבָרֶךָ עלי על ידי נתן הנביא Rabbi Altschuler: Cleaved. My ‘self’ was bent over and cleaved unto the dust’, and I asked of you to vitalize me from [my] distress, according to your dvar to me, [which came] via Nathan the prophet.

See? Isn’t this drash so much more exciting than the peshat was? David is pursued by his son Absalom who means to kill him, and he cries out to God for salvation, reminding Him of the promise made to him by God’s prophet Nathan – that God would establish the kingdom of King David’s offspring after him.

(Actually, it’s interesting that Absalom was King David’s son no less so than Solomon who ultimately succeeded their father. If Absalom had killed King David and taken the throne, Nathan’s prophecy would still have been fulfilled.)

On the theme of fathers and sons, I find the following element of David’s story very powerful – even after Absalom plotted against his father; waged battle against him for the throne of Israel; and fully intended to have him killed, King David was utterly devastated by the tragic loss of his beloved son (II Samuel 19:1):

וַיִּרְגַּז הַמֶּלֶךְ, וַיַּעַל עַל-עֲלִיַּת הַשַּׁעַר–וַיֵּבְךְּ; וְכֹה אָמַר בְּלֶכְתּוֹ, בְּנִי אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנִי בְנִי אַבְשָׁלוֹם, מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתִי אֲנִי תַחְתֶּיךָ, אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנִי בְנִי And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, thus he said: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

I know that Papa’s love for my brother and me was no less unconditional.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 35

My kaddish journey has been uneventful recently. I’ve settled into my commitment, and the days are going by.

On Tuesday, I saw a poster on the building opposite ours indicating that a neighbor had just died. She was a very elderly woman who would often sit on the patio between our buildings in the sunshine. She always waved to our 4-year-old daughter, beckoning to her with a smile of pure joy. Through our limited interactions we came to learn her name: Zohara.

It was clear that Zohara’s health had been failing, and she was noticeably quite frail. She usually sat alone, save for her Filipina caregiver, although some of our other neighbors would occasionally stop to chat with her. Last Sunday, I waved to her in the afternoon as I made my way to pick up our daughter from preschool, noting the oxygen tube in her nose. Zohara was no longer sitting in the sunshine when we returned home.

The announcement, therefore, did not surprise me. (Also, ever since Papa died, I’ve come to perceive death everywhere and hovering just behind every one of us.)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote (blog #30):

From the view point of temporality we are all dead except for a moment.

It’s true, but the permanence of death continues to unsettle my human sensibilities. Infinity may be of moments, but I experience only one.

Unlike us, the Torah has spanned countless, rippling moments, and its words have been taught in each. In our surging flow, however, the challenges are increasingly defying dry instruction. The Torah, for its own sake and perhaps for the sake of humanity, is called to answer every moment, but the questions pour out without end.

I once sought answers for my moment, but only questions last.

* * *

Recently, I’ve taken to listening to some modern religious music, and the sheer optimism of the God-oriented lyrics cheers me. How much more so for those who believe the answers?

Modern Israeli musicians often include bible verses in their songs, whether they’re religious or not. Hebrew is the holy tongue, after all; and 80% of Israelis believe in God (see: the 2012 AVI CHAI Israel report) so the lines are meant to resonate with the audience.

As I research various Jewish themes for my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series, I come across songs that move me. This week, I came across a haunting song (see above) by Israeli vocalist Zehava Ben, which she put out nearly thirty years ago. The lyrics are simply the first two lines (verses 105-106) of stanza נ (nun) of Psalm 119, which I am studying now in Papa’s memory.

In fact, it turns out that verse 105 was also popularized throughout the Christian world by Amy Grant’s song ‘Thy Word’, which has since been covered by many, many others: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path ♪♫

* * *

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PSALM 119:נ (verses 105-112)

[CLICK for glossary]

נ-A

קה נֵר-לְרַגְלִי דְבָרֶךָ; וְאוֹר, לִנְתִיבָתִי 105 Thy dvar is an oil lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
קו נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי וָאֲקַיֵּמָה– לִשְׁמֹר, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 106 I have sworn and have fulfilled it, to observe Thy righteous mishpatim.
קז נַעֲנֵיתִי עַד-מְאֹד; יְהוָה, חַיֵּנִי כִדְבָרֶךָ 107 I am afflicted very much; sustain me, O Lord, according to Thy dvar.
קח נִדְבוֹת פִּי, רְצֵה-נָא יְהוָה; וּמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ לַמְּדֵנִי 108 Accept, please, the freewill-offerings of my mouth, O Lord, and teach me Thine mishpatim.

נ-B

קט נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי תָמִיד; וְתוֹרָתְךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי 109 My life is always in my hand; and I have not forgotten Thy Torah.
קי נָתְנוּ רְשָׁעִים פַּח לִי; וּמִפִּקּוּדֶיךָ, לֹא תָעִיתִי 110 The wicked have laid a snare for me; anI went not astray from Thy pikudim.
קיא נָחַלְתִּי עֵדְוֺתֶיךָ לְעוֹלָם: כִּי-שְׂשׂוֹן לִבִּי הֵמָּה 111 Thy eidot have I taken as a heritage for ever; for they are the rejoicing of my heart.
קיב נָטִיתִי לִבִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת חֻקֶּיךָ– לְעוֹלָם עֵקֶב 112 I have inclined my heart to perform Thy hukim for ever, eikev.

Stanza נ (nun) can easily be broken apart into two semi-stanzas; I call them נ-A (105-108) and נ-B (109-112). These two follow different poetic patterns, which distinguish them, but they are also bound to one another at the ends, as I will explain below.

* * *

נ-A (105-108)

The first semi-stanza is made distinct by its repetition of two particular keywords that Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak, 1160–1235) identifies in his glossary for Psalm 119: dvar (verses 105, 107) and mishpatim (106, 108). The structure of נ-A’s alternating verses, according to their keywords, is: 1,2-1,2.

105-106

The imagery of verse 105 (‘an oil lamp unto my feet’) is one of the Psalmist walking through the darkness, afraid to stumble, but reassured by the glow of God’s dvar. Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) paints the picture in his ‘Metzudat David’ commentary:

נר לרגלי. כמו הנר מציל הוא בחשכת הלילה מכל מכשול לבל תגוף הרגל An oil lamp unto my feet. [It is] like the oil lamp saves him in the darkness of night from every obstacle [before him] in order that his foot not be hurt.

Regardless of his trying circumstances, the Psalmist has sworn to uphold God’s mishpatim (verse 106). The commentators consistently write that intensifying one’s commitment to God’s commandments by personal oath serves to whet one’s motivation. The ‘Metzudat David’ explains:

נשבעתי וגו׳. רצונו לומר, כדי לזרז את עצמי נשבעתי לשמר וגו׳, וקיימתי את השבועה I have sworn, etc. This means to say: in order to motivate myself I have sworn to observe, etc., and I fulfilled the oath.

107-108

Verses 107-108 follow the themes of 105-106, but now the Psalmist sounds markedly less assured.

Whereas he had been walking through darkness, he’d had God’s dvar to guide him. Now (verse 107) the Psalmist feels afflicted, hoping humbly for the fulfillment of the holy dvar (word, promise). Rashi (1040-1105) and Radak both suggest that the Psalmist is afflicted to the point of near death. One wonders about the transition between verses 105 and 107.

Verse 108 reflects this same shift. Whereas the Psalmist in verse 106 spoke confidently of his deliberate commitment to God’s mishpatim, two verses later he’s suddenly unsure of himself: ‘Accept, please, the freewill-offerings of my mouth’. Whereas at first (verse 106) he claimed to observe the mishpatim, he now (verse 108) requests: ‘teach me Thine mishpatim’. Again, what happened here?

* * *

נ-B (109-112)

Unlike the preceding semi-stanza, the second half of ‘נ’ is not knit together by the keywords of Psalm 119, which refer to God’s commandments. Verses 109-112 each contain their own distinct keywords: Torah, pikudim, eidot, and hukim. 

The emphasis here is on other words stitched into these verses, and the structure of this semi-stanza follows a different pattern than נ-A. The first two verses (109, 110) both contain the pattern of ‘and I… [verb] not’ (ו… לא {שם הפועל}י). Likewise, the second pair of verses (111, 112) share common language: לב (lev) – heart and לעולם (l’olam) – forever. These last four verses follow the pattern 1,1-2,2, unlike the first semi-stanza.

109-110

The first two verses of this semi-stanza pick up on the theme of threats and challenges faced by the Psalmist, which we saw at the end of נ-A.

On its face, the phrase ‘My life is always in my hand’ (נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי תָמִיד) doesn’t hint of danger to me. (In modern English and modern Hebrew, if something is “in your hands” this suggests that you have control of it.) However, Rashi, Radak, and Rabbi Altschuler link the biblical phrase directly to danger:

רש״י: נפשי בכפי תמיד. הרבה נסתכנתי בסכנות רבות קרובות למיתה Rashi: My life is always in my hand. I have been endangered by great dangers, close to death.
רד״ק: נפשי. … אני בסכנה תמיד כאילו נַפְשִׁי בְכַפִּי Radak: My life. … I am always in danger, as if my life is in my hand.
הרב אלטשולר: נפשי בכפי. … נפשי היא תמיד בסכנה כמו המחזיק דבר מה בכפו שהיא קרובה לפול כשפיתח כפו Rabbi Altschuler: My life is in my hand. … My life is always in danger, like one who is holding a thing in his hand that is nearly falling, should he open his hand.

This phrase occurs elsewhere in the bible and consistently refers to one’s life being in danger. Perhaps I understand: The Psalmist would rather have his life in God’s hand than in his own. This is not unlike the common fear of flying, in comparison to the not-so-common fear of driving.

The Psalmist’s fear of driving would be greater, and he would be correct:

Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. However, it may feel more dangerous because risk perception is based on more than facts, according to David Ropeik, risk communication instructor at Harvard School of Public Health. Driving affords more personal control, making it feel safer.

USA TODAY

Thus we see that verses 109 and 110 continue the theme of ‘being in danger’ from the preceding verses, but they differ from verses 107 and 108 in a critical way. The beginning of semi-stanza נ-B expresses the Psalmist’s awareness of the dangers he faces, but he is not pleading for God’s aid. Rather, he reverts to a language of confidence and mission, which he first used in verses 105 and 106, at the beginning of semi-stanza נ-A.

111-112

This shift back towards purpose and security continues building up in the final two verses of stanza נ. Here, in 111 and 112, the Psalmist makes no reference to any threats or dangers; rather, he expresses his unending commitment to God’s laws and his joy at performing them. ‘They are the rejoicing of my heart.’

* * *

Tying together the ends

While these two semi-stanzas can stand on their own, they do tell a story together. It’s a tale of a determination shaken by apprehension, followed by newfound perseverance, ultimately leading the Psalmist to soaring confidence and commitment. It’s the classic story of grit and spirit, set against the backdrop of faith and a strive for holiness.

The Psalmist employs multiple poetic devices in the telling, some more subtle than others. נ-A and נ-B flow together in narrative, but there is something more binding them together.

108 and 109 (the middle)

The end of נ-A connects elegantly to נ-B with language referring to uniquely human capabilities. Verse 108 evokes the element of human speech, that essential part of human culture, and thus of our evolution. Verse 109 evokes the human being’s hands, those dexterous appendages that enabled us to develop the technologies needed to dominate the planet.

105 and 112 (the ends)

Perhaps more intriguingly, the very beginning of נ-A ties beautifully into the end of נ-B, at least according to Rashi.

The key to understanding this is the very last word of the stanza: eikev (עקב). What does it mean? According to the BDB Dictionary, meanings (depending upon vowelization) include: heel, footprint, follow, circumvent, overreach, insidious, deceitful, steep, hilly, consequence, end.

The rabbis had to get very creative in order to interpret verse 112, which would have made perfect sense even without the word eikev. Radak and Rabbi Altschuler both suggest that eikev comes to emphasize l’olam (לעולם) – forever. In their readings, eikev means ‘to the utmost’, stemming, perhaps, from the idea that the heel is the utmost end of the body.

Rashi has a different take. Likely drawing a correlation to eikev in the context of heel (part of the foot), follow, and circumvent, he writes as follows:

לעולם עקב. על מעגלותם ועל נתיבותם For ever, eikev: On their circuitous routes and on their paths.

The word Rashi uses for ‘path’ is netivot (נתיבות), which is exactly the same word used by the Psalmist in verse 105: ‘a light unto my path’ (נְתִיבָתִי)!

This gracefully brilliant interpretation brings the stanza around full circle – the story’s end becomes its beginning. This understanding suggests that nothing less than the Psalmist’s soaring confidence and commitment to God’s commandments anticipate his affliction and desperate, humble beseechment before the Almighty.

Might the Psalmist have intuited a fault in boundlessness of faith?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 34

Spring has arrived, as my allergies attest, but the last few weeks of Winter in Israel were cold and rainy. The season did not go quietly, but idiosyncratic as I am, I wore my waterproof Source sandals despite the weather – even when schlepping to shul through rain torrents in trench coat and rain pants.

At one point, the gabbai (beadle) came up to me and said, “You look like a Franciscan monk in black with those sandals and trench coat.”

Amused, I quipped, “Perhaps that’s why I’m so uncomfortable at services.”

* * *

My blogging makes shul-going more tolerable. Herein, I don’t pretend. My doubts, my discomforts, my misgivings – these are all part of my process and identity no less than my daily kaddish recitations. I am grieving traditionally and also honestly.

* * *

As the seasons change, more mourners complete their years of kaddish. The gentleman who had been most regularly leading shacharit (morning) services at Kehillat Yedidya completed his journey more than a week ago. I’ve led shacharit several times since, but not on Mondays or Thursdays – those are Torah reading days, when the service is longer and beyond the cusp of my spiritual comfort zone.

There are two other male regulars reciting kaddish. One of them shows up every day; the other shows up fairly often. I’ve noticed that the first is never interested in leading services, and the other noted to me last week that it’s not a requisite – he doesn’t want to lead either. Despite having learned that it’s not obligatory, I’ve unexpectedly come to prefer that a mourner lead the prayers so that he might recite the half kaddishes and full kaddish, which are not exclusive to mourners. After all, these do hold special significance for those who live from kaddish to kaddish.

Nonetheless, I strongly empathize with my two fellow petitioners – I prefer to stand at the back by myself and daven at my own pace. It’s actually liberating to be one of several mourners who aren’t leading services – I’m not alone in avoiding the limelight.

For now, I’ll maintain my new balance: I will lead shacharit on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays when Torah is not read, assuming that no other mourner takes the initiative.

* * *

As for my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ series, I’ve recently settled into posting new entries once a week. Not a day goes by, however, that my writing doesn’t occupy me.

As I study the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to the letters of my father’s name, I am simultaneously vitalized by the creative process of engagement with the text and challenged by the Psalmist’s traditional faith language.

This week, I turn to stanza ס (samech), the fourth letter of Papa’s name. The Artscroll Book of Psalms (published just last year!) provides the following tasty tidbit:

The letter ס, samach, literally means support; i.e., Hashem [God] supports all those who rely on Him. The very shape of this letter, which is in the form of a circle, represents protection and support from all sides… When a person is resolute in his faith and recognizes God’s Presence everywhere, he is protected from all sides. The wicked who are oblivious to God are סעפים (seiafim), irresolute, and do not merit Divine Protection.

I respond to this below.

* * *

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PSALM 119:ס (verses 113-120)

[CLICK for glossary]

קיג סֵעֲפִים שָׂנֵאתִי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.
קיד סִתְרִי וּמָגִנִּי אָתָּה; לִדְבָרְךָ יִחָלְתִּי 114 Thou art my cover and my shield; in Thy dvar do I hope.
קטו סוּרוּ-מִמֶּנִּי מְרֵעִים; וְאֶצְּרָה, מִצְוֺת אֱלֹהָי 115 Depart from me, ye evildoers; and I may keep the mitzvot of my God.
קטז סָמְכֵנִי כְאִמְרָתְךָ וְאֶחְיֶה; וְאַל-תְּבִישֵׁנִי, מִשִּׂבְרִי 116 Support me according unto Thy amirah, and I may live; and put me not to shame in my hope.
קיז סְעָדֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה; וְאֶשְׁעָה בְחֻקֶּיךָ תָמִיד 117 Care Thou for me, and I shall be saved; and I will occupy myself with Thy hukim always.
קיח סָלִיתָ, כָּל-שׁוֹגִים מֵחֻקֶּיךָ: כִּי-שֶׁקֶר, תַּרְמִיתָם 118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.
קיט סִגִים–הִשְׁבַּתָּ כָל-רִשְׁעֵי-אָרֶץ; לָכֵן, אָהַבְתִּי עֵדֹתֶיךָ 119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.
קכ סָמַר מִפַּחְדְּךָ בְשָׂרִי; וּמִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ יָרֵאתִי 120 My flesh stiffens for fear of Thee; and I fear Thy mishpatim.

* * *

I see a juxtaposition between the first two verses (113-114) of stanza ס and its last two verses (119-120). The word אָהָבְתִּי (ahavti), which means ‘I love’ occurs in both 113 and 119.

In the first instance, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, whereas the second use of ‘I love’ is in relation to God’s eidot. In the first instance, the Psalmist describes God as his ‘shield’ (verse 114), hoping for God’s dvar, whereas at the end of the stanza (verse 120) we find his very flesh stiffening in dread of God and his mishpatim.

Let us make use of the glossary that Radak (1160–1235) provides for greater clarity:

In verses 113-114, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, referring to the details of how God’s commandments are to be carried out. This is followed by an acknowledgement of God’s protection and an expression of hope for God’s dvar, which refers to God’s promise.

In verses 119-120, the Psalmist expresses his love for God’s eidot, which are commandments that testify to God’s supremacy and the revelation of Torah (in the general sense). This is followed by his fear of God and His mishpatim, which Radak understands as the the Divine laws that govern human interactions.

The first love is a love for the intricacies of God’s Law, which traditionally religious Jews face every day. This love of the commitment to Divine strictures leads the Psalmist to feel protected and to hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise. I’ve been there; an intensive focus on the subtleties of our own behaviors may create a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic reality.

The second love is a love for the collective Jewish memory, enshrined in our tradition, testifying to God’s sovereignty. Today this is unimaginable, and it would overwhelm humankind if realized. How would we live if we actually experienced God’s dominion? Such an awareness leads the Psalmist to fear God. The Almighty rules, aware of every action, and so the Psalmist is most concerned with the mishpatim – the Divine Laws governing his interactions with other human beings. (I’d like to think that God cares most about these.)

* * *

There is more to the story. What leads the Psalmist to love God’s eidot?

119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.

According to the Psalmist, God has taken tangible action against the wicked – He has “removed” them. This is something that flies in the face of my life experience, but it is the Psalmist’s context. For him, it is true. Certainly, if God were to “remove” the wicked I too would likely love and fear Him.

On the other hand, what is the context for the Psalmist’s love for God’s Torah?

113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.

Those hated by the Psalmist are the סעפים (seiafim), the “irresolute”, which the Artscroll Book of Psalms describes as “wicked”.

As always, there is Rashi (1040-1105):

סעיפים שנאתי. חושבי מחשבות און, כמו ׳לכן שעפי ישיבוני׳ (איוב כ:ב), ׳על שתי הסעפים׳ (מלכים-א יח:כא) I hate סעפים: Those who think thoughts of iniquity, like (Job 20:2): “Therefore, my thoughts (סעפי) answer me” [and] (I Kings 18:21): “between two ideas (הסעפים).”

Rashi has made things worse for me.
I must take issue with the Psalmist and the rabbi both.

* * *

Where to begin?

First of all, according to the BDB Dictionary, the root ס-ע-פ has *nothing* to do with iniquity. It can refer to any of the following concepts: “cleave, divide; cleft; branches; divided, half-hearted, divided opinion”. In Biblical Hebrew, the singular סָעֵף (sa’eif) is simply: “a thought”.

In fact, neither of Rashi’s examples support the case for reading ‘iniquity’ into verse 113. The verse in the Book of Job is neutral: ‘Therefore do my thoughts answer me’ (Job 20:2). Verse 18:21 in the first book of Kings comes closer, but Rashi’s comparison still falls short:

כא וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר עַד-מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל-שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים–אִם-יְהוָה הָאֱלֹהִים לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו, וְאִם-הַבַּעַל לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו; וְלֹא-עָנוּ הָעָם אֹתוֹ, דָּבָר 21 And Elijah came near unto all the people, and said: ‘How long limp ye between two thoughts? If A) the Lord be God, follow Him; but if B) Baal, follow him.’ And the people answered him not a word.

Here, the people’s סְּעִפִּים (thoughts) can be faithful to either A) God or B) Baal. The people have agency of choice; their thoughts are not inherently iniquitous! 

Secondly-

What else does the Psalmist attribute to the “wicked”?

118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.

The word שׁוֹגִים – shogim (those who stray) has the root ש-ג-ג, as Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) explicitly underscores in his ‘Metzudat Zion’ commentary: שׁוֹגִים is “מלשון שגגה”. 

Back to the BDB Dictionary: what can this root mean? The possibilities include: “go astray; commit sin or error; sin ignorantly, inadvertently; sin of error.” This root clearly connotes ‘error’; the Talmudic term שוגג (shogeg) refers specifically to one who commits a sin by accident, as opposed to one who does so deliberately. Of all the ways in which one might transgress God’s law, this is the most innocent.

And… which category of Divine commandments are these “wicked” people inadvertently breaking? The hukim! These, as we know from Radak’s glossary for Psalm 119, are the mitzvot whose reasons have not been revealed – the most impenetrable of all of God’s commandments!

It would seem that the Psalmist hates those who have multiple, potentially conflicting thoughts and believes that God actively punishes those who accidentally break His most inscrutable demands.

I cannot recite these words and mean them.

* * *

It was not my intention to pick fights with Rashi and the Psalmist, but what am I to do? Perhaps I would be less frustrated with the thrust of stanza ס if this strain of judgmentalism were only a biblical phenomenon.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, validates my sentiment in his book Basic Values in Jewish Religion, which includes a chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’. He writes (pp. 96-98):

The attitude of traditional religion towards those who doubt its tenets has been one of unqualified condemnation…

[However,] our Bible is not lacking in expressions of religious doubt… Notable is the fact that the Torah pictures Abraham, who is always taken as the exemplar of religious faith, whose faith, tested by ten trials, withstood them all, as nevertheless questioning the justice of God…

[Abraham’s] doubt wrings from him an exclamation of horror, but he expresses it interrogatively… His was ‘a faith that inquires’…

There is… a doubt that is an inseparable accompaniment of religious faith… [There is] a constructive doubt arising from the eternal refusal of the human spirit to acquiesce in evil.

It would be absurd for me to post Rabbi Kaplan’s chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’ in its entirety, but it’s tempting. Truer words have never been written.

* * *

Going back to Rashi, the great rabbi makes one subsequent point in his commentary on verse 113 (continued from above):

כשאתה קורא סְעִפִים הוא שם המחשבה, וכשאתה קורא סֵעֲפִים נופל הלשון על החושבים אותה When you read סְעִפִים (se’ifim), it concerns the thought, but when you read סֵעֲפִים (seiafim), the language refers to those who think it.

In other words, according to the language of the Bible, which does not include any vowels, the Psalmist may not hate anyone at all – he might find hateful only those *thoughts* that challenge the Torah’s veracity.

The rabbi is making a deliberate interpretive choice here, and let’s not forget the two biblical examples of סעיפים, which Rashi cites himself: Job 20:2 and I Kings 18:21. Both examples are referring *only* to people’s thoughts, rather than to those who think them.

I think this is a crucial distinction because the Psalmist is writing about *hate*.

‘Hate’ is a strong word.

* * *

As often happens, my learning brings me back to memories of Papa.

My father was a man of deeply rooted morality and intensely firm convictions, he was incredibly passionate and at times even fiery in debate, but he never harbored hate for any person. Certainly, he had disdain for particular ideas and schools of thought, but he would engage with those that he disagreed with – because ideas mattered to him.

Furthermore, Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism, and sincerely wondering aloud at how otherwise intelligent family members could vote for the Labor party. He didn’t hate people for thinking differently than him; he simply found it perplexing.

The Psalmist felt threatened by complexity.
My father, confident in his morals and reasoning, wished to understand.

Papa would certainly have agreed with Maimonides (1135-1204) in his foreword to his ‘Eight Chapters On Ethics’:

One should accept the truth from whatever source it comes.

 

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 32

This year is pregnant with meaning for me, as well as with something else: an extra month.

In Hebrew, we call a ‘leap year’ a shanah (year) meuberet* (pregnant) – שָׁנָה מְעוּבֶּרֶת. Whereas the Gregorian calendar adds a single day to the calendar during leap years (once every four years), the Hebrew calendar adds an entire month on leap years (seven out of every nineteen years). [More on this at the Israel Science and Technology Directory website.]

*A side note:
In Modern Hebrew we no longer use the word meuberet to describe a pregnant woman. The root of the word מְעוּבֶּרֶת is ע-ב-ר, which means ‘to pass’. The fetus is called an ubar (one who passes through) – עֻבָּר, and the meuberet is the one who is passed through, rendering her a vessel. 
Pregnancy today is instead called heirayon (הֵרָיוֹן), which I believe is derived from the word har (הַר), which means mountain – most likely a description of the pregnant woman’s stomach.

During a Hebrew leap year, the month of Adar is replaced by two months: Adar I and Adar II. We are currently in Adar I, and the holiday of Purim, which my four-year-old daughter is looking forward to, will be next month: Adar II.

Very interesting, David, but what does any of this have to do with kaddish or mourning?

* * *

For a month,
I’m going to be in mourning limbo.

Traditionally (blog #21), a Jew mourns a parent for twelve months but recites the orphan’s kaddish for only eleven months. The anniversary of the parent’s death (yahrzeit) usually caps the end of the mourning period, but not during a leap year:

According to tradition: I will recite kaddish for 11 months; I will be in a state of mourning for 12 months; but my father’s first yahrzeit will be 13 months after his death.

I’d been imagining how difficult it would be to continue attending shul during that twelfth month of mourning, standing silently as others recite kaddish for their loved ones. Now I realize that the twelfth month won’t be the end of it. Instead of closure, I will be left waiting for yet a thirteenth month as a non-mourner!

Here’s my attempt at positive spin: the thirteenth month is an additional opportunity to gradually taper off from the intensity of this experience. I must think this way.

… Although…
What does ‘taper off’ even mean?

My father will not be less dead in 11 months, nor in 12 months, nor in 13 months. Do I expect my sadness to abate arbitrarily?

* * *

I chance upon Psalms 119:96, the last of the eight verses beginning with the letter ל (lamed), which is the second letter of my father’s name. Lamed happens to be the stanza of Psalm 119 that I aim to dig into this week. Last week I explored stanza א – the first letter of:

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ל (verses 89-96)

[CLICK for glossary]

פט לְעוֹלָם יְהוָה– דְּבָרְךָ, נִצָּב בַּשָּׁמָיִם 89 For ever, O LORD, Thy dvar standeth fast in heaven.
צ לְדֹר וָדֹר, אֱמוּנָתֶךָ; כּוֹנַנְתָּ אֶרֶץ, וַתַּעֲמֹד 90 Thy faithfulness is from generation to generation; Thou hast established the earth, and it endures.
צא לְמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ, עָמְדוּ הַיּוֹם: כִּי הַכֹּל עֲבָדֶיךָ 91 They stand this day according to Thy mishpatim; for all things are Thy servants.
צב לוּלֵי תוֹרָתְךָ, שַׁעֲשֻׁעָי– אָז, אָבַדְתִּי בְעָנְיִי 92 Had Thy Torah not been my delight, I should then have perished in mine affliction.
צג לְעוֹלָם, לֹא-אֶשְׁכַּח פִּקּוּדֶיךָ: כִּי בָם, חִיִּיתָנִי 93 I will never forget Thy pikudim; for with them Thou hast vitalized me.
צד לְךָ-אֲנִי, הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ דָרָשְׁתִּי 94 I am Thine, save me; for I have sought Thy pikudim.
צה  לִי קִוּוּ רְשָׁעִים לְאַבְּדֵנִי;    עֵדֹתֶיךָ, אֶתְבּוֹנָן 95 The wicked have waited for me to destroy me; but I will consider Thy eidot.
צו  לְכָל-תִּכְלָה, רָאִיתִי קֵץ;    רְחָבָה מִצְוָתְךָ מְאֹד 96 I have seen an end to every finite thing; but Thy mitzvah is exceedingly broad.

The Hebrew of verse 96 is awkward to translate – I made a deliberate choice to translate the wordתכלה as ‘finite thing’, but ‘end’ or ‘limit’ would be more precise. I’ve also seen it translated as ‘purpose’, which sometimes works. This verse catches many a commentator’s eye, beginning with the famed Rashi (1040-1105):

לכל תכלה. לכל סיום דבר יש קץ וגבול, אבל מצותך אין קץ וגבול לתכליתה To every finite thing: To every conclusion of a thing there is an end and a limit, but Your commandments have no end or limit to their purpose.

There’s something profound here.

It would be easy enough to say, as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) says in Chapter 3, that there is a [finite] time for everything – implying that everything has a beginning and an end. But that is not what verse 96 is saying. Nor is it what Rashi derives from it.

Rashi writes that every conclusion comes to an end, but isn’t that inherently obvious?

I’ve become acutely aware of the finity of all things, and yet where do my thoughts go when faced with the pending end of my kaddish journey? I steel myself, counting every remaining day, every kaddish left to me, squeezing drops of meaning from time itself even as it vaporizes. The less left to me, the more precious each moment. And then – it’s over, opportunity exhausted: the end inevitably ended.

But not so with mitzvot, says Rashi.

Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak, 1160–1235) elaborates:

מצותך רחבה מאוד, ואין לה קץ, ואף על פי שהמצוות יש להם קץ וחשבון ידוע, הענפים היוצאים מהם רחבים לאין קץ… ואמר מצותך – לשון יחידה ‘Your mitzvah is exceedingly broad’, and it has no end, even though the mitzvot have a known end and accounting [in the World to Come], the branches that come from them are broad and have no end… and it says ‘mitzvah’ – [this is in] the singular.

Traditionally, and according to Radak’s glossary for this Psalm, a mitzvah is a Divine commandment, including acts of kindness, such as visiting the sick, as well as particular ritual acts, such as wrapping phylacteries on one’s arm. Colloquially, even in the most traditional communities, the word mitzvah is also used to simply mean ‘good deed’. (Incidentally, the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is not included on any list of 613 Divine commandments that I’m aware of.)

Radak picks up on a nuance that intrigues me: the word mitzvah is singular: according to Psalm 119, every individual mitzvah has an endless impact. Personally, I feel too finite to make such sweeping claims, but I can certainly relate to this as a beautiful aspiration. The impact of a good deed has limitless potential. The mitzvah’s moment may be finite, but not so its consequences.

I cannot make the end of my kaddish journey last longer, but its impact may extend beyond this year of mourning.

* * *

Two other aspects of this stanza speak to me.

First, the word pikudim is repeated in verses 93-94. According to Radak’s glossary, this is one of the eleven keywords for Psalm 119 so this bears noting. Pikudim are: the Divine commandments instructed by common sense, stored in man’s heart. This has an implication upon my understanding of verse 94:

‘I have sought Thy pikudim’
=
I have sought my heart’s Divine inclinations

Secondly, the only verse in this stanza with none of the eleven keywords is verse 90. What is the message of this verse? “Thy faithfulness is from generation to generation; Thou hast established the earth, and it endures.”

Traditional commentaries, including Radak, posit that God’s faithfulness to humankind is in the continued and reliable existence of the natural universe. My mind, however, is not so traditional.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Might we not ask: “If the next generation is not around to experience the world, does it still exist?” Isn’t it only because of the cumulative experiences of generations upon generations of people, including ourselves, that we believe anything to be true?

My four-year-old daughter, for example, is learning Truth not only through her own eyes, but also through mine. For the past two weeks, she has insisted upon going to shul with me in the afternoon on Saturday, despite my suggesting that it may be boring for her. My Truth, and therefore her lens, is that shul and prayer are important. For her, these values exist.

* * *

Yevgenia Shekhter z”l

With heavy hearts, my family and I learned of the passing of my father’s beloved cousin Zhenya last Thursday. My father fondly called her Zhenichka, which is how I knew her. Formally, She was Yevgenia Shekhter, daughter of Abram and Rina.

In our interactions, she came across as humble, family oriented, and profoundly loving. I particularly recall her tinkling laughter. Her heart was naturally predisposed towards Good and Truth, full of those Divine inclinations which should be most natural to all of humankind, even without her seeking them. Zhenichka’s children and their families will forever experience the world, in part, through her lens; and the impact of her many mitzvot carries on through them and the many others that she touched so warmly, including me and my father before me.

To my mind, her family, our cousins, are a testament to her Goodness. It is truly rare to meet a family so affectionate, gentle, and giving; and we are very, very lucky to have them in our lives. Today, through every living generation, Zhenichka’s descendants are continuing her legacy of sincerity, sensitivity, and love.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 29

No small number of the memories evoked for me by my father’s death are those of his most oft used expressions, but his voice is fading from my recollections. I am struggling to hear the sound of him; but his turns of phrase, textured with his rhythm and inflections, are looped and shuffled.

Nearly all of his go-to expressions were in Russian, with the exception of “אני כבן שבעים שנה” (blog #6). Translation reduces his idioms to their bare meanings, pulsing nothing like my heart’s memories. Still:

“Час смеха вырабатывает стакан морковного сока.”
An hour of laughter produces [the equivalent of] a glass of carrot juice.
i.e. laughter is healthy.
“Ну вот и все. Я разлагаюсь.”
Well, that’s it then. I am decomposing.
i.e. [said in jest:] this symptom is a sign of my old age.
“Если нельзя, но очень хочется, то можно.”
If one should not but very much wants to, one can (/it’s possible).
i.e. if you’re not supposed to, but you want to, go for it.
“Ну, мужик, ты влип.”
Well, Buddy (/Man), you’ve gotten stuck [in it].
i.e. I can’t save you from yourself.
“Это не стоит выеденного яйца.”
This isn’t worth an empty egg shell with the egg sucked out.
i.e. this is not worth a damn.
“Я простой человек (/еврей).”
I am a simple person (/Jew).
i.e. let’s not complicate things.

There are, of course, many others, but these are among those that spring out. In recent weeks, I’ve caught myself unintentionally channeling him, responding to my wife, saying, “I am a simple Jew.” Upon realizing that I’ve begun using this phrase on a regular basis it struck me:

This is something that Papa used to say.

* * *

I chanced upon a short, truly delightful book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972): The Earth is the Lord’s. Actually, the book chanced upon me. It so happened that I was a bit late to my 6:45 AM Shabbat shacharit minyan several weeks ago, and my friend Dov noticed. He knows me well.

He knows that I like to sit at a table behind the prayer quorum on Saturday mornings with a book; he knows that I prefer not to disturb the women’s section during davening to peruse the bookshelves; he knows that I like Heschel. That week, my friend arrived to shul before me, and left several books waiting for me at “my” table. The Earth is the Lord’s was among them.

In his book, Heschel portrays the spirit and character of the Jews of Eastern Europe throughout the centuries. This passage got me thinking (pp. 37-38):

The earthiness of the villagers, the warmth of plain people, and the spiritual simplicity of the maggidim or lay preachers penetrated into the beth ha-midrashall were partners in the Torah. The maggidim… did not apply for diplomas to anyone. They felt authorized by God to be preachers of morals…

Ideals became folkways… the people itself became a source of Judaism, a source of spirit… Spontaneously, without external cause, the people improvised customs of celestial solemnity. The dictates of their own insight were heeded as commandments of highest authority.

This depiction of Jewish yore rendered me nostalgic and something else. It twinged of loss. Given the circumstances of my odyssey, I may have developed a heightened sensitivity to lack and absence this year, but Heschel’s portrayal did sting. Today’s traditionalist Judaism, for which tradition’s outward trappings are a primary goal (blog #10) unto themselves, is a top-down enterprise. The people no longer trusts its own insight.

Kaddish is, perhaps, the ultimate folk ritual. Rabbi Martin Lockshin highlighted this point in his chapter of Kaddish (p. 343):

The status that the Mourner’s Kaddish has attained in the last few centuries is strong proof of the enduring power of Jewish folk religion… It begins to be mentioned in codes of law only in the last five hundred years, although presumably it existed at the folk level for a number of centuries before that.

This is our ritual; we should own it. Make it meaningful; make it personal; make it matter. Where are today’s kaddish maggidim? Where is our creativity, our self-seeking? Where do we find ourselves in this process?

* * *

I have been searching for kindred kaddish spirits. Surely others must have written about their experiences, as they were living them, I thought, but the findings have been sparse:

In 2012, a gentleman named Chanan Kessler blogged his kaddish odyssey during his year of mourning. His dive into challenging theological and sociological questions, which I read through ever so greedily, as well as his dedication to his project; the regularity of his writing; and his openness towards confronting uncomfortable ideas reminds me more of my Skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist than anybody else I’ve discovered.

Other personal kaddish chronicles that I found include: Elie Rosenfeld (2005-06 – 1, 2, 3, 4) Tamar Fox (2008-09), Howard Labow (2012-13), Matthew Geller (2013), Judah Lifschitz (2014-15), Ed Colman (2014-15 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), Mayim Bialik (2015-16 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19), Terry Friedman Wine (2015-2016), David Werdiger (2016 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Amy Fechter (2017-18), Rabbi Jennifer Gorman (2017-18 – Posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29,) and Naomi L. Baum (2018 – Posts: 1, 2, 3). (do you know of others?)

(I’ve also found a number of individual essays and poems, which I list below. They are quite moving, both individually and collectively; but those that were written in retrospect were themselves shaped by kaddish experiences, rather than vice-versa.)

Most of these kaddish bloggers and essayists are not rabbis. Rather, we are the maggidim’s inheritors of spiritual simplicity. We are a source of Judaism, a source of spirit. We are simply Jews.

I heed my insight.I am a simple Jew.

* * *

Is it so simple? May our insight and experience become sources of Jewish custom and spirit? Yes.

And no.

For centuries after our exile (6th century BCE), our sages – who codified the Talmud and the Mishnah – who led our communities and ran our academies – who deliberately undertook the historic project of Jewish self-preservation – these giants were the source of Judaism. Then, according to Heschel in The Earth is the Lord’s (pp. 40-41), the Jewish diaspora began to democratize:

It was not until the twelfth century that the [Jewish] Occident began to emancipate itself… No longer was it necessary to refer [halakhic] questions to Babylonia… Rashi democratized Jewish education, he brought the Bible, the Talmud, and the Midrash to the people… Learning ceased to be the monopoly of the few.

This was the context for Jewish self-empowerment: unfettered access to Jewish learning. “Poor Jews whose children knew only the taste of ‘potatoes on Sunday, potatoes on Monday, potatoes on Tuesday’ … possessed whole treasures of thought, a wealth of information, of ideas and sayings of many ages” (Heschel, p.43). Today, however, a different reality confronts us; I recall suddenly a scathing passage in Leon Wieseltier’s book Kaddish (p.44):

Knowledge is not only for oneself, it is also for others… whose occasions require the interventions of tradition. The great unlettered community of America… do they expect their children to save them? Their children who will inherit an ignorance of Jewish tradition unprecedented in Jewish history?

After shacharit this morning, my friend Aytan suggested to me that it’s not only a matter of Jews being unlettered, as Wieseltier writes. In our day, many are unaware that meaning can be found in Jewish letters – or that our letters exist at all.

But kaddish is full of – l e t t e r s.

Shall we answer them?

* * *

The Kaddish has become popular to the point of cliché in Jewish culture and religious practice. Whether in the original Aramaic and Hebrew or translated into English and other languages, most Jews are to some degree or another familiar with its text.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, Kaddish, p.235

In fact, the popularity of kaddish goes far beyond its influence upon the Jewish community. As noted in Wikipedia, it “has been a particularly common theme and reference point in the arts,” including the famous poem by beatnik Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), the name of Symphony No. 3 by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), and even an episode of the science fiction television series The X-Files.

You almost certainly had heard of kaddish before clicking to read my blog posts.

I most certainly had heard of it and titled my series The Skeptic’s Kaddish accordingly, although I knew almost nothing about it when I began this trek.

The popularity of kaddish is significant because so much ink has been spilled over it throughout the years. Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish is in English. Birnbaum’s and Cohen’s Kaddish is in English. Diamant’s Saying Kaddish is in English. Smart’s and Ashkenas’s Kaddish: Women’s Voices is in English. Goldman’s Living a Year of Kaddish is in English. Olitzky’s Grief in Our Seasons is in English. There are others.

Beyond these, Jewish texts for the curious have never been so accessible as they are today. The Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud and more have all been translated into English. They are available on websites like Sefaria.org.il and Mechon-Mamre.com in English and Hebrew. Websites like like Chabad.org, TheTorah.com, and MyJewishLearning.com are in English. There are others.

We will never learn everything. Still, we must commit to learning.

* * *

Is it so simple? May our insight and experience become sources of Jewish custom and spirit? Yes.

And no.

We must learn to trust and listen to ourselves. This may be the most difficult aspect of our challenge, even among the lettered. The letter teachers often discourage us. Tradition, they say. This is the way we do things.

No, I say, my heart is a Jewish text also. Even if I rejected the rituals; even if I never went again to another synagogue; even if I refused to recite kaddish – this would still remain my tradition, and I could still make it meaningful through learning and thinking. Tradition belongs also to the nontraditional. The letters of kaddish are traditional; but the letters of this odyssey are my own.

I am a simple Jew, authorized by God as a maggid of kaddish.

God would love to authorize all of us.

* * *

Individual kaddish essays and poems: (do you know of any others?)

M. Elizur Agus, Prof. Edward Alexander, Robert J. Avrech, Matt Baer, Dr. Zev Ballen, Howard Barbanel, Debbie Bastacky, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, Rabbi Marjorie Berman, Danielle Berrin, Gabrielle Birkner, Sarah Birnbach, Talia Bloch, Lisa A. Bloom, Brian Blum, Rabbi Anne Brener, Rabbi Chaim Brown, Faithann Brown, Bob Bruch, Alex Brumer, Prof. Melvin Jules Bukiet, Shelley Richman Cohen, Rabbi Gary Creditor, Debra Darvick, Ethan Daniel Davidson, Mindy Dickler, Rabbi Wayne Dosick, Jay Eddy, Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, Jane Eisner, Stephen Epstein, Judy Bolton-Fasman, Rabbi Joshua Feigelson, Elissa Felder, Leonard Felson, Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, Arlene Fine, Beth Firestone, Laura Shaw-Frank, Jennifer Futernick, Rabbi Lisa Gelber, Daniela Gerson, Allen Ginsburg, Arnie Glick, Prof. Hillel Goelman, Jay Goldberg, Andy Goldfarb, Larry Gordon, Ann Green, Barbi Price Green, David Groen, Prof. Susan Gubar, Dr. John Yaakov Guterson, Dr. Donna Harel, Catherine Heffernan, Malkie Hirsch, Anndee Hochman, Laura Hodes, Sara Horowitz, Eva Hutt, Ruth Hyman, Mike Isaacson, Rabbi Ari Israel, Simcha Jacobovici, Paula Jacobs, Michael Jankovitz, Rabbi David Joslin, Rabbi Henry Jay Karp, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, Rabbi Jay Kelman, Deborah Klapper, Rabbi Zvi Konikov, Amy Koplow, David R. Kotak, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Frances Kraft, Ilene Kupferman, Esther Kustanowitz (+ revisited), Rob Kutner, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, Jan Lee, Jay P. Lefkowitz, Shelly Levinthal, Steve Lewis, Alan Magill, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, Dr. Robert Metnick, Joshua Metzger, Jay Michaelson, Bernadette Miller, Aurora Levin Morales, Marian Henriquez Neudel, Eli Neusner, Rabbi Mark Novak, Tova Osofsky, Moshe Parelman, Peta Jones Pellach, Peta Marge Piercy, Penina Pinchasi, Chanah Piotrkowski, Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, Dania Rajendra, Gil Reich, Adam Reinherz, Judith Rosenbaum, Paula Rosenberg, Avrum Rosensweig, Rabbi Donald Rossoff, Julia B. Rubin, Prof. James R. Russell, Eric Salitsky, Dr. Peg Sandel, Nigel Savage, Stephen J. Savitsky, Sam Sax, Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, Rabba Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez, Rachel Selby, Paula Shoyer, Wendy Meg Siegel, Prof. Gila Silverman, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, Jacob Sloan (+ responses to JS), Paul Socken, Barbara Sofer, Mori Sokal, Susan Lynn Solomon, Rabbi Marc Soloway, Rebecca Speicher, Prof. Ilan Stavans, Bruce Stiftel, Melanie Takefman, Rivka Tibber, Rhoda Trooboff, Carol Ungar, Ruth Walfish, Van Wallach, Rabbi Yehuda Weinberg, Rabbi Robert Weiner, Edie Weinstein, Talia Weisberg, Ari Weisbrot, Dr. Harlan Weisman, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, Tanya White, Terry Friedman Wine, Rona Wineberg, Ari Zeltzer, Jill Zimon, Vivienne Grace Ziner, Effy Zinkin.