December 2010

Practical Advice From The Torah

Though most translations still tell the stories of the Torah in lofty, archaic language, it's important to understand that the lessons they teach have more to do with the common, human experience than with anything more grand. Underneath the poetics and awkward phrases, the Torah is full of practical advice that is as useful today as it was those thousands of years ago when it was written. The following are just a few selections from the many and varied Toritic lessons for everyday life.

Friendship in Judaism

Though much of Jewish philosophy focuses on the values and obligations of the family unit, as well as the elements necessary for good political leadership, the sages have also had a lot to say about the role friendship plays in Judaism. In fact, friendship is considered one of the great virtues a person must acquire in order to truly understand Torah, also known as the Middot Torah. The specific Middah Torah concerning friendship is known as Dibbuk Chaverim, a Hebrew term that literally translates as "Binding of Friends", or at least binding in the sense of forming a union. Dibbuk is a binding by fusion, whereas the term Akedah is a binding by force, as with a rope, while Shasheret means binding as two links in a chain are bound (also metaphorically applied to the binding of two lives in marriage). Dibbuk Chaverim indicates a kind of equality in the union, as well as a mixing of personalities. Plainly, the Jewish concept of friendship focuses on the influence two people can have on one another.

Sunday Religion School

Judaism in modern America has always been heavily influenced by the practices of our Christian neighbors, if only because of proximity. The convention of sermonizing was mostly foreign to the faith until the Reform movement adopted it in the late 19th century, though many 21st century congregations prefer the more study-base D'var Torah at their Shabbat services. Some older synagogues have pews instead of chairs, a brief and rather poorly received change first instituted by Reform movement pioneer Isaac Mayer Wise. Of all the Christian-influenced conventions in Judaism, one of the most pervasive and enduring is the Sunday religion school. Sunday has no particular importance in Jewish ritual and it should be noted that classical Jewish communities didn't limit religious education at the local synagogue to just one day a week. Sunday school is a natural outgrowth of the demands of secular American culture. Simply, children go to secular school Monday through Friday, it's impractical to ask people to devote their evenings to yet more study and Saturday has been more or less claimed as the culture-wide day of leisure. So, Sunday belongs to religious education, regardless of one's affiliation.

Hanukkah Made Modern

The rituals of Hanukkah are fairly sparse in comparison to those of other holidays. Most of the observance is limited to at-home customs and there is very little in the way of a religious service. Some synagogues perform their own, semi-formal service, though there is no standard congregational service in the liturgy for the holiday. Hanukkah is meant to be kept in the home, though the lack of a traditional service also indicates that Hanukkah as a holiday came into being much later than more formalized observances like Yom Kippur and Passover. It's a holiday for people in the diaspora and people on the move. This, unfortunately, separates the average Jewish family from the guidance of those educated in the rituals, language and history of the faith. So, while it's easy for modern Jews to learn the Hanukkah prayers and even find their literal translations, it's less likely that they'll have access to the deeper meanings of those things.