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1 Bob Levin  Sun, Mar 27, 2011 8:24:09pm

Okay now. I looked at the review, and I would agree that our concept of the next step is not the same as the Christian view (from what I’ve been told, many times from being told where I’d end up). It is more of a cleansing, and it surprisingly efficient, given how much schmutz we can accumulate over a lifetime.

I had a discussion with Sergey the other day on translations. My position is that no translation is very good. One reason is that all of the subtleties that creep into the English lexicon are very much tied to the history of western civilization, and the Torah is not part of that civilization. Any efforts to make it so are forced. The trick is to try to understand the subtleties of language for a civilization that does not exist, and one could argue hasn’t existed.

Herzl is going to be translated from German. Basically, the idea is for Jews to live in peace somewhere other than antisemitic Europe. Eventually, the thought was that a return to the ancient homeland is the best idea. That’s still in progress. That it happened at all is something I consider to be miraculous. Of course, since it was originally written in German, it could be anywhere from 400-700 pages too long (kidding).

Regarding your second paragraph, about the light—now you’re getting into the old debate between Chasidism and scholarly Judaism. That story is very Chasidic, in that is it very colorful and speaks to an artistic sensibility. There are more subtle issues with Chasidism, but there is no need to go there. It’s an answer to the question—if Gd is perfect and omnipresent, how is it that we can even exist?

That’s really the key move in understanding Judaism, understanding the Torah, figuring out what question is being answered. You have to figure out the question, and that is not at all easy or obvious. So, for instance, nothing answers the question—who does Gd hate? Wrong direction, wrong question. Frequently, you have to do a lot of self-adjustment to find the right question.

Good luck.

2 CuriousLurker  Sun, Mar 27, 2011 10:41:28pm

re: #1 Bob Levin

Okay now. I looked at the review, and I would agree that our concept of the next step is not the same as the Christian view (from what I’ve been told, many times from being told where I’d end up). It is more of a cleansing, and it surprisingly efficient, given how much schmutz we can accumulate over a lifetime.

Understood. That being said, and based on the reviews, do you think Living Judiasm would be okay as a starting point in becoming more familiar with Judaism?

I had a discussion with Sergey the other day on translations. My position is that no translation is very good. One reason is that all of the subtleties that creep into the English lexicon are very much tied to the history of western civilization, and the Torah is not part of that civilization. Any efforts to make it so are forced. The trick is to try to understand the subtleties of language for a civilization that does not exist, and one could argue hasn’t existed.

It’s the same with the Qur’an. It would probably be more accurate to call them interpretations instead of translations. And even when you have the 9-volume scholarly commentary, there are still other layers of meaning (e.g. going into the more Sufi spiritual symbolism territory).

Regarding your second paragraph, about the light—now you’re getting into the old debate between Chasidism and scholarly Judaism. That story is very Chasidic, in that is it very colorful and speaks to an artistic sensibility. There are more subtle issues with Chasidism, but there is no need to go there. It’s an answer to the question—if Gd is perfect and omnipresent, how is it that we can even exist?

So then the Chasidim are sort of the Jewish Sufis? I thought Kabbalah was the mystical part. In Islam we had/have Sufi who are also scholars, but then are/were also Sufis who weren’t, who were just sort of…”lovers”. Never mind, too hard to explain. I’m so confused (already). Heh.

As for that last part about God’s omnipresence, I’m not sure we do exist in the sense that nothing exists independent of God. One Sufi book I read posed the question, “Is the movement of your finger separate from the finger itself?” Or looking at your reflection in a mirror…in order for there to be a reflection, there has to be something there…never mind (again) that one weirds me out, so I’m going to leave it alone.

There’s also this story (paraphrasing from memory):

A man came upon a group of Sufis sitting in a circle chanting, “La illaha il Allah”. He asked them what it meant. They replied that they would answer by way of demonstration. They resumed chanting: Every time they said “La ilaha” (there is no god), they would disappear; every time they said “il Allah” (but God) they would reappear.

That’s really the key move in understanding Judaism, understanding the Torah, figuring out what question is being answered. You have to figure out the question, and that is not at all easy or obvious. So, for instance, nothing answers the question—who does Gd hate? Wrong direction, wrong question. Frequently, you have to do a lot of self-adjustment to find the right question.

Good luck.

Thanks for the info. And also for the wish of good luck—looks like I’m going to need it. ;o)

3 Samson  Sun, Mar 27, 2011 10:46:33pm

I think the best way to begin to understand Jews and Judaism is not through studying Jewish law or even the Torah, although these are essential aspects of the Jewish religion. Instead, I recommend a good overview of Jewish history, which is much easier to get into even for those not familiar with it. There are many excellent texts, but one I recommend is called A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People by Eli Barnavi. Short chapters, lots of photos, maps and other illustrations, not expensive despite being in hardback and recently updated. The author may have his biases, but the scholarship cannot be faulted. Highly rated on Amazon, for what that is worth.

4 CuriousLurker  Sun, Mar 27, 2011 11:01:54pm

re: #3 Samson

Maybe you’re right. It looks like a very interesting book and the graphic designer in me loves the illustrations, so I’ve added it to my list.

Perhaps I should start with that one and use the others as a reference for more details (on those occasions when my insatiable curiosity strikes) or for when I run into something that’s not quite clear (as inevitably happens).

Many thanks for the recommendation.

5 Samson  Sun, Mar 27, 2011 11:29:08pm

re: #4 CuriousLurker

You’re welcome. I think you will like Barnavi’s book. If nothing else, it will provide a lot of context to place anything else you read on the subject.

6 Bob Levin  Sun, Mar 27, 2011 11:31:29pm

re: #2 CuriousLurker

Understood. That being said, and based on the reviews, do you think Living Judiasm would be okay as a starting point in becoming more familiar with Judaism?

Sure. Just begin, and ask questions. ‘What the hell?’ can be an important step in understanding.

It’s the same with the Qur’an. It would probably be more accurate to call them interpretations instead of translations. And even when you have the 9-volume scholarly commentary, there are still other layers of meaning (e.g. going into the more Sufi spiritual symbolism territory).

Probably true. It’s always the folks with the most certainty that cause the most problems.

So then the Chasidim are sort of the Jewish Sufis? I thought Kabbalah was the mystical part. In Islam we had/have Sufi who are also scholars, but then are/were also Sufis who weren’t, who were just sort of…”lovers”. Never mind, too hard to explain. I’m so confused (already). Heh.

Yeah. ;-)

A man came upon a group of Sufis sitting in a circle chanting, “La illaha il Allah”. He asked them what it meant. They replied that they would answer by way of demonstration. They resumed chanting: Every time they said “La ilaha” (there is no god), they would disappear; every time they said “il Allah” (but God) they would reappear.

Very much a Chasidic Tale. Although, there are similar stories in the Talmud.

There’s no test on this, so take your time.

7 CuriousLurker  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 6:53:41am

re: #6 Bob Levin

Just begin, and ask questions. ‘What the hell?’ can be an important step in understanding.

Heh, indeed it can. You can count on me having plenty of questions. Sometimes I can come up with some real doozies, so be patient with me.

Very much a Chasidic Tale. Although, there are similar stories in the Talmud.

I know I’m sooo gonna enjoy the stories.

There’s no test on this, so take your time.

Good advice—thanks.

8 Vicious Babushka  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 7:05:07am

I have a lot of good suggestions at the Zionist Mall bookstore.

9 Mad Prophet Ludwig  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 10:05:20am

Amazing conversation!

If I were going to throw in my two cents and recommend one book to read as an overview of Judaism for the interested non Jew (or even Jew who may not be so into the heritage, but curious) I would say This is my God by Herman Wouk.

I read that book in college and it had a profound effect on me. It has the advantage of rather than hitting someone with a wall of information, it goes into what the day to day practice of Jewish philosophy is and what it is like to be observant. It’s much more intimate than many other intro books, and while it is clear that any topic brought up can be discussed much further and in much deeper depth, the example of “this principle applies to me, in this way, in my life” is very compelling. It does not overwhelm and it gets to the core of why bother in eloquent, simple and expressive language. Wouk is a novelist (a pretty good one too) not a rabbi or a Jewish scholar, though it is clear he is very learned. He is not out to create a survey course as much as a heartfelt discussion of what it all means to him and an explanation of what it is to others. It is one well versed person’s take from the heart, and because of that, it gives a compelling root foundation from which to explore further. It’s maybe 250 pages.

There is a lot of Kabballah floating around in this discussion too. My two cents on that is that it is impossible to go wrong with anything by either Akiva Tatz or Areyah Kaplan. Tatz is a medical doctor in addition to being a very well respected rabbi. His books are very accessible and easy to read
introductions to Jewish mysticism - that are still both kosher and not watered down or over simplified to the point that they are wrong.

Areyeh Kaplan unfortunately died much too young. However, his books are a treasure. He was a nuclear physicist from MIT in addition to being a rabbi and while his books are meant to be on the introductory level (and they are) they are introductory in the same way that the best physics lectures you ever had freshman year are introductory. Don’t let this scare you away from him! Real Kabballah is deeply mathematical and philosophical. Kabballah has its own vocabulary and its own set of deeply subtle and abstract concepts. Certain aspects of it are simply most clearly laid out like a mathematical argument and there is really no way around that. See it as a Feynman lectures for Kabballah. Inner Space by Kaplan is a full on consciousness raiser. I would start there before going to any of his translations of actual Kaballistic texts.

I would also be remiss to not mention Heschel. His book on prayer, or on the Shabbos is deeply philosophical and of the sort that you read a sentence, realize it was one of the more profound things you have ever read, and then you re-read it five times.

Past that, for just a simple overview R. Benjamin Blech wrote an idiots guide to Judaism (yes it is orange and in that series) but it is chock full of useful information.

10 Mad Prophet Ludwig  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 10:19:41am

As far as Tanach is concerned, there are many good translations that have many strengths and weaknesses.

I do not like the JPS edition because while it is a good translation, it looses much of the poetry of the original and it does not have the footnotes to explain this or that part of the oral tradition to look into further. It ends up being dry and somewhat sterile to my mind - and also, there are certain passages that simply can not be understood at all without the oral tradition.

The Stone translation from Artscroll, has excellent footnotes, diagrams, and references. It is commonly used in the observant world. The translation tries to capture some of the poetry of the original, however, it is bawlderized and to my mind, a little prissy. For some books, like Isaiah, who was a prince of the royal line, and wrote in very courtly Hebrew, it works quite well. For others, like Amos, who was a tough farmer from the hills of Judah, it just doesn’t work as well for me. Don’t bother with their version of the song of songs either. The extremely potent sexual imagery of it is too much for the folks at Artscroll to easily deal with.

My favorite overall, is Areyeh Kaplan’s translation, called the living Nach. He tires very hard to put the tension and poetry of the original into modern English (proper modern English!). His footnotes and points for further reference are well thought out. And all in all he is the most engaging, to my mind as an overall translation.

11 Bob Levin  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 1:49:14pm

re: #7 CuriousLurker

Ahh. Do not feel like you just got hit with a lot of homework. However, this is a good illustration that there are several roads towards understanding, the trick is to find your road.

So don’t second guess your decisions. Besides, none of the books recommended by everyone even work…unless you engage with others and ask questions. That is the key. All of the authors and publishers mentioned by everyone—all they want is for you to ask questions.

It also points to the fact that Judaism does not come up to you with clear and obvious meaning. It actually comes in disguise of this dry, pedantic, authoritarian practice. There are people who never get through the disguise. Those are the folks that Bill Maher and George Carlin screw with.

Many such people are now elected Congressfolk, which in a way, kind of makes sense.

So the Torah wants you to get through the appearances, the disguise, it wants you to cut through the stereotype and see it for what it really is. At some level you understand a basic human truth, that in order to get certain behavior from others that is good, then this behavior has to be a part of you. It’s the right cause and effect—that is, this is most definitely a principle upon which the universe runs. And there happens to be a commandment regarding this, that the Rabbi, Hillel, thought was pretty significant.

To put it in Chasidic terms (picking it up from the second half), this guy comes up to Hillel and asks him, “Rabbi, teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” The remainder of the story might be in the book you’ve bought. If not, we rarely close here.

12 Glenn Beck's Grand Unifying Theory of Obdicut  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 1:55:01pm

I’d like to recommend my friend Robert Alter’s translations and commentaries:

[Link: www.amazon.com…]

[Link: www.amazon.com…]

[Link: www.amazon.com…]

[Link: www.amazon.com…]

13 CuriousLurker  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 3:22:14pm

re: #8 Alouette

I have a lot of good suggestions at the Zionist Mall bookstore.

Thanks, I’ll take a look.

14 CuriousLurker  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 4:10:28pm

re: #9 ludwigvanquixote

I’m really glad you found this page as I was hoping you’d chime in.

I was just looking at This is my God last night, so it’s funny & timely that you mentioned it. I very much enjoy illustrative stories & parables as well as personal accounts because to me that’s really what it’s all about. We have common rules & practices we share with other members of our respective traditions, but in the end the relationship between God and and any one of us is is very unique and personal because it’s based on our personality, our current level of understanding, the things going on in our lives & our needs at any given moment, etc.

I firmly believe that regardless of the differences in various traditions, it all comes back to that…what? That shard of splintered light-breath that connects all of us back to our Creator, whatever He is (I don’t think it’s something we can fathom as long as we’re moored in our current form). I only know that when I gaze into the eyes of another person, or my cats, or any sentient being, there is a common light that shines regardless of what is or isn’t believed, a light that goes out when someone or something dies.

Regarding Kabbalah and math/numbers, oh, the numbers in nature! I never paid much mind to them until I became a graphic designer and needed to understand proportion, visual composition and the golden ratio. I still don’t understand the math, but my eye has been trained to know when something is balanced or not (and to understand that balance is not the same a symmetry).

When a light bulb wears out and stops working I know that even though it’s “dead”, the electricity that lit it is still present, coursing through the wires in my walls, through the ground, up the light pole, trough more wires, back to the power station & generators and wherever they get it from. To me, we’re like that—a bunch of different light bulbs of different colors, shapes, wattage, and sizes, with different purposes, but all still light bulbs lit by the thing we call electricity.

Anyway, I’m drifting off point and musing out loud, so let me return to the subject at hand. Thanks so much for the recommendations of Tatz, Kaplan, Heschel, and Blech—I’ll check out all of them this coming weekend, God willing.

re: #10 ludwigvanquixote

Regarding translations of the Tanach, thanks for the detailed review. It helps tremendously to know what the differences are, especially coming from someone who isn’t a complete stranger (I’ve noticed even Amazon has it’s loony troll types, sheesh).

Again, I really appreciate you (and everyone else who’s contributed) taking the time to answer so thoroughly.

15 CuriousLurker  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 4:35:12pm

re: #11 Bob Levin

Well, it does feel a little bit like homework, but I like this kind of homework because I know without a doubt that in the process of trying to learn about Judaism I’ll also learn something about myself and better understand my own tradition. I know this because it always works out that way, so it’s a win/win situation.

So don’t second guess your decisions. Besides, none of the books recommended by everyone even work…unless you engage with others and ask questions. That is the key. All of the authors and publishers mentioned by everyone—all they want is for you to ask questions.

I won’t second guess myself. I’m more a creature of passion & intuition than logic, so in the end I’ll go where my heart leads, however I’m old enough to have learned that it doesn’t hurt to temper things by doing a little planning before beginning a journey to ensure I don’t end up in some weird, dead end, off-the-map place straight out of a Stephen King novel.

Questions? Hah! You guys have no idea what you’ve gotten yourselves into by encouraging me. Questions are the one thing I never run out of.

So the Torah wants you to get through the appearances, the disguise, it wants you to cut through the stereotype and see it for what it really is. At some level you understand a basic human truth, that in order to get certain behavior from others that is good, then this behavior has to be a part of you. It’s the right cause and effect—that is, this is most definitely a principle upon which the universe runs. And there happens to be a commandment regarding this, that the Rabbi, Hillel, thought was pretty significant.

I’m pretty sure that’s what all the prophets were trying to tell us. There’s something important to be known, but it can’t be “told” directly so we have to seek it out, dig around. And it’s not somewhere “out there”, it’s right in here. *points to heart*

To put it in Chasidic terms (picking it up from the second half), this guy comes up to Hillel and asks him, “Rabbi, teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” The remainder of the story might be in the book you’ve bought. If not, we rarely close here.

Okay, now I’m dying o curiosity again, gah!…

16 CuriousLurker  Mon, Mar 28, 2011 4:43:31pm

re: #12 Obdicut

I’d like to recommend my friend Robert Alter’s translations and commentaries:

[Link: www.amazon.com…]

[Link: www.amazon.com…]

[Link: www.amazon.com…]

[Link: www.amazon.com…]

These look great! Thank you so much, Obdi. I’m glad to see that most of them have kindle editions available too. I’ve been nearsighted all my life, but the older I get, the more difficulty I’m having reading things close too, especially when books use certain fonts. I much prefer having the Kindle versions on my iPad as it allows me to control the size of the text.

BTW, I noticed you saying last week that your were going to your grandmother’s funeral. I haven’t been on the same time as you much lately, so I hadn’t heard about that. Please accept my condolences for your loss, and may your grandmother rest in peace.

17 FemNaziBitch  Tue, Mar 29, 2011 2:26:11pm

re: #9 ludwigvanquixote

I read the Herman Wouk book years ago and found it WONDERFUL!


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