Ninth installment in an occasional series
Prior to the Feb. 25 final Judaism for Beginners class with Rabbi Eli Yoggev at Beth Tfiloh, I hadn’t seen the rabbi in a fortnight(ish) and I was getting the rabbi shakes. But now it’s been about 12 hours since that “Ask the Rabbi” session and here I am jonesing for my next fix.
It’s not like I’m going to miss the subject matter or the synagogue (no offense, B.T., I just don’t make a habit of frequenting synagogues) – only my Orthodox rabbi. And, I promise you, nobody who knows me ever would have thought they’d hear me utter those words. That is what I take with me from this class: A genuine respect for this teacher and an enduring friendship with this man (I think, though I’m not entirely sure it’s permitted).
Rabbi Yoggev clearly has the spirit in him, or maybe it’s just his boyish good looks (are you allowed to say that about a rabbi? Is a rabbi even allowed to be considered easy on the eyes?). Either way, he very definitely had some sort of impact on me.
Our last class was postponed due to an early February snow day and the anticipation was killing me. I really wanted to get to the bottom of that perverse hole in the sheet concept (that would make a good handout, wouldn’t it? A sheet of paper with a hole in it? Yeah, groan).
OK, so we didn’t actually go there. Maybe I chickened out, or I like to think I’ve grown enough over the past few months that I no longer need to know where that particularly heinous myth came from. (For those of you who have no idea what I’m rambling about, there’s a long enduring rumor that Orthodox Jews have to have sex through a hole in the sheet. For some reason, I’m obsessed with this idea. It’s not true. Let’s move on.)
Here are some of the issues that were actually on my classmates’ minds in this free-for-all session:
One fellow student said he had come across a reference to the Zodiac and was shocked. Rabbi Yoggev confirmed that it is mentioned in the Talmud. “The Zodiac has a connection to Jewish mysticism,” he said, but it’s not something Orthodox Judaism thinks about at all.
Another classmate – one of my favorites – said he had always been curious about the eruv (the public area enclosed by a wire boundary to symbolically extend the private domain of Jewish households on Shabbat and holidays). Rabbi Yoggev said it helps to alleviate the rule that “you can’t carry from a private to a public domain. By putting up an eruv, you’re not carrying things into the public domain.” I learned that there’s a whole committee responsible for maintaining an eruv, setting its boundaries and checking it every Friday to make sure it’s intact.
Yeah, yeah, all very interesting, but the other students in this class clearly think differently from me. Nobody wanted to know all the good juicy sex stuff, huh? Sigh.
My classmates were playing coy and Rabbi Yoggev was looking right at me like I was going to pitch him a softball, so I jumped in with a question about multiple genders because I’ve heard it’s a thing. Rabbi Yoggev didn’t go too deeply into the details, but there are mentions of different types of bodies in Judaism, including those born with both sexual organs, those born with indeterminate sexual organs, females and males.
Rabbi Yoggev reiterated that “everything in the universe has male and female in it.” This led to a heavy discussion on how an individual identifies or presents and if that determines where he/she can sit in the synagogue or if he/she can participate in a minyan, or if he/she can shake hands with the opposite sex, but a whole dissertation can be written on that topic alone so I’ll save it for the scholars and thinkers. And you don’t want to get me sidetracked with touching either (I’m very pro, if you’re wondering).
At any rate, I think the hot topic warmed up the room and we had the makings of a real discussion.
Suicide was mentioned (“In Jewish law, you’re not supposed to speed up the process of one’s death”). Damaging your body (also a no-no) in more general terms was mentioned (“You don’t have to endanger your life to save someone else’s life”). I also couldn’t resist asking about circumcision. Let’s just say I hit a nerve and was essentially told, “If the Torah says to do it, then you do it and it’s a positive act.” Whelp, nipped that discussion in the bud.
The sweet lady next to me was bothered by the fact that you need 10 men to say kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) in a shiva house (the place of mourning). As a relative of the deceased, she wanted her prayer to count as much as some male stranger’s. “Your kaddish counts for sure,” Rabbi Yoggev said. “Women’s prayers are very powerful, maybe more powerful than men’s.”
Rabbi Yoggev also assured her that women are encouraged to say kaddish at Beth Tfiloh, but stressed that “Orthodoxy moves really slow with these things. We are bound by laws that have been relayed generation after generation. Some of them are uncomfortable to people who move in the modern world.”
That would be me. It’s confirmed that I am not an Orthodox Jew. I’m also not Modern Orthodox or Open Orthodox (more open than Modern Orthodox and ordains women rabbis). Rabbi Yoggev and I are going to have to agree to disagree, but I have faith that we can do that, especially since I am a proud, card-carrying, Rabbi-certified “Good Jew.”
Though I’m probably not doing a very good job of conveying it, I appreciate any experience where I can learn something and gain new morsels to throw out at cocktail parties. I want to stress that I found my time with Rabbi Yoggev to be very rewarding and enriching and I don’t regret it for a minute. Rabbi’s gonna do rabbi. I’m gonna do me. And somewhere in all that we’re going to forge a solid friendship based on mutual respect and understanding.
Some of my other classmates, including two who had converted decades ago and were just looking for a refresher, shared their own reasons for taking the class:
“It’s grounding me.”
“I gained an idea of how it all connects.”
“I want to learn some more and figure out where I fit in.”
Amen. We’ve graduated!
Next up (for me): Rabbi Eli Yoggev’s Passover Haggadah class on April 15
Here are a few of my favorite takeaways from the semester:
Judaism has something to say on every topic. We love a good debate.
God exists in some way and without human characteristics. He is not a he! You can talk to God like you talk to a friend or as a therapy session.
We have a concept of Hell, but it’s more about your soul being confused about where to go.
There’s blessings for everything, including going to the bathroom. Ay yi yi.
You should say a morning prayer 1st thing to be thankful you’re still here.
There are 63 tractates to the Gemara and each one is on a very specific topic, like lashes or weddings.
Hebrew words have numerical values which all mean something. We even got a handout on popular Gematrias –“love” and “one” have the numerical value of 13 which is a positive number in Judaism. My name apparently equals 77.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
I haven’t quite overstayed my welcome with Rabbi Yoggev, so there may be more joint projects in our future. Watch jmoreliving.com for future blog posts from Rabbi Yoggev’s classes and stay tuned for news about more collaborations.