Judaism 101: The Torah and Other Sources of Holiness

What various sources do Jews consider holy? How they approach and use these various sources? How do Jews of various persuasions differ in their approach to and use of these sources? 

In this installment of Judaism 101, we’ll be talking about the sources Jews consider holy and the various “denominations” within Judaism. Judaism 101 involves ten Jewish readers of my blog answering questions about Judaism in a panel format. (I introduced this project and provided bios of each panelist here.) Feel free to ask questions or ask for clarification, but remember that the goal here is to learn more about other faith traditions and understand differing points of view, not to score points or argue about who is right or wrong on this or that issue.

Let me start with a quote from a previous installment of Judaism 101:

A rabbi once told me that this is the defining distinction between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews: the Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was given from Hashem and has remained unchanged over time, the Conservative Jews believe that the Torah was given from Hashem but has been changed in the hands of men, and Reform Jews believe the Torah was created by man.

And with that basic outline, let’s get started!



Orthodox: The Torah in its various forms is considered holy.  Of course this includes both the Written Torah (first five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) as well as the Oral Torah (various commentaries including the Midrash, an explanation of the text of the Torah, and the Mishnah and Talmud, which explain and codify the Torah’s many laws.)  The study of these texts form the backbone of Orthodoxy, to the point where many men will study these texts full-time and not work.

Conservative: The Torah and its various commentaries and explanations are said to have a voice but not a veto.  While the Five Books of Moses are said to be “divinely inspired,” there is considerable argument about whether the books were written by Moses during his lifetime, or by later authors and cobbled together.  The commentaries are studied and used, but are not considered to be the same level of divine inspiration as the Torah.


Ki Sarita

Agreed, the way you characterize Orthodoxy is pretty much the way I grew up.  The prophets are also part of the canon but not studied nearly as much as the Torah. Not sure how they got lay by the wayside somehow.



I would clarify that the entire Tanakh is considered “holy”—“Tanakh” being a Hebrew acronym for the three parts of our Written Law: the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), the Nevi’im (Prophets), which cover the history between arriving in the land of Israel and the destruction of the first Temple, and the Ketuvim (Writings), which are a mixture of both more poetical books and some later histories.

The Torah is traditionally thought to have been dictated from Hashem to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The rest were written later (obviously, as they can’t be writing a history about things that haven’t happened yet — or can they?!), but were similarly divinely inspired.



To ki sarita—The Prophets are more popular in Israel. At school we studied Joshua to Kings in grades 4-6, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Jonah and Micah in secondary school. My school’s motto is ‘walk humbly’ from Micah 6:8. In political discourse there is often a call to follow the teachings of the prophets – except different factions mean different things by that: the secular left means the call for social justice, whereas the religious mean the call to follow Torah.

Somewhere on the internet I saw it claimed that in Orthodox schools in the U.S. girls are taught the Prophets more, as they aren’t taught much Talmud. Don’t know how true this is.

More generally: The parts of Tanakh that are used in Jewish liturgy are the entire Torah, which is split into 54 portions, to be read one a week (some are doubled-up in non-leap years) for an annual reading cycle. Each Torah portion is followed by a short section from the Prophetic books that is considered associated with it. There are special readings for holidays. See Torah Readings for details.

Also, of the Ketuvim the Psalms are read daily and sections of them are integrated in many prayers. Then there are the five Megilot (scrolls) that are read on holidays: Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) on Passover (because of the spring imagery); Ruth on Shavuot (the Festival of Weeks – because of the  harvest theme); Lamentations on the 9th of Av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of the temple(s); Ecclesiastes on Sukkot (Festival of Booths/Tabernacles – anyone know why?) and Esther on Purim (a celebration of the events of Esther, at least traditionally).

To Rachel:

(obviously, as they can’t be writing a history about things that haven’t happened yet — or can they?!)

Well, Jacob claims to prophecy what will happen to his descendants, and traditionally Genesis 49 was pronounced under prophetic spirit. Non-traditionally, perhaps it was composed by the same person who composed Judges.



Anat, this explains why, when I sat in on a sixth grade classroom in Israel, they were reading from Kings — I was very impressed, because in my day school we never made it much past Samuel.

The Schecter institute has a bunch of explanations for why we read Ecclesiastes on Sukkot, most connecting it either to the season or to tempering the joy of the holiday.

The haftorot (the selections from Prophets) are *supposed* to be linked, either thematically or explicitly, to the Torah portion of the week. Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews differ here in their selections.



You’d be surprised.  According to some Midrashim, the entire Torah (both halacha–laws and aggada–stories) was known even in the time of Abraham.  Of course, that leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  Like why did Jacob spend 22 years mourning for his missing son?



I remember that midrash! Yes, the patriarchs had ruach hakodesh (the divine spirit) and could see the future/were able to observe the Torah and all of its commandments before it was given. Nevertheless, Jacob had the information on where Joseph was hidden from him, as punishment for deceiving Isaac that he was his brother Esau. Midah keneged midah (measure for measure), after all. 

This is perfectly logical, obviously. However, the Midrashic explanation for why Jacob married two sisters, even knowing it was forbidden by the Torah, was fishier. (Being named Rachel, I was very concerned by that story, as I figured I might have some measure-for-measure dealt out my way.)


Ki Sarita

Yes, Orthodox girls schools study the Prophets, we made it through Isaiah. But it remains theoretical, obscure, quickly forgotten unlike the Torah, you are right probably because of the Torah reading yearly cycle…



I’m much more familiar with my prayer book then the Torah or Talmud.  What I believe and what I learned about God comes from the siddur, and it doesn’t always line up much with what I read in parts of the Torah.  Some of that I’m sure is because of multiple ‘inspirational’ translations, and Reform did change some of the liturgy.  But as I’ve been thinking about how to explain the interplay between my denomination, my understanding of religious text, and how that’s shaped my beliefs, I keep coming back to the Gates of Prayer.  I’ve got three different editions of Gates of Prayer, and the High Holiday siddur the Gates of Repentance.  When I’ve explained Jewish belief and theology before, online or in person, I reach for those first.

One common mistake about my denomination: it’s Reform, present tense, not Reformed, past tense.  It’s a common mistake, not an insult, nothing I take offence over, but it is a red flag to me that whoever is using that term doesn’t know much about Reform Judaism, or probably Judaism in general.  Or they are getting it mixed up with Reformed Christianity, which is very different.

Reform Judaism—very liberal, with a strong emphasis on social justice and working together with other people as equal co-partners in tikkun olam, repairing the violence in the world.  100% committed to full women’s equality in religious and social life from the beginning, and recently committed to full social and religious equality for GLBT people.

Reformed Christianity—pretty much the exact opposite, especially the American Calvinist Conservative types.

Reformed Judaism—no such thing, but a common mistake.

Refrom Judaism—a typo, and one I sometimes find in my own work only after I hit send or reply.

Like I said, not an insult, not anywhere near anti-semitism, but if you can’t get my name right I’m assuming you don’t know much else until proven otherwise.  I will be happy to be proven otherwise, and I’m happy to clear up any misinformation or lack of experience.

This set of questions about denominations, text, and scripture easily falls under the category of ‘google it yourself.’  I’ve seen several online conversations about where is the balance of responsibility between minority and majority cultures for education of the minority culture.  These questions are pretty easy to answer with a internet search, but that wouldn’t convey what it’s like living in our denominations, or how we live with our scripture on a personal level.  I could just provide a set of links, or try and type out a detailed essay about the history of Reform.  I think I am going to provide the links, and highlight a few key points that IMO have the greatest effect on our lives, and what it’s like living with those changes from traditional Orthodox Judaism.  Please understand that when I do that I’m speaking from my perspective  I’m not trying to do a point by point comparison with Orthodoxy.  If the women here who have personal experience with Orthodoxy want to compare their experiences to mine, that’s fine.



What interests me is what kind of structures, institutions, or methods (if any) Reform Judaism in the U.S. formed to come up with consensus regarding practices and policies. For instance when they started accepting patrilineal descent as well as matrilineal—was it a matter of some communities changing and others deciding individually to follow or was there a discussion of leadership followed by a central decision or something in between? And if anything on this scale turns up now or in the near future, how does Reform Judaism do it?

In Israel Reform Judaism is known as ‘hatnua leyahadut mitkademet’—The Movement for Progressive Judaism. I think the sector most likely to get involved there are secular Jews seeking a connection to tradition without compromising on western values. However, I expect few of these choose a long term involvement because there is a secular Jewish culture in Israel that is the dominant culture in much of the country. It is more common for people to get involved for a short while, around a child’s Bar/Bat Mitzva or a couple’s wedding (Progressive Judaism weddings are not recognized by the state of Israel, but there are couples who have a civil marriage abroad and a Reform or Conservative ceremony).



I notice when we mentioned Tanakh or Bible we did not specify exactly the extent of the Jewish canon. I just wanted to point out that Christians include the books of the Apocrypha in their Old Testament (with differences between Catholics and Protestants as to which books exactly should be included). Neither of these are part of Tanakh.

So just to clarify, the Tanakh includes the following:

Torah: 5 books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Nevi’im (Prophets): 8 books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve (minor prophets – Hosea to Malachi).

(Note that Samuel and Kings are considered one book each.)

K’tuvim (Writings): 11 books: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra&Nehemiah, Chronicles.

The 3 major divisions represent stages of canonization. The Talmud preserves some debates about whether some books, such as Esther, belonged in the canon. Since the Apocrypha didn’t make it into canon they are not very well known among Jews. Some were only preserved in translation.



Thanks, Anat! Along those lines, I think we should include a timeline of major events in Jewish intellectual history, because it seems like people have this idea that Judaism crystallized around the same time the Red Sea parted. I’ll work on it tomorrow . . . while I take breaks from Passover cleaning. 😛

(Would Passover cleaning be such a resonant topic if we were men?)



Anat—Good point to actually list all the books in the Tanakh. I’ll admit though sometimes I just get lazy and use “Torah” to cover everything, a general catch-all term for any type of Jewish study.

Rachel—“Would Passover cleaning be such a resonant topic if we were men?” No. By whatever forces of self-selection, Libby got a minyan of Jewish women. This would be a different conversation with a man in it. Not better or worse, but different.

“Thanks, Anat! Along those lines, I think we should include a timeline of major events in Jewish intellectual history, because it seems like people have this idea that Judaism crystallized around the same time the Red Sea parted. I’ll work on it tomorrow…while I take breaks from Passover cleaning. :-P”

Penny and I noticed that too.  Like, what did you guys think we’ve been doing the last 2,000 years—playing dreidle?  But it’s not surprising.  From a general Christian education, people would learn enough about 1st century Judaism from their perspective to put Jesus in context.  From secular education the only time you learn about Jews is the Holocaust and Israel.  Everything in between gets ignored.  I remember in high school my western civilization class spending a week studying the Holocaust.  Of course I was the only Jew in the entire grade, probably in the entire school for all I know, including all the teachers.  I decided to speak up and the teacher let me give a half hour talk about what normal Jewish life is – celebrating shabbat, the holidays, and learning Hebrew. I said the Shema, and brought my family’s shabbat candlesticks and kiddish cup and went through the prayers for candles, wine and bread. I had some students afterwards tell me they had never talked to a Jew before, I was the first one they had met.  If I hadn’t been there to speak up, what would those blond suburban kids have ever gotten?  Sunday school lessons, Schindler’s list, and Israel in the newspapers.

I generally don’t hold it against people when they just don’t know anything about Judaism, and I’m always happy to find out when they do.  There’s a lot of things I don’t know about all kinds of people, and just as I would want someone to be patient with me if I was well meaning but clueless and ignorant, then I should be the same.  What is hateful to yourself . . . .  Besides, if I’m the first human encounter with Judaism and I make a bad impression, there might not be someone after me to give a more rounded human experience.**  Reading the online discussions about privilege, it’s something I think about.  I’m on both sides* of that line—white, middle class, college educated, home owner: there is a lot of privilege in that backpack.  Jewish, lesbian: now it looks a little different.  So I’ve felt being both majority/clueless and minority/do I really need to be a walking wiki again?  I guess being on both sides gives me some insight to be patient with each side. (Except when I’m tired, cranky, and hungry   Then I’m more inclined toward”‘just fucking google it yourself.”  But that condition is easily fixed with a nap and some food.)

* with apologies to Joni Mitchell:

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now

Privaledged and not, yet still some how

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all”

** It just occurred to me double-checking before I hit ‘send’ how much that statement comes from a minority culture POV.  I don’t have to worry about representing all white people, but I don’t even think twice about how I come off representing all Jews.  “I’ve looked at life from both sides now . . .” indeed.

Speaking of Jewish history, to help answer Anat’s question about Reform Judaism, some quick history. Reform Judaism was a response to the Enlightenment, as a way to join Western civilization and still be Jewish. When given the choice to be citizens or be Jewish, some people chose to be citizens.  Different nations had different histories with regard to their Jews, and researching for this question I’ve come across some different perspectives.  But in general being a national citizen meant giving up the part of Judaism that was a peoplehood.  As Napoleon Bonaparte said regarding Jews in France in 1806, “To the Jews as individuals, all rights.  To the Jews as a people, no rights.”  The other “Passport to civilization” was baptism.  Not that all of a sudden Jews were finding Jesus, but in the 1800’s being part of the new modern Enlightenment meant leaving behind the dress, kosher laws, and external trappings of traditional Judaism. Reform Judaism was created as a stopgap measure between the all or nothing choices of traditional Orthodoxy, or baptism. What happened was Judaism got stripped down of almost all ritual observance  ditched the concept of Jewish peoplehood for just being a religion, and what was left was a strong emphasis on the Prophets. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof—Justice, justice thou shalt pursue” became central.  200 years later, a lot of ritual has come back, even in my lifetime I can remember changes increasing the use of Hebrew, more traditional prayer, and more observance around the holidays.  But choosing that one core unshakable foundation of ethics and hope for a messianic era of universal peace and brotherhood has left it’s stamp of Reform Judaism.

Here is a good article that touches on Reform history. I’m going to pull out a few quotes on the start of Reform:

First Reform synagogue, Seesen, Germany

The first Reform temple opened its doors 200 years ago in the town of Seesen, Germany. At the inaugural ceremony on July 17, 1810, a parade of rabbis, Christian ministers, and political dignitaries passed under a chiming bell-tower and entered the sanctuary, while an adult choir, accompanied by a pipe organ, sang hymns in German and Hebrew. The businessman and philanthropist who had founded this temple, Mr. Israel Jacobson (1768-1828), delivered the sermon while draped in a black clerical robe. Standing behind a pulpit at the front of the sanctuary, the man who had also established an egalitarian, religiously pluralistic boarding school for 40 Jewish and 20 Christian children told the august assembly: “On all sides enlightenment opens up new areas for religious development. Why should we Jews be left behind?”

Jacobson’s call struck a responsive chord. In the decades that followed, Reform Judaism spread through Europe and then to North America.

Even before the Seesen synagogue set Reform Judaism in motion, Jews had entered modernity. Decades earlier, Napoleon had thrown open the doors of medieval ghettos. As Jews freely mingled with fellow Europeans, they were exposed to the cosmopolitan bustle of cities, the sophistication of theaters and opera houses, the rational inquiry of universities. Eager to participate and demonstrate to their neighbors what loyal and productive citizens they could be, many Jews decided to jettisonkashrut and other traditional laws and practices which prohibited them from eating at the homes of their gentile friends or attending social gatherings at cafés.

Determined to bring Jewish life into the modern age, the early German-Jewish reformers of the mid-19th century emphasized the universalist ethical teachings of biblical prophets. They no longer viewed ritual observance as ordained by God and inviolate, but as a means to reinforce the prophetic ideals of justice, freedom, and peace. In synagogue worship, they began to pray in unison and introduced a professional choir and organ to render their hymns. The rabbi led services covered in ministerial robes as bareheaded worshipers listened in solemn silence. Later in the century, when Reform Judaism spread to North America, the main Shabbat service shifted to Friday night, allowing Jews to pursue their occupations on Saturdays, in concert with many of their gentile compatriots.

Thus, in this first stage of Reform Judaism’s development—a period of adaptation to the wider gentile community—Reform Jews abandoned codes of diet, dress, and ritual practices which set them apart from fellow citizens. These changes in Jewish practice were accompanied by a new theology, which also led to amendments to Reform prayer books. Traditionally, Jews had prayed for the coming of the Messiah, who would usher in a universal age of peace, resurrect the dead, and lead all Jews back to the restored Kingdom of Israel, where the Temple would be rebuilt and sacrifices once again offered upon its altars. The early reformers changed the focus of this national restoration to what they called the “Mission of Israel”: the Jews’ historic task to bring social justice to the world from within the lands where they lived. Now that the Jews of Europe or America had finally become prosperous, they had little desire to leave their “new homeland” for an uncivilized, swamp-ridden land halfway around the globe. They taught instead that “the Messianic Age,” rather than the Messiah, would come to all enlightened nations—and, better still, it was just around the corner.

In my studies of Jewish history, some of the hardest things to read are the hope and optimism in some sources dating 1900’s and early 1910’s. On the other side of WWI and WWII, it just hurts to read about the hope and belief in universal brotherhood in 1912.

In the U.S., the main organization for Reform Judaism was the Union for American Hebrew Congregations, which changed it’s name to the Union for Reform Judaism in 2003. Here’s the website. It’s about 900 congregations in the U.S. and Canada, ~1.5 million people, so ~11% of worldwide Judaism (13.5 mil. Jews/1.5 mil URJ = 11%).



Hey all, sorry I haven’t been around much. I just started class last week along with a bunch of other stuff, so I got a little overwhelmed for a few days. But I’m back. 🙂

Personally I’ve always felt a strong connection to the Psalms. I love the imagery and the lyricism, and the melodies we used in my synagogue were beautiful. As part of the Friday night service, Libby, we sang a series of psalms to represent the six days of creation and then the Sabbath day. I don’t know if it will be useful for the blog, but this was my favorite melody we used:

(The translation for the Hebrew is in the video description. Also the recording isn’t the best quality but you can hear the melody clearly.)

In the siddur (prayerbook) we used in my synagogue, there were writings interspersed throughout the service. Some of them were interpretive poems, some were analytical essays. Despite them not being actual “holy texts” I always honored them as providing a connection to the Jews who had gone before me.

I think something interesting to bring up to your readers might be that the physical process of fashioning a Torah scroll hasn’t really changed in centuries. They’re still made from parchment that’s hand-finished, hand-sewn panel-by-panel into a continuous strip long enough for the entire Torah, hand-written in ritualized calligraphy by a specially trained scribe (called a sofer, plural soferim) with specially made inks, and then hand-fitted onto carved wooden holders. The entire process can take months if not years, and requires highly advanced training. I say this might be interesting because this means that not only is the text contained within the Torah a connection to the roots of Judaism, but so is the physical Torah itself. Other sacred texts are made to nearly the same standard of quality, too.


Petticoat Philosopher

As the child of agnostic parents, who grew up in a family with many atheist and agnostic Jews (and even the believers are pretty out there), “holy” was not a term that had a lot of currency among us. I have already stated what I see the value of studying traditional “holy texts” is to me, which has less to do with holiness and more to do with cultural identity, philosophy, and yes, sometimes (maybe) spirituality.

Much of the Jewish writings that have been influential to my life has nothing to do with the Jewish religious canon, from Baruch Spinoza to Tony Kushner (my favorite playwright) and many others. To be sure there is not always a bright line between religious and secular and what frequently fascinates me is the intersection of the two and the way religious and non-religious Jewish thought and experiences influence each other. For example, it is fascinates me to think about how Jewish teachings on, say, justice, or on the nature of God or humanity’s relationship to God inform the worldviews and perspectives I find in Jewish literature or philosophy which is one reason I value studying both “holy texts” and “not-so-holy texts.” (And, also, many Jewish thinkers that are important to me were at least some version of religious—some even Orthodox—and some, such as Emmanuel Levinas, wrote talmudic commentaries as well as philosophy.) In fact, I think both are necessary to understanding the many facets of Jewish identity.

And yes, I think there is a lot of leeway in Reform Judaism, including for secular Jews. I mean, I’m pretty sure my mom’s Reform rabbi growing up was an atheist so there you go . . .

And Alexis, I also prefer to attend services in communities that intersperse other writings into their prayer books and for the same reasons. This is another example of their not necessarily being a sharp divide between sacred and secular in many progressive Jewish communities. There is often a secular application of the sacred, and a sacredness to the secular. 



In my teens, when I was pondering becoming a more observant Jew at some point, I read the Torah with Rashi and other commentaries—my father had  set of Chumashim with more than 20 different commentaries. Some looked like the work of people genuinely trying to understand, some looked more like the work of people trying to fit the text to an ideology, others like an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable no matter what twists of logic are required to achieve it. Nowadays I recognize the various approaches as the equivalent of what happens in fandoms. Essentially the commentators were the Torah fandom, writing meta and fanfic for their favorite canon.

In my thirties I was more interested in attempting to understand the origins of the Biblical texts and the historical background. I read the popular works of archaeologists and a bit about ancient Near-East literature.

Nowadays when I want to feel Jewish I read the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. For example Passover or Sabbath Lie.

Also, in my youth I read large sections of Bialik and Ravnitzki’s Sefer ha’Agadah, The Book of Legends. It is a huge collection of the non-halakha parts of the Talmud, discussions, commentaries on Tanakh, tales (some rather fantastic) about the lives of famous rabbis, sayings. That gave me even more of a sense of a fan community. And I learned some really odd bits of Jewish folklore from there. I even found a recipe for a magical concoction to visualize the demons that supposedly accompany people wherever they go (according to some).



I would not be a practicing Jew today if not for the works of Chaim Potok, because his work—mostly fiction, though I’m currently reading a collection of interviews by him and they’re fascinating—provided me with a framework wherein I could believe in Judaism and yet understand that the texts we think of as holy are not the direct unembellished word of Hashem. I started reading The Chosen at a time of great disillusionment with Judaism, and they helped me find a voice and like-minded thought.

A congregation movement I really enjoy—I can’t tell how helpful they’ll be to laypeople, sadly—is Mechon Hadar, which is egalitarian and rigorously intellectual.


Ki Sarita

In my community that I grew up, secular music was forbidden and instead we listened to Orthodox Jewish singers who set prayers and biblical verses to music. Those songs still nourish me today.



Anat asked: “What interests me is what kind of structures, institutions or methods (if any) Reform Judaism in the US formed to come up with consensus regarding practices and policies.” I got some background on the founding of Reform then had to stop for the night.  Now I’ll actually answer the question. The main institution of Reform Judaism in the U.S. is the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), and the Rabbinic institution is the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and the Hebrew Union College -Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) .



I need to do more research but it’s late right now.  I want to add the history and beliefs of Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism.  They’re much smaller and newer sects than Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, but they’re also the ones that’ve had the most impact on me.  Just trying to slip this in right before the deadline :-/


Petticoat Philosopher

Yes, we should definitely talk about Reconstructionism and Renewal! These are also sects that have had influence on me–like I’ve said before (I think), I am mishmash, even if Reform is my baseline.



I think it would be a good idea to get a quick word in about Reconstruction and Renewal, at least a few good links.  My dad goes to the Renewal shabbat morning service that meets once a month in another Reform temple.  I asked him about it and from his description it sounded like a much more mystical, emotional, touchy-freely Reform service.  People would share feelings and spiritual longings during the service between prayers.  I’d like to go with him sometime, but I don’t like to open up and share emotions on a dime because a leader says we all should, not with people I don’t know well.

Since this is the discussion about how we view our texts and scripture, I guess this is the place to admit I have’t read the whole Torah.  I’m even less familiar with most of the Prophets and Writings except for key quotes. I’ve been regularly going to Torah study on Saturday morning recently and been enjoying that as a way to start my weekend, but I have’t read the whole thing through.  I’ve studied parts here and there, and I plan on reading the whole thing sooner rather then later. That’s part of what I meant when I said my prayerbooks have had a greater role in forming my faith, beleif, and theology then the texts.  I asked some of my friends at temple if they felt the same way, and they all agreed.

I know most of the people reading this don’t believe in prayer or God at all, and that’s fine. I’m not asking anybody to believe in this or agree with me; I’m just trying to explain how my experiences at worship in Reform Judaism have influenced me. As far as other people’s beliefs, all I care about is that you are kind, ethical, and respect my freedom to believe and worship as I choose. If you can do that for me I will gladly respect your choices in return. For those of you who have a more traditional experience with these prayers, this is my experience with the translations I grew up with.

I’ve got four examples I want to share. For our readers I just want to quickly explain that Jewish liturgy is closer to Catholic mass then a Protestant service in my experience. There is a fixed set of prayers, some of which go back to the time of the Mishna 1800 years ago.  The service has developed and changed through time, melodies change, Reform has made some changes, but still the core prayers are the same all around.  The Kaddish, Ma-ariv, Shema, V’ahavtah, Mi Chamocha, the Avot (v’imahot) and Amida, the different brachot and blessings, Birkat Hamazon, the Aleinu and Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayers specific to the holidays . . . In theory if you know the Shema and V’ahavta in Minnesota you know it in Manhattan  Moscow, Sao Paolo in Brazil, in Morocco, anywhere in the world there are Jews.  In reality custom and accent can be significant differences, but even then the Hebrew prayers and the order they’re recited are the same.

The Avot V’imahot is a good example of both the changes in Reform and prayer as theology.  Traditionally the prayer is the Avot, which means fathers, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The Avot starts like this:

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu.

(Praised be you, Lord (Adonai) our God and God of our fathers.)

Elohei Avraham, Elohei Itz-chak, elohei Ya’akov.

(God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.)

Because God is mentioned separately for each one of the Patriarchs, it implies that each one of them had their own specific relationship with God, in each generation.  Thus each of our own generations have our own different relationship with God.  Our covenant between us and God endures, but what one generation needs is different from the generation before them or the generation after.  The continuity of our covenant (brit) from generation to generation (l’dor v’dor) both endures and gets re-negotiated.  This is how I read the beginning of the prayer, and how I explained it at my Conformation service.  It is a well accepted interpretation of the Avot in Reform.

I remember when this prayer changed.  Keeping in line with Reform commitment to egalitarianism, the Matriarchs were added in 1994. The “Gates of Prayer, The New Union Prayer Book” from 1975 has the traditional Avot, the traditional translation, and several inspirational translations, but no transliteration (Hebrew written in English, what I’m writing down). The “Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays” from 1994 has Hebrew, transliteration, and English, and adds this line:

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu .

(Praised be you, Lord (Adonai) our God and God of our fathers and mothers.)

Elohei Avraham, Elohei Itz-chak, elohei Ya’akov.

(God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.)

Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivka, Elohei Leah v’elohei Racheil.

(God of Sarah, God of Rikva (Rebeccah) God of Leah and God of Rachel.)

The ending changed as well, from Baruch atah Adonai, magein Avraham (Praised be you Adonai, shield of Abraham) they added v’ezrat Sarah—the helper of Sarah.  Same ‘ezer’ as in ‘ezer k’negdo’ from Genesis, btw.

Here’s what it sounds like:

Our prayerbooks don’t just have the prayers in them, but also meditations, short essays, quotes, and poetry.  This is the meditation that defines what prayer is for me:

Prayer invites God to let God’s presence suffuse our spirits, to let Gods will prevail in our lives.

Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city;

But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.

Abraham Joshua Heschel. He barely escaped the Holocaust, was a great theologian in our time, and marched with Martin Luther King.

This is my experience of prayer.  It does not change the laws of physics, biology or chemistry. But I have experienced how it can touch me spiritually, and seen it in people close to me.  However, prayer is *never* a substitute for action. There is no ambiguity in Judaism that prayer and study alone is enough without deed and action.  From my temples Shabbat morning prayerbook:

Prayer is not an escape from duty.  It is not substitute for the deed.  Prayer seeks the power to do wisely, to act generously, to live helpfully.  It helps to reinforce the act rather than to replace it.  Our prayers are answered, not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be.

—Rabbi Morris Adler.

The Shabbat morning prayer that means the most to me is Elohai Neshema.

Elohai neshema shenatata bi tehorah hi
(God, the soul you have given me is pure)  

I panted this line of Hebrew on the atarah of my tallit  that I made for my bat mitzvah.  The souls God creates for us are pure, just as we are created in the Divine Image. To me this is part of the effect of not having a theology of original sin. Our sin is something we do or fail to do, not what we are. What we are is created pure.

Here’s the whole prayer:

God, the soul you have given me is pure!  You have created and formed it, breathed it into me, and within me you sustain it.  So long as I have breath I will give thanks to you, O holy one and God of all ages, of all creation, Source of all life. Blessed is Adonai in whose hands are the soul of all the living and the spirits of all flesh.

This is what it sounds like. This is my favorite melody, one for my nechema (Jewish soul).

This isn’t my favorite melody, but it’s still a good one and has more of the prayer in it.  Debbie Friedman is HUGE in Reform Jewish music. Usually this is sung twice as fast and with an up beat guitar. Imagine a morning service Jewish summer camp type experience, with guitars and teenagers singins along.

I’ve gotta go.  I’ll finish my last thought about death and mourning, and try to get in something about how important the Pirke Avot is for me, along with a quick round of links for Renewal, Reconstructionist, and African Judaism by midnight.  I know I’m posting a lot in this, but it’s important to me, and important to take this chance to share with the rest of you and all of Libby’s readers. I’ll have a lot less to say when we’re asked about Jewish atheism, and more questions for the rest of you!

I’ve got a baby shower for my SIL, and I still have to help out my mom get ready for her seder.  I think the only Passover cleaning I’m getting to is throwing out stale bread.  Oh well, I’d rather do this than clean!



Rachel—“After all, allowing patrilineal descent would make us no different than the Reform Jews! They pray in English, for heaven’s sake!” [Editor’s note: This comment by Rachel is part of a longer tangent on Jewish descent that has been moved to another post.]

LOL 🙂  – that’s a good point about different attitudes. For the record, I can go through an entire service, Kabbalat Shabbat to Mourners Kaddish and closing song, with my eyes closed and my prayer book balanced on my head. I’d say I’ve got about 15-50% actual Hebrew comprehension depending on the prayer, and the rest is rote repetition.  But the fault is mine, not my denomination’s.  There is a lot of material, curriculum and classes available for life long learning and adult education, and the last 20 years have seen an increase in Hebrew use and competency. Learning liturgical Hebrew well enough to really understand my prayers instead of rely on translations is in the top five things I want to do to become a better Jew, along with actually read the whole Tanakh + commentaries.

I know people at my temple who can barely stutter through the Shema, and I know people (lay people, not just Rabbis and Cantors) who can sight-read Torah and Haftorah Trope* cold.  I think my Hebrew is pretty average for a Reform Jew.

*Torah Trope: if you’ve ever seen a line of pointed Hebrew, there are consonants on the line, and most vowels are dots and dashes underneath.  Torah Trope is the melodic chant for reading the Torah and haftorah (haftorah – Nevi’im, prophets).  They are little squiggly lines around the words that indecate pitch and melody of each syllable.  Because Hebrew really needs more dots, dashes, and squiggly lines around each consonent/ mild snark.  Unpointed Hebrew is just the line of consonents, and it’s what you see in Israeli newspapers.  So Ki Sarita and Anat can read it, but I can’t.



Re: Secular Jews. While of the three main denominations the Reform is the only one with a theology that is compatible with a non-theistic stance, there are secular Jews for whom the only synagogue they don’t attend is an Orthodox one. In Israel this is common, because non-Orthodox denominations are relatively small and have less legitimacy in the public eye. And also (probably the main reason)—first or second generation secular Jews may have fond memories of the synagogue they attended as children. My father judges synagogues by how similar they are to the synagogue his father attended. (He also seems to have a very narrow range of what ‘counts’ as ‘true’ Jewish practice: less strict is fake, more strict is extremist.)

BTW does anyone here have experience with Humanistic Judaism?

More Yehuda Amichai (with some overlap, and differences in translation, as fitting a thread about Jewish sources):

Amichai’s Counter-Theology: Opening Open Closed Open

From Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever



This is one of the meditiations at the back of the 1975 Gates of Prayer about death and mourning:

“A Philosophy of Life and Death:

Judaism teaches us to understand death as part of the Divine pattern of the universe.  Actually, we could not have our sensitivity without fragility.  Morality is the tax we pay for the privilege of love, thought, creative work – the toll on the bridge from which clods of earth and snow-peaked mountain summits are exempt. Just because we are human, we are prisoners of the years. Yet that very prison is the room of discipline in which we, driven by the urgency of time, create.”

(Emphasis mine)

Reading this as a child at the end of the service helped shape my understanding of the connections between life, love, and death.  In my thirties now I am much more aware of the urgency of time and the discipline it imparts. Death is not something to be feared or hated, it’s not a punishment but a natural part of life. Our mortality is an intrinsic part of our value as human beings. Unfortunately this meditation was not included in the later prayer books, which I think is a loss.

I hope people understand now why it was so important to me to include prayer books as inspirational text. Also, traditionally our prayer books are given the same respect as a Torah scroll when they are worn beyond use. Because Jews are forbidden to destroy anything with the name of God written on it, sacred books and writings are stored in vaults and sometimes buried in a cemetery like a honored person—Sefer Torah’s, the hand written parchment scroll in particular.  This tradition has left some incredible religious and historic treasures for us to find and learn from. The place where these texts are stored is called a Genizah.

I’ve been using these web sites a lot in this discussion:

Judaism 101. It’s very easy to use and move through, and it’s great for basic definitions and traditional beliefs. The guy running it is Orthodox and takes an Orthodox view of women, non-orthodox denominations, and GLBT people. To be fair he is not as antagonistic or condescending as some Orthodox opinions I’ve found on line, just double check his social POV against other denominations to get the social range in Judaism.

Jewish virtual library. It has a lot of information but is harder to navigate. I don’t know how unbiased its information on Israel it, so that might be something to double check against other sources.  It’s a good reference for Jewish history.

The Union for Reform Judaism—my home page.

Central Conference of American Rabbis—my rabbi’s home page.

Outside of the U.S., Reform Judaism is generally referred to as Progressive Judaism. From the website:

The World Union for Progressive Judaism is the international umbrella organization of the Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist movements, serving 1,200 congregations with 1.8 million members in more than 45 countries.

Looking at this, given that 1.5 million belong in the U.S. and Canada, that leaves 0.3 million in the other 42 countries. Not a lot of people, but still connected as a people all over the world.

Other good websites:

Chabad, an Lubavitch Hasidic group that does a lot of outreach to non-Orthodox Jews.  Another good site to learn traditional positions, even if you don’t agree with them 100%.

The home page for American Conservative Judaism.  Rachel, I can’t remember if you ever defined American Conservative Judaism in this discussion.  I don’t think so, but if you did I hope you don’t mind that I’m repeating this. Conservative is kind of halfway between Orthodox and Reform—they still count as non-Orthodox, but they are more traditional than Reform. The denomination formed as a backlash when Reform went too far and changed too much too fast, but Orthodox was too traditional and unchanging. 

Put it this way: Reform started ordaining women Rabbis in 1972, and Conservative Judaism ordained women rabbis in 1984. There are a few Orthodox women Rabbis but it’s still very controversial and there’s a lot of backlash against them.

I don’t have any personal experience with Humanistic, Reconstructionist, or Renewal, but here are some websites:

Society for Humanistic Judaism.  This is non-theistic Jewish Humanism, which might be of interest to people at an atheist website.

Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations. I don’t know much about Secular Judaism, but I did find this. I think the difference between Reform and Secular is that while there is room for someone who doesn’t believe in God in Reform, we are definately a religion, and belief in God or at least affirming God is a core principle listed on the URJ and CCAR websites. Secular in contrast emphasis’s Jewish culture, but doesn’t seem to include any of the religious aspect of Judaism.

Jewish Reconstrucionist Movement. The difference between Reform and Reconstructionist seems to be a matter of style more then deep theological differences.  I found this explanation of where we are different:

Differences between Reform and Reconstructionism

  • Reform Judaism values individual autonomy/ Reconstructionism values communal decision making.
  • Reform Judaism is the largest of the major US denominations/ Reconstructionism is the smallest.
  • Reform Judaism uses more traditional God language/ Reconstructionism uses a more traditional prayer style.

From this website.

An FAQ on Jewish Renewal. Renewal is rooted in the prophetic and mystical Jewish traditions. Here’s an interesting article about it. In some ways this seems almost the exact opposite of Humanistic Judaism. Humanistic Judaism is proudly atheist, while Renewal seeks a mystical experience with God. It’s not quite a denomination, more like a philosophical/mystical movement.

Jewish Renewal is an attempt to take God seriously at every level of our being. That requires more than adding a few phrases about social justice to an existing liturgy or ritual. It is an attempt to make us more fully alive to God’s presence the world, to build a life that is God-centered, and to provide us with a way of reclaiming the unique spirituality of Judaism, deeply embedded in political consciousness but not only political.

Jewish Renewal energy is flowing through all the various denominations of Jewish life — and it will eventually help to transform all of them.

All of us, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Secular, and Renewal fall under the umbrella “non-Orthodox.”  I am not going to try and explain any of the variations with Orthodoxy, I just don’t know enough about it. Also, this is American Judaism for the most part.  This doesn’t really touch the nuances of different types of Israeli Judaism.

Oy vey that is a lot of links. But now anybody reading this from Libby Anne’s blog at least has some idea just how much diversity there is in Judaism, and I haven’t even touched the diversity in the Orthodox Jewish world. And then there is the overlay of ethnicity as well. Sephardi and Ashkenazi are the biggest ethnic groups, but there are Mizrachi from Islamic countries including Iran and Iraq, Beta Yisrael from Ethiopia, the Bene Israel from India, African-American Jews, and more.

It’s late, I’m tired, my brain is starting to fry, and I’m taking tomorrow off of work to help my mom with her seder.  Here are my last links—the Abayudaya from Uganda.  A group of people from my temple went and visited them earlier this year, and created a connection between our congregation and theirs.

This is amazing! This is an amazing story, and watching this what strikes me is that they are following traditions, but fairly egalitarian.  There are women holding the Torah, studying from it, and holding services with mixed seating.  Those tallits look like they could come from my temple, and the man wearing a rainbow stripped tallit at 5:55 – my dad has that exact same style tallit. I wore that at my conformation, and used it as a wedding canopy at my wedding with Penny.  And there it is on Youtube used by an African Jew – k’lal Yisrael indeed!

Here are two songs inspired by the Abayudaya, from Noam Katz.

Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel live – Uganda style

It’s not the best cover, but still:

Mirembe, Mirembe, Salaam v’Shalom

Make peace in the village, make peace in the home

Make peace in the morning until daylight is done

Mirembe, Salaam v’Shalom.



Holy sources and solid text-based scholarship are a key part of why I became Jewish. I am excited about the resurgence of hebrew scholarship and language in our Reform temple. I love wrestling with the text, knowing that I am following in the footsteps of other Jews who have been doing the same thing for millennia. Language is the medium through which we communicate the essence of human existence and share it with each other. Similarly, for me at least, religion is the ongoing story of our communication with and about God. This perspective then also informs how I view the Torah. Language and writing are human mediums, and for me, Torah, is God communicating with humans in a form that humans can understand. Of course, there are limitations inherent in the medium itself and I do not pretend to be near as fluent in Hebrew as I would like to be, but I also do not believe that the conversation is over. Prayer and right action are the mediums we use to communicate to God, and life is the medium God uses to communicate with us – including using other humans as messengers. This does not mean that I am comfortable with everything in the Torah, but I also don’t believe good communication is synonymous with comfortable communication. Talking about the things that matter is not easy, but it is a critical part of building a true religious community. I don’t need to be part of a Jewish community to have a relationship with God. I am Jewish in community because being in relationship with other Jews stretches and supports my relationship with God and connects me to the wider conversation. The spaces where Torah makes me uncomfortable challenge me to grow as a human being and reach beyond what seems obvious to find meaningful lessons that enrich my life in this world.

Yisrael: wrestles with God. Jacob wrestled with the messenger and, after a long, hard effort, prevailed, earning a new name as a result of his transformation. Wrestling with God’s messages is central to my identity as a Reform Jew and an ethical human being. Holy sources: Torah, Tanakh, prayer books, provide a foundation for my wrestling. Commentary and midrash, poetry and interpretation encourage me when I get tired and inspire me to continue the conversation.

These conversations are a part of that wrestling. I discover new insights and new questions every day, and I love it.


Petticoat Philosopher

Hilary, I pretty much echo you as far as the meaning prayer has had in my life. It’s not a magic spell or a substitute for action but it can be a sort of meditation for me that brings me a sense of peace and renewal. Some of the prayers at Yom Kippur frequently move me to (covert) tears. In addition, the rabbi at the Reform Hillel that I go to for High Holiday services (I’m still a floater, looking for a place to go regularly that satisfies me but I always go somewhere for High Holidays) had a beautiful sermon a few years ago about the meaning of prayer that made a big impression on me. He was talking to a group of Jews that were largely pretty skeptical about the idea of a traditional, personal God, and was most likely one himself and so he was talking about “why we continue to pray.” He spoke of prayer as an expression of longing to connect to something higher than ourselves, even if we don’t know what’s there, a constant seeking of the unknown, of peace, of self-knowledge and understanding that is the human condition itself. We pray because it is an expression of human nature, as “the singing of birds expresses their nature.” It was a beautiful idea and it spoke to me and what I feel when I pray. (Although I do want to make very clear that there are certainly other ways to achieve this experience besides prayer and different things work for different people–this is not prescriptive for everybody, nor is it the only method that resonates with me either.)

As for praying in English vs. Hebrew? Well, I can certainly do more than “stutter through the Shema” and I can laboriously sound out Hebrew and even understand some—but I don’t necessarily want to at a service. I like to do some prayers in Hebrew but you know what? I like having a service largely in English. English is what I speak. I am a Diaspora Jew and I am not ashamed of it and one of my favorite things about Reform (I certainly don’t like everything about it) is that it embraces being part of the Diaspora. And the experience of the service is far more spiritual for me when I can focus on the meaning of everything because it’s in my most familiar language, rather than struggling to keep up and feeling like I’m taking a test or just repeating things by rote.

Of course, this would not be an issue if I were a fluent Hebrew speaker. And, of course, I would like to be. It’s a part of Jewish heritage, it’s a beautiful language, it would allow me to talk with my Israeli cousins and friends in their own language and it’s a skill I wish I had. I hope I get to develop it some day. But, still, I can’t say it’s top on my list of priorities at this time. Other things take precedent such as, for example, getting my Spanish better because Spanish is more useful for me in my life outside of services and particularly useful to me, since I’ve spent much of my professional life as a youth worker, working with low-income urban populations among whom Spanish is frequently spoken–I’ve worked in two neighborhoods in my city where all the signs are bilingual. I could do my work even better, connect with those I want to help and their families more if I could speak Spanish. So which is more important? If I define “being a good Jew” as “Being a Jew with really good Hebrew” than I should obviously dedicate my limited time and energy to learning Hebrew. If being a good Jew means living the principle of “tikkun olam” (at least the progressive interpretation of it) than Spanish serves me better right now. I know what my grandmother, who grew up with every Jewish credential any Jew could ever covet, would tell me to do.

Ideally, I would love to learn both languages and more. But in the spirit of the Reform principle to work for justice in the place that I live, I feel like right now I am better off muddling through my limited Hebrew as best I can and having a service that is mostly in the language that comes easiest to me and allows me to focus on the meaning more, English, while I dedicate my second-language time to learning a language that allows me to better pursue the path I’ve chosen according to my principles. Others may have different priorities and they are allowed, but I completely reject the notion that this makes them “better Jews” than I am. “Bad Jew guilt” (hey, another topic!) is an affliction that I see many Jewish friends struggle with that I am genuinely completely free of. If and when I improve my Hebrew, it will be for myself, not to raise my supposed stock as a Jew.

Renewal and Reconstructionism: This will be brief because it’s late, I’m tired. I have never actually been to a Renewal service, but I have read the work of some Renewal rabbis that I have found very meaningful and inspiring and so it’s a movement that intrigues me. With Reconstructionism, I like their focus on the idea of Judaism as a continuously evolving civilization and their non-traditional, metaphorical understandings of God. (Although there is a wide range of types of God-belief and non-belief in Reconstructionism.) Also, the Hillel that I used to go to in my old college town had a Reconstructionist rabbi who was AWESOME! Very progressive and political and he always managed to get me on fire! More like this, please!

Damn it! Now I went back and read the message that were posted while I was writing this and I also have a lot to say about the concept of “struggling with God” and what it means to me. But I think I really do have to save that for another time. C’est la vie.



I realized we skipped a “denomination”: Kabbalism. So as a basic background, Kabbalistic Judaism is the (one of the?) mystical branch(es?) of Judaism. There’s a lot of emphasis on the power of the different names of Hashem, the search for the true name of Hashem, the power of the gematria (Wikipedia has a surprisingly complete article), etc.

Now in my experience, Kabbala exists alongside the main Orthodox/Conservative/Reform spectrum. As in, someone could consider themself an Orthodox Kabbalist, or a Reform Kabbalist, and both are valid.

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