Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Jewish Reading List

Over the past two years (wow, it's really been two years; I started this journey a long time ago) I have read everything I could get my hands on concerning Judaism. This is a list of most of the books I have read so far. They explained Judaism to me, helped me with my conversion decision, and continue my development as a Jewish adult.
  • Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and their Family and Friends by Anita Diamant - An excellent resource. Talking to a rabbi about conversion isn't that scary, but if you want more information before that step, consider this book.
  • The Everything Judaism Book by Richard Bank - Easy to read, lots of sidebars for random additional information
  • Every Person's Guide to Judaism by Stephen J. Einstein and Lydia Kukoff - It's a little dry
  • To Life! by Harold Kushner
  • The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel - I love Heschel and need to read more of his work
  • My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok - Jewish fiction might be my new favorite thing
  • The Tapestry of Jewish Time by Nina Beth Cardin - Everything you ever wanted to know about Jewish holidays. And it's a very quick read, despite the huge amounts of information it presents.
  • Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities by Elie Kaunfer - No comment
  • Exile by Richard North Patterson - Don't prepare to be amazed by the writing or plot, but it does a decent job of laying out the Israel-Palestine issues for a thriller novel.
  • As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg - Excellent historical fiction set in the Hellenistic Period (1st-2nd centuries CE) that deals with the conflicts between logic and religion, doubt and faith.
  • Doing Jewish Theology by Rabbi Neil Gillman - I reviewed this already!
  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner - I think I like Kushner's ideas, but I don't like his writing style. He isn't difficult to read and he is great for non-Jews or people considering conversion, because he is very explanatory of Jewish terms and practices.
  • Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning in Theory and Practice by Diane Tickton Schuster - I have been reading this on and off for a while; I'm about halfway through and so far it is fascinating.
  • Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman - I'm in the middle of this one right now too. If you are interested in the inner workings of congregations (how to create a community, religious education reform, adult education programming, membership engagement, etc), this book is excellent. My fiance read it a few months ago and loved it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


In the past week's Torah portion, Shelach, God told Moses to send 12 scouts into Israel to check out the land. They returned with the following pronouncement, "Yeah, the land is definitely flowing with milk and honey and it's pretty awesome, but it's full of big scary Anakites, Amalekites, and Canaanites." Two of the scouts (Caleb and Joshua) disagreed with this assessment, but the other ten had already managed to incite fear and panic. The result? God said, "Fine, you can stay in the desert then."

Two things really struck me about this portion on a personal level:

1. In describing the people who live in Israel, the ten doubtful scouts say they look like giants and that "we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13:33)

I think like this all the time. I don't tend to voice an opinion unless I feel like I have all the facts. By all the facts, I mean leaving no stone unturned and I pretty much always think that there must be something out there that I haven't read or haven't thought of. This kind of thinking generally leads me to belittle my own opinion as "uninformed" and if I'm unsure of myself, I think everyone else must be able to tell and must think of me that way too. So when the Israelites saw themselves as weak and small, I could relate. But as we learned in the Haftarah reading from Joshua 2:1-24, those "giant" Anakites, Amalekites, and Canaanites, saw the Israelites as a real threat.

My take-away: Don't assume that everyone else sees me the way I see myself and don't be so self-conscious. I should focus more on my strengths. Even if the Israelites were set on seeing themselves as grasshoppers, they should have noted that grasshoppers can be incredibly intimidating in numbers. Maybe all the excitement of crossing the Sea of Reeds, receiving the Torah, and building the ark made them forget that a swarm of locusts destroyed Egypt's crops not that long before (thanks, Plague #8).

2. If the Israelites had just had faith that God would be with them when they entered the promised land, they wouldn't have had to spend 40 years wandering around in the desert. Their fear immobilized them and left them unable to move forward into their land and to develop as a people. I tend to lean in the direction of the ten fearful scouts, though I don't like to admit it. Instead of trusting that everything will be fine, I worry that something will go wrong and then limit my activities in order to avoid those imagined scenarios. I have been getting better at ignoring those doubts and just having faith that I will have fun. The evidence backs me up - nothing ever goes wrong when I make the effort to hang out with friends or try something new and I even usually have fun. The Israelites had similar evidence in support of just heading into Israel on faith - the plagues, the Sea of Reeds, manna, clouds of fire and smoke, receiving the Torah! They forgot all of that in their fear that this time it wouldn't work out in their favor. I don't think anyone would say that was a smart move on their part.

In light of these insights, my goal this week is to be more like Joshua and Caleb - to have confidence in myself, to have a little faith, and to try something new.