I met with the rabbi yesterday and was so nervous beforehand; I kept telling myself that this wasn't a grad seminar, I wasn't going to be tested on the reading, and that I was probably as smart and thoughtful as all of the other conversion students he meets with. But I still had that twisty-gut feeling, and afterward I was completely exhausted and spent the evening lying on the couch recovering -- not from the conversation itself, which was interesting and went just fine, but from my nervous anticipation of it. I think I'll feel more comfortable next time, but this was only my second conversion meeting with him, and the first one only kind of counted because I had nothing to prepare for it.
Anyway, after all of that nervousness, we had a really good conversation. One of the things that I like about this process is that, at least at this point, I get to help shape my course of study. He obviously has things that he wants me to work on, but he also cares about what I'm interested in working on. So here's the basic outline of our conversation and my studying for the next six weeks:
- We chatted briefly about Israel, and he told me in the interest of full disclosure that he's part of J Street, which identifies itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace American organization (and that's about the sum of my knowledge about that group). But we decided fairly quickly that Israel was a distraction (and of course he hadn't assigned me any work on Israel in the first place, other than in some way noting Yom Ha’atzmaut, which is what started me down that path).
- His big agenda item was for me to keep working on Shabbat observance. We talked about boiling Shabbat down to its essence so that it's not overwhelming (along the lines of servetus's comments a couple of months ago). So my homework is to learn by heart three Shabbat blessings: before lighting the candles, over the wine, and over the challah (or the naan, or whatever!) and to feel free to order take-out on Friday night. (He's big on singing the blessings, so he wants me to learn the songs as well as the words.) And he recommended Abraham Heschel's The Sabbath, which he described as poetry more than exposition or argument but said that, if anyone could handle this, I could. I've been meaning to read it anyway, and D. has more than one copy, so I'm looking forward to reading that while on vacation in July; sitting on a deck staring at a lake while reading Heschel sounds pretty fabulous.
- My big agenda item was Torah reading and interpretation. In our Intro to Judaism course, we studied each week's Torah portion and medieval/rabbinical commentary, a process I found both interesting and frustrating. It seemed to me that a lot of midrash commentary ignored or even contradicted the plain meaning of the text, and when I pointed this out, the rabbi would say, "yes, isn't that interesting?" and go on about the multiple interpretations of the text. From my perspective, some readings are clearly more supportable than others, but from his perspective -- which seems to be the Jewish perspective -- one doesn't worry about readings that one doesn't find helpful and one pays attention to readings that do seem helpful. As someone professionally invested in compelling arguments about texts, bad arguments about texts really bug me. Also, I've heard so many bad readings of scripture in Christian churches over the years that I'm really sensitive to the abuses and injustices that can happen with bad readings of sacred texts. So wrestling with all of this is my agenda for the summer.
So the homework the rabbi gave me was to read each week's Torah portion in conjunction with the commentary that's part of the Reform Torah: A Modern Commentary as well as the Conservative Etz Hayim Study Companion. He also suggested Elaine Rose Glickman's edited Living Torah, a collection of commentaries on each week's Torah portion. So that will be an interesting experience, one that I'm looking forward to.
He also suggested two books that would show me how Jews read the bible in more popular, less scholarly ways. And I'm pretty sure those are going to suck! One of them is Norman J. Cohen's Self, Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives, and the publisher's description includes "Learning from Adam and Eve, can we find the courage not only to face our other side, but to draw strength from it? Learning from Leah and Rachel, can we stop competing with our loved ones, and begin to accept them and find ourselves?" Blech! The other one is Burton L. Visotzky's Reading the Book: Making the Bible a Timeless Text. So I've requested those books from the library rather than buying them, because I'm very skeptical of both of them! The rabbi said I might find both of them "too popular," but I'm not sure that "popularity" will be the issue!
This spring we went three months in between meetings, because he was out of town a couple of times, I was taking the Intro to Judaism course, and then there was my end-of-year hectic schedule, but normally we'll meet every six weeks or so, as we're doing this summer.
Of course, now all that I want to do is to dive in to this work, but instead I have to spend the day cleaning, because our nieces are coming tomorrow. Yay for nieces! Yay for a clean house, but boo for actually having to do the cleaning!