Intro to Judaism
I finally got to meet Temple Sinai’s new rabbi, Teri Appleby, at the Intro to Judaism class at the synagogue on Sunday. I guess it should have occurred to me that every synagogue has regular Intro to Judaism classes, but when I saw the offering on the website, it seemed intriguing and exotic. I’m sure it’s old hat for Rabbi Appleby, but she didn’t teach by rote, so the session was able to go where it would, based on questions from the students and the students’ reasons for attending. It’s aimed at interfaith couples, non-Jews considering conversion, and Jews looking for adult-level introduction to the basics of Jewish thought and practice. It’s safe to say each of those groups was represented in the eight people who attended.
The class is fairly informal, and even though it’s a 12-week class, I got the impression it could get pretty in-depth. I think the class will focus on the Jewish lifestyle, as opposed to doctrine. Sunday’s class focused on the upcoming Chanukah, which begins Friday. In the hour-and-a-half class, I learned more about Chanukah than I’d learned in the 47 years prior.
Chanukah began as a celebration of the military victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians back in 165 BC. In about 168 BC, the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus, outlawed Judaism and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In a village, the Greek soldiers ordered some Jews to perform some foreign acts of worship. One Jew stepped forward to comply, and another killed him and the soldiers. The family of the man who fought back and others, including the Maccabees led by Judah, fled to the hills and fought the Greeks, eventually winning.
During the occupation, the Syrians had defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. After the military victory, the Jewish leaders wished to re-sanctify the temple. They looked all over but could only find enough lamp oil to light the lamp for one day. I believe the lamp they were lighting was the ner tamid, a lamp that burns 24/7 in Jewish sanctuaries. Ner tamid means “eternal flame.”
Anyway, that one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days, thus the eight days of the religious holiday of Chanukah. Rabbi Appleby said that Chanukah in most countries is a relatively minor holiday, but in the United States—because of the Christmas holiday—it has taken on a much greater role in religious and secular society.
We talked about the holiday traditions. The dreidle, for example, is a four-sided top. When it’s spun, depending on which side comes up, either nothing happens; the spinner wins the pot; the spinner gets half the pot; or the spinner antes up. Its basis is that during the Greek occupation, if Jews gathered to worship and soldiers came along, they could claim to be gambling.
Another thing I hadn’t known is that the branched candelabrum we commonly call a “menorah” is more accurately, during Chanukah, called a Chanukia. It holds nine candles. Eight candles represent of the miracle of the re-sanctification of the Temple, and the helper candle is used to light the eight. There’s even a tradition on the order with which to light them.
Now, while I dwelled on the Chanukah traditions, the class discussed many topics aside from the seasonal holiday. I can’t imagine that many people outside the class’ target groups would have a great deal of interest in the instruction, but I found it fascinating, and I was made totally welcome.
The rabbi emphasized that Judaism is a religion about action: “Judaism is living a Jewish life. It’s not about how we do things or why we do things—it’s doing things. [The first time may seem odd] but once you get past three or four times doing it, it feels awkward not doing it.”MUSIC