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Answer By: 
Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler
bright heaven above clouds

In the Jewish prayer book, the siddur, there are references to an “end of days”: the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt, the dead who were righteous will be resurrected, and a figure known as the Messiah, or in Hebrew the Moshiach, will restore Israel to new-found glory. The word “Moshiach” means “anointed one,” and it refers to someone who is descended from King David who was anointed with oil as king.

Reform Judaism teaches that, in partnership with God, it is up to us to make the world into a place of peace and justice, and that we cannot wait nor do we expect a personal Messiah. The Principles of Reform Judaism (1999) state: We continue to have faith that, in spite of the unspeakable evils committed against our people and the sufferings endured by others, the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail…. We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God's creation.

Partners with God in tikkun olam (repairing the world), we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursue tzedek (justice and righteousness), and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth's biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage. In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.

In the 19th century, the earliest Reform Rabbis rejected all of the “end of days” beliefs as superstitious and anti-intellectual. They made a radical change: instead of praying for a Messiah, we now pray for a Messianic Age. In Hebrew in the prayer for our ancestors, instead of praying for a go’el or “redeemer,” the Reform siddur refers to ge’ula or “redemption.” These changes have been maintained from the earliest Reform innovations and continue today.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
hand reaching out to the sun

We live our lives as a tapestry of relationships: with parents, siblings, partners and other relatives; with friends, neighbors, and colleagues; with the larger world and the environment; and with God. Our relationships are a lens through which we see ourselves because we gain self-understanding when we consider how others see us and fell about us. In addition, our relationships are a vehicle for our interaction with the world. Jewish tradition teaches us to take each relationship seriously by nurturing and attending to it so it can be as healthy and constructive as possible.

Jews believe that we have a covenant with God. A covenant is a relationship of reciprocal love, caring, and loyalty. Individuals can have covenants with one anothe — marriage is a covenantal relationship — but the covenant that the People Israel has with God involves the entire people. One of the chief benefits of that special relationship is that it helps to define us as a people who have connections (relationships) with one another because we are all party to the same covenant with God. In other words, it contributes to our communal self-understanding and encourages us to examine who we are in relation to God, and who we ought to be. Another benefit, arising from the first benefit, is that it reminds us that everyone in the community is a member of the covenant and important to God, and therefore, they should be important to us; no one should be permitted to slip through the cracks. A third benefit is that our covenant with God helps us focus on our obligation to live as our tradition teaches — the way God wants us to live: generously, compassionately, and with concern for justice and the welfare of others.

Our understanding of our covenant with God does not, in any way, mean that Jews claim that they, exclusively, have a special relationship with God. It is the expression of our understanding of our relationship with God, to be sure, but that does not mean that other groups of people cannot have their own special relationship with God.

Topic: Doing Jewish, God
Answer By: 
Rabbi Leora Kaye
A torah scroll

Before I listen to the new podcast “On the Other Hand,” should I say the blessing for studying Torah? Does listening to a podcast count as study? Is it OK to say the blessing if I’m listening to commentary without reading or hearing the Torah portion?

Listening to On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah definitely counts as Torah study. The podcast is an opportunity to learn a bit of Torah and start to think about the weekly Torah while also incorporating some modern-day thinking into the traditional message.

Think of it like a Torah study at a synagogue or with your community, but instead of having the conversation right there with the other people sitting around the table, this is a more global conversation. You can either respond online via Twitter or Facebook, or you can start thinking about the ideas introduced in the podcast as a launching point for conversations with friends, family, and fellow congregants.

The blessing before Torah studyla'asok b'divrei torah, asks us to engage or dig in deeply (as conveyed by the verb la’asok) to the study of Torah. As long as you feel that you are doing that in listening to the podcast, you should certainly feel free to say the blessing in advance of listening. Thanks for asking, and I hope On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah keeps you engaged enough to listen and to say the blessing for many weeks to come.

Topic: Doing Jewish
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Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

Shiva is a time when we reminisce, remember, recapture memories of a loved one. As such, what we usually do during a condolence call is listen to memories that the mourner wishes to share, or talk about other subjects initiated by the mourner that may have nothing to do with his or her loss.

It is traditional to not knock or ring but rather just to enter a house of mourning, so as not to bother the mourners. Many Reform Jews do not observe this custom today, but it is a good idea to keep it in mind and try the door before you ring the bell when paying a shiva call.

As you enter the house of mourning, a member or friend of the family may meet you and usher you into the living room. It is customary to wait to speak until after the mourner speaks. But, once you are acknowledged, all you need say is “I’m sorry.” That simple phrase, a touch, a hug will mean more to the mourner than you can ever know. Usually, you need not stay more than thirty to forty-five minutes. During your visit, supporting, listening, and responding to the mourner should be your primary goal.

Except for food, it is not customary to bring anything with you to the house of mourning. Again, your presence is the main thing. If you wish to “do something,” make a contribution to the deceased’s favorite charity or synagogue fund. A particularly meaningful gesture for many Jews is to plant trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund.

Source: Rabbi Daniel B. SymeThe Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (URJ Press, 2004)

See also: Preparing for a Jewish Funeral: A Checklist, The "New" Jewish Funeral, What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral, Preparing for a Jewish Funeral: A Guide.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell
couple holding hands and bouquet of flowers

Jews may attend the worship services of other religions. We may attend baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals of non-Jewish friends and relatives. Just as much of Jewish liturgy may be recited by anyone, some parts of the liturgy in non-Jewish services are universal and Jews may recite such words or join in the singing of appropriate songs or hymns. However, Jews should never take Communion. It is also inappropriate for Jews to kneel, though Jews may bow their head along with the rest of the congregation. Just as in synagogues, in many churches there is a time in the service when parishioners greet each other. A common greeting is “Peace be with you.” It is appropriate to reply, “And also with you.” This is similar to wishing fellow congregants “Shabbat Shalom” when in synagogue.

Topic: Doing Jewish
Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell
young girl giving bouquet of roses

While Judaism does not have an equivalent to the secular Mother’s Day, Reform Judaism has been at the forefront of including women in religious life as equal partners. Sally Priesand was the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in 1972. In 1975, Barbara Ostfeld became the first ordained woman cantor. Both were ordained by the seminary of the Reform Movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. As early as 1994, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which publishes prayerbooks for Reform congregations, began using gender-inclusive language and adding the Matriarchs – Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel to the liturgy. The Religious Action Center, the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C., has been at the forefront of advocating on women’s rights issues. In partnership with the Women of Reform Judaism, RAC has addressed issues of women’s economic empowerment, through the focused lens of paycheck fairness. Over two decades ago, the Reform Movement began lobbying on behalf of legislation supporting the enforcement of existing laws prohibiting all forms of violence against women. Since 1935, the Reform Movement has been advocating on behalf of reproductive rights and women’s health. What better way to honor our mothers than by working for their equal rights and treatment.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min.

For centuries, Jewish custom has prohibited marriages at specific dates and times during the Jewish year. A strict interpretation of Jewish law prohibits work on certain days: Shabbat, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and the first and last days of Festivals, such as Passover and Sukkot. Since weddings historically involved a monetary transaction and the signing of a legal contract, both considered forms of work, Rabbinic law prohibited weddings at those times.

Although many contemporary Jews and Jewish movements do not view weddings as a legal business transaction, most rabbis nevertheless maintain the custom of not officiating at weddings on these days. There is an additional reason not to officiate at weddings on Shabbat and Festivals: a midrash teaches that weddings are not celebrated on these days “because we do not mix one simchah (joyous occasion) with another” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkot T’filah 1:2 based on Mishnah Mo-eid Katan 1:7).

From Beyond Breaking the Glass, A Spiritual Guide to Your Jewish Wedding, CCAR Press.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

Many have incorporated new rituals as part of the Passover  seder. Many seder plates include an orange, which is attributed to Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. Heschel included an orange in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews, and others who are marginalized in the Jewish community. In her ritual, each person takes a segment of the orange, and before eating it, says a blessing over the fruit. The seeds are spit out as a rejection of homophobia.

Urban legend, while including Heschel in the story, has radically altered it. The story that many have heard is that Heschel, while lecturing in Florida, was denounced by a man who said a woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.

Not only had the ritual been attributed to a man, but the inclusion of gays and lesbians was erased from the story. While there are now many female rabbis, and Reform Judaism has made inclusion of the LGBTQ community a priority, this story reminds us that there is still much work to be done so that the stories of both women and gays and lesbians are told and heard. Indeed, an orange still belongs on a seder plate.

See also: 
Do We Still Need an Orange on the Seder Plate?
Yes, We Still Need an Orange on Our Seder Plate
7 Modern Additions to the Seder Plate

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

The best way to begin observing Shabbat is by starting small and adding to your Shabbat observance as you grow more comfortable. If you are interested in ritual, try learning the blessings of the Shabbat table.  Begin with one blessing, such as the blessing over the candles and work your way up to the blessing over the wine. If spending time with family and friends is meaningful, host a Shabbat dinner. Preparing traditional Shabbat foods can be an enjoyable family activity. If worship will enhance your Shabbat, find a nearby congregation, or even join in from the comfort of your own home. In our hectic lives, Shabbat offers the opportunity to relax and spend some time with family. You may want to take it a step further and study the weekly Torah portion

In essence, Shabbat can be a time to set aside everything in order to take care of yourself, and spend time with loved ones and friends. Observing Shabbat can include spending time reading for pleasure, playing games with your kids, taking a nap, and enjoying activities that feed and nurture your soul.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell
a purim mask

Though both Purim and Halloween share the custom of dressing in costume, that is about all the two holidays have in common.  Halloween is thought to have originated as a Celtic festival and later became a Christian holiday. Dressing in costume on Halloween probably dates back to the 16th century. The tradition of wearing costumes on Purim finds its origins in the Purim spiel, or play, which is a skit, often humorous, based on the Purim story. While at one time people dressed as the characters in the story, today people also select costumes based on characters from children’s stories and popular culture.

The story of Purim, from the Book of Esther, tells about how Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai save the Jews of Persia from Haman, the king’s evil prime minister. Rather than going door-to-door and asking for candy, Purim is celebrated by public readings of the Purim story, dressing in costume, giving gifts of food to friends and neighbors, and attending Purim carnivals with games.

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