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Finding Our Way

Jewish Texts and the Lives We Live Today

Authored by Barry W. Holtz PhD

Publication Year: 2005

The ancient rabbis believed that the world rests on three pillars: study, worship, and good deeds. It is said that the greatest of these is study, for it leads to the other two. But exactly how does the modern Jewish reader go about studying the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash --- the great ancient and often hard-to-comprehend texts of our tradition? And how do we glean the great insights and wisdom from these sacred texts, which inspired our ancestors, and apply them to our modern lives? With guidance from renowned author and educator Barry Holtz, these ancient texts take on new meaning for us. He provides a framework for exploring our thinking about God, prayer, and ritual, as well as social issues, such as charity, friendship, and justice. His new study guide helps readers and study groups launch their exploration of the ancient texts, posing probing questions to help them stay engaged as they pursue their quest for a deeper understanding of their faith. This spiritual and spirited book, a sequel to Holtz's classic Back to the Sources, is a must-read for adult Jewish learners and educators alike.

Published by: Jewish Publication Society


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pp. v

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Preface to the New Edition

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pp. vii-viii

Much has changed, both in the world and in my own life, since the original edition of Finding Our Way appeared 15 years ago. Yet, if anything, in a post-September 11th universe the questions of meaning explored in this volume are even more keenly felt today. Looking for connections to our tradition and seeing ways that our tradition can speak to the important matters of our lives seems more urgent in these times.

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xii

Like most educational endeavors, this book first began to germinate witl1 questions asked by students. The students in this case were, by and large, groups of adults at synagogues and Jewish community centers around the country whom I was teaching and meeting, particularly after the appearance in 1984 of a book that I edited, Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts.

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Note to the Reader

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pp. xiii

I follow the conventional style in this book, using "R." (as in "R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus") to mean either Rabbi or Rav. "Rabbi" was the classical term for ordination used in the Land of Israel; "Rav" was the term used in ancient Babylonia. ("Ben," or "bar," means "son of. ")

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Introduction: From Life to Text, From Text to Life

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pp. 3-14

We open a book and look at the writing. The page stands before us: black figures on white paper, squiggles and lines, lifeless, inert. But of course we know it isn't like that at all. Open a page of Japanese and for most of us that will be true. We'll look at dead letters on the page. But in a language we know, as soon as the cover is opened, we are reading. Indeed, we are reading before we are even aware we are reading. Since leaving childhood, for the majority of us reading is as natural as breathing the air.

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One -Tradition

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pp. 15-38

When I think about religion, I often imagine a kind of intersection where two roads converge. One road represents the world of powerful personal experience, the moments in which I have felt some profound connection to meanings beyond my self. These experiences may be of joy or of pain; they may occur in conventional "religious" settings like in a synagogue or at a holiday celebration, or more mundanely when I'm staring out the window or dusting the furniture.

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Two - Holy Living

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pp. 39-63

I have spoken about one way oflooking at our relationship to the Jewish tradition: as a kind of "conversation" between the tradition and ourselves. But I suspect that there are probably no times in which that discussion is more heated and more strained than when we consider the way the tradition makes demands upon our behavior. Being an adult, we like to feel, means having nobody tell us what to do, and yet here is the Jewish tradition with its almost overwhelming lists of prescribed and proscribed actions trying to direct our lives.

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Three - Being Serious: First Thoughts about God

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pp. 64-82

What does it mean to come to "know" God through the study of aggadah, the imaginative literature of rabbinic interpretation? Examined from one point of view, one might argue that this text provides a kind of easy way out of a difficult problem. Instead of thinking about the question of God, it seems to say, one might be better off simply studying aggadah. For most of us, confronting what we really believe about God is a good deal more difficult than studying texts. In fact, for a religion as intellectually oriented as Judaism, the allure of study can come dangerously close to replacing the hard, personally challenging work of thinking about the big questions of meaning implied by the word "God."

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Four - God

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pp. 83-109

In the last chapter I spoke about tradition and experience as two great foundations of religious faith in the past and why today each of them presents us with certain difficulties. But there is a third traditional pathway to belief that we should also put on the agenda: finding God through the path of reason. Isn't it possible, this position argues, that there is something about the very nature of the world that leads us, through the rational powers of our own minds, to accept the reality of God?

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Five - The Heart's Work

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pp. 110-135

Prayer, we like to hope, is a moment of true speaking. At that instant we become the words we say: There is no deception, no ego to defend, no manufactured self. We speak from the heart. It is a plea for help, to be sure, but it is also a leap of joy, the expression of thanks for our very existence. We trivialize prayer if we think of it as a shopping list of requests. Prayer is carved out time, the moments in which we allow ourselves to step but of ourselves, to look at the world not as an unending chain ...

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Six - The Circle of Community

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pp. 136-159

What does it mean to lead a holy life? The Talmud, in the passage above, tries to address the question by looking at the exemplary behavior of the "pious ones of earlier generations," what we might call the religious "role models" from the past. The context of this passage is a discussion of liabilities for damages that a person can incur through irresponsible actions. If someone is hurt by my carelessness, to what extent am I responsible?

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Seven - A World of Justice

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pp. 160-186

The text above comes at the end of a complex discussion that deals with the nature of a person's obligations concerning Torah. This midrash wants to explore the question "How can people fulfill the requirement to study Torah when it is clear that most people do not have the time to devote themselves fully to study?" In the section of the midrash preceding ...

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Eight - Holy Land

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pp. 187-210

In the last chapter I tried to explore the relationship between classical texts and contemporary social and political issues. I wished to indicate ways that traditional Jewish sources might relate to an issue such as poverty and the need for charity, and I also wanted to discuss the legitimate reservations one might raise-indeed reservations that have been raised by figures such as the Maharal of Prague-about finding a connection between the texts of the past and the concerns of today.

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Nine - Growing

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pp. 211-230

This book has been an attempt to look at the way that a body of sacred literature-the classical texts of the Jewish tradition might speak to the religious concerns in a person's life today. Thus, while I have tried to touch upon what the meaning of those texts might have been in their own time, at heart my goal was something different: to move beyond historical reflection in order to explore the ways that those ancient writings might continue to live for us too. Because of that I have tried to choose those texts which, when read in the fashion I have proposed, seem to speak with special clarity to a contemporary reader.


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pp. 231-233


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pp. 235-246


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pp. 247-257

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Study Guide

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pp. 259-271

The book begins with a discussion of what it means to have books influence our lives. Holtz, of course, is talking about a specific group of books—the great classics of the Jewish tradition. Finding Our Way is an exploration of the possible connection between books and lives. The author quotes the great German- Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who says

E-ISBN-13: 9780827610262
Print-ISBN-13: 9780827608184

Publication Year: 2005

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