Jewish - Calendar & Torah

Jewish Almanac Podcast - Episode #1 - An Introduction

February 12, 2023

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CREDITS: Music includes "Wedding Dance" (1917) and "Dance on, dance on" by the Russian Jewish Orchestra, as well as snippet of Matisyahu from a live performance in 2022.

(this is machine-generated transcription, with only minor editing, so there could be some errors)

This is the Jewish Almanac podcast episode one, “An Introduction,” with the release date of February 12 2023. Your host for today is James M. Branum.

On this week's episode, I'll first be sharing a short introduction for this podcast series. After that I'll be sharing highlights from other Jewish podcasts from the previous week. Next, I will share a very short introduction to the Torah portion for upcoming Shabbat Parasha Mishpatim. And finally we'll close with a brief discussion of Shabbat Shekalim.

But first, just a quick reminder to our listeners that a transcript for this podcast episode, including links to all resources mentioned can be found on our website

I should also mention that we are we have a running conversation thread for each episode on the mastodon social media platform, aka the fediverse. Just look for it under the hashtag of #JewishAlmanac. Please join the conversation, we want to hear from you.

Well since this is episode number one, I thought I would share a very brief introduction to this podcast. So the goal of the Jewish almanac podcast is to provide a weekly digest of resources and inspiration for adult learners of Judaism focusing especially on resources that are either free or low cost. And also we are focusing especially on audio resources, because for many people, it's the best way to pack in some Jewish learning into a busy schedule. Each of our episodes will be around 10 minutes or so. And our hope is that it can be a kind of orientation to once a week of Jewish learning and practice.

As to our audience, we are casting a wide net. We are hoping to be relevant to all adult learners of Judaism, including lifelong Jews who are wanting to deepen their understanding and appreciation of the tradition, converts to Judaism who see their conversion as an initiation to further study and engagement, not simply as a graduation. We also hope to reach out to people who are in the process of conversion or who are thinking about it, as well as folks who are simply interested in Judaism and who want to experiment with Jewish practices in culturally appropriate ways. Finally, we hope to be a resource for young adults, especially those who have finished Hebrew School, finished Confirmation classes, and are now asking what now? Certainly there's Hillel if you go to college. Certainly there's other things. But in many ways this transition to adulthood, there's not as many resources as there should be. Too often there's a sense that people won't keep learning, (so) you know, this podcast wants to counter that a bit. --- In other words, we are hoping to reach out to all people a bit especially adults, who are wanting to to grow in their Jewish understanding.

So as far as my own denominational philosophical bias, I think it's important to know the bias coming into it. So I want to be clear about where I'm coming from, particularly as to my background, but as I think it provides some interesting aspects that might help us in our conversation for you to know this. So I am a convert to Judaism, and I am active in two movements, the Humanistic Jewish movement and the Reform Jewish movement. I became Jewish through the humanistic movement and today I'm one of the lay leaders of the Spinoza Havurah an online community I also work as the editor of Humanistic Judaism magazine, a quarterly publication of the Society for humanistic Judaism.

Humanistic Judaism in many ways is my intellectual home. It's the place that really reflects my intellect, what I believe, what I know, best. But I'm also a Reform Jew, thanks to being an active member of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City. Being a part of the Temple has been an enriching experience, but also sometimes challenging because being part of a Reform Temple, in a city with a smaller Jewish population means by nature being in community with people you sometimes don't agree with, because there's just simply aren't other synagogues to go to. That means I'm in community with people that I don't agree with politically, religiously, etc. But over the last four years or so, I've come to see the value of being in community with folks who differ from myself.

Also, I should mention, on the god question. I describe myself as being an intellectual agnostic, but an intuitive pantheist. What I mean by that is intellectually I can't prove or disprove the existence of God. So that puts me in the agnostic category, but intuitively, emotionally in ways that we go beyond what just logic, I would say I lean more pantheist, a little bit in a Spinoza direction, maybe. I do think there's something bigger than ourselves out there. But I think the boundary line between that and US and the world is really, really blurry. And so I think pantheism might be a better way to describe what I'm about.

So with all that said, it should be obvious that I'm not approaching Judaism from a strict halachic perspective. In other words, God commands it and that’s that ---- there's a long tradition of either written Torah and Oral Torah, into the conversation.

But that's not where I come from, but I do want to mention that I do read and gain insights from those who do. So I'm hoping that if I have some halachically- minded listeners, I hope you'll give it a shot, what I'll be sharing but I also realized that we were coming out from different places and that's okay. too.

Finally, I should mention philosophy and politics. Because while this podcast will not be “political” in the electoral sense of the word, the podcast will have a political/ethical orientation, approaching Judaism from an anti Imperial, Anti Fascist, and at times anti capitalist perspective. That's where I'm coming from and that will shape the selection of things I'll be sharing on the podcast and I want to be very upfront with you. If you see the world very differently, if you believe in Empire, if you're a strong believer in capitalism, and ? coming down from on high. You probably won't like this podcast. On the other hand, I also hope that you'll give it a try anyway because I think it's good for us to stretch and grow.

By the way, that brings me to the topic of the State of Israel and its relationship with the population of Palestine. My own perspective does not fit well at all into either the Zionist or the anti Zionist frameworks. I will say that this topic will not be a major theme on this podcast, mostly because other people are already covering this topic well from a variety of perspectives. But to the extent that it does come up, I'll mostly be focusing on amplifying the voices of those who are working for peace and justice for all of the peoples of Israel and Palestine.


For our podcast reviews for this week, we'll be looking at three that caught my ear.

First, on the Judaism unbound podcast, they are celebrating the release of episode number 365! Which means that one can listen to an episode each day for a year and not repeat any episodes. --- By the way, just thinking about listening to that many episodes of that podcast… that’s an amazing thing. I highly recommend it. I've probably listened to about two thirds of the episodes so far, so I'm getting there but still gonna be a while.

Anyway, the other guests for this week was Alex, I'm sorry, Alec. Gewirtz, who is described as “a community builder and writer who found co founded The Nearness, a community platform to nurture people in their spiritual lives. The nearness offers six week journeys where participants gathered digitally in regular small group conversations structured on conversation prompts, shared practices and mutual support. Garrett joins Dan Levinson and Lex Rothberg for the eighth episode in an ongoing mini series focused on Jewish spirituality.”

I was really intrigued by, towards the beginning of the episode, where there was some conversation about the idea of folks who described themselves as being spiritual but not religious, and that really got me thinking. I may touch on that some in a future episode of this podcast as well, because I think it's an interesting dynamic and I always come back to feeling frustration with the way we define the words “religion” and “spirituality,” but that's neither here nor there.

Anyway that you can find this episode on any of your favorite podcast programs, or on their website at

Okay, the second podcast I want to talk about is Chutzpod, in particular, the latest one which is episode 2.17. On this episode, the regular co-hosts, Rabbi Shira stuntman and actor Joshua Molina, are joined by a guest co-host, Sarah Polinsky, an actor from the TV show Reservation Dogs. They talk about the story of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law and the important lesson he taught Moses about avoiding burnout.

You can find this episode on any of your favorite podcast programs or by going to that is spelled C H U T Z P O D dot com.

And finally, I have to mention The Wondering Jews podcast. This is the podcast where to Jewish dads get Chai on cannabis, but then talk about the news headlines and talk about Jewish stuff and wherever that takes them. For episode number 91, the hosts Josh and Rory enjoyed an infused joint and then talked about Superbowl commercials and then used chat-GPT (the AI system that is being talked a lot about right now) to learn about this week's Torah portion. Interesting.

For this episode, you can to your usual places to download podcasts or you can go to


By the way, talking about Torah, I'm going to share a little bit about this week's Torah portion Mishpatim, which is Exodus 21:1 through 24:18, and I will say I did NOT use chat GPT for this little summary, but I did make use of Wikipedia and some other resources.

So anyway, in this text Mishpatim, this text deals with some of the laws and teachings of the covenant that the Hebrews were entering into with the divine at Mount Sinai and let's be frank, some of this stuff is really good. Some of it not so much.

In this passage, we do have quite a bit of subjects covered, this is probably one of the most packed in of the Torah portions. We have just a short list and this is not everything covered, but we have laws regarding slavery, sexual ethics, murder, financial practices, idolatry, judicial integrity, humane treatment of the enemy, but also instructions on ritual practices, the Sh’mita year, the Shabbat and the proper way to celebrate the major pilgrimage festivals.

But again, I would say some of the stuff is really good, humane, thoughtful teachings, some of it . . . no, not at all.

There's also a lot of a lot of blood. There's a lot of killing, and a lot of capital punishment for things that in our eyes today we would not see as appropriate for capital punishment. I personally don't see it's ever appropriate but particularly not for some of the things that Mishpatim says you should kill people for.

Throughout this recitation of laws we also have the idea amplified that these obligations, these mitzvot, come by way of a covenant or relationship between God and the people of Israel, which is finally highlighted at the end of this tour passage with a set of bloody ceremonies and then Moses going up Mount Sinai.

So this is a drama-filled section of Torah, but like the rest of Torah, is filled with both good and not so good teachings. So I, I feel the need to say that disclaimer, particularly approaching this from a humanistic standpoint. I I don't just take it as that's how God said (and it must be true). I just don't.


And finally, since the Jewish almanac podcast is created by, it shouldn't be a surprise that we do like talking about the Jewish calendar. And so our upcoming Shabbat starting on the evening of February 17 is Shabbat Shekalim. According to a Sefaria source sheet by Rabbi Alex Kress (and I'll have a link to that, by the way in the show notes), you're going to find that on our website So I'm going to read a little bit from Rabbi Kress’ source sheet:


The First of the Arba Parshiot

During the month or so before Passover, four Shabbatot are characterized by special maftir readings, called the Arba Parshiot [four Torah portions], which relate thematically to Purim or Passover: Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh.

Shabbat Shekalim–which takes place the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh for the month of Adar or on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Adar itself–is named for the maftir reading, Exodus 30:11. The maftir describes a census requiring every Israelite man to contribute a half shekel to support communal sacrifices in the portable tent of meeting and later at the Temple. The egalitarian nature of this contribution is emphasized–“the rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” The requirement that all individuals contribute equally to the community helped develop a sense of unity crucial to the new nation created by the Exodus.

In the special haftarah, 2 Kings 11:17-12:17, King Yehoash commanded that all money brought to the Temple be used for its repairs and renovations–both the required contributions and the free-will offerings. Shabbat Shekalim occurs about a month before Passover as a reminder that the due date for the half-shekel contributions was approaching, on 1 Nisan, a month later. Some people contribute to an institution of Jewish learning in remembrance of the half shekel.

I like that.

So in that spirit, I invite you to consider what institution of Jewish learning you might want to contribute to.

For myself, I'm going to give my half shekel equivalent to the Unyeshiva, the alternative yeshiva ran with the folks from JudaismUnbound and by the way, if you're not familiar with them, check them out on Unyeshiva.

This brings us to the end of episode one. Thank you so much for checking us out. And be sure to look for us next week. And don't forget we welcome listener comments our contact info is at Jewish Take care bye for now.