Wednesday, January 10, 2018

ME TOO and TIME IS UP!



I loved watching the Golden Globes last Sunday because, though I never know many (as in only one or two) of the shows or movies being honored, I love watching everyone celebrate. And this celebration was particularly poignant, celebrating real and true stories that we do not like to tell – stories of abuse, of not seeing and acknowledging the other, of dismissing those not like us and so on. ME TOO and TIME’S UP ruled the night. So I would like to build on this theme and challenge all of us to expand that notion a bit.

Sexual harassment and abuse is horrible and racial profiling should no longer be tolerated and speaking before one thinks, maligning whole groups of people is unforgiveable. That being said there are other stories we must tell, that may exist on the sidelines even more so than discussed that evening.

What if you don’t look like everyone else or the way other people think you should? True story. During my college years at a well-known and well-reputed University, I had a professor who clearly did not like me. This educated and respected person made no secret that he found me to be not to his liking and he was rather disturbed that I even had the temerity to take his high level course. He used the power of grades to communicate this to me. Nothing I would do was ever good enough or thoughtful enough or intelligent enough. I had a good friend in the course, whom I often sat next to that was just his type of person. So one day, my friend and I conducted an experiment, as everyone else in the room well knew what was going on. I did not open my mouth, but rather wrote down my observations and what I wanted to say. She saw my comments and made them as her own. As always, she was brilliant; so either I had an uncharacteristically good day or we caught him. For fun at the end of the class, she wrote something down and I made the comment. Dumb and dismissed as always, I received the characteristic exasperated reaction from the professor. I guess she was just having an off day as I had had a good one! Some time later, another professional at the University asked me what the deal was with Professor X. I asked why and his reply was, “He came into my office and asked what the hell that damn JAP was doing in his class.” So, I was being abused and dismissed because of the way I dressed and not conforming to the hippy dippy preferences of this professor in the mid seventies. Does that count so I get to say ME TOO and TIME’S UP?

What if you are a woman who is religiously observant, well-educated and professional and believe fervently in reaching across every aisle to show respect and regard for all others? Some experiences. For many years, I have been and continue to be subject to prejudices because of my level of observance on the left side of the continuum of identity in the Jewish community and maligned as “controversial” on the right side. I have suffered professionally, being closed out of one institution in which I was heavily invested for 20 years, subjected to inappropriate comments by male colleagues (e.g. “That is some skirt.” Or “How can you be religious – that makes you a hypocrite and a bigot.”), and literally fired from one position for the reason that I was “too religiously observant and not a good role model” when I was observing to the same degree as others in the community. In the last instance, I was physically attacked by a woman lay leader, suffered as a result and then could not take legal recourse, because it was a Jewish organization. Had it been non-Jewish, I would have been able to address the situation legally. I have also been accused through the years of giving too young of an appearance, another non-starter legally when it happened because ageism only worked decades ago when this happened if you were cast aside for being too old, not for looking too young. There are other instances, including conferences I go to and have to make overtures to people who do not want to interact with me because it is obvious that I am religiously observant. Too many times, I have heard “You are not like any other Orthodox Jewish person I have met.” I think we all need to widen our understanding of who people are and NOT make snap judgments based on appearances, affiliations and such. Because of the intersection of my religious identity and values I hold to be dear and foundational, I have lived my entire life as a religiously observant Jewish woman who works for conversation, understanding, acceptance, and dialogue across the Jewish spectrum, among various faith communities and for all of humanity. Does that count so I get to say ME TOO and TIME’S UP?

Strange enough, it’s the younger generation – my kids’ generation who often “gets me” more than my chronological peers. Maybe this idea of being “fluid” and accepting and welcoming is something all could learn from our new generation of budding leaders and promising “rock stars” in all corridors of our lives. I do feel respected and honored in an appropriate way from these wonderful adults and do believe that those of us who have gone through too many generations of not enough acceptance of each other have much to learn from our younger colleagues. Then, I think that what a very smart woman said the night of the Golden Globes may ring true – the day will come, G-d willing (my addition) that we will not have to raise our hands and voices and say ME TOO and TIME’S UP but we will look before we speak, not judge based on what we think is right and open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to what we can all teach and learn from each other.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Back in History Class – Or Going to the Movies -- A Personal Educational Resolution for 2018



So, here is how it all began for me. The night of the Academy Awards in the winter of 2011, my husband Ken and I realized we had not seen one single movie nominated or any movie for that matter for several years … Not in the movie theatres anyway. So, instead of watching a competition where we did not know anything about the competitors, we decided to go to the movies. As The King’s Speech was announced as the best movie of the year, we were watching the credits at the end of the movie roll by. Then I came home and googled the “true story,” and proceeded to learn all about King George VI, Elizabeth, the time of his reign, the abdication of his brother and so much else. I was fascinated and a little bit hooked on the pageantry, expanse, and details of the history of the British Empire. I am sure that the actual facts and figures must have been included in one or more of my high school and early college years of World History, but too long has passed and too much has been forgotten.

Fast forward about six years from that night at the movies! A few weeks ago, I am surfing the channels and movies on the various systems on our television trying to find something to watch and I come across The Young Victoria, the story of a teenager who becomes Queen of the same British Empire, this occurring in 1837. Her life pre-dates that of the story of The King’s Speech, and once again I consulted Ms. Google, my consistently reliable research assistant, to find out more about those chapters of history and the degree to which the movie depiction was valid. Another set of history classes into the wee hours of the morning. I was hooked.

So I have officially (for now) put aside my real television addiction of Law and Order (by the way, I am amazed that there are still segments I have not yet seen and am not even quite sure how this is possible) and began to look for these adaptations of chapters of history. After all, true stories retold seem to be the order of the day in our entertainment industry; and let’s face it, its much more colorful and engaging than pages and pages of dates and events that ended with tests in those long ago classes of dates and the order of events – something I always found a struggle to do successfully. I land on Viceroy’s House, the story of Lord Montbatten, the last official British official steward of India invested in handing back India and ultimately turning it over to its people as two units and separate countries, India and Pakistan. The attraction and interest was immediate, as I have long studied and been aware of many pieces of the story of the British Mandate and its aftermath in Israel/Palestine; and knew about the shared angsts and challenges in these two situations. So there we are in the landscape of 1947 India looking at religious strife, the fractured relationships between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and I am thinking, right, I saw this not so long ago in the movie, also based on a true story within the context of historical reality, Lion. The latter movie unveils a narrative of years after the former, but as those of us so connected to Israel know very well, when the war ends, the battle continues, so to speak, and it was just too easy and obvious to make so many comparisons. Another late night with my research assistant and her vast library of papers, tomes of chapters and the choices of narratives to further my understanding of the history I was presently devoted to learning about.

So yesterday, as 2018 dawned and we shared its first day together, Ken and I once again went television channel surfing and landed on The Crown. I feel like I have done well in the pre-requisites and am now well prepared for this longer and more involved history of Queen Elizabeth II, also coming to the throne at a ridiculously young age, as a result of the death of her father, King George VI of The King’s Speech. We actually binged – I think watching the first five episodes of the first season justifies my use of that word! I look forward to my continued education of this era and more insight into the might of The British Empire that left so many conflicts in its rear view mirror as decisions were made to leave areas under its control.

So while I never thought of New Year’s Resolutions per se, it appears that I have made one – to go back and relearn and reconsider various chapters of history that are part of the world community to which we belong. Learning these chapters is so important in that they are part of our shared heritage and help us better understand the conflicts, historical differences, unresolved hurts and all of the other elements that go into making us who we are as individuals, members of our community and citizens of the world. I have also reintroduced myself to the educational value of my visual technology (television) as providing me with wonderful narratives and stories in which to feel invested and then inspired to learn more. Okay, so back to The Crown. It is now Thursday and three days since our initial binge. I have to return to class – a nice balance of seeing the people, colors and scenes of long ago and then going to the pages of information that explain them.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Is It Me or Is Israel Calmer These Days?



My husband Ken and I just came back from Israel. It was too short of a time – only one week — but really quite wonderful. We spend time in Tel Aviv, Acco, Ginot Shomron and Jerusalem. In all of these cities as well as at the Ben Gurion airport, I noticed a calm that was so wonderful and encouraging. Perhaps, in terms of context, it was as a result of feeling the conflicted, fractured and difficult environment that I presently find in the United States. And yet, people still ask me, “Did you feel safe?” My answer is as close to an unequivocal YES as one can give in our world of today. It was comforting to walk through the old city, through the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Acco and see all of the Christians, Jews, Armenians, Muslims, people of different racial and ethnic groupings and just all doing whatever they were doing. This is much more often my experience of Israel than is the case for many who think about what goes on in this land, I believe. That is because I trust my surroundings and feel a kinship to other garbs indicating faith, not fear because of them or any need to retreat to horrible stereotypes.

I believe in this calm and in the many, many thousands of people that make it happen daily in so many dedicated efforts, programs and initiatives. In Israel, I know that there are indeed concerns about safety and security as there are in the rest of the world; but to be honest many of us who are often there tell stories of walking around all hours of the night, of sending our children off to play, and of so many markers of feeling that one is indeed safe and can have confidence in the other people with whom they come in contact in the vast majority of cases. To be sure, there are instances that do not support this sense, but coming back to the United States and to Philadelphia and seeing the news that now plays 24/7 here, is that sense really so strong in this country at this point in time?

I loved watching Muslim women shopping for clothes in Mamilla Mall, the throngs of people meandering through the streets of the Arab market and then through the Armenian and Christian quarters as well as the Jewish Quarter of the old city, and learning about the shared chapters of history and dynamics of the land as told through the stones of Acco and the narrated accounts of its sights. Learning about the music from so many lands in the new Kikar HaMusica (Music Courtyard) in Jerusalem off of Yoel Solomon again confirmed my sense that we as human beings share so much in terms of wanting to express ourselves and use our creativity. I always see this in the art, dance, music, theatre and so much else that Israel has to offer. I will parenthetically state that there were way too many tattoos in Tel Aviv that brought me up short, but apparently this is part of the scene there; who knew? Simultaneously, I noted there was less smoking, something I think that is a sort of unofficial barometer of the sense of calm or degree of stress at present in Israel. People were chatty, storekeepers sociable, and even the traffic seemed to be somewhat civil. I actually enjoyed being at the Kotel for the first time in what feels like decades.

There are certainly stark realities that confront you as well. Watching the lines of cars while we were waved through checkpoints was difficult, though I must state that we were stopped at one of the checkpoints and our car and its contents were checked. Driving through the countryside in our rented car or on our beautiful train trip from Tel Aviv to Acco, one could see some of the visibly depressed areas and these were difficult to consider. Yes, Israel is not all rosy and beautiful – it is a real country with beautiful aspects and challenging issues. It struggles with its dual identity as a Jewish nation and as a democratic state. Israel is challenged by different people, with their respective narratives, and claims to its soil. And of course, while these larger challenges loom, there are always those individuals who will act inappropriately and pose dangerous threats, thwarting the possibilities of what could be in this already amazing place. The important thing is to not allow these individual antagonists any more power when we consider Israel than one would when considering all that is good about the United States, while acknowledging our challenges alongside individuals and their aberrant behavior.

About a year ago, I ran a program for the Multi-Faith Council in which I am involved, called Israel: So Many Stories of Cooperation. It focused on those hundreds of thousands of people who are playing sports together across national, ethnic and religious lines; circus troupes that bring people together from those same groupings; cities of cooperation; organizations dedicated to environmental sustainability that involve all people and groups; cooperative medical ventures; a wonderful school system for Israeli and Arab students and their families; theatre groups that are sharing the narratives of so many different groups in Israel and so much else. I began the program by suggesting that all of the people in the room who were reeling as a result of what has been going on in this country take a few hours off from our reality and consider a much more peaceful and calm part of the world -- Israel with its Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, Bahai, Buddhist, many nationalities, and its population that IS DIVERSITY of the highest degree. Israel cannot escape this diversity and the many claims on its soul to be what so many different people need.

Maybe at this point in time, people in the United States are feeling just a bit of this as we are being brought up short to acknowledge the different populations in this country and the need to interact with each other and heal the many deep rifts that come from not acknowledging each other. Maybe, just maybe, Israel has a thing or two to teach us about this and we, too, can hope to reclaim some calm in our lives.

Friday, November 10, 2017

My Amazing Morning and Why Interfaith Discussions are Grand



As you must know by now if you have been reading my blog, I am a big fan, make that HUGE fan of Interfaith and Multi-Faith interactions and discussions -- not debates, not yelling matches, but deep and honest and caring and respectful sharing. Yesterday morning was such a wonderful experience and reinforced for me what I always know in my heart to be true – that we are all part of one big family and as one participant in the program I was privileged to be part of put it, we need to have our “family reunions.” And I maintain that we can’t have them often enough.

We have been trying for some time through the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council for which I am honored to serve as co-President (in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia) to have a get- together at the Masjidullah (Mosque of Allah) that is in our area and to reinforce earlier interactions with our Muslim brothers and sisters in faith as well as hopefully expand and increase our ongoing relationship with them. The first thing I must mention as about 30 of us sat down together in fellowship and to share our stories was the incredible hospitality that was extended to the members of the Multi-Faith Council as the members of the Masjidullah proceeded to feed our bodies, our souls and our minds with the beauty of the faith that is so central to their being and the community in which that faith is actualized. The history of this particular community is incredibly rich and meaningful as they shared amazing stories from the past 60 years or so of their journey as Muslims and as African Americans moving through the many chapters of the history of this country, experiencing so many emotions and changes in their situation. I really hope that someone or a group of them sit down and put this information in a book because their narrative is so incredibly full, and the legacy formulated by these experiences must be preserved.

Around the table we represented a variety of ethnicities, religious groupings, national identities and so much else, but as was repeatedly stated, we are all part of the family that began with Adam and Eve. Throughout the time we were together there was a great deal of honest intentional listening and deepening of understanding. We learned and celebrated our many similarities while honoring and respecting our differences. I was particularly touched that the Imam and those who planned the day not only provided us with a beautiful lunch, but also insured it was kosher so that all could partake.

As one member of the Masjidullah began the morning by explaining why Philadelphia is the #12 Muslim community in the United States, he shared that it was connected to numerology – the many different ways in which the number 12 came up in names, counts, etc. Dr. Ruth Sandberg, my amazing co-President and the only other Jewish person in the gathering, and I looked at each other and began to laugh – who knew we were coming to a Muslim space to learn about gematria!?!

We shared our connections to God, our perceptions about the prophets, the various similarities in our prayer practices as well as points of differentiation. And most important the Christians and Jews in the room learned about the special nature of this Muslim community of #12 Philadelphia origins. What a legacy that included the likes of Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others! We were given a wonderful insight into what becoming Muslim meant to those who had converted at some point in their lives and their very intentional practice of their faith. This is something I always want to bottle and spread around to those who do not think that deeply about who they are as people of faith for a variety of reasons, often perhaps, because they never had to consider that. This resonates for me when I work with and interact with potential converts on their journey to an Orthodox Jewish conversion.

Intentionality, trust and understanding – that was what was exuded by all in this wonderful circle of sharing and learning! I so look forward to when we all meet again, and I know we will because we will all be intentional about making that happen! I know that God in all the different iterations of how we relate to The Divine One is smiling and saying, “Yes, this is what I want for my children – ALL of my children! Get to know each other and how wonderful you all are!”

Monday, October 30, 2017

Parshat Lech Lecha 5778

Please note that this D'var Torah was shared at our Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat minyan; it is still relevant for several weeks to come in terms of the text we continue to read and for our lives in thinking about what we fight for, the faith that motivates us, and why.

We live in an age of too many words, too many versions of stories we may not know much about and too many pulls on our intellect, emotions and sanity in trying to figure out what exactly is going on. What is the real story and not fabricated versions of what has happened? Further, is there even such a thing as a completely TRUE distillation of events or is every narrative filtered through various lenses as we try to decipher its meanings and the elements of its various threads? And what are the lessons of those stories that explain why we keep telling them over and over again? This is precisely the work of Biblical commentary when we look at these stories of our Torah that form the foundation of the story that we have inherited, continue to tell and will pass on as our legacy to those to come. And we have some difficult components of this week’s telling of Lech Lecha to be sure.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi or Nachmanides does not having any qualms about calling the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to task for deeds that are less than honorable. In commenting about this week’s Parsha’s narrative, particularly those events chronicled in 12:11 ff regarding how Avram acts when he realizes that the Egyptians may kill him because of his beautiful Sarah, Nachmanides teaches as follows:

Know that Avram our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling block of sin on account of his fear for his life. He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings, for God surely has the power to help and to save. … It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.

Later in Chapter 16, when Sarai comes complaining to Avram about Hagar and Avram tells her to do with her maidservant as she sees fit, Nachmanides is none too pleased with her either, as he explains

Our mother Sarai transgressed by causing this affliction in sending Hagar away as did Avram by allowing her to do so. So God heard Hagar’s cries and gave her a son who would be a wild man to afflict the seed of Avram and Sarai with all kinds of trouble.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that we must understand the context of this thinking as Nachmanides unpacks the text for us. Where does it come from? In Ramban’s own age (1194 – 1270), Jews were subject to attack by radical Islamist, the Almodhads, who ended what we know as the tolerant rule of the Umayyads and the Golden Age of Spain. Ramban and his contemporaries were clearly suffering and no doubt were put in the situation of having to make forced choices amongst alternatives that were not favorable or perhaps, even honorable. It may well have been this reality of his historical context that provided the overlay for how he saw, perhaps, justified Jewish suffering as a result of these missteps of those who birthed nations to come.

Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508) was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, and commentator who looks at these events a bit differently. He suggests that Avram would have been willing to save Sarai with sacrificing his life; but he realized that Sarai would have been abducted anyway if he was no longer alive. Therefore, he may have realized that allowing himself to be killed for her sake as her husband would have been futile and thus claimed she was his sister. Abarbanel compares this to Aaron and the Egel HaMasecha – if he had not allowed the people to do what they wanted, they would have killed him and then done what they pleased, so what would be the point? Again, Abarbanel lived at a time when the Jewish people were often under attack and thus subjected to forced choices. Maybe for him the lesson is how does one decide in such impossible situtions in which there are choiceless or forced choices?

A bit later in the narrative (18: 12ff) when Sarah and Avraham are told they shall have a son of their own, Sarah laughs, and again many commentators have a really hard time justifying this action. Abarbanel asks where is Avraham’s and Sarah’s faith in God. Here he compares them to Noach whom God tells to build an ark and to save his family and he does not ask any questions but rather does all that God tells him to do in exactly the way God tells him to do it. While Rashi and others claim that this very difference is the source of why we consider Avraham and Sarah better role models of so much as they are worried about others, serving guests, negotiating for the people of Sodom and Amora while Noach just worries about his family; Abarbanel shows us that something else is going on here. Where is the faith in God that Avraham and Sarah are to have? Why are they not able to call upon it when it matters the most in their personal lives?

Nechama Leibowitz has us ask WHY did God choose Avram? Clearly God is invested in all people and ultimately we all have one father, going back to the story of Creation. But what exactly is going on here? Why is Avraham instructed to leave all that he knows and go to the place that God will show him? Nechama states that no reason is given. We know why Noach was chosen – he showed himself to be worthy and followed God in every way. But Avraham – we do not know why he was chosen or that he should have been the one who was chosen, given the various choices and actions we see that made up the totality of his life. He protects and advocates on behalf of the people of Sodom and Amora but lies to save his life, potentially putting Sarah in danger. He welcomes guests to his home and rolls out the red carpet for them while showing readiness to sacrifice his son, replicating practices that no doubt he saw during his formative years. What lesson is there in his becoming Avraham Aveinu and in Sarah being Sarah Emeinu for us today? To be sure, we have all talked many times in different venues about how the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs are imperfect. We embrace the Jewish narrative of the Torah in which we see their doubts, their flaws, and their shortcomings. That being said, I want to suggest something else.

Perhaps it is their lack of faith or the expanse of that faith in God so repeatedly chronicled in this and in coming Parshiot that we are to take note of and watch. These chapters of our past may have their most probative value in showing us how God and our ancestors negotiate what faith looks like. It is not automatic, it is not unquestioning, it is not blind. Rather, it is hard work and requires working through a relationship even when there are difficulties that threaten to sever that relationship. Further, maybe these experiences provide a context for God to show us the breath and breadth of God’s capacity in instructing us that there is a reason for us to place our faith in God. Ultimately, Sarah is not raped or taken by the Pharaoh, Hagar and Yishmael are saved and Yitzchak is born. That being said, there are consequences – we will be slaves in Egypt, Yitzchak’s generations to come will be in conflict and Yitzchak will not laugh at every juncture in his life. My point is not to create artificial and untenable equations here, but rather to indicate the complication that is inherent in the trajectory of our lives and in the many chapters we live through, as well as the extent to which faith gets us through them.

We speak of the Ten Tests of Avraham. I like to point out that the Hebrew word for testing and experiencing is the same word, n-s-h, which is to say every experience we have is potentially a test. We constantly are called to “put our faith to the test” in our lives, finding ourselves in impossible situations with choiceless choices to be made. Perhaps this is one of, if not the most salient lesson that Avraham Aveinu and Sarah Emeinu bequeath to us. Further, these tests of faith most powerfully present when they involve the fate or have ramifications for the ones we love the most. We are willing to argue for a just cause for others, we are willing to acquiesce to the requests of others when it is not a matter of life or death for us as does Avraham when he and Lot come to a land that must be divided between them and their groups. It is when it is OUR LIFE or OUR PERSONAL DESTINY that our faith is most put to the test. It is here that Avraham and Sarah may not get the highest scores.

Pastor Rick Warren, an Evangelical Christian minister explains as follows:

The Bible also tells us that with every promise there is a condition. One of the conditions for this promise is that you have to trust God. The more you trust God, the more God is able to meet needs in your life.

So, how can you learn to trust God more so God can meet all of your needs? How can you learn to have greater faith?

You don’t get faith by sitting in a Bible study group or just talking about it. Faith is like a muscle; it develops by being used. The more you use your faith, the more it gets stretched. And the more it gets stretched, the more God is able to bless your life.

We call the circumstances that God creates to stretch our faith "trials."


Stretching our Faith by Trials – this is what happens to Avraham ten times in our narrative. And as Pastor Rick says, the more Avraham uses his faith, it gets stretched and honed and expands. Maybe this is the most salient lesson of Avraham Aveinu and Sarah Emeinu – yes, there is their imperfection, but here we are talking about something else. How far can you stretch and use your faith so that it expands to the point that God is always part of the equation as you make decisions? The degree to which we can do that will directly impact the place of faith in our lives and the ongoing relationship we craft through its presence with God and all those around us, and for this lesson taught we thank Avraham Aveinu and Sarah Emeinu.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Context is Everything – Now What Are We Supposed To Do? -- A Lesson about Processing our Laws and Practices



As I continue my learning of Masechet Kiddushin in the Gemara (Talmud) I am continually struck by not so much the laws and practices and discussion of them in the text, but more so by the context in which they are developed and the resultant adaptation. I continue to be more and more certain that we HAVE to look at the spirit of the law and the times in which it was developed and extrapolate lessons for our days, our time and our context in terms of this adaptive process. We need to remember not get tripped up on what one thinks to be the exact following of this practice or that tradition without a full understanding of how it came to be the practice it was and the nuances that are involved in that process as well as the resulting practice. Let me explain. I am in the middle of Perek Sheni (Chapter Two) of Mas. Kiddushin for those familiar with the text and am specifically engrossed by a discussion regarding marriages that are valid and those that are not. From a contemporary point of view, this discussion may seem odd at best and sit-com ridiculous at best. Here is an example (promise not to laugh too hard or shake your head too vigorously)!

On 51b (for those of you who want to check this out) we learn as follows:

“One who has two groups of daughters from two wives and says ‘I gave my oldest daughter to a certain man for marriage but I do not know if it was the oldest daughter of the older group of daughters or it was the eldest daughter of the younger ones… or the oldest daughter of this wife or the oldest daughter of that wife…’ they are all prohibited to marry other men except for the youngest daughter of the group of youngest ones.”

Okay, where do we begin? First of all let me assure you this is NOT part of a comedy sketch, but a realistic question. So before we even address the issue, remember that at this time as for so much of history marriage was in fact a business arrangement, not a love match. Involved were factors including maintaining of family fortunes, status, and connection to other families with whom there was already a generational connection as well as insuring the birth of children who would do all of the same things. Ask around in your own families and if you go far back enough, say as little as two generations for some of us, you will find that this discussion from no later than 600 CE would still be relevant, even operative say, 70 years ago. In some parts of the world today, it still is.

So before you pull out your NOW (National Organization of Women) posters and go to your nearest “How Horrible Men Are Rally,” consider that everyone, INCLUDING MEN, had scripted roles in communities to insure the viability and continuation of those groups of people and all that they had built up. Also to be factored in is that health care was not what it is in our world (though it still is not what we would want and need in too much of our world today, if we are honest with ourselves) and giving birth was always considered a “sakana” or a danger; that is a rather compelling reason that it was men who are commanded by Jewish Law to have children; women just agreed to help them do so (how nice of us!). And then of course there is this – people were not professionals and quality of life was just so different it is impossible for us to imagine the cultural, historical and social context of the backdrop against which these practices were implemented.

That being said, contracts, word of mouth, designation of status of people, stating use for things, and so much else were very much part of everyday life and it is the most basic of principles regarding these elements that informed the development of so many practices in so many categories. Within this context, laws and practices of marriage and divorce were based on what we might call today in modern legal terms “contract law.” Feelings, desires of one person in terms of charting out their destiny and fulfilling one’s dreams – so greatly encouraged today in many parts of our reality – just did not happen at this time generally.

As we continue in the same text, we learn a few lines later as follows:

“If a man marries one of two sisters and got mixed up and does not know which one he set out to marry, he must give a bill of divorce to both of them.”

Really? How can one be so UNINTENTIONAL about whom one marries? Yes, that may feel foreign to us today (though again not necessarily in all parts of the world as we know it) but marriage was one of the things one did as one journeyed through life, without the intentionality we would hope is attached to it today. Remember that people did not date for a few years or meet in college, but rather were matched for a variety of reasons as explained above.

Back to what I like and find so remarkable about this discussion. Within this extremely foreign context with its seemingly questionable practices, which were part of society at the time, great pains are taken to insure that injustices are not committed within the parameters of these practices, as they existed. Men are not to engage in these arrangements without thought, women are not to be considered unworthy and not respected, women are not to be left in unquestionable situations as to whether or not they are married, there are great pains to insure that children are not born without proper and known lineage and so on. Marriages and divorces are to be undertaken with intention and to be done in a respectable way.

Again, for many of us today, there may be no way to make any of this respectable in our eyes. But, this is where our context is so important. If, in a world that was “not as evolved” as we think we are, these concerns are carefully, repeatedly and painstakingly constructed, de-constructed and re-constructed to insure proper practice, this is quite instructive. That alone would be a good practice for today.

If we were to ask ourselves these same questions: Are our practices accommodating the impact of the actual things we do to others? Are all parties to a contract or any arranged interaction respected and addressed in a way that is “for their sake” (a concept that is continually repeated as discussed in this blog previously regarding what is for the sake of the woman)? Are we acting intentionally and considering all of the different aspects of what we are doing in a way that is fair and just?

If we could just do that much, and, since we do think and believe our basic practices are so much more evolved, imagine what a world we could build together…. in the spirit of the very intentional development of the law of the Talmud.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Our Post- Holiday (Chag) Season of Taking Account of Ourselves, Women and the Rights of All



Note: I was in the middle of writing this when my daughter, Rachie, shared her brilliant Rosh HaShana Drash and felt it was so timely and well expressed, I bumped this to the next entry. Of course, it’s all related, so to continue Rachie’s thinking….

We in the Jewish community find ourselves in a very pensive and reflective time. At this juncture, we think endlessly about ourselves, our communities, the laws and practices that bind and define us as well as their actual intent that should inform how we practice them. Within the context of this consideration, I continue to learn Masechet Kiddushin from our vast lore of law and explanations of how they are to be observed known as our Talmud in the Jewish community. I continue to be amazed at the subtext that is anything but hidden in the discussion of the Rabbis – the Tannaim, the Amoraim, and for those of us who acknowledge them, the Sebaraiim. As they painstakingly meander through conflicting interests and try continually to be true to all elements of the scripted and commanded law, this is done with questions as much as answers, respect for differences as much as focusing on one’s own thinking and with concern for all members of the community, even when they may be, and they are at times, in disadvantaged positions. Clearly, as this is the last Tractate of the Order of Women in the Talmud, the various ways that women can maintain their own agency or get it back or not give it up will surely cause many to scratch their heads in wonder regarding why these are really even issues, often feeling antiquated and out of touch with our present reality. The present reality of those of us who live the life of privilege offered by some elements of our contemporary society, that is. However, when considering the time, the culture, the historical epoch of this text and just what life was like up to about 600 CE, I am continually struck that if we in today’s world – if our leaders – would work as painstakingly to insure fairness and proper application of the law as intended, we might not be in the mess we are.

There was a particular statement found on Kiddushin 40a within the context of a discussion about how good things are supposed to happen to good people and bad things are not, but are supposed to be reserved for bad people. You know, the age-old problem of theodicy – when bad things do indeed happen to good people. How do we square that? Basically we do not, it is the way of the world on many levels, and part of the reality of too many intersecting journeys of too many individuals as well as the reactions of our environment to so much, often things over which we may and should have control over. Within this discussion, there is mention of the “good righteous person.” Of course, immediately the question is raised, “Is there such a thing as a bad (or not good) righteous person?” So as it turns out, we are taught as follows: “Yes there is a ‘tzaddik tov’ -- a good righteous person and there is a ‘tzaddik she’eino tov’ - that is a righteous person that is not good. The one who is a righteous person in their dealings with God and with fellow human beings is a good righteous person; the person who is righteous in their dealings with God and not with their fellow human beings and other aspects of our world is a righteous person who is not good.” That is, piety that is only God directed and not shared and distributed as good acts with and for others is NOT the preferred path in Jewish law.

A foundational teaching of Jewish Law is that it is actually through our treatment of each other and in our negotiating with those different than we are that we are to find our true character – be it good or not so good. I am often validated by my Muslim and Christian friends that my suspicion that this is true for them as well, given my text study of their sources (which is clearly not anywhere as extensive as my learning of Jewish sources) is accurate. God wants the same from all of us – to learn from and with each other and in so doing to discern the many ways that God, whatever one calls The Divine One, is present in our lives in every moment, every place and every one with whom we interact.

Are there inequities and more needed balance in the actual position of women in this society from our past of which our Talmud speaks? Of course there are – as there are for children, for those with various differences (that is disabilities in many cases), those of different social status and strata, and so on. It would be dishonest to say otherwise. However, what is fascinating to me is the recognition of these inequities in Jewish law and not only a willingness but a requirement to address them – not always to the satisfaction of all, but again, if we could only reach such a level of concern for others in our world today as a collective, we would be so much better off. Women who live in poverty and who are abused, children who are malnourished, those with physical, emotional or mental challenges who are ignored and others with such stations in life should not be cast aside and there is NOTHING in Jewish Law that allows, justifies, or in any way excuses such inhumane or ungodly treatment.

Rachie was definitely on to something so important when she decided that others in her community could check the Eruv (that boundary string that allows enhanced celebration and observance of Shabbat) while she would use that time to help a Sanctuary family, who needed human interaction as well as resources and basic necessities. My daughter Talie who is working with underserved populations patiently and with respect and honor for all those who need her physician hands, mind and soul for healing is living these words of Torah and Jewish Law. The many people who daily have to make decisions whether to continue their comfortable patterns of prayer and service to God but do not touch those who need to be touch or interact with those who just want to be noticed need to step back and truly look at the words we say and learn and understand the action they are meant to lead us to.

When one looks at the many words of this past season of liturgy in the Jewish faith, there is so much talk about what we need to do better to get closer to God and to live the life that God wants for us to live. For those of us who do not feel that The Holy One, whatever we call God, is not as imminent in our lives, let us take up the charge that we can find proof or at least important indication and validation of God’s existence in the care and concern of other human beings. Let us be those human beings.

Just as we learn in the Talmud that women are to be able to have agency in their decisions, though not all of the voices in the Talmud agree, the arguments that this should be so are compelling and honor the station of women in life. Just as we are taught that we are not to disadvantage another by our actions, let us consider what that means in the practicality of everyday life. Just as respect for individuals and society are valued and strongly considered in the distillation of practices that evolve from Torah standards, let us remember that at its best, that is precisely what our society asks of us.

In the Jewish community, there is often a feeling of “what now?” after this intense season. In fact, our next month which begins this coming Shabbat, Cheshvan -- is actually called Mar Cheshvan (poor little Chesvan without holidays and special observances). However, I think Cheshvan can absolutely be amazing if we take all that we have learned, all that we have prayed for and all that we have expressed as our hopes to God for a better world and work with our hands, our resources, our energy and our abilities to make it so.