Friday, April 22, 2016

A Simple Thought About Questions and Our Sedarim

It is a bit after noon on Friday, April 22, 2016 (14 Nissan 5776)and the last things to do for Seder preps cannot be done until later – matzah balls in the soup, set the table (always done later just for fun) and the green vegetables for tonight and tomorrow. So, my thoughts turn to the Seder itself. What is the most important part of the Seder itself? Okay so those of you who know the script will answer PASCHAL LAMB, MATZAH and MAROR. But, wait that is not really what I mean – so allow me to illustrate. Our five-year old Kindergarten students (daughters of my daughter, my husband calls them grandchildren, go figure!) informed me yesterday that everyone was put on buses at their day school and taken to a synagogue for their model Seder. So today, when we were just hanging out with the first of the Boston segment of the family who is back for Seders, our daughter and their most lovely and intelligent Aunt Rachie, we asked them why this was done? (My question to them.) They did not know how to respond. So then I asked them the following questions: How big was the room where they had their entire school come together for their Model Seder? Do they have a room that is that big at their school? They got it! Then I went back to the original question – Why did you all get on buses and go to a synagogue? Answer? Because we did not have a room big enough at our school to hold everyone and the parents who also came!

This is the lesson of Pesach. How do we ask questions and what are the answers that the questions yield? What are the pre-questions (think pre-quel, which everyone is so into these days!)? In this way, everyone is heard, we get to clarify what we mean to say and we achieve meaningful conversation. Too often and too sadly, this is a lost art. With presidential candidates interrupting each other and shouting each other down, people in the workplace not listening to the other but so focused on getting their point across, what happened to meaningful conversation.

Tonight (and tomorrow night for those of us not in Israel) we will be going through scripted conversations. WATCH how the Rabbis speak with – NOT TO OR AT – each other, really try to get to the root of their questions and watch what each learns in the ensuing dialogue. This is precisely why our seders go on until two or three o’clock in the morning – because we discuss, explore, think about each others’ thoughts and truly and intentionally listen to each other.

How I wish we could all do exactly this in our daily lives. It may take a bit longer to get through a conversation but imagine what it would mean in terms of how we relate to each other. If we do not understand or agree with the question or comment at hand, let us not shout down the other with our view so intent on making OUR point. Rather, let us remember that listening to the other is more important in communication than anything we say. Or to think about this in another way, there is a sign in Neli and Neima’s (the children in this conversation) classroom that reminds all that LISTEN AND SILENT ARE MADE UP OF THE SAME LETTERS. Now there is a lesson for us all to learn.

So here is my question for now: What is the most important part of your Seder itself? Chag Kasher v’Sameach to all.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Parshat Metzora, Shabbat HaGadol 2016/5776 April 16, 2016/ 8 Nissan 5776

If you love Divrei Torah, you have Rabbi Isaac Bernays, the Chief Rabbi of Hamburg Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century to thank! Originally Divrei Torah were only given on Shabbat HaGadol (today) and Shabbat Shuvah during the Aseret Yimai Teshuvah in the Jewish community. The sermon as such was an import from the outside and other religious traditions. Bernays wanted to stem the tide of the religiously observant Jews not becoming the outsiders and maintaining their place in the larger German social and secular community and adopted this practice (along with others such as the wearing of canonicals) from the Christian world, bringing it into the Jewish community as an established practice. In every way, he was a social reformer – bringing general education, often only available to the wealthier classes, into his Talmud Torah schooling system in 1822. In so many ways, while the name Samson Raphael Hirsch is credited with the beginning of neo-Orthodoxy, it was his teacher, Bernays who set the tone for the integration of religious and general life that we know so well today.

So here we are on Shabbat HaGadol, preparing for Pesach, and talking about outsiders in Parshat Metzora. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz writes as follows regarding how we think about Shabbat HaGadol:

The source for this name, mentioned in Halachic sources for over one thousand years, is not known. Various theories have been offered, one of which is the desire to connect this Shabbat to Passover. Indeed, different traditions in Jewish communities point to this. For example, there is a tradition to read the Passover Haggada on this Shabbat as preparation for the Seder. There is also a tradition for the rabbi of the community to deliver a sermon on this Shabbat regarding the halachot and significance of the holiday.

It seems not to be coincidental that Shabbat was chosen as the day on which to prepare for Passover. Shabbat is closely linked to the Exodus from Egypt, and therefore to Passover. As we say in kiddush on Friday evening, “... and with love and favor gave us His holy Shabbat as a heritage, a remembrance of Creation. [For that day is] the prologue to the holy convocations, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.”

As we think about this event of Yitziat Mitzrayim, it is so important to remember that ALL members of B’nai Yisrael were included in this event. In fact, we say this as part of our Seder when we enjoin all to remember that WE WERE all involved in this seminal event, NOT JUST the generations from long ago. We invite all those who need to do so, to come and join our Seder in our words. Do we do this in our deeds? We say the words about every generation remembering the taste of servitude to a human master and the freedom of that servitude; do we act in our deeds with such a remembering mindset? In short are we welcoming to all, and inclusive to the degree that all are insiders or are there still outsiders in our lives and in our communities today?

So, now we turn to our Parsha. First of all, look at the word Metzora - מצרע. Notice the various words incorporated in it – narrow straits - צר (as in Mitzrayim); then there is root for sorrow or distress - צער; and finally the root for STOP - עצר. Let us think about various forms of distress associated with this topic and how we have the power to stop it – by reintroducing all of us into the total collective of our community. We learn in Parshat Metzora about the purification process of the one who is afflicted with Tzara’at. Many of the steps of this process are similar to that of the Karban Pesach – perhaps precisely because this applied to all members of the community and was focused on their full inclusion in the religious ritual of the collective. Further, while there is concern about purity and the need for isolation, which can indeed serve purposes medically and psychologically, we are more wrapped up with the details of re-entry – that is insuring that the person afflicted with Tza’ra’at is NOT excluded from the community permanently. Do we take this process to heart today?

In the Gemara, there are so many comparisons between the Metzora, the Ovel and the Menudeh, along with others who might be “thought to be excluded” for one reason or another. Why do we compare these three types of people? How do we see them as connected to each other? What are they each experiencing, as they are “outside the camp,” so to speak? They are experiencing loss of companionship, of inclusion and of ability to participate fully in the ongoing life of community, with its rituals, Mitzvot and ongoing life of observance and celebration. This notion of potential “outsiders” is expressed time and again in the Gemara – Masechet Pesachim, Yevamot, Hagiga, Moed Katan, Megilah, and so on. Within this myriad of discussions, the focus is consistently on enabling and insuring the fullest participation possible of all potentially marginalized members and groupings of our communal society.

Consider the following amazing teaching from Masechet Pesachim: In Perek Shvii, there is an extensive examination of how we insure that all members of the B’nai Yisrael can indeed participate in the Karban Pesach. It is in this context that the differentiation of those who are Tahor/pure and those who have some Tum’ah/impurity is articulated in how it is insured that ALL members of the community can participate. Percentages of groups with varying tum’ot are mentioned and the Rabbis present different options of how to insure group inclusion. At one point it is actually suggested that if just less than half of a group have Tum’ot and just more than half of a group are not so impaired, how do we insure that the group can participate in the Karban Pesach. One solution given is to provide a “sheretz” – some unclean thing to just enough, even one person, members of the group to make more than ½ of the group in the Tum’ah category and thus able to participate as a group with the Korban Pesach. What a concept!

Within this discussion on 80a, we read:

בצייבור דחויה טומאה עלמא דכולי Everyone agrees that Tum’ah is overridden by community

In other words, it was so important to facilitate the participation of everyone and not to render anyone as an “outsider” that various elements of Tum’ah were set aside to facilitate everyone being considered an insider. This is also evident in discussions about obligations to hear Shofar, to be in a Sukkah, hear Megillah, offer the Hagiga offering, and participate in Jewish community in so many other facets.

Tza’ra’at, so associated with Miriam and her experience in speaking against Moshe as we are often taught, becomes a moment for learning for all as Moshe indicates they will not move on without his sister and Miriam herself is healed, both on the surface, and perhaps internally as she may come to the realization that when one uses speech to render someone an outsider, the speaker in this instance becomes the outsider – the one excluded – and is brought in by the compassion and the “stepping up” of the one they may have wronged. What an important lesson to be applied in our lives today when we think of our community and who is included!

There is another important lesson here. Our lives as human beings are all about living on the continuum of pure and impure – these are not static points, but rather moving parts of the ongoing reality of our lives. Our Law gives us approaches to deal with them, through participation in the community and coming together, need for reflection and sometimes a measured dose of isolation, and then full inclusion. Is this about outsiders and insiders, or rather about how each of us fall into all stated categories at some point. That is to say, any of us who has a visible physical deficit or a skin affliction (think poison ivy, eczema, allergic rashes, etc.) knows the feeling of being looked at differently. As suggested by a second grader many years ago when I was teaching this Parsha, maybe the purpose of the isolation is NOT for the community but for the individual to not be hurt or embarrassed but to focus on their own healing. Now that is a sobering thought.

As the Parsha continues, we come across Nidah, Zav, Zavah, Ba’al Keri – amplifying the point that all of these experiences are just part of being human as are the various differentiations in our lives. While there are lengthy discussions about how we separate from the individual in question – whether an ovel, a metzora or a menudeh – the real goal of the discussion is how we include as many people as possible as often as possible and while the law scripts that inclusion, it is up to us as people of compassion, following G-d as Rachmana, to insure that it happens fully and completely.

Maybe just maybe when we read the words: מטמאצם ישראל בני את והזרתם And you shall separate the B’nai Yisrael from their Tum’ah

at the end of our Parsha, this lack of understanding that does not put community first and show compassion to each individual is the most profound Tum’ah of all!

Is this not the message of Pesach with our reading about our Aramean beginnings, our different types of children, the lengthy discussions of our learned forebearers and their different approaches, the many different foods and what they represent and so on. None of these discussions are about US and THEM -- the insiders and the outsiders -- but rather how to insure that we all remain insiders to the greatest degree possible so that when an individual is rendered what could potentially be considered an “outsider,” pause is taken and law is remembered. This was clearly the concern of our teachers from long ago; let our teachers today and all of us remember this as we prepare for this Pesach. I do believe Rabbi Bernays would find this an appropriate Shabbat HaGadol lesson to consider.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Oh the people we meet….

No this is not about Dr. Seuss, as much as we have all enjoyed his oh so valuable contribution to our individual and collective literary development. What this is about is – the wonderful people who have been part of my life in different chapters with whom I have reconnected recently. A college roommate whom I hope to see in a few months when Ken and I are in Atlanta, a best friend from college with whom I have promised myself to have a phone conversation soon simply ecause I have mentioned him to so many people recently, a wonderful friend whom I met in my twenties who just spent Shabbat with Ken and me and her husband, some Orthodox Rabbis whom I have always liked best as a result of some work I am presently doing for ESHEL, two friends from separate parts of my high school life who ended up marrying each other not so long ago and with whom I had a wonderful dinner a few months ago, and so it goes.

I have truly been blessed with so many people in my life and so many different venues and communities of which I have been part. I never separate easily and remember such sadness when it was the last day at a school I was leaving, or the end of a work assignment or when I realized I was not going to an annual retreat called CAJE any longer after 28 years of consistent attendance. So, imagine, how excited when these wonderful people circle back in my life. It definitely gives me a sense of the many places I have been (thanks again for the reference, Dr. Seuss!)

My eldest daughter has friends in her life from high school and even earlier, all the way back to her earliest years as a very young child. I really love that. It is even more meaningful to me when I myself have various degrees of friendship with the parents of these thirty-somethings! And now their children – the third generation – are friends. This is one of the profound blessings I have in my life for which I am so grateful. It is the friendships that I have had consistently for decades that truly make me feel grounded. How much fun it is to be in a room with people I have known so long and to realize that my husband of 22 years is one of my “newer friends,” which does still happen from time to time.

Years ago, someone I know was so distraught when a member of her community, an occasional friend, died suddenly. I distinctly remember her saying that they were going to get together and it never happened. Oh yes, I definitely have those friends with whom I play phone tag trying to arrange time together and of course, we are all busy. Nonetheless, it is so wonderful and so grounding to know that these people are in my life and that I can reach out to them, whether it is a childhood friend who lives in Nevada and talk on the phone while decades can just vanish as do the miles that separate us geographically.

I love pretty and well decorated environments and do indeed take pride in the beautiful home that my husband and I have created along with our four children and now two spouses and three members of the next generation – Yoella’s (that eldest daughter) girls. That being said, I have always claimed that I would rather be judged or thought of not for the materials in my environment but for the people there. And it is clear that these people I have met in so many chapters of my life are still here…. And this gives me so much hope for continued chapters of sharing and growing for all of us. And yes, I will call my friend from college soon!!!! Why don’t we all think about those people in our lives and do the same?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Another Cyber Siyyum: Masechet Moed Katan

Several days ago I completed my learning (this time around, as we all hope to return and learn more at a later date from all of the texts we explore and interact with) of Masechet Moed Katan. This ended up being particularly meaningful for me for very personal reasons.

Those of us who are Halachically observant (living according to Jewish law) are often asked if there are things that bother us about this system as it is articulated and in how it developed. Even as we look at where we are presently in the Jewish calendar, there are those who have issues with Purim, which we just celebrated with great merriment, due to the mass killing that is carried out at the end of the narrative by the Jews and its sometimes troubling message of destroying Amalek and who Amalek may be taken to be in various generations. Further, as we are presently learning Parshat Shemini (the third portion of Torah reading of the book of BaYikra/Leviticus) and read the narrative about Aaron’s sons who are killed for showing their love for G-d in an original and unscripted manner as well as laws of dietary restrictions that too many people do not understand, this quandary is clear and present.

I am reasonably sure that most, if not all religiously observant Jews must have some area of law that troubles them, usually connected to personal experiences, where perhaps, if I can be so bold, they feel let down by this system that dictates our lives. For me it has always been in the area of the laws of Avelut, or mourning. I remember many years ago, when I had just lost a pregnancy a bit more than mid-way into gestation, I did not listen to the rules about bed rest and went with my husband to a class given by an area Rabbi. I will always remember his reference to the teaching that “to mourn is public and can be dictated; to grieve is private and one has to do what is needed for themselves.” This always stuck with me and the more I engage in my learning of Talmud, the more I see that this kindness and compassion is clearly present.

As I have learned in Moed Katan, there is a great deal to be taught and learned about mourning and what we do when we lose someone in our lives. So one of the set of rules and regulations about mourning is that if you lose one of your primary relatives (parent, spouse, child, sibling and assorted associated others according to some of the voices in the Talmud and elsewhere), the seven days of staying at home to be consoled by others is canceled if the death occurs within a set period before a Yom Tov/Holiday. Further, if such a death occurs within a certain window, say before Yom Kippur and thus a set number of days before Sukkot which occurs five days later, then the Sheloshim – the thirty days of restrictive practices that the mourner observes is also cancelled. I just lived through this with the death of my mother on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat immediately before Yom Kippur. When my dad died on Rosh Hodesh Elul, just five weeks before, we observed all of the various periods of restrictions, coming slowly out into full public life. It made sense. When my mom died, I had a hard time making sense out of the loss of these periods of time to share with others, to think and just adjust, especially having lost both parents in five weeks. I ended up doing most of my processing by myself and with one cousin with whom I am particularly close. It felt more solitary and at times that was challenging for me.

Enter my study of Moed Katan and the explanations. Why does the observance of these community celebrations trump the restrictive isolation of the mourner? Is this fair? As I continued to go through the arguments and the back and forth discussion so characteristic of the Talmud and the many voices it contains, I finally and slowly got it. The community comes to the mourner to console the one who is bereft of a loved one. However, the public festivals are important for all to follow and to rejoice together. The thinking is suggested that perhaps the mourner will actually be helped along in their process more by being part of the public than continuing their isolation while everyone else observes these special holidays. Before Sukkot, we had a lot of scheduled guests for all of our meals, as is always our practice. I had indicated to my husband, Ken, that I did not think I would feel up to it this time around and perhaps we should cancel all of our plans. He promised to do all of the work to make these meals happen if I could not do so and that it would be better for me to participate in these celebrations as I always do. I am always the planner and just did not want to have to disinvite people at the last minute if I could not handle being with people. Lo and behold, a mere eight days after burying my mom, people were in our home – lots of people. Yes, actually it was quite okay and I did feel better. I may very well have felt worse if I had been isolated from all of this community interaction.

The more I engage in my daily learning of Gemara (Talmud), the more I appreciate the principles that guide our lives and provide for a consistency that may (and often does) elude us when looking at various practices in isolation. I always teach that Halacha and life as informed by it is a giant jigsaw puzzle in which there is an interdependence and interfacing between the various pieces and in which the sum total is so much greater than the arithmetric sum of the parts. Here my own teaching was put to the test as I was a bit lost in the intersection of the coming of Sukkot after Yom Kippur, so close to my mom’s death, coming a mere 30 days after my dad could no longer stay in this world. But as I often teach, in driver’s education, you are taught that when the car skids, DO NOT turn against the direction of the skid, but into it and you have a better chance of a good result. I guess I sort of turned into the skid of Halacha and let it guide me, and it did! Thank you for the explanation, Moed Katan. I will return to learn from you again at some future point.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Who’s in your family?

I am truly one of those truly fortunate people who thank G-d every day for my amazing family. I get to live with my favorite people in the world and that is pretty cool. To the outside world who does not know us so well, we look like a close nuclear family – a dad and a mom, four children, two of whom are married and three cute little girls whom I call my daughter’s daughters, while my husband refers to them as grandchildren. (I do not use the G word!) We talk to each other all of the time, continue to make amazing family vacations happen, are so close to each other and genuinely love as well as like the people we each are. This is truly a blessing.

So how did this family come together? I will preface this part by sharing one of my very familiar quotes – “I think I am a really together person and how my life turned into a soap opera is so NOT my fault.” Those of you who kow me well have heard that one many times – I know. Here goes! Yoella, my eldest daughter is from my first marriage to her father. Our middle daughters, Rachie and Talie are identical twins and were the product of my second marriage to their father. They also have another sister and brother who are the children of their father from a previous marriage. Then, there is Ora, another parent figure in the family who is now the third ex-wife of their father and we have all kept her as part of our own family constellation. Ken and I married twenty-two years ago (our anniversary is actually in three days!) and Brian is our adopted son, brother to Yoella and Rachie and Talie. This was so confusing and head spinning to people, that Rachie, being the kind person she is, prepared a lovely flow chart explaining our family to everyone who needed to reference it on her dorm door in Israel. Eight and a half years ago, Yoella married her high school boyfriend, Jeremy, who has his own family tree to explain and now they have Neli, Neima and Adel. Rachie, our second married child, is with the love of her life, Liz. As we always tell Jeremy, he is definitely my favorite son-in-law; he now informs me that he does not feel there will be much competition.

This all resonates in a particularly humorous manner when we are out and about and people say, oh, you all look alike. Rachie and Brian look like Ken and Talie and Yoella look like me. Little do they know that this would not be due to genetics, not where Ken is concerned and certainly not where Brian is concerned. So we got it!!!!! This is our amazing, interconnected to other people, family!

Then the last week happened. Brian, who was adopted from Karelia, supposedly a type of territory of the FSR, though no one can quite pin down what the relationship is, was brought into our family close to nineteen years ago. At that time, we were told that there were no relatives who had been looking for him and we were given information regarding his birth mother’s name and the name of a brother and sister, who were aged 12 and 11 respectively. We knew that his brother and sister were actually raised by the grandmother and that the mother was out of the picture. That was it! He had no connections where he lived in The Childrens’ Home in Petrosovodsz and we would be his first family when he was 2 ½ years of age. Further, we were informed that we should never try to find out about his birth family because there was no way to get the information and that the members of that family would never be able to locate him.

Fast forward three months shy of nineteen years and what has changed remarkably in our world? SOCIAL MEDIA!!!! Lo and behold, Brian listed his identifying information on an adoption web site and within a few days a wonderful young lady from Spain named Caroline contacted him and asked if he wanted her help. We were just a bit skeptical given the many scams and dishonest things that do happen in the reality in which we live, but we took a leap of faith and Brian responded. We are truly grateful to Caroline, who we hope will forgive us for any hesitation in just accepting this lovely gift she was about to bestow upon us! Within another 36 hours, we had so much information about Brian’s birth family. Brian was nervous and overwhelmed; I was just really excited. Between finding out that Brian did in fact have a birth family that had been searching for him, specifically his birth sister, Zina on Saturday night and Tuesday night of this week, Brian and Zina became Facebook friends, chatted extensively on that medium, and Brian had pictures of Zina, her daughter, and his brother Dmitry. Zina had just joined Facebook about two months ago incidentally, so talk about timing! On Tuesday night, Brian and Zina skyped for over an hour with the help of Zina’s wonderful husband who was the only one who could speak and understand both Russian and English and could serve as translator. Brian introduced Zina to me, to Ken, to Yoella and Jeremy and the three girls and we also told her about Rachie and Talie. She was rather impressed (overwhelmed!) by our large family! It turns out that Zina did see Brian when he was four days old (and named originally Victor Alexandrovitch Chingin) and did try to find him on numerous occasions – but apparently regulations and protocol took over and she was not allowed to be in contact. And now here we were -- It was an amazing experience. Zina confirmed what I could see in the picture – Brian and his birth brother Dmitry look alike. Zina asked if Brian likes to draw. Why, because while Zina did not know that much about their birth mother, she knew she drew well. Brian draws beautifully, by the way. He appears to have real talent. It turns out that his birth family includes an uncle as well as the maternal grandmother that raised his birth siblings. And then there is this funny coincidence that no one could make up.

Zina’s birth date is September 11, 1987, the very same date of birth as Rachie and Talie! Funny enough, apparently, Rachie and Talie used to joke with people that they had a third sister (triplet) in the attic… Who knew? So, we have not even begun with the cousins and aunts and uncles in our family…. But I imagine, Rachie, it might be a really good idea to go and update that Family Tree Flow Chart some time soon!

I am often asked why I maintain and encourage maintaining all of the family connections we have. After all, don’t I have enough people to be concerned about and keep track of…. So, here is my answer. I know that Ora ADORES Rachie and Talie and I adore her for doing so. Yoella benefits from the love of her dad’s family and I love how everyone keeps in contact with all sides of each of these nuclear units. All of those aunts and uncles and cousins that are part of my children’s lives … I think it is wonderful to have so many people in your life who love you and whom you love. This is truly a gift that enriches the lives of all who benefit from it. And now, my dear Brian, you too, have a whole other family to include in your life. We hope you will share them with all of us and that one day we can move past Skype and actually meet your sister Zina, brother Dmitry and other family members. More blessings have just appeared in our lives! I am again so very grateful!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Story of a Yom Iyyun - An Important Day of Study

Let me tell you the story of a Yom Iyyun – a day of study of Jewish texts and issues that just occurred this past Sunday in the Greater Philadelphia area. This is a story of how we work within the system to get people to talk about challenging topics. As you know, I have been extremely involved on many levels with ESHEL, the Orthodox consortium for LGBTQ Inclusion in our Orthodox Jewish community. Due to a generous grant, I am working on several initiatives with ESHEL, including building community models of Orthodox Jewish inclusion. One of those initiatives is to join forces with another colleague locally in our Greater Philadelphia area and shuls and communities that are able to become more welcoming, thus amplifying the Welcoming Shuls Project (WSP) presently a large focus of ESHEL. The goal is to insure that we keep our LGBTQ members in our Halachic communities and not have them feel, unfortunately with legitimate reasons, that there is no place for them. This is a matter of validation, acceptance, and most importantly, נפש פיקוח, the foundational Jewish dictum to save a life and protect the well being of all of our community members.

We have been here before, excluding members of our community. Before 1976 and the advent of PTACH, the acceptance of the responsibility to educate all of our children, including those with learning differences and a variety of disabilities was too often not observed. We hid our children who were not unencumbered for whatever reasons – ranging from shame to fear that this was some type of punishment to some thinly veiled understanding of their lack of inclusion in our Halachic world. Baruch HaShem (Thank G-d) this has mostly been resolved, though truth to be told we still have miles to go in this regard in too many of our schools and Jewish institutions in our Orthodox Jewish world.

Then there is the matter of our women. Halachically, there are different levels of being bound by obligation ( חיוב ) that result in legitimate differences between men and women in various areas of religious functioning, such as making up a minyan ( מנין ) – a prayer quorum and fulfilling certain roles on behalf of others. However, within these definitions and differentiations, there is NOT any permission granted for misogyny, which unfortunately has occurred. Women have been maligned, excluded, and relegated to the category of “other” increasingly in too many aspects of religious observance and public assembly. This is NOT the Halachic way, and here too in many Orthodox circles the conversation has accommodated this disconnect and there is advocacy in many (though clearly not all) circles for correcting this situation, adhering to Halacha while not amplifying additional restrictions that are coming from elsewhere.

In the trajectory of both of these narratives, we have observed that where there is an honest will, there is a Halachic way to include and embrace, to validate and protect. This IS our Halachic obligation. It is within this context and using these precedents that I would suggest we can honestly discuss the inclusion of our LGBTQ members; and this is precisely what we did this past Sunday.

Years ago, a colleague of mine who was Orthodox and gay was never able to come out of the closet and even within the protective shield of our friendship and my caring for her, she could not say the words that would validate her being – the way the God chose to make her. I knew she was in great pain and tried to validate her in every way possible. She and her partner were at our Shabbat table, we sat together in shul, and yet, she knew it just was not enough. Some years later, she was found dead in her apartment, apparently or possibly having taken her life. This should NOT be in a community that adheres to the value of protecting each and every life. And to be sure, we know for a fact that there are too many others!

So, we as Orthodox Jews must discuss how we are endangering our own community members through inflammatory rhetoric, mean-spirited exclusion, lack of education and learning, and most important, not adhering to the very Halachic principles we claim inform every aspect of our lives. This was the purpose of this particular Day of Study – to engage in this dialogue, to learn about Halachically legitimate approaches to how we address our community members, and to check our politics, our socially informed fears and personal prejudices at the door. G-d created all of us – women, left-handed people, visually impaired community members, hearing-impaired people, physically disabled individuals, those who are mentally and emotionally challenged, and yes, LGBTQ individuals the way that G-d chose to create us. Within the tomes of Halachic discourse, all of these categories, not to mention children, are often indicated as “except for’s” in various listings (e.g. hearing a Shofar, Torah reading, sitting in a Sukkah, offering sacrifices, hearing Megillat Esther, etc.) but then Chazal – our teachers of blessed memory—engage in thoughtful and often caring discourse about what such exclusion means and so often, initially excluded groups are brought back into the fold of the practice under discussion. So often there is honest and caring concern in these discussions of 1400 years and more ago regarding our various groupings that make up who we are collectively. Would it not be wonderful, not to mention, well within the parameters of honest Halachic discourse, to do the same today?

As more than a few Orthodox Rabbis and scholars have suggested, yes, there is an act that is forbidden. That does not lead to complete exclusion of 10 – 13% of our population, not does it even speak to the individuals who were born outside of the presumed binary sexuality or gender spectrum. In fact, Mishnah Bikkurim, chapter 4 specifically addresses how we as a community must acknowledge and facilitate the performing of מצוות - Mitzvot (obligated actions) of our hermaphrodites and androgynous community members, and let’s time that text at about 1800+ years ago. Then there are Midrashim, other texts that cite everyone is obligated to do various things, and so forth. OUR ROLE AS COMMUNITY is to include all of our members so that these obligations can be fulfilled, NOT TO EXCLUDE members of our community due to other prejudices and politics. This is NOT the Halachic way.

As one Rabbi explained to me in a very well articulated way, his shul follows the “Sephardic way.” All are welcome and included to the maximum level allowed by Halacha. For this Orthodox Rabbi, whom I interviewed for an ESHEL survey dedicated to this topic, of course, gay men would be given Aliyot, of course, they could doven (pray)from the Amud, of course people should sit on the side of the Mechitzah (divider between men and women) that reflects their identified gender, and of course no one is asking any questions – any more than we would ask about Shabbat observance, honest business dealings, or a myriad of other issues. This is what we are asking – no more and no less – just accept and embrace our children and our other family members, our friends and our colleagues.

We are taught that the Mitzvot are given to us so that we may LIVE by them and not die because of them. If every member of our Orthodox Jewish community (and any other faith communities for that matter) would follow this single dictate, we will successfully move in the right direction in our observance of Halacha, both collectively and individually. Let us do for our LGBTQ community members what we have already come to learn we are obligated to do for ALL community members, including women and those with various differences! Then we will properly take our place as a Light to the Nations ( לגוים אור ) and NOT before!

So many Orthodox Rabbinic families have LGBTQ members and others have spoken out beautifully about this issue. For one example, read the following:

If you want to hear more about ESHEL, the Welcoming Shuls Project or have a Day of Study in your community, contact me at

Thursday, February 18, 2016

When Did We Lose our Sense of Reason?

I live in the city that goes by the moniker of “City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.” I live in a country that is touted as being “One Nation under God.” I am fiercely committed to Israel, which daily tries to figure out how to simultaneously be a Jewish State and a democracy, validating and embracing all of its citizens in as inclusive a manner as possible. My family and I are part of the world of LGBTQ community members generally and in the Jewish world specifically as well. Clearly, acceptance and inclusion are at the heart of this community, as it needs to be and should be.

Yet, in Israel I have to watch the antics of the Hilltop Youth and other extremists and radicalists who do not believe in dialoguing and negotiating and in listening to the other, not following more Jewish dictates than I can count; but would rather destroy and destruct in the name of whatever they claim is their right. In the United States I watch a battle that pits citizens against citizens and threatens to compromise the ability of the Supreme Court to act on behalf of the citizenry in whom it is invested. And then there is the Creating Change fiasco, where Israeli organizations that work for LGBTQ inclusion were maligned, protested against, thrown out of programming and the resulting bad feelings all around continue to be palpable. I myself have been part of LGBTQ groupings as an ally for decades and there have definitely been instances where as an Orthodox Jew who is a long term ally (before anyone even used the term) and now a parent of my wonderful children, I was the subject of assumptions, prejudice and even, hatred. These moments and incidents are so sad and disheartening. At present, I am working for inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in the Orthodox community but another element of this work is to work towards acceptance of LGBTQ Jews who are Orthodox in the general Jewish and general LGBTQ community.

I am greatly concerned. There are so many battles that have been hard fought, so many alliances that need to be protected and amplified, and in the middle of this, there is too much contention and a lack of willingness to compromise and work cooperatively. When and how did this happen and why is this dynamic so pervasive in different aspects of our reality? When did radicalism and extremism become the preferred way to be regardless of what one believes, whether one is a conservative or liberal, Orthodox Jew or Secular Humanist? This is simply NOT what we are taught in our constitution, in our Holy Writ, or by the example of our past generations. Too many of us are just shaking our heads trying to figure out what has gone so terribly wrong in the past twenty to thirty years. Too many times, there are incidents such as the Creating Change situation (Here is one of several articles on this ) or the angry outbursts we have seen increasingly throughout our world that are disruptive of the efforts of those of us who work so hard to build bridges and to join hands for shared causes.

We all know the dynamic of the left moving further to the left and the right moving further to the right, but what about those of us in the reasonable middle who do believe in talking, negotiating, and working with each other to make our world a better place? How do we insure that what we have held so dear for so long is not destroyed? Thinking of the many cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians where there is meaningful dialogue and caring conversations; the interfaith efforts that bring all people of faith to a place where we reconfirm that there is so much more that unites us than anything that divides us; the relationships that have developed between children and grandchildren of victims and perpetrators of horrible and destructive chapters of history such as the Holocaust, I often have great reason for hope. Then I try to listen to Presidential debates. Really? When did we forget how to speak with each other?

Justice Antonin Scalia died less than a week ago. So many stories have come out about friendships and respect across political, ideological and many other lines and the high regard in which he was held and showed toward others. I remember the wonderful friendships past Presidents, Senators, and Congressmen speak of nostalgically regarding each other, including recent memories shared by Senator George Mitchell. Words like honest, respectful, caring and intelligent are often used by this generation of leaders when they speak of their peers. What words will we hear as retrospectives from what we are witnessing today?

In our lives today where too many people have forgotten the value of dialogue, that none of us knows everything and has so much to learn from each other and that respect and regard is one of the most powerful things that make us uniquely human, I suspect we will continue to be subjected to name calling and immaturity on the part of Presidential hopefuls, groups that work so hard to make our world a better place being thrown out of spaces in which they belong and sadly, a loss of the sense of human dignity and reason we are all enjoined to share with each other as part of our world community. That makes me sad!