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.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Drash 5778 by Rachie Lewis, Senior Synagogue Organizer, JCRC of Greater Boston

Yes, I have been working on my on blog for this season. But I yield this platform to my amazing daughter, Rachel Sharona Lewis, who shared this Rosh HaShana Drash with me. I have nothing else to say except that Rachie and my other children, Talie, Yoella and Brian as well as Jeremy, Liz and Mimi, continue to awe me daily. My Bracha for all is that may your children grow and truly be blessings to this world as I know that Rachie is. Shana Tova to all.... And now here is Rachie....

Shana tova!

I am endlessly fascinated by eruv. I have been a checker of the North Charles Community Eruv for the past several years. This recurring task has given me time to think deeply about how this Rabbinic legal loophole - this physical/metaphorical boundary that allows us to bypass the Shabbat prohibition on carrying - is completely interesting and innovative, and slightly delusional. And, it’s completely consequential.

I grew up in a community surrounded by an eruv, where everyone in our Shabbat world lived within 3 square miles. Shabbat was vibrant, predictable and meaningful, and the community, our family's circle of responsibility, was clear and strong. In our community here in Cambridge/Somerville, we reap many of those same benefits. On the other hand, when I have lived in cities with no eruv, I have felt its absence - where responsibility to a set group and collective ritual feel dispersed and inconsistent.

Eruv and all of its related practices was established by our ancient Rabbis as an assertion that, in exile, we can still construct holy space - we can create boundaries in which we bring down God’s presence and a sense of obligation to one another. This aligned with the broader Rabbinic project: even in exile, we get to say, holiness lives here!

Out of the ashes of the Temple, where holiness and ritual were concentrated, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the progenitor of Rabbinic Judaism, instituted a variety of decrees that reflect this same ethos. A primary example is the shift from a regime of sacrifices as the direct channel between the people and God to prayer. Rather than relying on the elite class of priests to administer this communication, now connecting with God was democratized, and rather than be confined to the Temple in Jerusalem, could be done anywhere.

In the Talmud, in Mesechet Rosh Hashanah, we see examples of holiday rituals that were once confined to the Temple that become the responsibility of a broader set of Jews after its destruction. While the Temple was standing, when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, the shofar would only be sounded in Jerusalem, in the Temple. In the burgeoning diaspora, Yochanan Ben Zakkai decreed that any town or city with a Jewish court (a proxy for sufficient communal infrastructure) was obligated to have the shofar blown there as well. He decreed that we all are responsible for bringing the voice of the shofar into our communities, that God’s voice gets to be here, where we are, and not just in Jerusalem.

In moments of challenge and disruption, we have a Rabbinic tradition that tells us to think anew about how to survive, that tells us to adapt and create holy space where there is none yet.

Today’s haftarah offers a different vision in response to the Temple’s destruction. Jeremiah, Chapter 31, describes a longing for what was lost, and the hope that redemption will come, and that that experience of holiness will be restored. God will gather the Jews from the corners of the earth, from exile, and we will once again return to the Temple; od teet’i cramim - we will plant vineyards in our land once again; v’shavu banim l’gvulam, and God reassures our matriarch, Rachel, weeping on our behalf, that her children will return to their borders, to their home.

This vision of redemption reflects the broader prophetic project - motivating the Jewish people to do better in service of restoring the order of the Temple, the order in which holiness was concentrated and we had some control. This sentiment is woven through our liturgy, both today’s and everyday.

As we gather together on Rosh Hashanah, doing the work of teshuva, of repairing what we need to repair as individuals and as a community, against the backdrop of deep disruption in our unstable world, I wonder, what vision of the world is our teshuva in service of?

This year we have seen Nazis emboldened in ways I never could have imagined as a 21st century Jew. And the threats and violence against our black, Muslim and immigrant family, friends and neighbors are escalating at an alarming rate. So much is broken. And so, how do the changes we make address this reality? What are we improving our actions for?

As we hold these two different threads of our tradition - Rabbinic adaptability to what is in an unredeemed world, and Prophetic longing for how things were - I have to believe that the work we are doing today and in this season, on our own and together, is in service of an expansive vision that says we adapt, and that we have the power to bring a sense of holiness and responsibility to and for one another wherever we are, and wherever it is needed.

On the edges of our haftarah, in Jeremiah, Chapter 29, there is a stunning passage. Through Jeremiah, God says to all who have even exiled to Babylon, while you are here…

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit...multiply here (have children and they should have children) and don't decrease. And, seek peace in the City I have exiled you to and pray to God on its behalf, Ki b’shloma, yehiye lachem shalom, because in its peace, you will have peace.”

In this passage, we see the seeds of the Rabbinic instinct to survive through adapting. Live here. Thrive here. Plant your gardens here. Pray and work for the sake of this world for your fate is tied up with all of the people around you. This is the vision that I believe our teshuva is in service of. In an unredeemed world, we plant our gardens here, rather than long to do so around the edges of the Temple.

The proximity of this passage to the haftarah makes the point that these visions are not mutually exclusive. However, the visions and values we prioritize will drive the choices we make about how we expend spiritual and material resources and about who we feel obligated to.

This past summer, knowing that the eruv would be okay without me, I stopped checking it. Rather, I committed the same Thursday morning timeslot to volunteering as part of Cambridge Minyan’s Sanctuary work. In the Spring, we joined an interfaith coalition of ten communities who are supporting an undocumented mom and her family as they resist their deportation by seeking refuge in a nearby church. As a security measure, there must be citizens in the building at all times, and so myself, and many other people in this room have taken on this responsibility.

It is not lost on me that I shifted from doing the upkeep of one constructed holy space, the North Charles Community Eruv, to another, the four walls of University Lutheran church in which a diverse community is supporting and walking with a family in their resistance. Both acts require the same toolbox - creating our own boundaries in which we bring holiness and a clear sense of obligation for one another into it. The difference lies in who we decide is within our circles, our eruvim, of responsibility.

In Psalm 27, the additive prayer for the month of Elul and this high holiday season, we say, pray and sing this line often, “one thing I ask of you God: that I dwell in God’s house all the day of my life, that I behold God’s pleasantness and frequent/visit(?) God’s temple.”

The psalmist seems to have intended this verse as a parallelism. That dwelling in God’s house and frequenting/visiting (the translation is not totally clear) the Temple are different versions of the same experience. But, as these ideas have been swirling around in my head, I have begun to think that perhaps they are two different experience and two different places. Dwelling in God’s house is described as an eternal experience, while we can exist in the Temple only in physical or metaphorical fleeting moments. And so, if we cannot always have access to the Temple, and to that concentrated holiness, perhaps beit hashem is referencing something else - perhaps it is a reference to all the holy spaces we create, our eruvim, our Sanctuaries, and all the ways we bring holiness, like the sound of the shofar, in. While we may have moments of longing for redemption, that place, this dynamic and expansive beit hashem, is where we are able to dwell, always.

This Rosh Hashanah, as the foundation of our unredeemed world trembles beneath us, when we deeply need holiness and to bring the sound of the shofar beyond our original borders, I offer both the blessing and challenge that or teshuva be in service of expanding our eruvim of responsibility, planting our gardens here, in this broken world - Ki bshloma yihiye lachem shalom, because it it’s peace, and in the peace of all those in our midst, we shall have peace too.

Shana Tova!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Parshat Ki Tavo 5777 and Lessons from the end of Deuteronomy

We will look for a moment at Parshat Ki Tetze (the portion of reading of Torah two weeks ago for Jewish communities of faith and as we come to the end of Deuteronomy in our Torah Reading cycle) and remind ourselves of the most salient lesson it presents. What was the overarching idea of the Parsha and what is the connection to the last reading about Amalek?

We begin by remembering that it is important to note that between 72 and 74 of our 613 Mitzvot are found in last week’s Parsha (depending on how one counts). These mitzvot cover a wide range of proper behaviors we as Jews are commanded to observe, including how we share our resources, how we act humanely within the inhumane framework of war, how we care for the vulnerable and so much else, many of the Mitzvot bein Adam LeChavero – those behaviors that we are commanded to uphold in creating and maintaining a proper society.

Further it is significant that these Mitzvot are for when we are not just within the comforting surroundings of our home but away from our protected base and even when we go out to fight a war. These Mitzvot are about treating all human beings who have been created by God with respect and honor regardless of our situation and regardless of any station in life, even in the most challenging of situations. IT IS THIS LINE that Amalek crossed in their treatment of the stragglers and those who were too weak to fight back. IT IS THIS that we are to remember and we are to BLOT OUT those that engage in such behaviors, including looking long and hard at ourselves.

Immediately after this reading, we begin this (past) week’s Parsha, Ki Tavo. Now, we are talking about how we act in our own land, within our comfort zone, if you will. Further, we are reminded how we are to learn the lessons of how to treat people and how to NOT treat people.

So we begin by speaking of the first fruits, such valued property as the first products we proudly produce as our work product, and about limits and boundaries regarding these prized possessions and how we mark them for God, ceremoniously giving up our possession of them and our claim to any benefit from them, fully acknowledging all of the work put into producing them as well as God’s hand in allowing us and facilitating the process by where we were able to produce them. Further, we are to observe these standards and the behaviors they inform as we present these gifts – literally, the fruits of our labor – to God with joy, as we learn in 26.8 - 11:

ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל--וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים. 8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. ט וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. 9 And God hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. י וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 10 And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me.' And thou shalt set it down before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God. יא וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ--וּלְבֵיתֶךָ: אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ. 11 And thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at length about this joy and how it is mentioned often in Devarim; that while in our earlier Torah readings for the bulk of the year’s cycle, the focus on our dictated practices was about learning the instructions about how we observe these required elements, here we should enjoy them. Think of one who is just learning how to play an instrument and is more focused on scales and the “rules” of how one plays that instrument and then later, once this is internalized one can begin to truly enjoy the products of their acquired skill sets.

Nehama Leibowitz teaches that Abravenel takes a different approach, explaining that the purpose of bringing the first fruits was to humble our selfish passions. Since the first-fruits were to be the most treasured possessions as Hosea and Isaiah teach, God commanded us to subdue our natural instincts and not eat them but rather dedicate these precious possessions to God. In doing so, we learn important lessons about ownership, sharing and accountability to the larger community as well as how to limit our own power.

Further , Maimonedes includes the Ger in this communal experience and reminds all that there is an eternal human background ruling to all of this ceremony, full of consideration for the feelings of the stranger and any person in the assemblage that might otherwise be ignored or excluded. In other words, immediately after we have learned about the actual wrongdoing of Amalek in not showing concern for others, we are instructed to include all and make the “other” part of us in our most celebrated moments, thus investing ourselves in the welfare and dignity of all others.

This is the exact antithesis to what happened with Amalek and further, it is formulated so that we do not ultimately repeat the misdeeds of Amalek and in a sense become Amalek – the ones who do not care about others, do not accommodate the needs of those who require our help and support, and those that are so vulnerable we may not see them if we are so wrapped up in our own hubris or our own joy.

Rabbi Professor Mark Saperstein teaches that this Parsha:

contains one of the most powerful and frightening chapters of the Torah. Fourteen verses (Deuteronomy 28:1–14) outline all the good things that will happen to the people if they obey God and faithfully observe all of the divine commandments. That’s “the good news.” Then come 54 verses (28:15–69) warning of the antithesis: the curses that will befall the people if they do not faithfully observe all the commandments – [the Tochecha]. This is the most terrifying litany portraying various kinds of Jewish suffering in our classical literature. Because of its content, for years no one wanted to have the aliyah in which this passage was read, and it was sometimes given to the town fool. In traditional practice, it is chanted at breakneck speed in a soft voice, loud enough to hear but only if one strains a little.

The punishments explicitly threatened in this chapter include terrible diseases, conquest by merciless foreign enemies, famine to the point where parents will eat the flesh of their own children, and exile and dispersion throughout the world, leading to idolatry and enslavement.

It is indeed difficult to hear and absorb the terrors of these verses and the ramifications of what they implicitly indicate about the nature of the human being, even the one who is Torah observant. And yet that is the point – the moment we forget our frailty and vulnerability as human beings, we lose a sense of our need to care for other vulnerable souls. Just as Amalek saw itself as above the need to care for others, what we see in Amalek is frightening when we consider our enemies. It is downright horrifying when we consider the reality that we find these behaviors and this lack of care in ourselves; needing to be reminded to resist the temptation of yielding to it.

What is going on here? We learn in the Talmud that it is not good to constantly be so strict about our rules and regulations because it will send people away and we will lose our sense of Jewish peoplehood and destiny. So what is the purpose of such, but to remind us continually that we should be the exemplars of kindness, caring and compassion as is God, The One to whom we are accountable. Acknowledging that it is not always easy to act in such a way, maybe acknowledging and addressing reality is in its own way a kindness. Though it may not always feel that is the case (YOU MUST BE KIND AND CARING REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU WANT TO OR NOT!), perhaps this is no different than say the discipline of a parent that fiercely loves their child and wants them to behave in the best way possible regardless of what others around them are doing.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggests as follows:

there is a profound sense that there is something natural at work ... Not by chance are the children of Israel and the land of Israel exemplars of the relationship between humanity and G-d. The people of Israel will always be small (“It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord has set His heart on you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of peoples”). The land of Israel will always be vulnerable, occupying as it does a strategic location between three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, and two traditional bases of empire, the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates valleys. Only by almost superhuman achievements of national unity and moral purpose will Israel survive as a nation in its land. So it was in biblical times. So it is today.

It is easy to be caring and giving and kind when things are going well. But what about when they are not, which is so often the case? Do we get a pass? Do we get to be Amalek? Do we come to understand how Amalek comes to be the one who is so wrapped up in themselves that they no longer care about those who are vulnerable? The answer is no – that no matter what are the circumstances, we are to try to be the best we can be and to strive to truly walk in the way of God as we are taught in Sotah 14a and elsewhere – by doing the very things that God shows us how to do no matter what our circumstances are and regardless of any “payback” we may or may not get as a result. This is precisely why EVERYONE, no matter how poor and indigent, in the traditional Jewish communities gave from and shared what resources they had. This is the reason that historically, the Jewish people are looked to as an example of those who care for and take responsibility for our own.

Clearly, we reading this, generally live a comfortable life today. Nonetheless, we are aware of and pained by the troubles of the world, both those suffered by Jewish populations and those that impact on human populations of any iteration. This is what Amalek did not know how to do and the Tochecha (the very difficult and sobering list of things not to do in this portion of the Torah) reminds us that we must always remember the Jewish promise that binds us as well as the human frailty that is our nature and behave towards others honorably, whether at home as we are in Ki Tavo or on the road as we were in Ki Tetze. We must always be on guard to be the best we can be and show that towards all others!

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Boundaries and Borders in our Lives

As we come to the end of the Torah reading cycle in our Jewish calendar, one is continually aware of how the experiences of the generations that are the subject of the Torah narrative bleed into the hopes and aspirations of the generations to come, all the way to our own times. Land is divided, laws and prescribed practices defined, and so much else is delineated in terms of the reality of our existence as Moshe delivers his final review lessons that emanate from God’s instruction and are to last as the legacy of the Jewish nation. At this juncture, there is an acute awareness of the notion that time will go on, generations will come and go, and our understanding of boundaries and whatever comfort that definition may bring will surely and sorely be tested and questioned. The Jewish journey will continue to examine and analyze those boundaries on so many levels as Jewish Law and the many hands that take on insuring its practice continue to distill their meaning. And so it is with other communities of faith as well in joining the lessons and legacy of the past to the experiences and challenges of the present and future.

I am presently reading a book by Michael Abraham entitled God Plays with Dice. (For those of you fluent in Hebrew and interested in this discussion, I highly recommend this work.) This book is a very intense examination of the interplay of Science, Philosophy, Theology, Deism, Faith and so much else as we try to figure out what was the very beginning of our journey and where these boundaries and borders began. Abraham takes great effort in trying to be a purist (which results in a great deal of circling and repeating arguments and perspectives), from his vantage point of his knowledge of Science as well as his perspective as a religiously observant and equally knowledgeable Jew. One of the points he makes continually as he references the work of so many other scholars and writers, primarily the one with whom he takes issue, namely Richard Dawkins, is that one must take great care in discussing such matters to define one’s framework and to use language, questions and concepts from that discipline. We can no more use terms of faith and belief to explain science any more than we can work in the opposite direction. Here is yet another lesson in boundaries as Abraham looks at Evolution in terms of its postulates and queries and shows that within different domains there is much to learn as one crosses boundaries. In this examination, Abraham eschews dichotomies, showing that so much of who and what we are is a matter of a continuum of understanding and not binary systems of A or not-A. The book is written on a sophisticated level and I am not always sure I am catching all the nuances in his distinctions of the boundaries of various domains, but it is clear that he posits the need to be cognizant of the limitations of each system of thought and knowledge as well as the notion that we can interface the various ways we have of explaining how all came to be if we honor the principles and parameters (yes, the boundaries if you will) of each domain.

Simultaneously, my husband and I, along with our son Brian, just spent an amazing week in some of our western states, specifically Nevada, Utah and Arizona, during which we spent hours driving, hiking, walking and learning about the many geological and natural elements as well as the various forces of nature, human involvement and time and their impact on what we were observing. In watching sunsets, in moving from the vantage point of being on a plane to being on the ground, at the top of canyons as opposed to the bottom of canyons, driving as well as walking and so on, one cannot help but be awed and wonder where one aspect of the totality of what one is observing ends and the other begins. When we were at the Hoover Dam, for example, we learned how the economics of the Depression in this country and the building of the Dam were intertwined in our history; and of course now, as one marvels at the construction and the function of this Dam and its purpose, it is important to remember the human factor, the historical moment and the natural threat that brought this effort of construction (and containment or creation of a boundary) to be. There are so many different stories – the story of nature, the story of human lives, the unfolding of historical events, and the timing that brings all of them together to create this defined wonder.

Also, during our time in Nevada, we went to a Cirque d’Soleil show, “O” which is all about boundaries and their bleeding together as well as moving. Water, air, gravity, human figures, movement, scenery, and musical as well as visual art all came together from their different domains to create a shared and magnificent product – in which each is present both individually and as part of the greater whole. It was truly something to behold. And while I was marveling at it all, I was thinking of what I was reading in Abraham’s book about how all that we are comes together – both in ways we can explain through science or philosophy or mathematics or other defined fields and in ways we cannot explain but yield to our faith for support. I was then thinking of “O” when we were driving, walking, hiking and experiencing God’s art along with nature and the evolving of time. Mountains that were precisely carved and artistically placed – without intentional human tools of art. How can this be? Where is the dividing line between God’s domain and the human hand’s domain? Is there a clear one? Or do we just hold onto the faith and belief that joins us together, striving to break boundaries that need to be torn down to create something greater while working intentionally to maintain those that are necessary for our existence – such as dams and water? In the end, says Abraham, we can and do believe in so many different systems of truth that ultimately begin at a point beyond anything we can identity. Many of us choose to call that point before the beginning of all of these domains God.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Value of Sharing our Faith Journeys, Texts and Teachings; An Amazing Conference

I was just in the most wonderful setting for incredible learning with a phenomenal group of people. These people came from all over the world and come to their belief in The Holy One in so many different ways. For three days, we learned together, discussed together, sharing our hopes and our dreams and our challenges, we ate together, we laughed together and most important of all, we shared our humanity and our faith journeys with each other. We discussed God, gender, women in religion and so much else. IF you want to get a sense of the breath and breadth of this amazing gathering go here to see the program and note the different presenters and their nationalities as well as faiths:

In a stroke of genius on the part of the conference organizers or perhaps as a coincidence (you know, those occasions on which I believe God likes to remain anonymous) I was roomed with a wonderful woman who is a devoutly religious Muslim woman, as well as two lovely Christian women. Immediately my new Muslim friend and I found so much common and shared ground in our lives as we interface our religiously observant souls with our various involvements in our daily life and world. We were able to share the many blessings we feel we have as religiously observant women as well as frustrations regarding what people “think they know about us.” She talked about how people assume she is oppressed and how they do not understand the choices she makes out of her very intentional devotion. This conversation between us went on and on for many hours and I hope fervently that it will continue in the future. This is just one of the wonderful contacts I was able to make and feel as if I potentially found a friend for many years to come, I hope. People were there from lands of origin and lives lived located all over the world – India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Canada, Israel, United States and so on. We ranged from those who are devoutly observant to the most liberal manifestations of personal journeys of faith. We come from all races and ethnicities.

For three days we learned about and with each other, another example of the types of communities that I just run to be part of, believing with every fiber of my being that God in all of God’s manifestations is truly present in an intentional and joyful manner in such spaces. It is here that we all, as God’s children, come together with our various belief systems, gender and sexuality identities, lands of origin and ethnicities to celebrate what unites us and honor our differences, trying to sincerely deepen our understanding of each other, so that then we can go back to our home communities and share dispelled myths, break harsh and misguided stereotypes and truly work together to build a better world.

As was shared on multiple occasions, in the Koran it is taught as follows: “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good deeds. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48) We all shared our revealed teaching about the value of every life and how each life is an entire world and so much else that is part of our individuated religious journeys and yet also foundational to the values, so often shared, that inform those practices. We marveled at the similarities between important terms and concepts in Hebrew and Arabic. We asked questions of clarification and learned that while we each interpret and distill practices differently, we all have a deep respect for what is so much greater than us, hopefully keeping our hubris in check.

Were there moments of discomfort or awkwardness for individuals at various moments? Absolutely. As one of our keynote speakers remarked, if we do not have such moments, then we have not cast the net wide enough. This net cast by the Hickey Center of Nazareth College in Rochester, New York for our conference on “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: A Symposium on Women and Gender in Religions” was clearly cast fairly wide – with the most liberal iterations to the most religiously and ritualistically observant strands of all of the Abrahamic faiths and others included as well; so, how could one not negotiate moments of discord? The question is how we do so, not that these moments exist. I found so much honor and so much love in this space that provided a supportive environment for addressing these realities of our lives. We learned about each other’s lives and each other’s faith journeys. I can only hope that these conversations will continue among so many of us that shared this space in the coming months and years. From face veils to Kipot (Yarmulkas) on women as well as men, from various forms of religion/cultural headdress and garb to everyday western clothes, we found beautiful souls in each of these cloaks.

As it happened, this conference was held over the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av (yet another coincidence, perhaps?). In a particularly poignant experience, I went with two other Jewish women and we took three of our Muslim friends with us to an Orthodox shul in the area for the reading of Lamentations that marks this day of mourning for having lost our Temples, so much historically and even more spiritually when we consider how we treat each other, which is not in the spirit of the humility and the awe with which we are to hold each other as individuals created by God. I want to thank the shul and their Rabbi for their hospitality even though we could not fully take advantage of it socially due to the muted nature of the day.

Daily in our prayers, Jews repeat the verse “On that day, God will be One and God’s Name will be One.” I have never thought of this as conflation of our varied beliefs and religions, but rather our ascension to the realm beyond words where our separations and conflicts are set aside for all that unites us – our collective belief, through so many modes of expressions, in The One Who Is Holy and Supreme. Gatherings like this convince me that such ascendance is indeed possible if one wills it to be so.

Friday, July 28, 2017

For The Sake of the Ways of Peace

Tisha B’Av is this coming Monday night through Tuesday. This is the day in the Jewish calendar that the members of the Jewish nation mourn the destruction of both of our Temples so long ago and also reflect upon the words and actions that are destructive to the well being of people and are faulted with bringing about these and other catastrophes that have had such a lasting impact on the Jewish people. We are presently in the midst of the Three Weeks and what is called the Nine Days, which is when we prepare for Tisha B’Av and are to think about ourselves and our relationships with each other and so much else.

In my daily Gemara (Talmud) learning, I am studying Tractate Gitin, the treatise devoted to the discussion of why and how divorce is to remedy difficult situations, in marriage, and, by association, other relationships that can be problematic are discussed as well. I often shake my head as I am learning and wonder how much of this text certain religious leaders and individuals conveniently forget when I witness the abuse of women and others in our contemporary society in the supposed name of Halacha/Jewish Law, which is precisely what Halacha does NOT prescribe. Within the context of this discussion, there are constant and ongoing references to Tikkun Olam, which is, properly understood, those Rabbinic enactments that were instituted to resolve specific societal problem, misuses and abuses of laws and how they were intended to be enacted and so forth. Inherent in this study is an ongoing discussion in which the issues of women’s rights to agency and the need for their protection within the reality of the social context of the time are balanced – sometimes awkwardly, but more than you might think, with aplomb and sensitivity. Also within the associated discussions related to this topic, we are introduced to the concept of mipnei darchei shalom or that so much of Torah and the laws that evolve are because of the need for maintaining the ways of peace (see especially 59a and 59b of Masechet Gitin if you want to learn this for yourself). There is elasticity and consideration that is proposed as necessary regarding a variety of matters ranging from how one insures that business dealings involving deaf persons or children are valid and appropriate and not taking advantage of them, the order of who reads from the Torah (takes aliyot) in shul and how it can be changed, acquisition of lands and so much else. Within these deliberations it is so clear that the LAW OF TORAH is as much about the foundational values on which it is based as much as any interpretation, expansion or other use of it. Torah is to be used specifically to maintain ways of peace.

It is poignant to note that within these discussions, Eicha (Lamentations) is often quoted as the Talmud continues its academic meanderings. This is the very text we will be reading Monday night in our muted state of sitting on the floor with a minimum of light to remind us of the darkness that comes when we forget what is important. Our prophets constantly remind us that it is not the ritualistic acts of piety, which can unfortunately come across as false piety that define a truly religious person, if they are not motivated by and accompanied by the very actions that characterize our caring and concern about others. It is through our acts of chesed –kindness towards others – and truly acknowledging the humanity of each other that we show our mettle as religious beings. Then, and ONLY THEN according to Isaiah and so many others of the prophets, can we come to the Temple, or the synagogues in our days, and engage in prayer and supplication and interact with God. If our actions are not worthy, our words are empty. And it is this about which the prophets have been so clear – God does not want our empty words and sanctimonious presence.

As we sit quietly and read the words of Lamentations this coming Monday night (and I recommend all who are interested in this thought do so in your own Bibles or on line), let us remember that the reasons for various destructions and so much tragedy in our past is not only due to the enemy outside of us but to the insidious enemy that sometimes is none other than us. Let us all work to observe the corrective actions of Tikkun Olam, which are dictated by Jewish Law and work ourselves to enact those Darchei Shalom – ways of peace- that can truly change our world. Maybe then God will find our words worthy and truly show compassion to all who speak them.

Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Tisha B’Av to all who observe it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Six Year Old Perspective on Parshat Pinchas – Dedicated to Neli and Neima

Okay, so to be totally transparent (a commodity these days, right?) my daughter’s daughters are almost seven. But nonetheless. So we were walking to Machaneh Ramah Yomi (Ramah Day Camp) this morning and chatting about Parshat Pinchas. I had just read my colleague Rabbi Haim Ovadia’s thoughtful post (as his always are) about how we understand Pinchas’ initiative in correcting the slippery slope of wrong dealings and doings amongst his people by finally putting his foot down, so to speak, and killing Zimri and his cohort who had just gone too far. Sometimes, we have to take such individual action on behalf of the greater good, but such actions must be undertaken properly and sparingly. Remember that we are in the book of BaMidbar/Numbers and reading about how the chapters of life for the B’nai Yisrael in the spiritual desert of their physical desert unfolded. Complaining about Manna, Miriam starting trouble regarding what she said about Moses, the scouts scaring the people regarding the land, it was all just too much! So far in our litany of missteps, a talking donkey is one of the few who makes the most sense. An interesting lesson for us in our lives today!!!!!

Anyway, I digress! So how exactly does one explain the concept of the “greater good” to almost-seven year olds when it involves killing people (with a spear, so we are told) who do wrong things (yes, we know, its not the bad child, its just not-so-good things that the poor little tater tot does!) and then one’s reward for doing so is being insured of the everlasting Priesthood and a covenant of peace? Very carefully, very carefully….. that’s how.

I have tremendous faith in the wisdom of young minds so all I do is set the stage and then they will give me the language and Neli and Neima are not ones to disappoint! I started by explaining that the B’nai Yisrael, the people of Israel, had just gone too far and that bad actions begat bad actions. At this point, Pinchas says “Enough!” so to speak and shall we say, disposes of the wrongdoers……so that the people will understand they are really not behaving the way they should and need to get their act together. So then I ask, how do we do that – you know, remove the wrongdoers from the group? I was thinking along the lines of a time-out, a reflection paper, or such, but a better answer was provided from these wonderful children, who are no doubt Harvard bound! They proposed that when a child does not fit into the class or school, they may have to be removed and go somewhere that is better for them as well as protect the rest of the students if they are not behaving properly. I TOOK IT! Yes, that works, that is exactly what we do, because otherwise if we do not take any corrective action, then the who class, school, camp bunk or nation will end up totally off track! Now how do we do that for an entire nation?????

So the greater good trumps the individual, right? Well not so fast! Jewish law has many correctives built into it to protect every individual and balance that with the notion that we do every possible thing to help each person but cannot sacrifice the whole for a single part. It’s a tricky balance to be sure. In this case, the solution was indeed that Pinchas had to act harshly, not just for the wrongdoers but for the entire nation for whom wrongdoing had become the accepted normal way, and this could not be. That’s why we have rules and limits and boundaries; and of course our young scholars understood this.

Now, tonight we get to go further in the Parsha and learn about the other end of the spectrum of Jewish Law where the Torah mandates that land is passed on through families and their male inheritors. That’s great when there are sons but what about Zelophachad who had no sons but daughters? Moses will go directly to God and ask what he should do that is fair and here we learn about laws that can be amended for the right purpose for the people who are acting appropriately and honorably. I am really looking forward to that discussion with the almost-seven year olds about our first Jewish female property owners.

Shabbat Shalom and a great weekend to all.