Thursday, July 2, 2015

LIVING BY PEARLS OF WISDOM

Scenario #1: This morning, we received a call from some guy at some bank wanting to speak with Ken about retirement. We chatted for a few moments since I was the one who answered the phone and I explained how we are both happy with what we are doing, and that retirement is not an immediate plan, though I got the sense he thought this may be the case. We are happy, productive, doing important things and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

Scenario #2: I am always learning, reading, preparing materials, writing, and … right, learning more! So I do like to keep a recreational read going as well. Last week, I went on the hunt through the thousands of books in our home to find such a book. I found an unlikely book (in the sense that this is so not what she reads) in my daughter Yoella’s room. Its title is My Grandfather’s Blessings and the author is Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000). To be honest, its really not my kind of book either – a collection of 103 (according to my count, minus introductions and occasional asides) two to three page pithy essays about life, blessings, healing and all that good stuff – all of which I fervently believe in; I just enjoy a book with “more depth.” Ah, what is it they say, do NOT judge a book by its cover (or its table of contents)! I have really enjoyed this book which is about the many blessings in our lives, many of which we do not see, ignore or walk right past without a thought.

I will share the content of one essay with you, called interestingly enough (right, you guessed) Pearls of Wisdom. Rachel (as she calls herself throughout the readings so I will as well) explains how an oyster is “soft, tender, and vulnerable.” Precisely because of this, the oyster is in its shell for protection, but must keep the shell open so it can breathe. Within the cycle of breathing, because the oyster is on the ocean floor, grains of sand will come inside the shell, causing the oyster great pain. However the ocean floor is the home of the oyster and it cannot thrive anywhere else. So what does it do with these painful grains of sand? It wraps it in “thin translucent layers” and Voila! You have a pearl! A beautiful and sensitive and pure pearl! We then learn from our teacher, Rachel, that sand as well as the pain it causes is the way of life of the oyster. There really are not other choices that are viable. So a beautiful thing of beauty comes from that which causes the oyster pain. She then explains that these places of pain “are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us.” Our capacity to understand and accept this will contribute greatly to our lives. And all of this was stated in less than two pages. Hmmmm….

Scenario #3: Yesterday in my Gemara learning (Masechet Shekalim, actually from the Talmud Yerushalmi for those who wonder), I read something that I found rather amazing. There is a discussion about the use of community funds (shekalim – a coin of designated worth – and other offerings that are made as well) for the upkeep and needs of the community and its ritual as well as pragmatic functions. In the midst of this discussion it is posited that community funds should be designated for headstones for graves. Within the various concerns related to this need, it is suggested that the most pious and righteous teachers do not need headstones on their graves because we remember and honor and continue to learn from them through their words and teachings that their students and future generations of those who have learned from their wisdom teach us.

So here are my lessons from today:

1. Pearls of wisdom are found even in places we do not expect if we are open to learning from them; and in so doing we keep important people alive and their teachings relevant and part of our daily realities.

2. We are all obligated and enjoined to pass on our teachings and learnings and gleanings of what we have learned to others so that our legacy remains part of the world.

3. Maybe the reason Ken and I do not speak about retirement is because there is a sense of purpose in our lives daily from doing just this.

Truly we are blessed and these blessings come from paying attention closely and living ….. yup, you guessed it, INTENTIONALLY!

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz and Charles Kimball Teach us About Religion and our Leaders



In the most recent Orthodox Union magazine of Summer 5775, Jewish Action, a great deal of attention is devoted to a recent hurtful chapter of betrayal and abuse of Rabbinic power and authority in the life of North American Orthodox Jewry. The title of the article and the very issue is “When Leaders Fall.” The lead article was written by a scholar and Rav for whom I have great respect and is truly one of my favorite Jewish leaders today, not that I agree or have to agree with everything he says. Rabbi Breitowitz uses his unique and wonderful combination of scholarship, Jewish knowledge, erudite articulation, and most important compassion and maintaining a strong sense of humanity to explore what elements in our social and cultural context may lead our leaders to fail. He begins by advising us to not condemn the Torah and Jewish Law for the failings of mere mortals. As I often say, it is too easy, in this instance to throw the baby away with the bath water and we as individuals have to remain reasonable about who we all are as humans and what we can reasonably expect from leaders and when we have to take action in difficult situations.

A second point that he speaks about is how people may expect too much from their leaders; and how leaders can fall into the position of power that such expectations can engender. We must always work carefully and purposefully to protect ourselves from the failings of others – insuring that individuals are safe, spaces are not exclusive and individuals in positions of authority do not take on more power than is theirs to take. People who are harmed must be able to speak and not be intimidated by self-serving authority. It is our responsibility collectively to insure that no one individual’s safety is compromised for the sake of the position or authority of another.

Of course, all of this makes so much sense in terms of Jewish teachings, what we hold to be true as civilized human beings, and with respect to common sense! There is so much in Jewish Law that insures this safety and protection of the potentially vulnerable. Yet, unfortunately we too often hear about those who take advantage of women who cannot get a divorce, converts, and others in such positions. In Pesachim 114b there is a most curious teaching that converts and servants like each other, because they are both in a lowly position and do not expect much from each other. This is within the context of a larger discussion about honorable behaviors and those that are not so honorable and how leaders can think that they can “do it all” and it is these leaders that are to be avoided. Essentially, we would not want to use the least common denominator in our expectations of others; but rather, work so that we all try to be the best we can be and ask the same of others.

How do we as members of our community hold onto our own agency and act with confidence and expecting the most of each other possible; while simultaneously have a more realistic set of expectations regarding our leaders? How do we allow our leaders to lead but not abuse that leadership? This is indeed a tricky question that has sparked many conversations on the part of scholars, social scientists and all of us who are part of social and religious institutions. In a day and age where practically every authoritative religious agency or representatives of them are under scrutiny because of the misdeeds and abuse of position among others who have been found guilty, not to mention the terrible harm done to the victims of these abuses, one must wonder who is minding the store, so to speak, in these bodies?

Years ago I became an avid fan of Charles Kimball when I read his book When Religion Becomes Evil. He speaks at length about Absolute Truth Claims and Blind Obedience, two of his markers for when religion does not function in the protective, embracing, instructive and supportive way it is supposed to in our lives as human beings in need of the big answers (or approaches) to the big questions. It is these two characteristics, I believe, that are taken on by the Rav/Rabbi (or any comparable religious leader in any community) who says “Don’t question me; I KNOW the truth,” and the member of the community who is embarrassed by such chastisement and ends up blindly following for fear of sanction. What flawed person in this flawed collection of human beings is of such a level that they are not to be questioned by others! Even the most recently appointed Pope is loved for his humanity and his desire to engage in dialogue with others. When did religious leadership in ANY of our traditions become such an elevated position that one cannot challenge those in its ranks in any way? This is clearly NOT allowed in Jewish law on any level; and yet, we are still dealing with far too much collateral damage including generations of NCSY’ers who were victimized by their head; converts who were taken advantage of; students in Yeshivot who were sexually, physically or emotionally abused; agunot (women who cannot attain a divorce) because of complicit Batei Din (Rabbinic courts); children who are abused by parents and cannot complain because it would go against Shalom Bayit (a peaceful home) and so on. THIS IS NOT THE JUDAISM OF OUR TORAH AND OUR TREASURED HERITAGE and yet it is happening.

What can we do? So here is just one thought to consider in engaging this potentially ongoing discussion. We are taught Aseh Lecha Rav, or find for your self a Rabbi. In other words, we are to take responsibility for finding and designating a leader we can respect and is appropriate for us. Our leader that we go to is NOT dictated, but rather should be chosen by us.

I will draw a quick analogy. I have dealt with some ongoing health challenges throughout my life. I am blessed to have been successful in this endeavor and here is one of my secrets. At points when my health was compromised, I would ONLY go to a doctor I could respect, a doctor who would discuss options with me, one who would share the findings in the PDR with me, one who would allow and encourage, even ask, that I be a participating partner in my health care. In this fashion, I have been blessed with wonderful doctors along the way.

Years ago, the village where one lived was where one’s Rabbi was located. Maybe, we have to challenge this with so much that has changed in our lives. We must each CHOOSE intelligently and intentionally the one that we will go to as our Rabbinic authority. Maybe then, the voice of those that do use the humility that is to come with leadership will be heard more than those who claim to know all the truths and demand blind leadership. WE HAVE TO DO OUR PART in choosing wisely! Our tradition asks that of us; our humanity demands it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

So Let Me Tell You About My Daughter and Daughter-in-Law’s Amazing Wedding!!!!!

Where shall I begin? Many months ago when I wrote an article for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia about our daughter Rachie, her upcoming marriage to her beloved Liz, and her identity as an observant and knowledgeable Jewish woman who is, that is happens to be, gay, I received mostly amazing positive and validating feedback. One lone Rabbi, who does not know Rachie or us at all, wrote rather passionately about how wrong I was, how I should retract my statements, how I could not properly call myself Halachically observant and so on. At one point he asked what type of ceremony could there possibly be for my daughter and her fiancée as they joined their lives together?

No problem, I responded. We made up wonderful creative and intentional ceremonies for the coming of age of our three daughters, their B’not Mitzvah and once again, I would look at the spirit of who we are as Jews, figure out what foundational ideas and narratives we could use and go from there. With the help, creativity, Halachic knowledge, and guidance of my good friend and as Rachie calls him, Rav Steve, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, we did just that! And here is what happened at a lovely retreat called Woolman Hill in Deerfield, Massachusetts from June 5 – 7, 2015.

First of all, I must begin with Shabbat. We arrived after a very long drive (where it felt more like we walked through Connecticut than drove through it) somewhat frazzled but immediately taken by the bucolic environment of the retreat that would be home to the community we were about to be part of and have a hand in creating for the next 48 hours. Fairly quickly, we were introduced to members of the amazing community that our daughter Rachie, our soon-to-be daughter-in-law Liz, and another daughter Talie (Rachie’s twin sister as it happens to be) call their own. What a wonderful and warm and sincere group of relatively newly minted adults, generally in their third decade of doing and initiating ways of changing and repairing our world. Oh and yes, this is all intentional! They are kind, gentle, and just amazing. Shortly after arrival, one of our dear friends remarked, “I want to meet every one of these people.” I could not have agreed more with her!

So, let me describe a lovely and often forgotten piece of Jewish tradition and community practice. Years ago when two young people were ready to embark on their life together, the entire community would come out and work to make their simcha truly joyous and amazing. They were the original DIYers (Do It Yourself), an art we have generally lost! In our day where these matters are now turned over to caterers, professional wedding planners and others whom we meet at the point we are beginning to craft our events; this community of gifted, talented, caring adults pulled together to create a simcha in the way of our previous generations – a truly traditional way of celebrating and validating each other. They cooked and prepared food, designed and built the Chupah (wedding canopy), designed and printed the invitations, helped with and designed the breathtakingly beautiful Shtar Shitufim (Business Contract or Merger, if you will) that was used, and helped with every aspect of this weekend and the ceremony that would be its highlight! This weekend was a testimony to each and every one of these amazing young(ish?) adults!

Throughout Shabbat about 55 or more people from our lives, from the world of Liz’s family and from our daughters’ and daughter-in-law-to-be’s amazing community came together to relax, share space and celebrate Rachie and Liz, while observing Shabbat as a collective. The dovening for Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning was expertly and fully done and it was so clear that there are many Jewishly knowledgeable skilled and committed members of this community that is centered in the Boston area. There was a sensitivity to those who doven with a Mechitza and those who do not; there was respect all around! Beautiful Divrei Torah, soulful singing and Tefilot (prayers), and words of blessing for Rachie and Liz also added to the joy and spirituality of the group.

The meals were nothing short of amazing, with no less than thirteen members of this group working cooperatively for the previous week to “prepare massive amounts of food,” as articulated in the printed wedding program. There were board games, Frisbee, walks through beautiful nature, singing and music for those who wished to take part, and other activities which were available to those with a wider understanding of what their Yom Menucha (Day of Rest) could contain, as well as a Shiyur (lesson, learning experience) for those who wished to participate. People floated in and out of various options and we WERE truly a community of embracing, inclusive and clearly intentional Jewish practice.

Havdalah was a beautiful separation service between “Kodesh v’Hol” (that is between sanctified and secular), though I could not help thinking of it as between Kodesh and Kodesh (sanctified and sanctified), as the ceremony would be on Sunday and there was NOTHING regular or secular about this group and this community nor would there be about the celebration to come! The night ended with a lovely campfire, built by our son the Eagle Scout (go Brian!) with help from members of the community as is the nature of this wonderful group; and musical “singing around the campfire.”

The wedding the next day that affected marriage according to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the business and life partnership designed according to Jewish practice was beyond amazing. The community swelled to 150 as the guests all arrived. We began with a Tisch (table around which we all joined) where members of family and community showered Rachie and Liz with blessings and hopes for their future and the future of the community of which they are such an integral part. The ceremony reflected a beautiful acceptance of the reality of Halacha and what it can be expanded to include as well as accepted limits regarding what was not incorporated. The interfacing of these elements resulted in a nod to the special nature of this union and what it can be looked at within the constructs of Halachic reasoning with appropriate expansion. The language was different, the cadence was different, those standing under the Chupah were different, but the feeling and emotion were NOT all that different, perhaps elevated if anything! No one present felt that either Halacha was slighted nor was the couple being joined through an act of Kinyan (acknowledgement of a life partnership and shared space) and Nedarim (vows to attest to the former); rather all were awed (very appropriately used here) by the beautiful fusion of authentic Jewish expression and authentic love of two Jewish souls within a model true to itself.

Some of us cried of course, and obviously I shed those tears of joy. People did not want to leave. The dancing and joyful noise created by these 150 people was nothing short of amazing. The celebration went on for seven hours, including dancing to a music mix created by yet another member of the community when the band finished their part! Truly everything was thought of for this entire weekend and this showed!

Incidentally, several people remarked that they witnessed a completely circular rainbow around the sun during the ceremony and afterwards. My son explained to me that this is a Sun Halo, which is produced by light interacting with ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. He also tells me this is a rather rare phenomenon. So, how do we explain this? Rav Steve conducted this beautiful ceremony based on the narrative of the interaction and partnership of the sun and the moon and the need for equality between them – a fusion of shared respect and love to enhance their co-existence. Interestingly enough, the rainbow is the symbol of inclusion and equality for the LGBTQ Community. Was G-d giving us all some type of nod of approval by showing us this rainbow, which we know from Bereshit (Genesis) is a sign that God will always protect us and never destroy us again? Was G-d coming into our celebration in a “physical” way?

All I know is that the joy, love, celebration, validation and Jewish expression of the day was “over the moon,” so to speak. As Rav Steve explained, this was not just (or even primarily) a lesbian wedding; it was so much more – it was a joining of two Jewish souls! What more could a mother want for her beloved child!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

PARSHAT NASO 2015/5775

Please note that this was a Shabbat Drasha this past week but continues to be relevant as we move through the texts of BaYikra/Leviticus.

Throughout our Torah and the texts of our heritage we interact with various aspects of God’s persona, ranging from Rachmana (The Compassionate One) to Dayan HaEmet (The Judge of Truth) to aspects of what would be called in anthropology and mythology the Warrior God, the Creator of All, in our case, who is so zealous for all of those beings that God has created with a special place reserved for those members of the Jewish Nation with whom we are taught God has a special relationship. In thinking about our Compassionate and Protecting God, it is sometimes difficult to interface that set of characteristics with what we read in VaYikra, the middle of our Hameshet Humshei Torah that is dedicated to the particular stringencies of Jewish practice and to be sure, there are many. These are some of the most difficult texts to address on so many levels, yet once again I will try to do exactly that.

We will focus on the first set of instructions in our Parsha after the B’nai Yisrael are counted and accounted for as each and every one is important in and of themselves as well as to the community and as a Created Being of God. We read as follows in Chapter 5: 1 – 4:

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 'Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath any type of discharge, and whosoever is unclean by the dead; 3 both male and female shall ye put out…; that they defile not their camp, in the midst whereof I dwell.' 4 And the children of Israel did so, and put them out without the camp; as the LORD spoke unto Moses, so did the children of Israel

As we are so hyper-aware of exclusion of any kind, this text begs that we attend to it. What is going on here? What is being suggested that would be consistent with God as Rachmanah? In Masechet Pesachim, there is a lengthy discussion about what exactly occurred and whether people who needed to be pushed out of the camp were indeed forcibly removed; or did something else transpire?

First of all we need to understand the context of this situation. We are discussing the set up of the camp of the B’nai Yisrael and the entirety of the EDAH, the congregational grouping. The camps were set up in concentric circles with the Mishkan in the center serving as the focal point for the community and indicating the everlasting presence of God within the camp. Immediately around the Mishkan was the encampment circle of the Levites who were attending to the direct service of the Mishkan and all it entailed. Then finally the third circle was filled with all of the B’nai Yisrael, arranged by their tribal units.

This encampment brought together the people individually, tribally, their central focus of the Mishkan and the presence of God. It was in the full sense of the word a truly Holy Assembly, elevated in so many ways. So after this explanation, we come to the aforementioned exclusions.

1. Those with leprosy 2. Those with any type of bodily emission that would render them spiritually unclean. 3. Those who had been in contact with a corpse.

In Masechet Pesachim, we are taught that the individuals themselves exited from the main camp and were not forced out. In fact, this is correlated with the notion that for the Metzora to leave the camp is a positive commandment for them to observe. To be sure, there is a great deal of discussion of what is Tum’ah/ ritualistically impure and what is Tehorah/ ritualistically pure throughout Torah, Gemarah and so many sources. How do we understand what this means in a way that does not feel excessively restrictive or exclusive of one’s ability to participate? How do we discuss this without in any way detracting from the value and validation of individuals?

Rabbi Avi Weiss teaches as follows:

"The truth is that there are several terms in the Torah that have no suitable English equivalent. Such terms should not be translated. Leaving them in the original Hebrew makes the reader understand that a more detailed analysis of the word is necessary. Tumah is one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and requires a deeper analysis. Rav Aharon Soloveichik suggested that the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms, which says: "The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever." (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality or finitude, that which withers away.

The point is that the skin of the one with leprosy will heal and then he or she, along with the one who has had an emission, can go to a Mikveh and be admitted to the camp. The waters literally revive the person and the soul after the Tumah is expunged. The corpse withers away and we are left with our memories of the one who has departed. Here too, through Tahara we “water the soul” of the one who has left us. We validate and protect the integrity of what is Tahor, that which is pure and everlasting; while we let go of Tumah, that which is finite and will leave us."

This notion that what is to be excluded from the camp is not the person per se but the Tumah – that which is NOT lasting – makes sense in that the Mishkan and the camp in its very formation celebrates and is based upon that which lasts forever, namely Ribbonu shel Olam.

Later in our Parsha we learn about the Nazir, the one who takes specific vows that separate that person from the general population. In this case, the individual is choosing to not be part of the collective and not celebrate nor participate in several aspects of communal life. We read as follows in Chapter 6: 1 - 8

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the LORD, 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink: he shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or dried…. 5 All the days of his vows … no razor shall come upon his head; until the days be fulfilled, in which he consecrates himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long. 6 All the days that he consecrates himself unto the LORD he shall not come near to a dead body. 7 He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because his consecration unto God is upon his head. 8 All the days of his Naziriteship he is (exclusively) holy unto the LORD

Here the individual is choosing a life of solitude, in which his dedication to God pre-empts any connection to other people. We learn very quickly that these periods are to be limited and that the Nazir is to bring very specific and particular offerings; to indicate that he will now embrace being part of the entirety of communal life that he has exited from during the period of this self-imposed seclusion. This is not meant to be permanent, nor is it set up as an ideal state in the context of Jewish living.

So here we have two types of exclusion – one that is required due to a condition of one’s present status and the second that is taken on by personal choice. In both cases, we are shown that this separation goes against the intended nature of community as taught by the maxim AL TIFROSH MIN HATZIBBUR (Do not separate oneself from the community) and that there are remedies for what is seen as a temporary condition.

Clearly, it is the community, that is, the collective, which is seen as lasting and permanent. Consider for example, the complicated instructions regarding offering of the Pesach sacrifice, which is incumbent upon all members of the B’nai Yisrael, both as individuals and as members of the group. There are two specific teachings in these sets of laws that are quite remarkable in their relevance to this topic. First, the Pesach offering is to be offered in CHABUROT, or in groups, in which individual members are to be registered. Secondly, the Pesach is to be offered in a state of TEHORAH and those who are individually Tamei can delay their involvement until Pesach Sheni. However, if the community as a whole or a reasonable number of members of the community are Tamei, then one insures that this is the case with the majority of the group, even going so far as to intentionally have an additional group member touch something that is Tamei; and then the offering is given with the majority in this state. Why? Because the importance of group participation trumps individual states of ritual purity. This is not to say that the latter is not important, just not so core as to invalidate participation of the masses.

There are many ways that we try to achieve this state of TAHARA, of ritual purity and raised spiritual existence. Jewish law gives us strategies to do so, though sometimes we get lost in the details and forget the ultimate goal. We have to remember that God as RACHMANA wants all of us to participate, to be counted, and to be able to reach our own spiritual heights. This is fundamental to the structure of Halacha and should not get lost in the details of how we work towards this goal. VaYikra gives us the parameters of what to do; it is up to us to figure out how and why through the use of CHAZAL and our own sense of purpose in trying to achieve that which is permanent and not subject to deterioration!

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Getting Ready to Celebrate a New Jewish Family: Starring Rachie and Liz

I have written from time to time about various aspects of being a religiously observant Jewish family and how we are inclusive of all members of our Jewish community. I have shared observations from time to time about the trajectory of our Jewish community in its comfort level of welcoming our LGBTQ Members, specifically in our more Orthodox part of the continuum of all that we are. I have gotten personal from time to time in terms of our family and the interfacing of these factors, both in our thinking and in the reality of who we are.

And, lo and behold, in two weeks, our beautiful and intelligent (I have to say that, because I do not want my children to think I am superficial) daughter Rachie will be married to her beloved, our daughter-in-law-to-be, the also beautiful and intelligent (see above!) Liz. How am I feeling you ask? So let me share a bit.

I am overjoyed that our daughter has found the love of her life. We absolutely LOVE Liz and are as confident as one dare be that she and Rachie will build a truly beautiful Jewish home (Bayit Ne’eman) for all of Israel – that is, all of the Jewish community who agree to be part of their amazing lives. We are proud of the many accomplishments these remarkable young ladies have already achieved in their young years. We are awed by their grace, their poise and their ethical fiber. In short, we are grateful to HaShem for the guidance and presence in all of our lives that have brought us to this joyful moment. And as a bonus, I already LOVE Liz’s family. In all of this, I am probably (and hopefully) not all that different than so many other moms of a beloved daughter who is getting married.

That being said, I am acutely aware of how this is playing quite differently in the context of our Halachically observant lives lived mostly within the frame of our larger Orthodox community. I must say that the vast majority of people have been incredible and want to give Hakarat HaTov to our friends, shuls, community members and so many who have wished us well and rejoiced with us to the degree that they are able. I also want to acknowledge that those who will be sharing this event with us will differ somewhat than was the case for our eldest daughter, Yoella, and her wedding to our amazing son-in-law Jeremy (you still get to be my favorite son-in-law and that status does not appear to be threatened in any way LOL).

Here is what is NOT happening. There will NOT be hundreds of guests. Now granted, a lot of this has to do with the fact that the venue is at some retreat in Western Massachusetts, where Rachie and Liz’s community is close by, so ALL of the families are traveling many miles (and my hippyesque daughter in her hippyesque community did not want that big wedding with hundreds of guests). Think destination wedding! Still, I cannot help but wonder after driving three plus hours each way to more than a few weddings if this might have played out a bit differently for some more of our friends who are not coming if … but I will just wonder and leave it at that. Also, I am not getting so many people asking “how are the wedding preparations going?” Maybe I am just being needlessly hyper-sensitive but in the oft chance this is not the case, PLEASE everyone, ask … any friend or relative who is planning such an affair for their healthy amazing child, it does mean something! It means a lot!

We are so grateful for the many friends and family who will be celebrating with us and I am particularly thankful for our wonderful ESHEL family who will be with us as we all continue to navigate these waters of what it means to have children who are religiously observant and LGBTQ. We will be aware of friends and relatives who elected not to be part of this (not because of distance) and will respect that and hope that they can find it in their hearts to respect us as well. I am especially grateful (and you know who you are) to those friends and relatives with whom I have had extensive conversations about the particular nature of this wedding and commitment ceremony and their honesty in sharing that they wish us well but could not take part. For any who have dismissed us (and there were a few), and this must be said, I hope that as the years go on and others in your world (and it will happen!) come to terms with how God chose to make them, you will remember us and come to us for advice and support because we will be there for you!

Yes, we are in a celebratory mood; don’t forget that. However, just as we break the glass under the Chupah (wedding canopy) to recall the destruction of the Temple and the fracture that created in our lives as a Jewish people, we also recall the fracturing in our world today. Part of that fracturing for us as a family with members who are LGBTQ is the loss of some relationships. Yet, we simultaneously celebrate those new ones that have come our way. As I always say it is indeed a matter of balance. It is the Jewish way to consider what is amiss in the midst of great joy, so allow me this moment to do that.

So, when you see me, please by all means, ASK are we excited? YES! Are we happy for our daughter? YES! How are arrangements for this weekend Shabbaton and Wedding/Commitment Ceremony going? Well… I THINK we are where we need to be two weeks ahead of time. I certainly hope so! Or as Liz’s mom, Deb says, we will know the Monday after!!!

Monday, May 18, 2015

HINTS OF HINTS: MORE THOUGHTS ABOUT DIFFICULT ISSUES OF EXCLUSION AND THE LEPER

This is actually a continuation of the last posting as it is also a continuation of my daily learning of Gemara. I am still in the middle of Pesachim and learned a wonderful concept a while ago that is how God, called RACHMANA (The Compassionate One) FIXES difficulties in the text by making the exclusion of the one with Tzara’at (leprosy) a positive commandment for him or her alone to observe by the juxtaposition of words that indicate that the one with Tzara’at should live alone outside of the camp (understood to be the general community).

This concept struck me as amazing on several levels. First, this is NOT a matter necessarily of forced exclusion of one towards another but indicated as a personal responsibility to exclude one self. Let us reformulate this a bit. Think of those of us who go on meditation retreats to cleanse ourselves from the “stuff’ of living and to try to center ourselves. Many of us put ourselves in all types of seclusion for different reasons. What if we can turn this around and look at the one with Leprosy as one who needs and embraces this seclusion to reconsider one’s life and the trajectory of that journey. For those of you who think that this sounds so absurd, consider those of us who have various illnesses and do exactly this. For me, as a chronic asthmatic, the notion of solitude and concentrating on my breath and only on that, for example, has a very powerful meaning.

What if Miriam (Moshe and Aharon’s sister), with her leprosy, needed that reboot? While the Midrash and others teach that this leprosy was a result of her speaking inappropriately about Moshe publicly, we could look at this as a “stress itch.” We know all too well that so much of what happens inside of us shows on our skin, especially those with various skin ailments, such as eczema or even … leprosy??? We are all fallible and try our best and so many who do experience such seclusion as a result of illness do report a type of reconsideration of their own sense of what it means to be human and humane on many levels. Its just something to consider, though it may be somewhat “out there.”

Secondly, in Pesachim, we learn that the one who does not abide by this commandment of exclusion is NOT to be punished severely for they have transgressed a positive commandment, not ignored a negative one. Finally, the notion can be extrapolated that the responsibility for this is NOT on the community, in terms of how they view another. Rather, the responsibility is on the self for excluding one from the sanctity of the ritual practice for a given period of time. Perhaps, just maybe, this provides a wonderful model for how we look at various needs of withholding oneself from the larger collective and how it is a personal matter, not one of community sanction.

There is this notion in Torah learning of the value of a REMEZ, that is a hint from the text. This discussion in the Gemara is all about this hint that we are to discern from our careful reading and understanding of the text and what it is as well as what it is not teaching us. I think that is critically important for those who are too often so quick to judge others to remember!

Shavuot is coming up. We are taught that we WERE ALL present to receive Torah. Similarly, in the beginning of Masechet Hagiga in the Talmud we are taught that ALL OF US should be part of this communal experience of coming to the Temple with our offerings. As we have discussed at other points on this blog, right after this statement, too many groups are categorically excluded (e.g. women, those of questionable gender identification, deaf, blind, children, lame, slaves, etc.). However, the Tractate then goes on to “retract” a bit, if you will, by stating conditions of exclusion that ultimately err on the side of caution in including everyone who wants to be there. I think our Talmudic teachers are sending us a message of great import for our lives today. Namely, that is, it is NOT up to us individually to exclude or to send members of our community out. Rather, individuals will take on various states of inclusion or exclusion of their own accord, as it is important to each of us when looking at our community.

Let us consider this Shavuot the degree to which we personally want to be part of community and worry about the genuine nature of that inclusion and let each other person tend to their own personal positive commandment to do so. In that manner, we can joyfully and freely accept the wonder of our Torah and all it is, regardless of so many reasons that others may indicate we should not do so. It is NOT theirs to judge!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Parshat Tazriya/Metzora 2015 -- Who's In and Who's Out

I will begin with three short stories of scenes in my life.

Story #1: Ken and I find ourselves a few times monthly in Baltimore at Tudor Heights, the assisted living facility that is now my parents’ home, in spite of the fact that my mom, who has dementia, is never sure where she is, and the frustration of my dad who still has quite a clear sense of where he is. Sometimes I can go with a cheery countenance and interact with all the people who want to interact with me, whether or not their speech is clear, regardless of how bent over they are, and without regard to their appearance. Other times, it is hard as I am confronted by the frailty of our human condition and its natural state of deterioration in the people who call Tudor Heights home. So it is with those of us who have our parents who are living well into their nineties and beyond, who cannot live with the rest of us in our daily world.

Story #2: Years ago, at the beginning of my career when I taught in an elementary Jewish Day School, I was not quite sure what to do with this particular Parsha. So, I focused on the discussion of those with Tzara’at and explained how people had a disease that made it difficult for people to be around them and they would be separated from the larger community. At that time, Elephant Man was making the rounds and one of my students knew about the story from his parents who had just seen the show. He asked the following question: Isn’t it possible that the reason for their separation from the larger community was to protect them from being called names or made to feel badly because of how they looked and not to protect society from them? So, while this is not a reason that the text necessarily provides us with directly, one is left to consider the notion of this additional reason and its potential benefit.

Story #3: About four years ago, when I was spending the summer at the Hartman Institute, I chose to take a “tiyyul” to the former Leper Colony across the street in the German Colony. I spend an afternoon learning about the life of those who were quarantined in this institution and what their lives were like – being set apart from their families, communities, friends and all normalcy of life, as they knew it. There are pictures that show slices of life from that time that leave us to question what it was like for those who were separated from society because of a condition that was the reality of their existence and its potential harm to others, while this separation was no “fault” of their own. Nonetheless, their compound was fenced in and isolated from the world that they had known previously. Potentially, they might have returned to that life but not without the stigma of having been in this colony.

While all of this is clearly understood, it leads to difficult discussions and sad considerations. How do we discuss the content of these Torah portions in a manner in which we can extrapolate important lessons for the reality of our lives today? How do we discern these lessons given the focus of the text itself?

As we read in Leviticus/VaYikra 13: 45 - 46:

The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, 'Unclean, unclean.' He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. [As long as] he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.

Is this quarantine or ostracism? How do we balance concerns for public safety and health with our compassion for the individual? What will life be like when the leper returns to society, which he or she can do, once the disease has abated? Will he or she always carry that title – the leper? Is this a case of attempting to keep the community itself ever so pure or is it a matter of considerations of health for all members of the community? What kindnesses are there to find in looking at the situation of the one with leprosy?

As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg comments: …understandably, [this portion] has a reputation as the portion about which rabbis least want to preach. But there is little more important in human society than our attitudes toward illness and those who suffer from it.

In Moed Katan 14b to 15b the lot of the one with leprosy is discussed. Within the context of this conversation, there is an attempt to come to a better understanding of the reasons for separation. As is often the case, the methodology used in the Gemara is employed and in attempting to find the explanation for this separation, the Leper is compared both to the one who has been excommunicated from the community and the mourner who is exempt from all aspects of community life. These comparisons range in topics such as permissibility of studying Torah, wearing of Tefillin and Tzitzit, greeting others in the community, laundering their clothes, eating together with the individual and so much more.

In one case, that of the one who is Menudeh or the one who is excommunicated from the community, the individual has done something wrong and in the second comparison, that of the Ovel or the mourner, we are dealing with someone who is in distress over their loss, so all expectations of society are removed from him or her. Is this exclusion in the case of the Metzora an expression of kindness and compassion as in the case of the Ovel or something else?

If you look back at our text, the Metzora lets his hair grow, does not bathe and wears torn clothes. So too does the mourner. Clearly, there are elements that are so similar, as Wittenberg and others point out. Yet, there is one profound difference. The Metzora, as we learn in the Gemara, must remain alone. This is not true for the mourner. In fact, we bring the community into the home, that is, the space of the mourner to comfort him or her; how do we do this for the one who suffers from leprosy and is very much alone in isolation and outside of the city?

Rav Soloveitchik explains this contrast between the ovel and the metzora in one of his published lectures (Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mari, vol. 2, pp. 192-194), when speaking about Yom Tov and its status regarding these two categories of people. Mourning observances are suspended on Yom Tov, because, as our Gemara in Moed Katan (14b) explains, the public festival celebration in the community overrides the personal obligations of mourning. A metzora, by contrast, is not permitted to re-enter his city or go to Jerusalem to offer the festival sacrifices; in this case, the public mitzva of the holiday celebration does not override the individual’s personal restrictions. It is interesting to note that in Masechet Hagiga, where there are so many excluded classes of people in discussing the offerings that all of Israel comes to present, who are then discussed and reconsidered so that they can be part of the Kehilah, the metzora is never even on the list. Rav Soloveitchik explains that part of the definition of the metzora status is exclusion, as implied and reflected by the command of “badad yeisheiv.” A mourner, however, is still included within the community, who, in fact, bears an obligation to embrace him and support him during his time of anguish. So again, who is there for the metzora? What obligation, if any, does the Jewish community have to be there for this person, one of their own?

What exactly is this Tzara’at? Are we immuned? There are those who suggest that given that Tzara’at comes to our attention as the punishment that Miriam suffers in BaMidbar due to her crimes of speech; perhaps this disease that is seemingly of the skin is truly of the heart. That is to say, if our actions are not coming from a place of true intentionality, we can suffer surface indications of this inner turmoil. Think of what we know all too well today about physical and external indications of stress that is internal.

We should note at this point that this Tza’ra’at in our Parsha does spread to the house, that is, to the possessions of the person afflicted. There are many discussions that correlate this spread to all that is owned to a preoccupation one may have with their material wealth to the exclusion of their more honorable intentions regarding society. This is clearly an interesting direction to take this discussion, as it gives us something to work with. If we step back and re-examine our lives, then supposedly we can eradicate this scourge from our lives and the isolation and quarantine that accompanies it.

But even if this is the case, this has not resolved the problem of those who are excluded from our society. We have spoken often here about so many groups that were once maligned and marginalized in our community of observant Judaism that now have their place or are in the process of being accorded their rightful place in our community with all inherent rights. But here, we still have the problem of those who are too sick, old, infirmed, or compromised to be part of our community. How do we include them? How do we use our own purist intentions, acknowledge the many ways in which we are blessed, and show these members of our community, these people in our lives that we have not forgotten them? How do we bring the community from the outside into their lives as we do with the ovlim in our community?

I will end by using the inspiration of a written text by Rabbi James Jacobson Maisels, an alumnus of D’var Tzedek, one of many Social Justice institutions that are popping up and doing wonderful work in our larger community. Fortunately, the message of our parshah is that the plagued person as well as space —or our own plagued hearts—can be cured. Parshat Metzora provides us with a process. First, the affected area is inspected and isolated. Then, if necessary, the specific affected area that bears the tzara’at is removed and replaced in the case of a home and treated and cured in the case of a person. The process for healing the biblical home as well as the one who dwells in it should provide a blueprint for healing our own ailments of the heart—greed, selfishness and failure to mend the world. Whenever our hearts stray from kindness and compassion, we must first inspect and investigate the selfishness, apathy or hardness inside of us. We can then attempt to remove these malignancies, and allow our hearts to be filled with compassion.

We may not be able to completely discern the actual lot of the Metzora in Biblical society in terms of the need for compassion, but we can and should use the reality of their existence to consider how we should work to NOT exclude individuals from our lives today and insure that the compassion that God consistently shows as RACHMANA pervades our actions, our intentions and our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom.