Monday, December 28, 2009

Selectiveness, Favoritism and Exclusive Privilege – A Few Important Lessons

So, as we continue to read about the travails and challenges of being Yoseph in the ongoing text of our Parshiot HaShavuah, one just has to wonder – what lessons do we learn here about favoritism and its impact? Yes, Yoseph was Yaakov’s favorite son, continuing a long tradition of parental favoritism in the families of Bereshit; the Jews (we are often taught and proclaim) are G-d’s favorite people, and so goes life! What are we to do about this predicament?

I often teach that if we would all stop screaming at each other within the Jewish community, there are many important lessons we can and certainly should learn from each other. Let’s consider one of the most profound and fundamental teachings of Reconstructionist Judaism for just a moment, understanding that it may be challenging for some of us to do so – and that, my friends, is exactly the point! By ideology, the notion that the Jewish people are chosen as G-d’s favorite is basically rejected in this particular ideological system. As a result of rejection of this belief, references to such a chosen status are removed from the rhythm and content of prayer in this part of our larger Jewish community. Why exactly have our Reconstructionist Jewish friends replaced the Bracha of “who has chosen us from all of the nations” with “bring us closer with [G-d’s] commandments,” to mention one such change?

Now, to be sure, many ritualistically observant and Halachically oriented Jews will bristle at the notion of changing the words of our time-honored Siddur text. However, instead of tsk-tsking, let us wonder for a moment about what exactly the Reconstructionist fathers (and mothers) saw that brought them to this decision. I remember having these discussions with some of the movement’s leaders years ago. These words were removed precisely, according to how it was explained to me, because they conveyed a sense of superiority and selectiveness, which runs counter-intuitive to the Reconstructionist dedication to inclusivity and the love for all Jews and all of mankind. What exactly is wrong with this idea, you may ask or not care to ask. So, I did pose the following question to one of my Reconstructionist Rabbi friends in these discussions so long ago: Could we clarify exactly what the Jews were chosen for and educate the masses regarding the responsibility and role modeling we were to take on; thus clarifying the words asher bachar banu instead of removing them? What then ensued was a rather lengthy conversation in which many others became involved regarding how members of OUR Jewish community take on the notion of chosenness with such a superior air and judge other Jews and members of the human family with such passion and prejudice, it is hard to get back to rooted meanings of chosenness. Much is being written on this very painful phenomenon at this point in time.

This was part of what brought many Reconstructionist Jews to take on the agenda of inclusivity and equality for and of all people as a foundational defining element of their identity. Within this framework, I believe that many Jews across the spectrum, if they (we!) can be objective for just a moment, would not necessarily disagree with this move. That being said, I think it is a justifiable argument to posit that chosenness does not always mean such things as superiority or being “better or more favored” than others, though it is understood that there are many textual and linguistic references that do convey exactly this idea. However, this is NOT the focus of this piece here.

Now, let us return to Yoseph and his position in his family. His father gives his favorite son a special gift, Yoseph reports his strange dreams to all and we are told that he reports back to his father about the behavior of his brothers in the field. This is not exactly the makings of wonderful sibling relationships, to be sure. Do we fault the brothers for their treatment of Yoseph and deceiving their father; or do we look at the favorite son and ask some hard questions about what one can and should do with such a status?

I often say that to blindly (or in very good faith!) justify all of the aberrant or questionable actions of our Avot v’Emahot might be missing the challenge that Ribbonu shel Olam is putting before us in these rich and troubled (as well as troubling) narratives. What if the power of these stories is to teach us what NOT to do as well as what to do? At the end of the Yoseph narrative, one could make the point that he is overcome with the ramifications of his own actions as well as the separation that has occurred for so many years between him and his own family. As one psychologist teaches, rejection or absence of a nuclear family member leaves a hole in one’s heart, shaped with the profile of the family member not in one’s life. How many holes were there in Yoseph’s heart and how comforted must he have been when the rifts were finally resolved on whatever level! Clearly, when speaking of fault there was much to go around. Who in this family behaved honorably concerning this relationship? To be sure, there are some ideas expressed by our commentators regarding this as well, all to be trumped by the notion that Yoseph was fulfilling some divine plan to be in a specific place at a specific time to fulfill a specific mission. If this is the focus, it is easy to look away at how the members of this family treated each other. However, my contention is that this is exactly what we are NOT supposed to do in terms of learning and absorbing the full strength of the lessons these stories come to teach us.

Today, we teach that EVERY CHILD and EVERY PERSON is special with their own talents, perceptions and what they offer. That is to say, EACH AND EVERY PERSON IS CHOSEN for SOME DEED or MISSION. If we could embrace this idea and come to the place where we many not always understand each other or what we are doing and learn to ask questions regarding these misunderstandings instead of hurling insults, perhaps we would be able to heed the teaching of our Reconstructionist friends and look at chosenness differently. Imagine what we could learn about ourselves and others in doing so!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Good News about Being Part of our Jewish Community is We are Part of a Family… The Bad News About Being Part…

So, you know the one about six, or is it seven, degrees of separation… and we are all connected? I find that in the Jewish community, there’s really no more than 2 ½ degrees of separation, maybe three is a stretch … we really are all part of one huge family. We love each other and we fight with each other; we nurture each other and we destroy each other; we support each other and we hurt each other …. And so it goes. So as we continue to learn and look at these Parshiot of the Dysfunctional Families of Bereshit, we realize that we and our own family constellations fit right in.

In this week’s Parsha, Toldot, we have parental and sibling dissention, parental favoritism, tricking one’s only brother, fighting over family resources, and so on…. Just like in real life. But of course, this is real life, as we understand it. So, why is it that we begin our Torah reading cycle with all of these wonderful examples of complete family discord, including fratricide, sending part of the family off forever, not treating all members of the family equally, and so on? Keep in mind that we haven’t gotten to that idea of given your favorite son a beautiful coat or selling your brother to the Ishmaelites yet. Actually I think one of the most compelling lessons here is that after reminding ourselves of these chapters in our history, we go home and kiss our children and hug our spouses and say, “Hmmm, my family is actually great!” in many cases.

I really do believe that as humans, we are all fallible and have our weaknesses, our preferences, and our challenges. This is certainly true in the family, the most basic of all social units. The Torah is putting a mirror in front of us and asking that we carefully consider how we treat each other and how honorable we are within our family units. What does one parent do when they have information that the other parent does not, for example, about their children?

Consider the following text from Toldot:

כב וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְר֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֹֽה: כג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גֹייִם֙ [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר: כד וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ יָמֶ֖יהָ לָלֶ֑דֶת וְהִנֵּ֥ה תוֹמִ֖ם בְּבִטְנָֽהּ:

And the children struggled inside Rivkah and she asked, “If this is to be so, why am I in such a state?” She went to ask G-d what was going on. And G-d said to her, “There are two nations in your belly and two peoples will come from within you; one will be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger one. Her days of pregnancy were fulfilled, Rivkah gave birth and here there were twins in her belly. [Bereshit 25: 22 – 24]

There is much written by the commentaries on what is going on here, with this discussion between Rivkah and G-d. After all, the story that is introduced by this text is in serious need of explaining! Of course, as the boys grow, Yaakov and Esau “have their issues” and on two separate occasions, Yaakov does indeed get, dare we say steal or take under questionable circumstances, the right to the family inheritance, so to speak. Not only that, but both Rivkah and Yitzchak are involved in the family drama, in which a very old and blind, so we are told, Yitzchak is tricked and each parent does have their favorite, Yitzchak bonding with he-man Esau and Rivkah preferring the quieter and calmer studious Yaakov. Now the commentaries definitely work overtime to protect Rivkah and Yaakov, claiming that Esau is really this horrible person.

On this one, I will agree with Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and so many others who say that to make Esau the awful terrible bad guy and Yaakov the innocent angel might really be to miss the point of the story. We are NOT perfect, we are NOT always acting correctly, and G-d knows (no disrespect intended) we do NOT all get along all of the time. But we are all still members of the larger family … as Jews and as human beings.

So, maybe the lesson here is really to note that as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in To Heal a Fractured World, we are here to try to fix and put back in order that which we throw into chaos as a result of our actions. This is the nature of human beings. G-d did not, according to Sacks, create a perfect world, precisely because G-d wants us to be partners with G-d in trying to improve and make the world a better place. When we look at these families, we see real people with real problems and making real attempts to right the real wrongs that ensue. Is not that the stuff of human nature?

So, G-d tells Rivkah what is going to happen. Why does G-d do this? If you think about this, Rivkah is being put in a rather uncomfortable position knowing this information. So, what parent does not understand looking at their children and noticing that one has abilities that the other does not have, that one is more talented, more good-natured and so on? This is in fact the nature of being individuals – we know that as no two snowflakes are alike, to be sure no two people are alike, EVEN identical twins (and this I know to be true from experience as a mother of twins that we believe are genetically identical).

Back to our story! As this drama continues, we find Yitzchak believing that Yaakov is Esau and yet, maybe not really so much… Note that the text says:

יח וַיָּבֹ֥א אֶל־אָבִ֖יו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אָבִ֑י וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הִנֶּ֔נִּי מִ֥י אַתָּ֖ה בְּנִֽי: יט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־אָבִ֗יו אָֽנֹכִי֙ עֵשָׂ֣ו בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ עָשִׂ֕יתִי כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ אֵלָ֑י קוּם־נָ֣א שְׁבָ֗ה וְאָכְלָה֙ מִצֵּידִ֔י בַּֽעֲב֖וּר תְּבָֽרֲכַ֥נִּי נַפְשֶֽׁךָ: כ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִצְחָק֙ אֶל־בְּנ֔וֹ מַה־זֶּ֛ה מִהַ֥רְתָּ לִמְצֹ֖א בְּנִ֑י וַיֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֥י הִקְרָ֛ה יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לְפָנָֽי: כא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִצְחָק֙ אֶֽל־יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב גְּשָׁה־נָּ֥א וַֽאֲמֻֽשְׁךָ֖ בְּנִ֑י הַֽאַתָּ֥ה זֶ֛ה בְּנִ֥י עֵשָׂ֖ו אִם־לֹֽא: כב וַיִּגַּ֧שׁ יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִ֖יו וַיְמֻשֵּׁ֑הוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הַקֹּל֙ ק֣וֹל יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וְהַיָּדַ֖יִם יְדֵ֥י עֵשָֽׂו:

And [Yaakov] came to his father and said, “My Father.” And [Yitzchak] said “Here I am; who are you my son?” Yaakov answers his father, “I am Esau, your first born, I did what you told me to; now get up please and eat from the meet that I have brought and give me the blessing of your soul.” And Yitzchak said to his son “How is it that you have hurried to do all of this, my son?” Yaakov answered “Because the Lord your G-d has allowed this to happen.” Yitzchak said to Yaakov, “Come close to me so I can feel you, my son and tell if you are really Esau of not.” Yaakov approached Yitzchak his father and he felt him and said “The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esau.” [Bereshit 27: 18 – 22]

Now, it is so clear in this narrative before confronting any commentary that Yitzchak is really sensing that something is not quite right. He asks how “Yaakov” was able to do everything he asked so quickly. Of course the answer is Rivkah overheard (or was this part of G-d’s staging?) Yitzchak ask Esau to go and get and prepare for him the food. Then Yitzchak senses that this is not Esau, for the voice belongs to Yaakov. And so the story continues with deception, plotting and a series of mishaps leading all the way to the point when Yaakov supposedly receives the blessing intended for Esau. Was this really the case, or could this be an example of “Man plans, G-d laughs.” There are so many other explanations, including the notion that we each have our mission to fulfill and our purpose – that is we have our part to play in the family to which we belong.

To be sure, exactly what G-d had revealed to Rivkah in the beginning of the Parsha does transpire but not without fall out. Clearly, there are bad feelings that will continue through this generation and into the next ones from this dysfunctional family unit. This too seems all too real to us. We need to paint each other in black (bad and evil) or white (good and pure) tones. But wait…. Is this really the point? Or, alternatively, perhaps the point is as the Gemara teaches, no one person is wholly good or wholly bad. We all have good and bad within us, different perspectives, different goals, different talents, and different ways of playing our journeys on this earth. The question is to what extent can we, as members of this large Jewish family, agree to disagree and come to an understanding that there is room for all of us and the purposes we are each here to fulfill? Once we figure this out, maybe we will find the good news of being part of the family!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Testing, Testing... The Ongoing Lessons of Avraham Aveinu, Part Two

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof! צדק צדק תרדף

Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue! With these words, the prophet reminds us through the ages of our existence of what it is that Judaism and Jewish observance is to bring us to in our own lives. Social justice is the way of Jewish living and observance according to many, in spite of what we may too often observe around us. Our family has identified an important Rav of our choosing in Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, for his consistent emphasis of this very point. He continues to articulate that to be a religious Jew, a Shomer Mitzvot, it is not a question of whether or not one is concerned about the well being of those around him; rather, we are metzuvim, that is commanded, to be so involved. As I have often said, how can I accept the Mitzvah of Shiluach Kan and not show love and concern for my neighbor, notwithstanding those who hold by the notion that we are to send the mother bird from the nest precisely because G-d told us to and not out of any sense of compassion. I prefer to read this teaching as G-d commands us to be compassionate, so that we will not decide not to be so! How can I be so particular about what goes in my mouth in observing the laws of Kashrut and not be as meticulous about what comes out of my mouth in my speech and observe the laws connected to Shmirat HaLashon, guarding my language, in my attempt to build relationships and community while healing the world in a real and tangible manner.

In Rabbi Sacks’ wonderful book, To Heal A Fractured World (United States: Schocken Books, 2005), this is a theme that resonates. He presents the notion that instead of seeing Judaism as a religion of pure obedience and submission to the will of G-d, we as human beings, and specifically as Jews, should take the charge of choosing to act in such a way as to emulate G-d who shows such just behaviors. He quotes one of my favorite texts of Gemara from Sotah 14 a(p. 46), that explains as follows in teaching how we emulate G-d and bring G-d into this world through such actions:

R. Hamma son of R. Haninah said, What does it mean in the Torah when it says “You shall walk after the Lord your G-d? (Devarim 13:5)” How is it possible for a human being to walk after G-d? Doesn’t the Torah say, “The Lord your G-d is a consuming fire? (Devarim 4:24)” Rather, this means, “you should emulate the attributes of the Holy One Blessed is G-d.” Just as G-d clothes the naked, as it says, “And G-d made for Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them (Bereshit 3:21)”; you too shall clothe the naked. Just as G-d visits the sick when “G-d appeared to Avram by Elonei Mamre (Bereshit 18:1)”, you too shall visit the sick. Just as G-d comforts the mourners as when “After the death of Avraham, G-d blessed his son Yitzchak (Bereshit 25:11),” so you too shall comfort mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be G-d buries the dead as when “G-d buried Moshe in the valley (Devarim 34:6),” you shall also bury your dead.

I have taught this text so many times to so many groups because I believe it captures the most fundamental of underlying principles that motivates G-d to give us a system of mitzvot to structure our lives as well as the most profound reason for us to follow them.

We call Avraham our father, as Avraham Aveinu. Why this appellation? To be sure many reasons are given. I always point to the following text from Bereshit 18: 18 – 19 as the reason, in which G-d makes a promise and gives the reason for the promise.

יח וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ־ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ: יט כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָֹה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו:

Avraham will be a great and mighty nation and all of the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. Because it is known that he will command his children and the members of his household after him, and they will guard and observe the ways of G-d, to do deeds of righteousness and justice in order that G-d will fulfill all that G-d has said on behalf of Avraham.

The people that come from Avraham and the generations afterwards, the Jewish people, if you will, earn the blessing that is given to Avraham precisely because they are to follow Avraham’s ways of Tzedakah u’Mishpat, welcoming guests as Avraham did, and doing so many other things as G-d does as indicated above. These are deeds of Social Justice.

Years ago, as a fun diversion, I along with a group of colleagues took a silly scan of our religious beliefs on some computer program. We answered a group of questions about belief in G-d, understandings of the beginnings of our Universe as we know it, ritual observances and practices concerning how we feel about the people around us and social justice. Upon completing this comical survey (which actually was not so bad, as computer surveys go), a group of us who are clearly in the Orthoprax/Orthodox range were identified as 100% Reform Jews. We were fascinated by this phenomenon and compared our answers to those amongst us who were “correctly” identified as Orthodox. What was the difference? It was so clear – those of us who were “liberal” (which I question in and of itself regarding what was the criteria that led to this identity) believed in the rights of others, social justice and our responsibility to be concerned for all of those in the family of humanity. Now, a flip computer program can identify me however it wants; I promise I will not lose sleep over this. The problem is that many people in our own community of Shomrei Mitzvot do so as well. This is what keeps me from getting needed sleep at night.

So, thank you Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for supporting my family and our understanding that aiding prisoners as they come back out into the world after serving their sentences as our daughter Rachie is presently doing in New Orleans is part of our imperative to repair the world and free prisoners as Shomrei Mitzvot. Working to provide medical care to underserved populations as our daughter Talie plans to do even if it means not living where there is a critical mass of observant Jews is because of what she has taken on as a responsibility along with strict observance of Kashrut, Shabbat, Tziniut, and so much else.

We have taught our children to live in the ways of Avraham Aveinu, welcoming all guests into our home and lives, fighting for injustices in poorly equipped societies and so much else. These are the lessons of our father, Avraham and G-d, whom he taught us to serve.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Testing, Testing …. The Ongoing Lessons of Avraham Aveinu, Part One

Years ago, I was home in the middle of the day and watched one of the larger society’s “Gedolei HaDor,” Oprah Winfrey on television. She was engaged in a conversation with Scott Peck (Think Zelig Pliskin’s alter ego as a Protestant!) and told the following story about a recurring dream she had. She talked about how she would be flying close to the ground in these dreams and would fly by young children. As she passed each young child, she would ask “How are you today?” Each of these children responded in turn, “That is the wrong question to ask. You should ask me what I was sent here to teach you today.” I love this story, for the message is so powerful for each of us. We know so many stories, including the many we read in the Torah, Talmud and so many other places. We often worry about the credibility of the details – that is how the story came to be. I often think, as in the vignette above, we should be asking ourselves what the story comes to teach us. Here is the universal and timeless meaning of these stories, not the details of their plausibility but the largess of their lessons!

So it is with the stories and tests of Avraham Aveinu. So many experiences with so many lessons to teach us! Avraham Aveinu clearly has his rightful place in the history of the world as the first monotheist, according to so many. As Jews, we speak of him as our first father. As human beings, there are so many lessons of humanity that Avraham teaches us – it is these lessons that he comes to teach us that are the subject of this writing today and the next one to be posted. Today, we will focus on some of the lessons that Avraham teaches us with regard to family relationships and yielding to the desires and destinies of others.

In Chapter 13, we read of Avraham’s negotiations with Lot when they come with their abundant property and have to determine where they will dwell in the land to which they have come. Quickly enough, we note that there is a conflict, as will naturally happen amongst real people in the real world.

We read as follows in Bereshit 13: 6 – 11 as follows:

ו וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו: ז וַֽיְהִי־רִ֗יב בֵּ֚ין רֹעֵ֣י מִקְנֵֽה־אַבְרָ֔ם וּבֵ֖ין רֹעֵ֣י מִקְנֵה־ל֑וֹט ...ח וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָ֜ם אֶל־ל֗וֹט אַל־נָ֨א תְהִ֤י מְרִיבָה֙ בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֔ךָ וּבֵ֥ין רֹעַ֖י וּבֵ֣ין רֹעֶ֑יךָ כִּֽי־אֲנָשִׁ֥ים אַחִ֖ים אֲנָֽחְנוּ: ט הֲלֹ֤א כָל־הָאָ֨רֶץ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הִפָּ֥רֶד נָ֖א מֵֽעָלָ֑י אִם־הַשְּׂמֹ֣אל וְאֵימִ֔נָה וְאִם־הַיָּמִ֖ין וְאַשְׂמְאִֽילָה: י וַיִּשָּׂא־ל֣וֹט אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן כִּ֥י כֻלָּ֖הּ מַשְׁקֶ֑ה לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ שַׁחֵ֣ת יְהֹוָ֗ה אֶת־סְדֹם֙ וְאֶת־עֲמֹרָ֔ה כְּגַן־יְהוָֹה֙ כְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בֹּֽאֲכָ֖ה צֹֽעַר: יא וַיִּבְחַר־ל֣וֹ ל֗וֹט אֵ֚ת כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וַיִּסַּ֥ע ל֖וֹט מִקֶּ֑דֶם וַיִּפָּ֣רְד֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ מֵעַ֥ל אָחִֽיו:

The land could not support the shepherds, flocks and belongings of Lot and Avraham for they both had so much; they were not able to dwell together. There was a quarrel between Avram’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds…. Avram said to Lot, “Let there be no fighting between our groups as we are related. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate, if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” Lot raised his eyes and saw the Jordan valley; it looked like the garden of G-d, like the land of Mitzrayim. Lot chose for himself all of the plain of Jordan and he went eastward; they separated from each other. (Translations in these postings are inexact and reflect spirit of story for our purposes.)

Notice the nature of the conflict resolution that Avraham uses. He puts the decision to be made in front of Lot in order to preserve whatever he can in the relationship. According to the text, their relationship is clearly not close and does not seem to be amenable to healing, but nonetheless, Avraham does not want to do anything to exacerbate what is probably not a comfortable situation. He acquiesces to what Lot chooses and this is a gift that Avraham gives to Lot. How many of us find that there are opportunities in our own lives to act in such a way? It is difficult to be sure, and while we are not told how Avraham must have felt in this situation, we can probably imagine, one human being to another, one Jew to another, one monotheist to another.

Later in the story of Avraham’s life, we read about his and Sarah’s attempts to have a child and the need for Avraham to have a son to inherit the legacy of his father. An earlier stage of this odyssey is reported in Chapter 15: 1-5:

א אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הָיָ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם בַּֽמַּֽחֲזֶ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָֽנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ שְׂכָֽרְךָ֖ הַרְבֵּ֥ה מְאֹֽד: ב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִֹה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י וּבֶן־מֶ֣שֶׁק בֵּיתִ֔י ה֖וּא דַּמֶּ֥שֶׂק אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר: ג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֔ם הֵ֣ן לִ֔י לֹ֥א נָתַ֖תָּה זָ֑רַע וְהִנֵּ֥ה בֶן־בֵּיתִ֖י יוֹרֵ֥שׁ אֹתִֽי: ד וְהִנֵּ֨ה דְבַר־יְהוָֹ֤ה אֵלָיו֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹ֥א יִירָֽשְׁךָ֖ זֶ֑ה כִּי־אִם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵצֵ֣א מִמֵּעֶ֔יךָ ה֖וּא יִֽירָשֶֽׁךָ: ה וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ:

Afterwards, the word of G-d came to Avram in a vision saying, “Don’t be afraid, Avram, I will guard you and your reward will be great. Avram says, “My Lord, what can you give me as I will die without children? I guess my steward will be my heir.” G-d replies, “No, that one will not inherit from you but it will be a child that comes from you who will inherit your legacy.” G-d takes Avram outside and says, “Look at the heavens and count the stars; just as you can’t count them, you will not be able to count all those that come from you.”

At this point, G-d promises Avram (he is not yet Avraham) a great deal! Now as the story unfolds, the words of the promise become more plausible. First Avram has a son, Yishmael through his wife’s handmaid Hagar, and then a son, Yitzchak, through Sarah, his wife. As we know all too well, there is contention in this household (which I suspect we can understand as well – now that’s a blended family!) and Avraham will have to use his skills of negotiation to keep whatever semblance of peace possible in his family. Here again, he will yield to others – To Sarah in decisions she will make regarding Hagar, to his faith in G-d regarding how the members of his family will carry on and certainly in the unfolding of Akedat Yitzchak.

In these instances, Avraham may not come across as the strongest advocate for those for whom we might think he should advocate. Why is that? Many people have a problem with this. I think it goes back to the promise that G-d makes to Avraham and the resulting faith that Avraham will have in G-d that will lead him to an understanding that different people – even those of his household – will have different destinies, some of which may be connected to his life experience and some of which may not. Allow us to imagine the pain that Avram the man must have felt regarding having to say goodbye to a son and his mother, and then to be ready to sacrifice another son, as well as understand the potential ramifications this event may have for his wife and her well being.

Again, the details of what happened may not be as much the point as is the lesson that these things happen and yielding to the destiny and goals of others may sometimes be the best we can do. In drivers’ education, new drivers are taught that when one skids in a car, the natural inclination is to turn the wheel against the skid – to fight it with everything you have. Yet, in reality the safest thing to do is to go in the direction of the skid – to accept it and work through it. This is one of the lessons that Avraham may come to teach us today. And there are others…… to be continued!

Monday, November 2, 2009

More on Gemara's First Lesson, G-d's Plane, and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

More on Gemara’s First Lesson, G-d’s Plane, and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

So, how do we speak about G-d’s plane/ realm and G-d’s reality and that of the humanity of which we are part? How do we step outside of chronology when we are trying ever so hard to discern what G-d is, how G-d decides, and the impact of G-d’s actions on us, as part of humanity? This is the impossible stuff of which my Tenth Grade Jewish Studies course at a local Jewish day school is composed. This entry is actually dedicated to all of my wonderful students from this course and others with whom I have journeyed and vexed regarding these issues through the years.

My latest venture into wonderful fictional releases from everyday life and reality has been the reading of The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I note this fascination with how we speak of reality and experience it if the chronology of time as we know it and depend upon as much as we do on gravity to keep us in this time and space is not a given. That is to say, it is the age old problem of “proving” that such and such happened at a given moment given the records of time we hold. In this book, one of the main characters, a man by the name of Henry DeTamble, is an involuntary time traveler, who pops into places and spaces both in his past and in his future, disappearing and reappearing in his present. Of course, everyone with whom he has contact and thinks of him in real time (that is the given date and numbers on a clock as we collectively experience them) do not understand this aberrant behavior in which he is here one moment, gone the next and then reappears. Further, he has the ability to be in separate places simultaneously as he lives both in real time and time travels.

As I read about his adventures, the frustration of his wife Clare and the few people that were “in the loop” regarding his time travel problems, I could not help traveling a bit myself back to the many classes I have shared with my wonderful tenth graders, trying to figure out the intersection and interfacing of G-d-Time and our Real Time. What if we were to think about our time as within the human plane and of G-d’s time as wholly different? This would definitely remove the need we seem to have to account for every second of G-d’s time, which seems rather presumptuous to me at any rate.

During much of the story, other characters try to reconceptualize their own role and define their part in relationships with Henry and to better understand his reality. In so doing, individuals are forced to reconsider their own understanding of time and choices that they make. That is to say, Henry as an adult pops back to his earlier years and then when he reaches certain stages in real time; he already knows what has happened. For example he appears as an adult to his future wife when she is just a child and then she grows up, has these memories of the man who will be her husband, but he has not experienced them yet. This does not make what has happened any less real to her. People who find themselves in his orbit are constantly wondering if they and their experiences are real and if they are making choices in their lives if Henry, who has popped back from their future, already knows what those choices are.

So, as I read this and better understand the rhythm of what is happening I return to my own musings about how we relate to G-d and how G-d is very real in our lives, even if not physically present. How can this be? Of course, this challenge is far more formidable when speaking about G-d and us, given that it is not the stuff of a fictional tale, but explanations and components of our thinking that we are dedicated to understanding and upon which so much depends. When Moshe Rabbeinu asks how he should explain G-d to others, G-d responds to him “Tell them I was, I am and I will be.” That is to say, G-d is not trapped in chronological time. We use the words omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent when we speak of G-d. What we need to remember is that these words as descriptors function outside of the chronology that speaks of such things as last year, tomorrow or yesterday. While we need these time frames as parameters in which we act, G-d ACTS AND FUNCTIONS outside of them, yet we have ongoing relationships with G-d.

In the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, G-d speaks to Avram and tells him to leave all that he knows and understands, in time and space. G-d speaks in the future, explaining to Avram that G-d will show him the land, will make of Avram a great and numerous nation, and so forth. G-d speaks of a future that G-d knows and Avram needs to accept all of this on faith – a much easier concept in a good book of fiction than in a reality that is so fundamental to our faith and belief in G-d and understanding of history. This future-speak is continued through this Parsha and those to come. G-d knows and sees the future and reports it; the person in question must base their faith on its happening upon their relationship to G-d. In Pirke Avot, we read as follows:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה
“All is revealed and known to G-d AND permission is given to man to choose”

We are being given the formula for how this works in this short text, and yes, the explanation includes components not in the actual text per se, but is intended to be contextually helpful. So, back to those planes…. G-d functions on a plane in which there is not human linked chronology and not limited by physicality. Humanity on the other hand cannot function without these elements. So, G-d knows within G-d’s context and we decide within ours. We are constantly taking huge leaps of faith as did Avram/Avraham in his life and it is the taking of these leaps that we show and live our faith in G-d. While it is so difficult to imagine a time traveling human being, we also have difficulty thinking of G-d outside of these constraints. Yet, this is exactly what we must do in better understanding our relationship to G-d and G-d’s relationship to us.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New Beginnings: New and Old

In a few weeks we will return to the beginning of our Torah, its readings and lessons as we annually do with the celebration of Simchat Torah. I love the notion that in our repeating and involving ourselves in this cycle of reading, we do not just re-read what we already know as “old stuff”, but are challenged to experience it in new and original, even challenging, ways. Where are we this year that is significantly different from where we were in years past, emotionally, professionally, intellectually, personally, and in every other way? What do these time – honored and familiar messages bring to us both in the ways of comfort and challenge as we continue to move through the many paces that make up the collage of the lives we lead?

We begin anew the complete cycle of Torah readings with these words:

א בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ: ב וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָֽיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְח֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם: ג וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר:

Bereshit Bara Elokim … – In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth. The earth was “tohu v’vohu” (null and void, chaotic, unformed, who knows what?) and darkness was on the face (?) of the void and the spirit/wind of G-d blows (hydroplanes?) upon the face of the waters. And G-d said “let there be light and there was light.”

So, we all have visions of what the words in this brief beginning passage (and the verses to follow) means. We have shared understandings of light, heaven and earth, wind, waters and the like. However, given that this is G-d – language, I think we would do better to come to an understanding that just as words in their very naked being are symbolic representatives of concepts that are so much larger and more varied than their mere mixture of letters can suggest in our world and context, how much more so this must be true when approaching G-d - language.

What would happen if instead of trying to subject these verses and those that follow to the scrutiny of this or that system of proof, we act “as though” we understand it and “accept this on faith.” I have come to learn that faith need not be a dirty word to anyone in any pursuit or philosophical stance. The most rationalistic person I have ever met ultimately must accept some basic truths on faith. After all, what proof do we have today that basic historical, scientific or mathematical truths are just that? Did any of us meet the historical giants from the past? Do we have handwritten, photographic or other proof that so many figures about whom we speak so easily and constantly really existed? It’s like the joke about the coins that were found dated 300 b.c.e.; how do we know with absolute certainty that so many things we take as given actually occurred when and how we say (and are taught) they happened?

So for me, the lesson of these words and returning on a regular basis to this particular telling of the Creation of the World as we know it is that we cannot possibly know exactly what happened, but rather we must continue to grapple with the messages contained. Rather than trying to come to terms with the exact tangible elements that these words mean to us, we would do better to look at the lessons these words convey. Years ago, I was having one of the many manifestations of this conversation with a medical doctor who did not understand how I could believe and have faith in these “stories” or in G-d, clearly the pivotal protagonist of these narratives in so many ways. So, I asked him “So, how do you think everything that is here and allows us to be alive began?” He went on to explain in scientific terms how he thinks the earth and its contents had its beginnings. So, I went further to ask him “Well, what came or happened before that?” Within a short while, he just threw up his hands and said “I don’t know.” At that point I said to him that his unanswered question is where G-d fills in what is missing for me (and so much more). I continued to explain that for me, G-d exists before all that is here and is The One who began the process. As for my needing to absolutely validate G-d’s existence, he quickly realized that he could not prove his version of beginnings any more than I could prove the words of Bereshit. Faith was the difference between his impasse and my understanding that human limits will necessitate such an impasse. Of course, I would argue that in the end, we all have to have some faith in some thing when we say “I don’t know what came before that!”

Theoretically, we could use this notion (and perhaps should) of questioning “what we know with certainty to be true” in so many different venues. We often talk of “loving someone,” for example. What does this mean? There is no tangible loving in the same way that there is reading, swimming or running. We act as though we love by engaging in other actions that are supposed to reflect our love. This is not the same as other words which convey concrete actions and ideas that we can all contextually agree upon. Just because love is not a concrete or tangible representation of the concept it conveys, it is no less real. So it is with believing in G-d. So it is with our reading of Bereshit and attempting to understand the beginning of our world and existence. So, a yom in G-d – language might best be interpreted as “a period of time” (not day) for us, removing the problem of “how long ago exactly did all of this happen?” By not using pronouns which are limited in meaning (i.e. He), we do not create unnecessary problems of understanding in speaking about G-d and G-d’s actions. By realizing that we may not be quite sure of the identity of the adam in Chapter One of Bereshit and relegating it to G-d – language, we do not have to engage in the conflict of what this being was exactly like or when precisely its history began. Simply put, we do not know with certainty what these words mean, even with the voices of many commentators trying to guide us through the quagmire of their potential meanings.

I find the notion very meaningful that G-d language is the stuff of which the beginning of Bereshit is made (thank you, Gerald Schroeder, for this teaching) and that we only come together, humans and G-d, when G-d acts upon the human a bit later in this first portion of the Torah in Chapter Two, verse seven of Bereshit, as follows:

ז וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה:

And G-d created/formed (?) the human being/earth being/adam(?) out of the dust from the earth and G-d breathed into the nose of the human being/earth being the breath of life and this human being/earth being became a living soul.

I know the words and can analyze and convey all types of shades of meaning for them, but once again can not be precise and concise about their exact conveyed meaning. This is still G-d language, but it is at this point, according to Schroeder and others, that G-d brings the human being that G-d has created into G-d’s orbit and partners with this human being/living soul in carrying on in the world/universe that G-d has also created. We must take note that since G-d created this being in G-d’s way, we cannot “prove” this either. Neither can we prove with absolute certainty or agree how this being came into “its” own through the various explanations of science, evolution, or otherwise.

Ultimately, we all have to believe in something in order to explain the basics of our existence and further, we have to take what we believe to be true on faith. This is true as much for scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and historians as it is for people of faith/religion (not to be necessarily mutually exclusive from the aforementioned groupings).

So, as we move into the beginning of this new year of 5770, perhaps a new challenge (and beginning) we can all take on is to find the faith within ourselves to believe in our understanding of how things happen and G-d’s role in it all, and accept that others will do the same. May we all have new beginnings, and continue to accept new challenges for ourselves and our understandings of all that is!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

For the misdeed we have committed before you, G-d, by judging

For the misdeed we have committed before you, G-d, by judging

Amongst the many misdeeds we ask G-d to forgive us for during this time and season of repentance, there is one particular line which always strikes me as supremely important and yet is too often glossed over. In the middle of the Vidui, we say these words:

על חטא שחטאנו לפניף בפלילות

For the misdeeds we have done before you, G-d, in judging others.

We are in a penitent mood as we come before G-d as judge of all that we are and what we will be. We cite all of the misdeeds we do as a matter of course – eating incorrectly, not observing the standards of behavior we are to observe, not speaking properly, not sharing our resources with others enough, and so many others. Yet, too often, while we look at ourselves with our hypersensitive sense of accountability as we seriously engage in taking stock of ourselves (Cheshbon HaNefesh), do we truly understand that in holding ourselves accountable to the Judge of all, namely G-d, we are not to judge others?

One of my children, Talie, often cites her favorite teaching as:

דן לכף זכות
Give others the benefit of the doubt.

These familiar words from Pirke Avot remind us to let G-d judge; we do not have to do G-d’s tasks for G-d; in fact we are not to do so. To help each other, to guide as appropriate, to mentor, to teach… all of these deeds are indeed noble, but TO JUDGE is something entirely different.

A thought --- by leaving G-d as Judge of all people, this frees us up to accept each other, practice the many other deeds that we are to do – take care of the poor, build bridges of understanding, feed all who are in need, listen and care for each other, and so much else that the prophets enjoin us to do --- while G-d will judge each person as G-d sees fit.

Nonetheless, I often come across people who still feel that they must assist Ribbonu shel Olam in these matters and find that in the best of circumstances and in giving all of these people the benefit of the doubt as my daughter, Talie would have me do, too many hurt feelings and perceptions of exclusion and inadequacy are projected onto too many well meaning people who may not meet the standards of those who are judging them. This I find so sad. I then comment that I am impatient with those who judge and hurt in such a manner. I often explain that “I am tolerant and accepting of everyone and everything except intolerance and lack of acceptance.” But, of course, my daughter Talie says that this too is intolerant.

So as we approach this season of self reflection with aspirations for improvement, I pray as follows:

על חטא שחטאנו לפניף בפלילות

For the misdeeds we have done before you, G-d, in judging others, (we ask forgiveness).

Maybe if we all take up this banner and I work really hard with my intolerance of intolerance, we will all come closer to being the people that G-d wants us to strive to be.

May all of you be inscribed for a happy and healthy year ---

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו

Monday, September 14, 2009

Holding out for Pluralism and Believing in Klal Yisrael

It has been a while since I have last posted on this blog. It has been the summer and, as always, this time has provided an opportunity for exploration, thinking, relaxing and consideration of so much that it often gets eclipsed by the details and the frenetic nature of the programming year. During three weeks in July, I spent some of my annual Israel time participating in a Rabbinic Seminar at a place I truly love to be, the Shalom Hartman Institute, located in the German Colony of Yerushalayim. I was the only non-Rabbi (or non-Rabbinical student or non-Rabbinic spouse) in the program and how that happened goes something like this. I was an active participant in the Educators’ Programs that were run there, and this past summer of 2009, Hartman, like so many other institutions were forced to make difficult budgetary cuts, and this impacted upon the Educators’ program. So, I pursued my commitment to learning there by making and presenting the following argument to the powers-that-be at the institute.

The Institute is a pluralistic institute that embraces and welcomes members of all branches of Judaism, right? Right! The Rabbinic Seminar includes Rabbinic leadership from all of those branches of Judaism (and then some, in the true spirit of pluralism and acceptance of all of Klal Yisrael), right? Right! The Rabbinic Seminar is openly accessible to men and women, right? Right! So, therefore, I as an Orthodox woman (whether or not this is a proper and accurate title with all of the political implications it evokes is another discussion, entirely, not for this particular posting!) who does not hold the title Rabbi as a result of my Hashkafa. However, I do have a rightly earned Doctorate in Jewish Studies and Texts as well as Jewish Education, and this is my Rabbi-equivalent degree for the purposes of the program and therefore I should be admitted. So, while this seemed perfectly logical to me, it did take some time to acquire institutional agreement, and eventually I was accepted into the program. I truly enjoyed being in a learning/living environment with Jews across the denominational spectrum and try to be part of such communities every chance I get. My question is as follows: Why is the notion of building and being part of a pluralistic community so obvious to me and others, and simultaneously so alien to too many amongst us?

While I was in Israel and after my return to the States, my daughter, Rachie (who I hope will begin writing for this blog as well along with her sisters, Talie – her twin – and my eldest daughter, Yoella) spent the summer at Yeshivat Hadar in New York. Yeshivat Hadar identifies itself as a Halachic egalitarian community. The group it attracted reflects a wide breadth of the Jewish community on many levels and pulls these different individuals together within the rubric of its definition of Halachic egalitarianism, inviting all within the rubric of Klal Yisrael who hold by this philosophical and personal religious standard. This represents another attempt at rebuilding our fractured community elements by stating a philosophy that transcends observance points that would identify one as a card carrying member of this or that denominational grouping, too often more as a token observable than an actual determinant of identity.

Through the years, I have had the privilege of belonging to different types of communities of Jewish learners and seekers that defy the conventional definitions of established streams of Jewish community. It is in these settings that I most feel the power of Klal Yisrael and the approving presence of Ribbonu shel Olam. I am well familiar with many writings that poke fun at the tragic isolation and demarcation amongst the “communities within the community” of Klal Yisrael. I personally do believe that just as no two stars, snowflakes or grains of sand are exactly alike, the beauty of the human being is that each one is unique and brings their own special gifts to our community, to our world. How wonderful it would be if we could learn to focus on these specific gifts and reflect upon the amazing collective we could create if we could integrate our many different voices, ideas and perspectives in an embracing and validating manner. To be sure, the goal is not to get everyone to agree with each other and become carbon copies of one perspective, but rather to “agree to disagree” much as is found in the culture of the Gemara, though admittedly not all see or accept the presence of this dynamic within its collective wisdom.

As religiously and ritualistically observant Jews who truly believe in all of Klal Yisrael (my attempt at a more precise and descriptive nomenclature with which I am more comfortable), the trick is how is one able to maintain their own personal standards of observance while being a contributing and active participant in these communities. I have had the experience of navigating how to share a Shabbat meal with others whose levels of Kashrut and Shabbat observance may be different than mine. I have dovenned (prayed) in environments in which my preferred and practices “default position” of praying in an Orthodox shul is not the framework of the service. I have taught classes in which students and group members come from across the denominational spectrum and always begin with lessons of respecting and truly listening to each other carefully. I have shared celebration of Hagim with friends and family who do not observe the restrictions that Halacha dictates that are part of our daily lives. Our entire family has done this with me (and are just as committed to doing so, for which I am eternally grateful to HaShem!) and I know that I speak on behalf of all of us when I state that if we ate a bit less, accommodated our prayer practices by dovenning as if we were at home, explained what we do in a careful way that is non-judgmental, or made whatever other adjustments were needed to allow us to be in these communities, I assure you that we have all enjoyed and benefited from the experience.

Now, I totally understand that not everyone is comfortable with this arrangement and I respect this. I have Orthodox friends and family that would never be able to do these things and I have certainly been “pegged” (and initially avoided) by non-Orthodox friends and colleagues, who assumed certain things about me based on appearances. Nonetheless, I have always taken on the task of “explaining myself” joyfully and am happy to answer any questions and challenges when appropriately stated. I feel that this is part of the portfolio of the true believer in the breadth of Klal Yisrael (as a community of communities) who must understand that not everyone will share their comfort level in this reaching across the communally defined lines of separation. I think the goals are to be confident that you are comfortable with who you are within the community and to reach as far across the spectrum as you possibly can in building this community. I love the challenge of “moving from your comfort zone to your courage zone.”

All of this being said, back to my experiences at Shalom Hartman Institute! This unique and wonderful institution states in its mission the notion that everyone is invited to come and learn and share regardless of affiliation or level of observance. A noble thought to be sure! I, for one, took them up on it. Yet, I must state that while many of my colleagues have no trouble accepting me and those who were initially reticent often become treasured friends in that environment, I have felt insulted and offended at times by some of the leadership. Comments through the years belittling focus on Mitzvot bein Adam LaMakom (commandments between man and G-d), calling observance of certain restrictive behaviors on Shabbat and Hagim “stupid stuff” or saying that we “should not even bother with” certain observances, and worse have been hurtful to some and I know that some of my colleagues who are committed to pluralism will not return to the Institute due to such statements. Additionally, I as a woman was subjected to certain derisive remarks regarding the fact that I daven in a community with a Mechitzah and am not egalitarian in approach. How sad this is, given that the number of Orthodox leaders, teachers, and Rabbis who will agree to be part of such a community is already comparatively smaller when set next to the representatives from other groups.

When I teach and work with groups I always explain that “I statements” and asking questions when there is an area of disagreement or lack of shared understanding will build community much more than many other approaches. I believe it was Martin Buber who said “Questions unite, answers divide.”

As I write this, we are approaching Parshat Netzavim as our annual cycle of Torah portions comes towards the end of our fifth book of the Torah. This begins as follows:

You shall stand all of you this day before the Lord your G-d; your captains of your tribes, your elders and your officers, with all of the men of Israel. Your little ones, your wives, and thy stranger that is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of water. You shall all enter into the covenant with the Lord your G-d… (Devarim 29: 9 – 11 )

Let us all learn as we begin to think about the Yomin Noraim about how we can build the wonderful community of Klal Yisrael with all of its various elements, the special wisdom that we all bring to the table, our many talents, and yes, our questions!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jewish Fundamentalism???

So here is my question to begin this discussion: How do we frame and develop appropriate responses and approaches to contemporary challenges using and not compromising the system, elements, teachings, and dictates of Halacha/Torah m’Sinai?

I agree with the adage held by many within our larger community that generally there is no such thing as “Jewish Fundamentalists,” not really. Oh yes, there is that small community of Karaites that we hear about from time to time, and there are the much larger and more numerous communities of Lost Tribes, trying to find their way back to our and their heritage (and this is a completely different discussion, to be addressed in another posting), but truly, we are not fundamentalists. So what about the extremists amongst us, you know the ones that throw dirty diapers at people who try to open a parking lot in Yerushalayim on Shabbat or spit at people that they disagree with? This is a problem and a daunting challenge for our larger Jewish community to be sure, but is it fundamentalism per se?

Precisely because we have a Rabbinic process of developing and adapting our Torah law, we are not fundamentalists, not in the sense of other religious groupings that only have the instruction of an original Holy Writ without the benefit of explanation and legitimate expansion. Just ask Irshad Manji (author of The Trouble with Islam (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2003), which is a book I highly recommend) among many others outside of the Jewish community, and you will hear testimony to the value of the Rabbinic process which is critically invested in maintaining the meaning, core values, practices and applicability of Jewish law all at once. Judaism is a both/and not an either/or operation in both spirit and practice. One need only look at a page of Gemara or at a variety of commentators’ voices on any verse in the Torah/Tanach or any page of Jewish text to begin to appreciate the multi-vocal approach to our understanding of what happened and how it happened that made us who we are. Across the generations and the miles, we maintain the Tarbut HaMachloket , that is the Jewish textual culture and expectation of discussion and debate. Manji maintains that if Islam had such a process in place of ongoing interpretation and checking in with the sacred text, perhaps we would not be seeing such extremist behavior within the ranks of Islamicists.

Everyone knows the old jokes about “two Jews, three opinions” or the one about the lone guy on an island who builds two synagogues, one of which he is a member and the other one that he would never think of attending. The notion that we, as adherents of Jewish beliefs and practice, value and encourage this dialogue and debate amongst, even within, ourselves bolstered by the more recent democratization of the accessibility of the pages of our sources due to translations, easily available printed versions and the newest kid on the block, the Internet, speaks volumes about who we are as a people and our approach to our basic religious beliefs.

In today’s world, the word fundamentalism evokes so many emotional responses that we forget the initial meaning was that it was valued as a way of life, because within its parameters, all of people’s fundamental needs were met – religiously, socially, economically, communally, and otherwise. In that way, yes, Judaism is a fundamental religious system. However, given our contemporary reality, this word has acquired a stipulative definition, referring to a specific rigid reading of one’s texts and religious code, and extremely stringent (and often narrow) implementation of the resulting beliefs that one holds. Often that belief can invade the space of the beliefs and ideas held by others, both within our own families and groupings and amongst all the families of humankind. It has become associated with extremism on many levels. Somewhere along the slippery slope, we collapse all of these graduated meanings into the feeling held by many that “religion is bad.”

Some years ago, we had a lovely young man who identified himself as a secular Israeli from Northern Israel stay in our home for a while who remarked at our Shabbat table, “If we could just get rid of Yerushalayim that would solve 80% of the world’s problems.” Needless to say (or maybe it is needed!), all six members of my immediate family shared a collective audible gasp. As religious and ritualistically observant Zionist Jews, we all spend a great time in Israel generally and in Yerushalayim specifically. BUT, (and this is what turned a disagreement into an incredible discussion) my kids know enough to ask questions and withhold judgment. So sure enough, one of our daughters responded, “Why do you say that? Explain what you mean. We really want to understand your thinking.”

Our guest then explained that as a secular Jew who lives near Arab villages and has friends of different nationalities and religious groupings who all get along and hang out in the same places together in their free time, he believed that religion is responsible for most of the world’s problems and for him, everything about Yerushalayim represented that religion. To be sure, he is not alone in this assessment. There are many who propose that religion is in fact responsible for the majority of wars and violent deaths in world history. Looking at many centuries and chapters of history, this is clearly a position that is hard to deny.

That having been said, I challenge those who believe this to consider that it is people who practice within the parameters of these belief systems who misuse and abuse them for their own purposes that are responsible for such a pervasive and negative perspective. Judaism itself (and clearly an analogous statement could and should be made by adherents of other faiths regarding their systems of belief) represents an ideal frame for living, taking into consideration along the way the realities of who we are as people and our inherent weaknesses, including propensity to judge others and inability or reluctance to accept that someone else might be right, too. I believe that G-d, in G-d’s infinite wisdom created the system of Halacha and its checks and balances to help maintain some semblance of order and protect the human being from his/her own propensities to go off the “derech yashar,” or the best possible path for him or her in this world. Within this system of checks and balances, there are ritual observances, proscriptions and prescriptions of how to live a proper life and a host of foundational (fundamental, you might say!) values that should be at the core of how one interprets this system within the reality of one’s life. Kindness, acceptance of others, compassion and remembering that no one of us gets to judge all others are just some of the foundational elements that inform this system.

I highly recommend two books for people who are interested in this phenomenon to read. First, Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews (Anchor Books. New York, 1988) is an impressive outsider’s view of what is RIGHT and WONDERFUL about Judaism and the people who have been its adherents through the ages. He speaks of triumphs and hopes, moving from being a “group of rag tag nomads” to a strong and admirable people, changing our destination as a result of exploring new understandings of what it is that we think we are supposed to do and be in our lives. He, along with Manji, sees Judaism as expansive and Jews as creative. These, he claims, are among the gifts of the Jews to all of civilization. A most important lesson for us to learn from this Irish Catholic!

The second book that is an important read regarding this topic is Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil (San Francisco, Harper Collins Publishers, 2002). Kimball focuses on the difference between the laws and expectations indicated in a religious code and one’s assertion that they know best what those laws and expectations really mean. Further, he shows how the values of compassion and caring are at the root of many religions and their codes of behavior and beliefs, certainly including along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He claims that this is self evident to anyone who has a clear understanding of the larger perspective of these belief systems. He then warns about when any single or group of believer/s claims exclusive ownership of the message, that is, asserting that their understanding of their religious system is the ONLY CORRECT ONE. Again, he notes that Judaism specifically is not structured in such a manner, due to its organic means of interpretation and adaptation to changes in our world.

Once again we find acknowledgement that the discourse of the Talmud and Torah and so many other classic texts of our heritage emphasizes that no one person has a monopoly on the understanding of what G-d tells us or what the words of G-d’s expectations ultimately mean. Looking at the authority structure of our religious communities, these writers outside of the Jewish community seem to exhibit an understanding of the difference of trying to adhere to and reconcile one self with the laws of our religious structure, versus the claim of knowing the law and its details with ABSOLUTE certainty. In fact, there is clear instruction within Jewish thinking and learning about the necessity of remaining humble and accepting the truth that we as human beings will NOT completely understand G-d’s ways and G-d’s reasons. It is discipline and acceptance of the will of G-d that is foundational in Judaism, NOT the notion that any one person is empowered to speak on behalf of G-d and decide for G-d what G-d wants. Of course, in the Jewish community we have our share of those who would rather TELL others what to believe and what to do, but that too is often more of a sign of our sense of democratic access to Jewish law and practice more than any dictated position. Further, when such dictated authority presents, as happens in Israel and elsewhere in our right wing Orthodox circles, clearly the word of dissent that is raised is heard and people are not killed for presenting such a challenge, though we would be remiss to not mention that there can be behaviors exhibited of which no one can be very proud.

To be sure, all of Judaism is in fact fundamental, in that it speaks to our lives socially, economically, communally, and with regard to every aspect of our daily lives. Just as important as what Mark Kellner calls this “pots and pans” approach to religion, is the notion that questioning too is one of the most fundamental truths and elements of daily Jewish living, along with instructions regarding how we eat, dress, act in business, pray, interact with others, and so much else.

While people like Manji and Cahill, as well as others, seem to understand the notion that the Jewish nation is a light to the nations of the world (Or LaGoyim) in the best sense, let us remember that in our Jewish belief system, we acknowledge the right of each other and other peoples to exist and believe, to live and let live.

And so, we are left with our same question, namely, How do we frame and develop appropriate responses and approaches to contemporary challenges using and not compromising the system, elements, teachings, and dictates of Halacha/Torah m’Sinai? We do so by questioning, learning, listening and remembering with the same humility for which Moshe Rabbeinu is remembered that no one of us was given the totality of G-d’s truth and revelation. Rather, we need to interact with each other to continue figuring out what it is that G-d intends for us to do and be. And that, is fundamental to who we are!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Parhshat B'Haalotecha - Be sure you know the entire story, as much as possible

This writing is the result of specific shiyurim I was privileged to share with a Ninth Grade Tanach class (love you guys!); my son, Brian, and a friend, Hannah; and a group of friends and family during a Tikkun Lail Shavuot.

So, here is my question: Do we all accept and agree with the bad rap that Miriam, Aharon, and Eldad and Meidad get in this narrative?

This Parsha is one of those that is the stuff of which amazing stories are made – it has it all, personal vignettes, follow-up information to an earlier hanging story, information about members of the Jewish nation, stories of unrest and rebellion, and so forth. Drama, tension and suspense – what else could one want?

The texts of interest for this particular writing are BaMidbar, Chapter 11, verses 26 – 29 and Chapter 12, verses 1 – 3. These two stories or vignettes frame a continuation of the frustrating situation with the manna and the nation’s request for meat, as well as G-d’s resulting anger. On both sides of the text of this profound national crisis, we confront two stories that seem to convey one message on the surface, but a completely different one upon closer examination. Often, these stories as well as the one that begins the next Parsha, the account of the scouts sent to examine the land and resources of Eretz Yisrael, are used to teach important lessons about not using improper speech, Lashon HaRa. So now for that closer look….

In the first story, the new round of choosing of 70 elders/designated leaders who were to assist Moshe is indicated and during this process, we read that two of the designated leaders, Eldad and Meidad, remain behind in the camp. Further, we are told that they are prophesizing (“Va’yitnabo B’machaneh”). A boy runs (who though is not identified in the text of the Torah, is suspected to be Gershom, Moshe’s son by many as reported by Rashi) to inform Moshe about this occurrence. In the next verse (11:28) we read that Yehoshuah ben-Nun, who had served Moshe since his own youth says “My Master, Moshe, imprison them” when referring to the actions of Eldad and Meidad. The final passuk/verse of this narrative states that Moshe said to him, “Are you jealous/zealous for my sake, would that all of the people be prophets for G-d, for G-d gives G-d’s spirit to them.”

Clearly, this story leads many to presume that Eldad and Meidad are involved in some type of attempted mutiny or overthrow (a natural conclusion to draw in the midst of so many stories of major rebellion, so many say) and are engaging in some type of evil activity. The general assumption is that they are talking about the coming death of Moshe Rabbeinu and are to be discredited for doing so.

However, there are other voices to add to this discussion and I would like to propose that in looking at some of these other interpretations, a wholly different understanding of the events that transpire and the people who are involved will result. Rashi cites Sifre in which we see that it is suggested that in Moshe’s choosing the 70 advisors, there was a problem regarding mathematics and equal representation (my words, not Rashi’s). The explanation that is given cites that there were twelve tribes and if there were to be six representatives from each tribe/shevet, the total would have been seventy two, two more than needed, as directed by G-d. If there were only to be five representatives from each shevet, then there would be ten too few. Therefore, a system had to be devised to insure the resulting number of 70 as dictated, for the Sanhedrin, or ruling body of elders/leaders. The explanation provided is that all designated leaders, among whom Eldad and Meidad were clearly included, would draw lots, of which 70 would indicate “elder” and two would be blanks. These blanks would be included in the last round, so that two tribes/ shevatim would randomly have five representatives, not six. Rashi goes on to explain that Eldad and Meidad were so modest and unassuming that they stayed back in the camp so that no blanks would need to be drawn and all of the other designated leaders would in fact be chosen. In this context, their prophesizing activity was to provide continuity and a sense of confidence in the rest of the camp.

This is a far different picture than the one popularly taught that they were speaking of Moshe’s impending death and that lesser students should not speak as such while their teacher or leader is still alive. Doing so would indeed instill uncertainly and potentially devolve into panic.

Yet another picture is provided in the Gemara, Sanhedrin 17a, in Rashi’s comments on the text. Here it is suggested that they might have been afraid of drawing blank lots and being humiliated. However, the two blank lots were still in play and were drawn by others, so Eldad and Meidad were included in the 70 elders by default, that is, by their absence. According to other readings, G-d did indeed insure their inclusion as a reward for the humility they exhibited by staying back.

So which reading is correct? Needless to say, we cannot know with certainty. At best, we can learn the various options and choose the one that makes the most sense or leave the question open ended. Often the one we individually choose to accept will be reflective of our own understanding and leaning regarding such matters more than an objective perspective (if there is such a thing) on what occurred.

As the text continues and Yehoshuah is so protective of Moshe, wanting to imprison Eldad and Meidad, Moshe responds by challenging Yehoshuah’s claim, explaining that it is G-d who metes out prophetic skill, and that in G-d doing so, Moshe does not suffer in the least by others having and using these G-d given powers and capacities. In this reasoning, Moshe clearly comes to the defense of Eldad and Meidad, confirming and strengthening some of these commentaries cited in this examination of the narrative.

There is clearly an important lesson here. How many times in our lives do we pass judgment on what we hear or see regarding something, while not knowing the entire story, what led up to it, various possibilities regarding motivations, and the such? Do we stop to ask for the back story or just react? This is so human – to pass such judgment --- it’s the way we humans are made. Yet we learn in our Jewish texts, specifically Pirke Avot, 1:6:

ו.... יְהוֹשֻֽׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר: עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת.

Yehoshua son of Pirchiah said, Do a lot, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person by giving them the benefit of the doubt.

What do we learn here about the snap judgments we make every day in so many cases? How much of the story do we really know? Specifically, what were the motivations of Eldad and Meidad? How will you choose to read this situation and others that occur? This is undoubtedly why this passuk from Pirke Avot is my daughter Talie’s theme in going through life.

Now, we turn our attention to the second story. Miriam speaks out first (according to the commentaries’ reading of the first word of the story, Vatidaber) and complains to her brother about Moshe and the situation concerning his wife, Tzipora. In reading the first three verses of BaMidbar, chapter 12, there is not an English teacher I know who would not seriously red pen this narrative as not making any sense. The verses appear and are translated as follows:

א וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַֽהֲרֹן֙ בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָֽאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח כִּֽי־אִשָּׁ֥ה כֻשִׁ֖ית לָקָֽח: ב וַיֹּֽאמְר֗וּ הֲרַ֤ק אַךְ־בְּמֹשֶׁה֙ דִּבֶּ֣ר יְהֹוָ֔ה הֲלֹ֖א גַּם־בָּ֣נוּ דִבֵּ֑ר וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יְהוָֹֽה: ג וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה עָנָ֣ו [עָנָ֣יו] מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה: ס

And Miriam spoke out, and Aaron (joined her) against Moshe, about the situation regarding the Kushite woman that he took because Moshe took a Kushite woman as a wife. And they said (Miriam and Aaron), Does G-d speak only with Moshe, doesn’t G-d speak also with us? And G-d heard this. Now, the man Moshe was the most humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth.

As the narrative continues, G-d calls all of the sibs together and explains that G-d’s relationship with Moshe is indeed different than any other. G-d goes on to explain to Aaron and Miriam that they may not have the entire story and therefore should practice a bit of “giving the benefit of the doubt” because Moshe indeed is more involved in his relationship with G-d than any other person.

So, now we need to return back to the beginning of this narrative. Miriam complains and then Aaron joins her (note the use of the singular “she spoke” in verse 1 and the plural “they spoke” in verse 2. Many looking at this text assume that Miriam is crying out about the woman that Moshe marries. Could this be an indictment against intermarriage? Here is a great example of drawing conclusions in one context through the lens of another context. Clearly, one can understand how one could arrive at this possible option living in today’s reality. However, the commentators move in a completely different direction and in so doing, help us make sense of these three disjointed statements. Let’s try to look at this story again, adding some contextual comments according to the commentaries that help us through this text:

And Miriam spoke out, and Aaron (joined her) against Moshe, about the situation regarding the Kushite woman that he took because Moshe took a Kushite woman as a wife and Miriam felt that Moshe was not treating his Kushite wife properly.. And therefore they said (Miriam and Aaron), Does G-d speak only with Moshe, doesn’t G-d speak also with us? After all, we too have family obligations and we treat them well even though we also have a relationship with G-d. Who does Moshe think he is, ignoring his wife like that? And G-d heard this and had to set Miriam and Aaron straight by explaining, “Now, the man Moshe was the most humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth.”

So, claim the commentaries, the problem is the situation of the marriage and Moshe fulfilling his responsibilities to his wife, not the matter of who he married and her grouping. In supporting this reading, Rashi claims that the word Kushite referred to the incredible beauty of Tzipora, and is repeated to indicate that she was indeed both a beautiful woman physically, and even more important, her beauty was inside as well, regarding her wonderful personality. So Miriam knows, as only a woman would in those days given their social structures and circles, that Moshe is neglecting his duties as a husband in caring for and being affectionate with Tzipora. How does she know this? Clearly the text does not give us any information regarding this.

So we turn to the commentaries and the Midrash. In the Midrash, we read that Miriam noted that Tzipora was not wearing the bracelets that women were often given by their husbands as a token of affection. Further, Rashi amplifies the point that Miriam was speaking in a corrective manner to Moshe because during the incident with Eldad and Meidad, Miriam and Tzipora were standing together and Tzipora, according to Rabbi Nathan, bemoaned the potential lot of Eldad’s and Meidad’s wives if in fact they were to prophesize, based on her own experience of so little contact with Moshe. Miriam, according to this reading, saw and related to the pain of her sister-in-law and did not mean to disgrace Moshe in any way, but to help rectify a potential problem in his home life. So Rashi proceeds to explain that the use of this story as a lesson in Lashon HaRa is as follows: If Miriam is punished in spite of her positive intentions (she does get that attack of leprosy, you know!) then even more so, when one causes harm and disgrace through their intentional use of words, they are to be harshly punished.

Now, in the third verse above, G-d comes to Moshe’s defense (and will continue to do so as the narrative moves on) and explains that Miriam and Aaron may not understand the full nature of G-d’s relationship to Moshe. In other words, there is more to the story than one might think at face value.

So, how do we address this problem? We can ask if there are other things that are important to know in a given situation. We may not always understand how and why one acts a certain way, but there may very well be compelling reasons of which we may not be aware. My daughter would say, give everyone the benefit of the doubt and judge them favorably… if we get to judge them at all, that is.

Certainly this sounds great. So in the practical lane in which our lives progress, how do we give others the benefit of the doubt without causing harm to ourselves, enabling destructive behaviors, allowing reasons to become excuses, and so on? Not to mention… we all follow different codes of “what is right” by which we do give the benefit of the doubt…. Clearly a complex situation!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Balance, Balance, you shall pursue...

So the question we begin this discussion with is: How do we work towards the maintenance of a healthy balance in our lives without compromising any of the conflicting pulls that we feel?

Clearly, this is a reframing of the teaching, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof / Justice, Justice, you shall pursue,” found in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Chapter 16, verse 20. In a world where too many lines are continually drawn in the sand, how do we live in the “grey zone” of balancing different aspects of life and different perspectives? We know the old joke that goes like this. A Rabbi walks into his congregation and one congregant comes up to him with a complaint about another member of the community. The Rabbi listens thoughtfully and then replies, after hearing his side of the story, “You are right.” After some time passes, the second party to the conflict approaches the spiritual leader and explains his side and perspective. The Rabbi replies to his telling, “You know, you are right.” After this, the wife of the Rabbi comes up to her husband and inquires, “You know dear, I heard the whole thing. How can they both be right?” Of course, the Rabbi responds “You are right as well.”

How can this be? How can the scientists and their truths, the philosophers and their truths, the mathematicians and their truths, and the religious people and their truths co-exist in our world and all be right; not to mention the fact that there are many different branches and belief systems contained within each of these domains? There was a book that was written recently by Brad Hirschfeld that is called You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right. While the statement makes perfect sense to me, it never ceases to amaze me that many people DO believe ABSOLUTELY that there can not be more than one position that is RIGHT in terms of this issue or that issue. In fact, if you are right, than I am wrong, and this cannot be an option, goes this reasoning.

As a student of Jewish texts, I treasure and value the Tarbut HaMachloket, the culture of disagreement that characterizes the pages of the Gemara as well as the interfacing of so many commentators when explaining the text of Torah. We live in a world in which we are constantly balancing different, even opposite positions and perceptions. The very structure of the pages of our classical Jewish texts attests to this notion that there are many different ways to look at a given situation and resolve and/or consider it. My challenge to my students and all those I learn with is to try to see each perspective within its own context and to understand not only “what is said” but what motivates and influences a given statement or position. This would run counter-current to the notion of “purist thinking” that we see so often in our world today. How much extremism are we witnessing in our present context in politics, religion, art forms, and other venues in which My way is the Right way!?!

Again, balance is a no-brainer for me. Judaism teaches and proclaims it all over the place. Let’s consider the following well known and often-used statement from Pirke Avot, a text often studied by many and specifically focused upon between the Hagim of Pesach and Shavuot.

In Chapter One, Mishneh Bet, we read as follows:

ב שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶֽסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר: עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים.

Shimon the Righteous was amongst the members of the Great Assembly. He would say: On three things the world stands – on Torah, on Prayer, and on Proper Deeds of Piety.

What is Shimon the Righteous teaching us here? He is speaking about the need for balance. Rav Soloveitchik teaches that it is precisely within the balance of conflicting pulls that one actualizes one self in this world. We are to learn, pray and do actual deeds – the combination of which forms the balanced diet of our living. There are even texts that focus on the need to do Maasim Tovim/ proper actions, and that the importance of doing so is more worthy of merit than studying; the understanding being that such deeds are the tangible product of such studious efforts. I often think about the fact that we do not have monks, nuns and priest who take on a variety of exclusionary vows (chastity, poverty, silence, and complete obedience) as an option within the Jewish community. Even the laws of the nazir, the closest thing that we have to a Jewish monk, involve limitations of their vows and acknowledgement that they are committing a misdeed by not partaking in elements of our world that are here for the purposes of our use. Our most honored and venerated Rabbis and their families are our neighbors, shop in the same stores as we do, sit together with us at the Shabbat table, and so on. What does this teach us? What is the ideal way to live as a Jew?

Today, many of us are aware of the increasing idealization and stretch of the Kollel culture, in which many young men study in our Yeshivot for many years and do not spend time in or move towards a profession. We learn that Torah and physical sustenance must be balanced. To be sure, there are many teachings precisely about this balance in Pirke Avot, amongst other sources. In Kiddushin 29a, the Talmud teaches that every father is enjoined to teach their children Torah, a profession and to swim, that is to be able to survive and thrive physically.

Clearly, there is a conflict here. There is a recognized tension that if one is actively engaged in several pursuits simultaneously, it is impossible to give everything one has and is over to one of the pursuits, as may be the desired goal in the case of Torah study. We often hear (and I myself say) that “X is giving 100% to their work or their family or the maintenance of their health.” The reality, of course, is that if we have a total of 100% to give and there are multiple demands on our time and energy, we cannot give 100% to any one pursuit without ignoring another. Isn’t this precisely the challenge that identifies the so-called “superwoman” of our contemporary world? So, we must find that magical balance that enables our involvement with a variety of things simultaneously. This is the real lane in which life occurs for us – one that includes children, work, daily chores of living, study, and yes, even and most needed, recreation and rest.

In a recent study addressing osteoporosis and its impact on the physical health of our population (especially the elderly and what can be done in earlier years to lessen its impact), an unusual group of those effected was found, namely young men in their twenties. This collection of young males were Kollel and Yeshivah students who were learning full time and not getting physical exercise or otherwise taking care of themselves. I know such young men who understood the need for this balance, immersed themselves in the world of the Yeshiva and then lost their perception of this need – this balance, if you will. Parents, community and every person bearing down on the larger community to provide funds to support them further validate this choice. Let us remember that all of our earlier teachers had professions in addition to their studies – be they doctors like Rambam or Ramban, a vintner like Rashi, a court poet as was Ibn Ezra, a shepherd as Rabbi Akiva or no less than Moshe Rabbeinu and so on. In Pirke Avot, we learn that Torah study and professional support must go hand in hand with each other. “If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. (3:21)”

Several summers, my family has vacationed at Onset, Massachusetts which is found at the beginning of Cape Cod. This tiny community has a correspondingly small shul that was founded by Rav Soloveitchik, who insisted that those young men who were learning with him needed a recreational outlet. There is an important lesson here and a legacy left for all of us about balance. Physical activity and pursuing a livelihood do not only not take away from learning Torah, rather they facilitate and support the proper intent for doing so.

Chazal (our venerated teachers) explain to us that Torah with the proper balance is the “elixir of life,” but as we learn in Shabbat 88b, if one does not learn Torah in the correct way, it can be otherwise, even as poison. What is the point of such a strong teaching? One of the things that I think is so powerful about Judaism and all of its foundational elements is the importance of our intentionality in doing what we do. Kavanah is such a critical part of the mix when we engage in every facet of our Jewish lives. We must pray with the proper intention, do various deeds for the right reason, and learn for the correct reasons. We are taught that if we are not aware of these intentions, something about the result is less than desired. Some would surely disagree with this and say that “it is all in the deed” and I respectfully acknowledge and accept that, though I choose to disagree. In “my community” of thoughtful, open and accepting, observant Halachic oriented living, this intention is, in fact, a most critical element. I learn to better understand G-d, myself, our lives and the way in which I am to interact with others. To that end, the learning is the preparation for the laboratory experience that is, living in our world and applying the teachings of Torah and Jewish precepts to my daily actions, deeds and interactions.

So, my question at this point is: How do I maintain this sense of balance when I am so challenged from all directions to “give it up and do things 100% correctly?”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur - Don't separate yourself from the community

Our beginning question is: So how do I define the Jewish community from which I do not separate myself?

For those of us who are Modern Orthodox Jews, which more people now call Open Orthodox, we live with the challenge of simultaneously maintaining our own religious standards and practices while being part of the larger world. Admittedly, for me personally, inside the cocoon of my own mind, this is not only not a problem but makes perfect sense. However, the reality is that I live with and in the larger world and it is here that this balance becomes increasingly difficult and challenging given what I often call the “black and white world in which we live.” Years ago, I was at a lecture given by Rabbi Adin Steinhaltz, who looked at his American Jewish audience, and began with words along the line of the following: Mazel Tov, you have caught up. You have become as rigid and intransigent and as divided as Israel. People laughed, I began to cry internally. I thought of titling this entry “I stand in one place and they just keep changing what they call me,” but now that I have shared this, it is probably clear why I chose the indicated heading.

Some years ago, there was a lead article in The Baltimore Jewish Times about successful members of the Conservative movement of the 1960’s who were now within the folds of the Orthodox community. I read the article with particular interest as the story told by the people interviewed was my story. Yes, I am identified by all who know me as Modern Orthodox but the reality is, to rephrase Robert Fulrrum’s book title, “Everything I know and am, I learned in USY.” Growing up in a Conservative synagogue with a Rabbi whose Semicha was from Yeshiva University (and there were many such communities in those days!), and as an active member in USY, I was schooled in a way of life that was that of being a shomer mitzvot. As a USY officer, we all had to sign a contract indicating that we were shomer Shabbat, shomer Kashrut, and engaged in full time Jewish learning. The same was required in the home in which I grew up. I learned texts in my classes at Baltimore Hebrew College with Orthodox identified teachers and with classmates who were members of Orthodox as well as Conservative communities. Occasionally USYers and NCSYers would join together for activities. One of the Conservative affiliated synagogues in our region actually had a mechitza.

Now granted, I was one of the more observant members of my group, but those of us in this group now meet occasionally in Israel or in any number of communal Orthodox settings. We were so successful at continuing to live the way that we learned, the Conservative movement eventually had no use for us. In fact, I was actually fired from my position as Educational Director of a region of United Synagogue of America in the mid-eighties for “being too religious, and therefore not a good role model for the community.” The two things that were cited as my misdeeds were that I would not eat in a non-kosher restaurant and that I did not use forms of transportation on Shabbat and Yom Tov. On the other hand, I am not accepted by many elements of the Orthodox world, and in years of consulting with schools and communities throughout the Jewish spectrum, much of my work has been rejected in the Orthodox community because I am “too controversial,” so I find myself trying to figure out to which community I actually belong.

I do not separate myself but am put into a type of pariah status too often. I have suffered personally and professionally through the years as a result of this. Nonetheless, I subscribe to the notion that “G-d understands, it’s the neighbors who don’t quite get it.” The right side of the larger spectrum of the Jewish community considers me “too open” because we embrace all Jews of Klal Yisrael and figure that if Ribbonu shel Olam has Ahavat Yisrael for all B’nai Yisrael, who am I to set parameters for a more exclusive club??? The people in the identified “non-observant” (ritually speaking) corridors do not completely trust me because I am “one of them, you know the HaShemites…” So, I continue to consider myself part of the larger Jewish community and have taught my children and students to do the same, even though as one person in our Orthodox community said to me years ago, “Sunnie, you do 99% of everything correct, why don’t you just give up the other 1% and then you can be one of us?” I really don’t think that any explanation is needed, regarding my reaction internally.

I have often used the phrase, “Its hard to be an Or LaGoyim from the corner of Meah Shaarim,” meaning that we are the ones who are “out and about” both within the larger Jewish community and within the even larger world community. I am definitely a Judaism/Torah junkie… I do think that contained within the wisdom, practices, and thinking of this system, is all one needs to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. I am awed daily by our four children who have taken up this charge as well and maintain their balance on the same tricky beam on which I have teetered and tottered all these years, though have never fallen off of it. I really do believe that G-d wants us to live with and inside of this balance. In the Vidui, we find the following phrase: For the misdeed we have committed by judgment (b’fililim). I have always found this so meaningful. There is so much in Jewish texts and practices that tell us to not embarrass each other, to not judge another person until one is in their place, and of course…. to not separate from the general masses. Yet, in the real lane in which we live, this happens all of the time. There are people who are so meticulous about Kashrut, what goes into their mouths, for example, yet are rather cavalier about Shmirat HaLashon, what comes out of their mouths. Within the community that observes Taharat HaMishpacha, one would like to think that there is no sexual, physical or emotional abuse in trying to attain a true sense of Shalom Bayit. To be sure, this desired consistency is clearly not the case for all members of any group. It’s just that it seems to me that when one is identified by others and self-identifies as a Shomer Mitzvot, all of the above count.

I guess this is the community to which I ideologically belong – the one that is composed of those of us who are committed to those actions of ritual and religious deeds and are equally committed to those dictated actions that are clear about honesty, not cheating, being kind and caring, giving the other the benefit of the doubt and acknowledging at the end of the day that what is between a person and G-d is not for another to glibly judge in too many instances. This is the community in my head to which I belong. In terms of the community of which I am physically a member, this is not as easy.

I often explain that I spend half of my time explaining and correcting the inaccurate caricatures people hold on to about the Orthodox community in the non-Orthodox world and the other half of my time doing the same in the Orthodox community regarding the caricatures people have regarding those who are non-Orthodox. In the meantime, because I daven with a mechitzah, dress a certain way, am identified as a Shomeret Mitzvot and live inside of my Orthodox community, clearly I am identified as Orthodox. Yet, because I have friends, colleagues and relatives who run the gamut of the continuum of Jewish ideological and practice options, as well as those who are outside of the pale of Judaism altogether, I am the one who is not quite “normal” in the community in which I reside. Whereas in my formative years of the late 60s and 70s, this composite picture was consistent with my identity as an observant Halachic Conservative Jew, my children grapple with what they should say when they explain themselves to others. The phrase I have adopted is “Halachic, accepting, pluralistic Torah observant Jew.” I guess that about covers it…. that is the name of my community of choice.

The problem that remains is: None of the established movements in today’s American Jewish community truly reflect their roots and the thinking of their founders. Even more so, these labels are not as meaningful in the rest of world Jewry. Given that, aren’t we all left with the task of figuring out what our own Jewish identity is, no longer relying on the default position of this or that title?