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?

Parshat Kedoshim: Rules and Regs and Us

My question to begin this discussion is: Why/ does it feel sometimes that Judaism is way too much about rules, structure, discipline and more regulations than we can handle?

During non leap years, these two Parshiot are read as a single unit as was just the case in 5769 (2009). When I teach as well as learn about these Parshiot as a joint entity, I find that there is an interesting format that is significant in its instructive mode. It works when they follow each other as well but the structure is nothing short of remarkable when these chapters are taken as one Parsha.

First of all, Acharei Mot begins with a narrative that we are told occurs after the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu as a result of their offering of the aish zarah, the strange fire, to G-d. To be sure, the fact that they are so severely punished is problematic for many. Clearly this, as so often is the case, is not as simple as a matter of what is good and what is bad. After all, their intentions were honorable and they were good people, according to what we are taught (isn’t this often the case?); and they were, as the text teaches, coming before G-d (VaYikra 10: 1) when a fire came and consumed them. What did they do wrong? The text explains in this chapter that comes in Parshat Shemini that G-d did not command them to come forward with this offering (VaYikra, 10:1).

So, given our modern sensibilities, coming up with a creative gift is thought of as a good thing, yes? What exactly is the problem being presented? Here, we see a marked difference between American and Western thinking and Jewish instructions. Throughout the Torah and all of our instructive texts, the point is made that it is clearly preferable to do what we are told than to do something because we want to. We are supposed to do what G-d asks of us precisely because G-d asks us to do so and this is the case whether the request (and the resulting laws) make sense or do not do so.

Now, the text of this Parsha turns to the concern of those practices in which other nations and people are engaged that the Jewish Nation/B’nai Yisrael is not to do. These practices are not conducive to the type of sanctification that G-d requires from G-d’s Am HaNivchar. Various forms of practices associated with sacrifices are not acceptable for our Jewish form of Karbanot. Note must be taken that this very word that we use for sacrifices denotes a coming close to G-d. Practice this element of one’s religious life without heeding to the specific instructions given and no matter what the intention, like Nadav and Avihu, their efforts will be for naught.

After the injunctions about what we are NOT to do in offering our Karbanot to G-d, the text (Chapter 18) turns to unacceptable practices of both the Canaanites and the Egyptians, amongst whom the B’nai Yisrael have lived. These practices include a wide array of sexual practices that are not acceptable to the B’nai Yisrael in striving to achieve the Kedusha towards which they are to work. These practices are perceived as unseemly and many of them fall into the overall category of incest and make sense to us. Other practices regarding shaming another human being or profoundly disrupting one’s life also make sense to us. These Mishpatim act as and form a code of lawful interactions with others. There are also those laws that refer to restrictions placed upon us by G-d in order that we are the Goi Kadosh, the sanctified people that G-d wants us to be. These may or may not make sense to us, as can often be the case with Hukim. This is not the point however. Whether or not we understand the restrictions and the prohibitions, note must be taken of the repeated refrain that continually occurs every few verses, namely the words “I am the Lord your G-d.” [A great exercise is to count these up!] This is the reason that is given for each of these laws, no matter the category and whether or not they make sense to us.

Once these practices are established as verboten, we are enjoined to follow the teaching of 19:2, namely Tehiyu Kedoshim that is we must observe the required separation and sanctification because the Lord our G-d is also separate and sanctified (holy, so many say!). While the previous chapter warns us against the practices of others, Chapter Nineteen instructs the B’nai Yisrael ever so clearly on those laws that make this group unique and joined together, above and beyond those restrictions based upon practices of others that may be unseemly and inappropriate. This chapter now tells us what must be done to maintain the level of Kedusha for which members of the B’nai Yisrael would now be eligible if they were to restrain from the practices of others. These prescribed practices and limitations are required for the Am Nivchar to maintain their position as
G-d’s chosen nation.

We are actually taught that this chapter is the middle of the Five Books of Moshe, Chameshet Chomshei Torah and is called the “Sanctification Code.” Further, in the middle of this chapter appears the teaching that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, for I am the Lord your G-d.” This becomes the focal point of this assortment of laws that provide us with a diet for healthy living, both as individuals and as community. We must remember that this teaching is meant not merely as a cute and meaningful axiom, but rather as a centering of our discipline as human beings generally and as Jews specifically. As Rav Soleveichik points out in his teachings about Halachic man, it is the nature of our lives that we feel we are pulled in many different directions (precisely because this is the case!). Yet, we must live in the center of these pulls, being both part of the world in which we live and simultaneously using the frame of Halacha to keep us from being pulled to much to one side or the other. Balance through the maintaining of discipline is the goal here --- to live with others and resist their practices (as we learn in Chapters 17 and 18 of our double Parsha) and then maintain our own values and practices regardless of what others do, but simply because G-d says so!

Chapter 20 of Parshat Kedoshim ends our unit of text with punishments that are meted out for not observing the laws and restrictions set forth in this text (and others in the Torah as well). These are the consequential results of NOT maintaining our required level of Kedusha as spelled out in the text. Most of the focus of this text correlates most readily with the forbidden practices to be found in the following text of Parshat Emor. In these next chapters, we once again continue to read about the terrible consequences of prohibited practices that will take us further and further away from the level of Kedusha we were intended to achieve and maintain. How do we avoid such consequences? We do so by reminding ourselves constantly of the very structure upon which our existence is based, as described at this pivotal point in the text. It is the discipline of the law given by G-d to the B’nai Yisrael, the content of that disciplined existence, and the reasons for maintaining it that form the centerpiece of our Torah in this Parsha. Found within both the words of these chapters and the structure of their composition and location is a very serious and important message that we must all take to heart. As B’nai Yisrael, we have and continue to live in a world with many other peoples and influences. We will in fact be aware of their practices and lives. We are to continue living in this world while maintaining the level of Kedusha that we are told by G-d to achieve. The script we have to instruct us in these challenges is whole and comprehensive.

The challenge that remains: Do we always understand G-d’s intent and reasons in fostering a life for the Jewish nation that is at one and the same time intertwined with the lot of so many other peoples and simultaneously separate and distinct to itself?

Calling All Jew-Ju's

Shalom: I have been working with students, teachers, schools and communities within the Jewish world for the past thirty five years. During this time, I have held a variety of positions, met tens of thousands of Jews from all walks of life, all denominational movements, every age grouping and from within just about any sub-group you can name. Through all of these encounters, I have been privileged to meet and learn with and from so many people. I always loved the idea that Kohelet, my favorite book of the Tanach, was written by (as many say, Shlomo HaMelech) the one who gathered the sayings and collective wisdom and learning of all that he had seen and experienced. As Madame Chiang Kai-shek once stated “We are all the sum total of all we have done, everyone we have known, and everywhere we have been.” I think that this is true of all of us and that if we are tuned into this awareness, we will all find the book that is inside of us waiting to be written.

One of my most important role models and a personal hero would have to be Nechama Leibowitz. Now of course, so many people know her valuable insights and articulate writings as she explores the meaning of Torah texts, using the added lens of the commentaries that expound on those texts, particularly Rashi. What is important to remember is that her recorded words of wisdom used by so many on all levels of learning were originally from her notes as a high school teacher. I have always taught as well as learned with and from classes throughout my career and intend to do so for many more years to come, G-d willing. I love teaching because of the incredible energy of a number of people who are a community of learners for a specified period of time and are together for the purpose of sharing and growing together, collecting their accumulated insights and observations as they consider important matters. These insights and writings in this blog are the result of some of these classes, these shiyurim, of which I am privileged to be a part.

A word is in order about the format. I am a strong believer that “questions unite and answers divide.” I value the questions we ask and learn the most from the quandaries that my students and colleagues pose as we study and explore texts together. Therefore, each writing in this blog presents, shares if you will, ideas that have occurred to me in the course of study and each one begins as well as ends with a question to show the lack of completion of the journey and that there clearly remains a need for further study, further exploration and further searching.

Why this blog at this time? Many of my students and colleagues keep pushing me to write and to publish the content of these lessons and different lectures I have given through the years. This I have done as well, but I like the idea of ongoing conversations – a virtual (in both senses of the word) expansion of the physical classrooms in which I spend so much time – so I am venturing into this new venue.

Why the name? Jew-Ju’s is my answer to Jew-Bu’s; that is to say, as there are Jews that often have to move outside of the pale of Jewish teachings and understandings to find themselves as Jews (and so many of these move onto Buddhist circles), we can find the same answers, challenges, and resolutions (if not solutions) to our many quandaries and concerns within Judaism. As the adage goes, the answer you seek is often right in front of you – just see it!

Please join in the conversation as I begin this new venture in facilitating this shared virtual community of seekers, thinkers and believers.



Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein
Director, BeYachad – Bringing Best Educational Practices and Jewish Education Together