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!