Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Liz Gilbert Explains Halacha and its Place in our Lives (sort of)

I love this life and the many voices that we can bring together in the course of a day, a week, a month … really any period of time – large or small, if we are just willing to hear and consider and learn from all of the voices. So, today was a snow day and I was reading my new favorite book on life, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. To be sure, there is a lot of wisdom in this book. I found two chapters about G-d and faith I really want to share with some of my classes and friends. This woman gets God, and I think she did before she even realized it! That is often the case with seekers.

As Ramchal (my favorite medieval philosopher and Jewish teacher) says in so many ways, “the beginning of coming to know and understand G-d is when we realize that we will not fully know and understand G-d”…. and this is fine. Then I read about this one experience of her guru’s guru’s community in trying to create a meaningful prayer experience and broke out laughing. For all of us who live our life in the lane of Halacha – Jewish law, prayer that is a pattern we repeat daily or any sense of ongoing order of activities or involvements, there is a poignant lesson here.

I quote from Gilbert’s book:

“The Indians around here tell a cautionary fable about a great saint who was always surrounded in his Ashram by loyal devotees. For hours a day, the saint and his followers would meditate on God. The only problem was that the saint had a young cat, an annoying creature, who used to walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone during meditation. So the saint, in all his practical wisdom, commanded that the cat be tied to a pole outside for a few hours a day, only during meditation, so as to not disturb anyone. This became a habit – tying the cat to the pole and then meditating on God – but as years passed, the habit hardened into religious ritual. Nobody could meditate unless the cat was tied to the pole first. Then one day the cat died. The saint’s followers were panic-stricken. It was a major religious crisis – how could they meditate now without a cat to tie to a pole? How would they reach God? In their minds, the cat had become the means.” (Quoted from Eat Pray Love, p. 205)

So, can you figure out why I broke out laughing?! Because this is true, I HAVE LIVED IT. We who wash before eating bread and say the appropriate blessing (Bracha) know the joke (or urban legend or did it really happen?) about the woman who is standing in line to do Netilat Yadayim (ritual hand washing) and notes that many of the people take their rings off and put them between their lips or on the counter next to them as they wash. When it is her turn, she asks the person standing behind her if she can borrow her rings in order to wash.

Sometimes, my children or students are perplexed when someone claims “You did that wrong.” Now, to be sure sometimes this might be the case, but then I would submit this approach is not the way to go in trying to suggest the correct way of completing some ritual. It is embarrassing and we have already ascertained on numerous occasions that we are not to embarrass someone because the core of every human being is G-d and by embarrassing another human being we are also causing pain to G-d. Gentle correction is definitely the way to go. BUT, this is not always the case and sometimes the “corrected way” pronounced is no different than tying the cat to the pole.

There are questions that have been asked about how we insure that our friends and family members do enact the ritual practices we have committed to ourselves the “correct way.” However, every Rabbi and teacher for whom I have respect teaches that we are not to embarrass another and that if this is the result of such correction, than we must seek another way. We must remember that our practices are to elevate our beings, our souls and our lives, not to denigrate another person. Our practices are to be meaningful and uplifting, not repetitive and “habit hardened into religious ritual” whether or not it is a “legitimate” practice. Especially if we insist on praying only when the cat is tied to the pole!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Shabbat Shira: In Memoriam

Each week, I begin my studies with my high school Jewish Studies classes with a dedication to inspire us in our work through the coming days. I have used this practice from time to time and decided to reinstitute it after the events of the past few weeks. In the personal and public lives of my family and friends, we have been deeply touched and affected by two passings these past two weeks. The first occurred on Wednesday, December 29, 2011. A wonderful young woman who had been part of our lives for many years along with her family died after suffering from chronic illness all her life. She and her wonderful parents have been an inspiration to all who have met them. Then on Sunday, January 9, 2011 our Jewish world lost Debbie Friedman.

There are many words I could use to explain how incredible Rina (z’l) and her wonderful parents, Ari and Stacy Goldberg are and our feelings of respect, regard and love for them, but I will defer to these thoughtful words crafted by my daughter Rachie, who long with Talie (her twin sister) had the privilege of learning with and from Rina on an ongoing basis some years ago:

Around seven years ago, we met Rina through The Friendship Circle, a wonderful organization that facilitates friendship between children who have special needs and volunteers from their local communities. From the start of this relationship, Rina's innate ability to relate to anyone and everyone was very clear. Together we practiced reading Hebrew, learned various Jewish prayers and discussed other topics relating to Judaism. We would sing songs, make up games and together develop a routine that we all approved of. Toward the end of our sessions together, we would also make sure to discuss other pressing topics like the Philadelphia Eagles and American Idol. Her offerings on all of these subjects, along with many others, revealed a multi-dimensional knowledge and commitment beyond her eight/nine years. We became friends, equals that all had something to share and the capacity to learn.

That same desire to share that she exhibited all those years ago has progressively grown to include her dedication to her Caring Bridge community, the fulfillment of her goal to create cool clothing that also accommodates medical equipment, her career as a movie-maker and the genuine worldview that a positive attitude, not a difficult circumstance, can be the defining factor in anyone’s life, regardless of the challenges to be faced. She was, is and will continue to be present in all that she has given and all that she has taught to those lucky enough to have been a part of her life.

One memory that will endure for us is when we used to study the prayer, anim z'mirot ("I shall sing sweet songs" - a song sung in synagogue on Saturday morning) together, there was one line that stuck out, that we would tell Rina reminded us of her....
In Hebrew: sheet hamon, sheerai na alecha, V'RINATI tikrav eilecha. In English: I humbly place before You (God) this noise, my songs, so that my JOY will draw near to You (God).

This line will forever bring to mind all the joy that she has brought to us and others. She was, is and always will be a vessel of God's vision for a friendly, passionate and positive world. We will continue to live out the lessons she taught us and sing her songs so that Rina will continue to bring us (and so many others) closer to that which is Divine, whatever that may be for each of us.

We wish all peace, love and comfort in this difficult time,
Rachie and Talie

One person among many who was so important to Rina was the well known Jewish composer/singer Debbie Friedman. Debbie too suffered from many complex health challenges through many years. We were professional colleagues, part of an amazing community of Jewish educators who came together year after year more than three decades at the best Summer Camp for Jewish Educators called the Conference for Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE). Year after year, Debbie introduced us and took us through the history of the development of this new genre of Jewish American Music, for which she was at the forefront. As this musical phenomenon has grown and matured, Debbie shepherded it through its development. For this we are all eternally grateful to her. I found it supremely ironic and sad that Rina and Debbie left this world within days of each other. I suspect that they are walking through Shamayim arm in arm singing, joking, smiling – not held back by the physical challenges and limitations of their earthly bodies.

MiSheberach….. May their names be for a blessing always on this week of Shabbat Shira -- during which we read of the songs and music of women in our Torah service. May we all continue to sing the songs Debbie taught us and carry in our heart the positive messages of surviving and thriving that Rina, in her fifteen years on this earth exemplified every day. Shabbat Shalom to all.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

So, Dr. Epstein, what do YOU do when New Year’s Eve comes out on Shabbat?

As we are all reacclimating to the school schedule now that winter vacation has become part of our past, I walked into my first class this past Monday – January 3, 2011 – to my wonderful group of ninth grade scholars with whom I have the privilege of learning Gemara. I always wonder exactly how to begin the business of getting back into school mode in a meaningful way, acknowledging that we have all had these different experiences, some of which may be instructive to us in “the real lane of life” in which we all live. I came armed with so much to contribute and fully intended to have others in the group share new lessons and observations as well. Almost immediately, several students were upset about a religious family that had their son’s Bar Mitzvah this past weekend and their friends and families were invited. They thought this was “rather rude” and not accepting of the needs and observances of the other members of the community and wanted to know what I thought of such families, and of course, what did I do on New Year’s Eve? So, we committed educators love these educable moments and here it was! With absolutely no sense or feeling of guilt about “not covering the curriculum,” I launched into a discussion about the particular juxtaposition of our identities as Americans and Jews when Shabbat has the nerve of interfering with New Year’s Eve. For my family and myself, Shabbat is Shabbat, regardless of the calendar and we plan accordingly. I will say we were a bit creative this year, as we do usually have a New Year’s Eve Party and just had a New Year Day’s Eve Party. We of religiously observant stock are perfectly familiar and comfortable with two day Yom Tovim, so why not? Although some other groups of people in the restaurant we decided to go to for our celebration looked at us a bit oddly, when we counted down and yelled “Happy New Year.” It is probably appropriate to point out at this point that on the other end of the spectrum of our lives, there is no recognition of anything secular amongst many members of the more right-wing Orthodox communities. So back to Shabbat and New Year’s Eve -- Now, this problem, of course, does happen every six years or so, depending on when leap years occur. I believe there is actually a longer reprieve until the next one due to two leap years in this cycle, so I think we have eleven years to figure out what to do next time we have this clash of calendar elements as Jews living in a larger secular world.

The discussion continued as I acknowledged that there were upset members of the group who felt that they had been slighted by having to decide between their New Year’s celebrations and attending this Bar Mitzvah weekend. I proceeded to explain that we all need to understand and appreciate that people will decide which option to exercise dependent on a number of factors. Specifically, in this case, in the Orthodox/Halachic communities we usually schedule a Bar Mitzvah according to the birth of the child and what Parsha was connected to that week and the HEBREW date of the child’s birth, not the date on our generally used secular calendar. Therefore, the family of the Bar Mitzvah was not being “rude,” but rather observing their minhag or custom. It was then up to those invited to make whatever decisions were appropriate for them and to appreciate that their friends wanted to include them in their celebration.

Once the information piece of the puzzle was in place, the broader discussion of pluralism and what it means to us and the challenges it presents came on the table. Members of the group who are not religiously/ritualistically observant (I always insist on precision of terms) of Shabbat did not understand why the rest of us do not just “skip one Shabbat” and acknowledge our part of the larger culture, observing as well as celebrating New Year’s Eve. After all, it is such an important event. I asked what was so important and basically the answer was “just because.” Okay, I accept that!

It was particularly interesting to “watch the eyeballs” of all in the group as we continued to try to understand the complicated issue of acknowledging that it is precisely in a pluralistic community that such discussions occur and such sharing of different solutions and choices occupy the same space. I suggested that we all remember that we are blessed to know each other, learn with each other and have each other in our lives. Decisions and compromises such as those necessitated by this situation will occur in these special shared spaces. I remind all of my students and everyone with whom I work and live that when we all agree to share space; I can guarantee that “100% of the people will not be 100% happy 100% of the time!” Forty five minutes later as the bell rang to signal the conclusion of the class, we all wished each other a Happy New Year and I gently reminded all that it is important to have respect for the different positions that members of the group take and to “see” each other accurately – that is to say, I don’t think anyone considered the Bar Mitzvah family “rude” at this point (success!) but now were confused as to why those that are Shabbat observant cannot make this one quite infrequent exception. Hmmmm, something to consider for the next time this happens in our calendar… and we have longer to ponder it this time! Happy New Year to all!