Monday, December 16, 2013

A Final Thought About Bereshit – Intentional Blessings

We have just completed the book of Bereshit. As we come to the end of the narrative of our Patriarchs and Matriarch and are ready for the transition into the narrative of the nation of Israel that will come to be the context of our continued development, we have an important opportunity to consider the nature of individual intentional blessings, namely those the Patriarchs bestow on their own, and by association on us.

We begin the Parsha with the blessing of Manashe/מנשה and Ephraim/אפרים . Once again we see a repeated pattern of the “switching” of the intended blessings, at least according to the perspective of Yaakov, repeating the pattern of the blessings bestowed upon him and and his brother Esau by his father, Yitzchak. In Chapter 48 we read as follows:

17 And when Joseph saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he held up his father's hand, to remove it from Ephraim's head unto Manasseh's head. 18 And Joseph said unto his father: 'Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head.' 19 And his father refused, and said: 'I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.' 20 And he blessed them that day, saying: 'By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.' And he set Ephraim before Manasseh.

As we know, on Erev Shabbat when we bless our children, it is exactly in the name of these ancestors that we bless our boys. What is the precise nature of this blessing we are intentionally bestowing on our children when we bless them so that they should be as Manashe and Ephraim; and our girls when we express our hopes that they should emulate Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah? Is the hope we express generic and prescribed or is it individuated and intentional?

Think about that for a moment in terms of your own family and I will move ahead in the Parsha to the other blessings, one that is given for each of Yaakov’s sons. The first two of Yaakov’s sons to be blessed will be Reuven and Shimon, interestingly enough, the very sons indicated in 48.5 when Yaakov declares that he will bless Manasshe and Ephraim as his own even though in fact they are his grandsons, the sons of Yoseph, not amongst his own twelve sons.

Reuven is Yaakov’s first born, yet what does he tell him? That though he should have the preferred position and double portion of inheritance designated for the first born, he will not receive this, due to his unseemly behavior. He crosses boundaries regarding his father’s wives and concubines and does not fulfill the initial hopes placed in him.

We read in Bereshit Rabbah 82.11 that The monetary rights of the firstborn [to receive a double inheritance in the Holy Land] were taken away from Reuven, and given to Joseph, but not the genealogical birthright, as it is written, The sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Israel (Numbers 1:20)

While this is difficult, it is important to note that clearly not all is lost. In fact according to the Gemara in Berachot 7b we see that Reuven’s very name expresses the hopes that he would in fact see practices that were not accepting and appropriate and understand the differences between them and his own path that he was destined to take.

Reuven, according to Rabbi Eliezer, was the name chosen by Leah who said, "See the difference between my son and my father-in-law's sons, Esav. Although Esav sold his birthright willingly, Esav harbored hatred toward Yaakov (Genesis 27:41), whereas my son surrendered his birthright to Joseph against his will, yet he was not jealous of him. On the contrary, Reuven heard about the trouble to befall Yoseph, and he rescued him from their hand" (ibid. 37:21) (Berachot 7b).

Now, Reuven is truly a complicated individual, and this we should understand for we are all such a mixture of so many elements, as are our children as well. On the one hand, some suggest that he sleeps with one of his father’s concubines, a definite no-no. However, others would have us understand that he merely went into his father’s and Bilhah’s private areas, crossing a line of privacy. This is the position proposed in Shabbat 55a consistent with Chazal who are often reluctant to sanction those that are deemed to be our most treasured ancestors. At any rate, he knew that he did something untoward and accordingly, we are taught that he already knew that he would lose his privileged position as the first-born son due to this serious infraction. Perhaps, this makes his saving of his brother Yoseph, when his other siblings were so ready to have him out of their lives for good, all the more noble and righteous.

We learn as follows in Bereshit Rabbah 84:19

Reuben returned to the pit (Genesis 37:29). He had been busy with his sackcloth and fasting repenting for his sin with Bilhah. The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to him, "Never has a person sinned before Me and repented unless faced with punishment. You were the first to repent, your descendant shall be the first to speak of the greatness of repentance." This refers to his descendant Hoshea, who said, "Return, O Israel, unto HaShem your God" (Hoshea 14:2) [i.e., repentance reaches unto the very Throne of Glory] (Bereishis Rabbah 84:19).

Yaakov goes on to continue to bless his sons. The next two, Simeon and Levi also are given a rebuke within the context of their blessings for their part in the debacle involving Yoseph, having instigated the sale as well as later devising the problematic scheme against the sons of Shechem. Therefore, the words “their weaponry is a stolen craft” is indicating the Yaakov knew about their actions and is acknowledging this awareness.

Yehuda is the next son to be acknowledged. He considers his own misdeed regarding Tamar and we are told that he draws back from fear of what his supposed blessing will be. Yet he indeed is told he will be a leader and it is his name that we care today as Yehudim. Perhaps, it has been suggested that when he offered himself as a replacement for Binyamin earlier when Joseph asked for him to be brought to Egypt, he showed aspects of the man he could truly be.

So where is the blessing in so many of these final words of father to his sons? Many commentators, including Ibn Ezra, question the use of blessing at all here.

One explanation is offered by Tractate Berachot, Chapter 6:

Rebbi Meir2 says, “From where [do we know] that just like you have to bless [God] for good [things that happen to you], so too you have to bless [God] for bad [things that happen to you]? The Torah teaches us, ‘… that which Hashem, your God, has given you …’ (Devarim 26:11).3 Your God [meaning] your judge. For every judgment that He judges you, whether positively or negatively.”4

Further, the Rabbis and scholars at the Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center have considered this and suggest that we look to the following supportive ideas to further our thinking and understanding regarding the nature of these blessings:

Or Ha-Hayyim comments: "Even though we see that he did not [seem to be blessing] Reuben, Simeon, or Levi, [one could] say that his harsh words to them was their blessing." This idea can be developed to say that even if a father's reproach contains harsh words and indications of punishment, nevertheless it is said out of the "hidden love" that a father feels for his wayward son, and its intention is actually for the son's good. Therefore, it is also considered a blessing.

A[nother thought is that by stating] "'Cursed be their anger,' (49:7) Jacob cursed only their anger [not them]."[5] Yet the approach which says this unit of text deserves to be called "Jacob's blessing to his sons" meets with another problem: Jacob begins his address with the words: "Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come." In other words, what he intended to say are words about what the future holds. But after Jacob's words, Scripture says: "and this is what their father said to them, and he blessed them..." That would imply that these were words of blessing, not prophecy. Indeed, the Sages explained that from the outset Jacob wished to say to them something quite different from the words he actually uttered.

What else might that be? So now, let’s return to our own families. We all know that loving those most dear to us also entails TRULY SEEING THEM. This often means separating ourselves from our wishes for our children and instead yielding to their visions of themselves or the paths they may take in life that may not conform to those we have mapped out for our “ideal children.” These in fact are our REAL CHILDREN and for our blessings for them to be real, we have to acknowledge them – their good points, their differences from us, things that they do which may not meet with our approval or what we think best, and yes, those negative qualities that they may even have inherited from us.

Let’s complete the circle and return to Menashe and Ephraim. One conventional explanation as to why we bless our boys in their name and not in those of the established Patriarchs as we do for our girls is that they lived in a secular society as the children of royalty, with their father in such a high position in Egypt. Yet, they were able to simultaneously retain their religious values and the observances of their upbringing according to Chazal. This is a most practical and meaningful balanced legacy that we want to pass on to our children.

As for Reuven, power is a dangerous thing and we are taught and must teach our children to use it sparingly and thoughtfully. Reuven WAS the leader when it came to saving Joseph and for this he is blessed. Simeon and Levi may have had noble reasons for what they did regarding Shechem but this does not excuse their actions. We therefore acknowledge that Yaakov was upset with their intentions and resulting actions and wanted them to use their position carefully and thoughtfully, considering what the outcomes of their misguided actions would be. Life and becoming is a process, not a stative position.

This is our blessing to our children.

May they be like Menashe and Ephraim in being part of the world around us as well as faithful Jews. May they learn the lessons of Reuven that we are to be different than others and not act in the ways we see around us if they are not noble. May they control their cruel thoughts, as justified as they may think they be, in the legacy of Simeon and Levi. May they not take things into their own hands without carefully thinking them through, as Judah did. May they not laugh at G-d’s plan as Sarah did and show more compassion than she did towards Hagar and Yishmael. May they not incite family conflict as Rivkah did. May they promote family peace as we would have liked Rachel and Leah to do. In short, we bless our children, their humanity, their potential, what we like and consider good about them, what we may not like and consider not-so-good about them, the potential their future holds, and in the end the blessing of their lives as our children….. just As Yaakov did for his children, so too we do for ours.

Shabbat Shalom!

Note: I was honored to be able to share This D’var Torah at Congregation Mekor Beracha in Philadelphia (a Modern Orthodox shul) on Shabbat VaYechi, 2013.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Education Should Be A Blessing

A few months ago in Parade Magazine (and in other similar publications), there was a series of articles about what is wrong with education. I read through the various elements , ranging from misappropriation of funds to ineffective leaders to being more and more out of touch with how our many different students learn and so on. Further, in our technology age, the very face of education must look so different to keep up with the vicissitudes in our daily worldly lives. Sadly, as an institution, we are failing in way too many instances. So to respond to these many ailments that are plaguing our attempts to prepare our children for the future that awaits them, on Sunday August 10, 2013, seven ideas were presented in this series of articles: 1. We need to make sure that our students are fed and are nutritionally strong. 2. LEARNING should be emphasized, not testing. 3. We must teach 21st century skills. 4. We should FLIP the classroom by having students listen to the “lectures” on their technology and use classroom time for meaningful interaction and cooperative efforts. 5. We must say YES to recess! 6. We should all get creative! 7. We should focus on the process of education!

Here is a program for going into our next chapter of collective progress. This all makes so much sense to me. In my work with bringing Best Educational Practices to Jewish Education through the consulting work of BeYachad, which I founded and have directed for more than two decades, I have always worked on what we call “Thinking Outside of the Box” both for myself as an educator and for those with whom I have been privileged to work.

So why is it that at this point in time, when technology is at the “ready and able” to allow us to focus more on our students and the process of their educational growth and with so much psychological sophistication, are more and more people dissatisfied with what is happening in educational venues. About 15 years ago I was quoted in a national magazine as being opposed to Home Schooling due to the socialization aspect of education, the opportunity to learn with and from others, the change to negotiate and collaborate and so much else. Now, unfortunately, I am not so sure.

For one thing, too many superb and amazing educators are not in positions they should be while those that are looking at the “business” of education are in positions of power and decision making instead of having creative and innovative soulful educators in these positions. To be sure this is not the case everywhere, but the point cannot be ignored that it is the situation in too many institutions.

Last year, I took an hiatus from Jewish Education and participated in an experiment, the creation of a ROTATING BLENDED CYBER CHARTER SCHOOL (which I had worked for the previous two years to bring into being). These schools are brand new and only exist in a few places in this country, combining the best of face to face education with the advance and resources of cyber learning. This is definitely a matter of thinking OUTSIDE OF THE BOX and when we began this experiment, I immediately “got it.” I looked at the faces of our students, who were strictly an urban population. They DID NOT LOOK at all like the pretty faces from the pretty homes of well fed and well clothed children who were well tended by Mom and Dad, one of whom would have lunch on the kitchen island in the many well done commercials for cyber schools in Pennsylvania, the state in which we live.

Our students were from the populations generally not able to avail themselves of the opportunity of cyber learning and as for a quiet pretty place to learn at home, for many of them, you can forget that option as well. We worked hard, this amazing faculty and I, and actually achieved in some cases miraculous results, ranging from students who entered a good seven to eight years below grade level and were able to progress as much as THREE entire grade levels in three months, students who just learned to write with us, oppositional students who became so cooperative and developed warm relationships with wonderful caring faculty and so much else.

Yet, we were plagued by the State’s lack of understanding of what we were doing and eventually it was clear that ROTATING BLENDED CYBER EDUCATION was way too far ahead on the learning curve for this state. What was preferred were the business managers of education. How sad! We were feeding students with food (since some of them came from homes where this was limited) and knowledge, being creative, being available virtually 24/7, using and teaching skills of technology, using interdisciplinary learning, flipping classrooms, created a values based and intentionally diverse learning environment of respect and so much else -- in the end, none of this mattered to the powers-that-be.

I was taught by my parents and have always felt that Education should be a blessing. Unfortunately too many have lost this notion and schools are being pulled by the agenda of whoever runs them, often NOT informed by the students and families who need the Blessing of Education. What do we do about this? I know there are beacons of light out there, but until this becomes the norm and not the exception or not enough of the norm, we have our work cut out for us.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Human Rights Is An Halachic Imperative!

As a Halachically Observant (I do hope that you will excuse my not using titles that have become far too politicized and distant from the original intentions of their ideologues who created them) Jew, I am convinced that we are COMMANDED to be concerned about each other on the widest scale. Yet probably the biggest and most frustrating topic that is constantly discussed within our family and amongst closest friends is that somehow the most observant sectors of our Jewish world seem to have bypassed this important core element of our being.

I have often learned and taught the following idea from the text of Sotah 14a (and probably have quoted it more than once during the lifetime of this blog, so please do excuse me for any further repetition). The question is posed how does one walk with G-d for we learn that no one can see and actually physically WALK with G-d so to speak. The Gemara teaches that we walk with G-d through doing the deeds of G-d. As G-d clothed Adam and Eve in Gan Eden, so we provide clothes for those in need. As G-d visited Avraham when he was ill and recovering after circumcising himself, so we perform the Mitzvah of visiting the sick. As G-d comforted Yitzchak after the death of his mother and father, we too comfort those who mourn loss. As G-d buried Moshe Rabbeinu after his death, we too perform the deed of burying our dead.

Here, in this text, as in so many others, G-d is RACHMANA, the Compassionate One. I have always found it interesting that there is nothing here about the commanded actions one generally associates with being G-d fearing and obedient to the Creator of the World, but rather those deeds that make the path that others follow in our world easier and more reasonable.

This notion is all over our Jewish teachings and yet, I continue to be astonished and so very pained as to why it is all but absent TOO OFTEN when we think about what it means to be a truly devout and observing Jew. In the very beginning of Masechet Berachot (the Tractate of Gemara I am now learning) we read how the times for when one says the Shema use various markers depending on an individual person’s reality. Remembering that this is all occurring BDT (Before Digital Time), people marked time by light and dark or the transition between them. In the absence of clocks and such, how did people know when they could say the Shema of the evening or of the morning.? The Priest’s time was the preparation of his eating of Terumah, the poor person’s time marker was when he would come in after a too long day of work to eat his meager meal. The regular person would use the time of Kiddush on Shabbat as his marker and the rich king’s son would be able to say his Shema even upon rising late. There are lengthy discussions about HOW late one can say the Shema and still fulfill the Mitzvah.

Sound familiar? Again, EVERYONE GETS TO FULFILL THE MITZVAH according to his or her ability and situation. What a concept! So, this is clearly embedded in all we do as Jews, how we pray, how we celebrate as indicated in the last posts, and in HOW WE ACT AND RELATE TO EACH OTHER. It is imperative for all to remember that those Mitzvot that dictate our relationships with each other COME FROM G-D and are clearly our Halachic imperative!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Please join my Mini-Cyber Siyyum for Masechet Chagiga!

Please join my Mini-Cyber Siyyum for Masechet Chagiga!

So, as you know by now I have been learning Masechet Chagiga (a tractate/text of the Talmud). I completed learning this text earlier today and, as is traditional when one completes a unit of text, I want to share some thoughts about the ending of this important and supremely RELEVANT text. It is seminal in helping us to think about our lives as Jews, our celebrations and who is part of them, as well as our collective and individual obligation to include all members of our community as much as possible in every aspect of our Jewish lives with inclusion and a total sense of respect.

Masechet Chagiga begins with the imperative that all members of the community have to be part of the celebration and observance involved with the offering of the Chagiga offering, a special observance of what we know as the three pilgrimage festivals – Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot. It then devotes great discussion to people who may not be able to participate in this important communal event and how we should respond. I have already shared some aspects of this discussion in the two preceding posts, which you might want to review. What confirms everything I hold dear about Judaism and the Jewish way of life as our Torah and Rabbis have taught us is the critical BALANCE that is maintained throughout this discussion between the requirements for purity of what is offered and used AND the concern for all those involved in these ceremonies.

Throughout the text we learn about the requirements attached to these important offerings and the maintenance of the purity of all aspects of their offering. This is the collective responsibility of the entire community. The last portion of this text explores the participation of the knowledgeable and respected member of the community, called a HAVER and that of the unknowledgeable and perhaps not such serious observing Jew called the AM HA’ARETZ.

When thinking about the sad situation in which we often find ourselves in our contemporary world in which such acceptance and inclusion is often NOT the case, the first thing that struck me in this discussion was that AT NO POINT is the Am Ha’Aretz to be excluded! Quite to the contrary – there is a great deal of discussion about how to facilitate the full participation of all members of the community in much the same spirit as the beginning of this Tractate. While there is to be no compromising on the serious nature of the offerings and the need for their purity and correct nature, there is ALSO TO BE NO COMPROMISING on including all members of the community. This is the Judaism that I have practiced my whole life and have educated my children and students to do so as well. I wish that this were more the case, especially in the more religiously observant circles of our extended Jewish family!

Now I will share a few final words about the last discussion of Masechet Chagiga. The Am Ha’Aretz is to be trusted in the purity of all aspects of the highest form of offerings, those that are labeled KADOSH (holy and sanctified). The position that is expounded is that the Am Ha”Aretz and the Chaver both have the same vested interest in the proper observance of the Chagiga offering and experience. It is stated within the discussion that one is not to embarrass the Am Ha’Aretz at any point in the process of participation in the aspects of community worship and offerings. In fact there is great discussion of various leniencies that should be practiced to avoid such embarrassment. Different Rabbis posit various opinions regarding how much the trust can be extended between the Chaver and the Am Ha’Aretz and then THIS IS HOW THIS DISCUSSION LEAVES US.

Clearly, we have to be exacting and detail oriented regarding the purity and the sanctity of the vessels and all of the aspects of the offering celebration as a community. Further, when we engage in this as a community, THE CHAVER AND THE AM HA’ARETZ are seen as one unified being, and ALL ARE CALLED CHAVERIM! On 26a of Hagiga, we read as follows, based on Judges 20:11: “Every ISH (person) of Israel gathered together to the city like one man, all as CHAVERIM. The point being made is that when community comes together with the correct intent and right spirit, we are ALL ELEVATED, by making community and by being part of that collective. WE ALL BECOME CHAVERIM BY ACCEPTING ALL MEMBERS OF OUR COMMUNITY! In the name of this value and this practice, we are taught that the Rabbis SUSPENDED the differentiation between CHAVER and AM HA’ARETZ (read as Jews of various levels of observance and knowledge) when community comes together! What a concept! So why can we do this? Among the final words of this Masechet, we find our answer, which is that all of us (even the sinners amongst us) – aren’t we doing as many Mitzvot as found in a pomegranate – that is to say, we are all so filled with the good things we do, that we should acknowledge each other for being so.

When we finish studying a Tractate of text, we say a special formula. In this case it begins with the following words: ”We shall return to you Tractate Chagiga and you shall return to us. Our thoughts are on you, Tractate Chagiga, and your thoughts are on us.” May we ALL REMEMBER these important words and lessons and that our Torah and our Talmud enjoin all of us to accept, include and value each other. Amen Selah!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

All in favor of Women's Rights and Participation in the Jewish World -- Have I got a text for you!

Masechet Hagiga just keeps getting more and more interesting: All in favor of women’s rights and participation in the Jewish world pay attention!!!!!

So keep in mind that what follows is not coming from some 2013 contemporary feminist regarding rights for Jewish women in the religious arena, but FROM THE GEMARA!!!! And now I will share with you what I have learned recently from Masechet Hagiga, I ask that you turn your attention to the bottom of 16b for those who want to look at the reference I am citing and exploring here. To continue the ongoing theme from my last blog post, we are looking at the issue of OBLIGATION and personal assuming of that obligation to be part of the larger community. The central topic of discourse in the cited text is the offering of the Hagiga, the offering associated with the observance of the Shalosh Regalim (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot).

What I am about to share is not even a main conversation but almost an aside to the larger topic regarding how one is to offer their Hagiga with their full force. This leads to the concern of whether or not this constitutes WORK, therefore throwing into question whether or not it is acceptable to do those tasks associated with this offering on days of observance on which there are restrictions regarding work to be done. For a comparison that is only relevant to a point, think, in terms of modern application, the many different distinctions made regarding how we prepare food for Shabbat or Yom Tov during their observance according to Jewish Law and those actions permitted as well as those not permitted.

Now, here is the general flow of the discussion, obviously leaving out many details and asides characteristic to discussions in the Gemara. Men would have to perform semicha (consecration of the animal to be offered) on the offering by putting all of their strength on the head of the animal to be sacrificed. In the text it is brought out that there are those who rest their hands lightly on the head of the animal. It is suggested that those who do this would be women; for what reason would men have to not put their full force into such an action. Then the question is posed as to why this is stated regarding the women for they do not have the OBLIGATION to perform Semicha on the offering. However, as the discussion continues, it is explained by the Tosafos that these offerings were consecrated by the WOMEN and not their HUSBANDS and that this was allowed for the purpose of peace of mind, since women were not obligated to perform this MITZVAH but chose to do so anyway.

Further, the Gemara in Rosh HaShanah 33a and elsewhere cite THIS TEXT as the precedent that women are permitted and welcome to take on MIZVOT ASEH SHEHAZEMAN GRAMA (commandments that are time bound and therefore women are exempt from them) for purposes of fulfillment (peace of mind).

So, why don’t more of us use this text and its trail of discussions when considering the part that women play in our congregations and public assemblies today? Maybe some of our Yeshivot should run a remedial course, reminding all of us that these texts and others like them exist. I maintain that our Tana’im and Amora’im (teachers of the Mishneh and Gemara up until the 6th century) often had more of a sense of how to include all in the community in any way possible than too many leaders in our more observant world today. These teachers from the pages of my Jewish texts are the ones I want to use as I continue to figure out my religious stance in my community!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Who's In Your Community?

After more than a year of not learning Jewish Texts daily, which was actually painful, I have returned to my daily learning. I chose to go through Masechet Hagiga, because I remember well learning the very beginning of this tractate years ago in relation to who is included in our community and why.

So the Tractate begins with the following Mishneh, so very loosely translated for purposes of this discussion:

All are obligated to to perform the Mitzvah of appearing in the Temple Courtyard on the festivals except a deaf-mute, a mentally compromised person, and a minor. Also exempted from the Mitzvah to appear are a person of undetermined sex and a hermaphrodite, women and slaves who have not been freed, the lame, the blind, the infirmed, the aged and the one who is unable to ascend by foot.

So I remember thinking when learning this Mishneh years ago, so who is included in this all - inclusive group of “all [who] are obligated?” What is important to note is that I often find that too often well meaning learners read the dictum and stop there. BUT, it is critical to continue in the Gemara to understand what is going on.

First of all, the critical element of who is to go and perform this mitvah of appearance at the Temple (and bring offerings, a completely other discussion) is NOT about who I like or do not like or who I accept or do not accept. IT IS ALL ABOUT who has the OBLIGATION to do what is required to do. This is a very clear and pragmatic issue and I think that often these matters of exclusion and exemption should and MUST be learned and studied from this first intentional perspective and NOT through the lenses of so many contemporary prejudices, additional personal perspectives and so on. Let’s just, for a moment stay with the text of Masechet Hagiga because I think it comes to teach us something so critically important about how we think about community and who we include and accept in our communities.

The Gemara goes on to question EACH of the categories of excluded people, citing verses from Torah that talk to the OBLIGATION that people do or do not have. Among some of the discussions are the following points that are made:

a. There is a discussion and debate about what it means to be a “slave that is not freed.” The concern expressed is that some people were basically half status slaves and half status free people. So, if a person as a free person is obligated to do X and is not obligated to do X as a slave, how do we address this category of “slaves who have not been freed” to allow the half-free person to fulfill their obligation of appearing in the Temple Courtyard.

b. The blind and deaf persons are discussed in terms of whether they are blind or deaf in both eyes or ears or only one. One of the texts cited is that G-d has compassion on all beings and just as G-d surveys the community with BOTH EYES, would we be embarrassing the one who only sees out of one eye or one ear?

c. Women are discussed precisely in terms of what they are obligated to do and what they are not obligated to do. IT IS NOT A BLANKET EXCLUSION, but rather the various options are explored and it is suggested and discussed that women do, according to some of the teachers of the Mishneh and Gemara, have the obligation of appearing for the purposes of rejoicing at times of community celebrations.

And so the discussion goes on quite extensively. I feel compelled to think about how some categories of exclusion and inclusion have in fact changed through the years for good and some for not so much good.

For example, let us consider the mentally impaired person (the deranged person according to the Mishneh). The degree of this impairment is also discussed at great length so that we do not impose any unnecessary or excessive exclusion. While not the case in all corners of our Jewish community, it is safe today to say that through various organizations, we work with our mentally impaired Jewish children and adults and include them where and as much as possible, not unlike the point of some of the proposed teachings of Hagiga. The inclusion of children is also debated, and clearly again, in most communities of our Jewish world, we now err on the side of including our children so that they will learn what it means to be a practicing Jew and member of a community. YAY us!

Then medical advances have totally challenged us to rethink the inclusion of our deaf, mute, lame and blind community members, making them viable and capable of full inclusion in more and more cases. As just one example, some years ago, there was a question posed regarding a blind woman who wanted to light Shabbat candles. An Orthodox Posak decided that based on various texts and precedents, she could and should light candles (with assistance for obvious reasons) AND someone else who could see the candles should light them for the rest of the family. This Posek indicated that he was using G-d’s stance as RACHMANA, The Compassionate One, to inform this decision. How lovely, truly lovely!

But, in some of these groupings, unfortunately, too many segments of our Jewish community have become much more exclusive and non-inclusive than Hagiga and so many other texts teach and suggest. Think of what is going on with our women in some of our communities, our hesitancy to include GLBTQ Jews in our gatherings, and other senseless exclusions that sometimes seem informed by other factors, NOT Jewish teachings and texts.

As we enter Mar Cheshvan (poor Cheshvan without any holidays or celebrations, except for, of course Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat, which HAVE to count for something, don’t you think?!?) let us make Cheshvan happier and our community fuller by rethinking WHO'S IN OUR COMMUNITY? May we all follow the example of G-d as The Compassionate One and not just dictate who is in and who is not, but think this thing through as carefully and completely as the voices of Hagiga!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Lesson from Mohamed Morsi and Israel’s Bus 497

Am I the only one in the world who was not surprised by what happened this summer in Egypt? Really? In “using” the democratic process, the population elects the Muslim Brotherhood to lead a democratic state?!? What is wrong with this equation? Now, I get it. In a democratic process anything can AND DOES happen, clearly! But quickly enough, Egypt was not looking so much like a democracy after all! A few days ago, with charges of inciting murder and many other abuses being levied against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood a few months after their fall, it looks like this group’s hope for anything approaching democratic leadership have been dashed. And, it appears, appropriately so! So the debate goes another round, ding ding ding! Does the United States have a right (responsibility? Any business?) getting involved with countries like (oh right, don’t forget Syria!) where abuses are threatening internal citizenry, never mind what happens to others OUTSIDE the pale of that country’s political process!

Let us not forget that a mere two years ago, one of our own notorious political hopefuls for President was none other than David Duke, known for his many political runs for office (all of which were unsuccessful, thank G-d and the intelligence of the American people, specifically those in Louisiana). If you did not know this little tidbit of Americana, than this is the greatest success of all in terms of who we are as America! I don’t even want to consider what would have happened if ….. but then this is a democracy, in which all can speak, yell, even be abusive and prejudiced and inappropriate, but when the democratic process is in action, we are ultimately protected, may it always continue to be so!

Not so with Egypt! So once again, its people are in turmoil, going through yet another painful and protracted process of regaining its footing. Sure, there are protests and rebellions, but well, we all know what has happened during the last months in the name of ….. what, I am not sure.

So what does Bus Line 497 in Israel have to do with any of this? Bus Line 497 has garnered a great deal of attention and consternation as the self-appointed Mehadrin Line (and oh yes, there are others!), you know, kind of like the parts of the United States not so long where black people had to enter the busses through the back doors and sit in the back so as not to pollute the white people in the front. Except this time, it is TODAY – approximately fifty years after that battle -- and the protected passengers on Bus Line 497 are men and the pollutant passangers are women. Yes, this is unspeakably horrible. Now don’t get me wrong, IF an individual group or community in say, B’nei Brak or Ramat Beit Shemest want to rent their own private busses and demand such separate seating, go right ahead. BUT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A PUBLIC STATE SPONSORED EGGED BUS!!!!!!!!

Anyone seeing a pattern of here in terms of what happens with ideological and religious extremism and where it can and does lead!?! So, now thanks to the Israel Religious Action Center under the leadership of Anat Hoffman, the DEMOCRATIC PROCESS is alive and well in Israel, thank you very much. In fact, they have their very own FREEDOM RIDERS, a group of people who specifically go and take short trips on the Egged lines on which individuals are trying to coopt government resources and services for their own purposes. Not only that, but the Knesset has indicated quite clearly that this is illegal and now there are signs on every EGGED bus indicating that each and every passenger may and has full permission to sit wherever they wish!

It is truly terrifying when you consider the abuse and inappropriate behaviors of some of our most religious Israeli (and others for that matter) Jews towards others but, Baruch HaShem, Medinat Yisrael IS upholding and carrying on the legacy of Eretz Yisrael and NOT handing over this wonderful place and space to the extremists that are trying to impose their own code of behaviors on others.

In this season of awe and reconsideration of ourselves as human beings let us remember that religious belief and religion is supposed to make us better people and not facilitate our succumbing to forces of evil, misusing and abusing the beautiful traditions that all of our faiths have given us, whether we are Jewish, Christian or Moslem or any other people of G-d.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


You know, it really has been a while since we added yet another ideological grouping to our growing rainbow of the many different definitions of Judaism and Jews. I often feel lost inside of all of the different names we give to ourselves. I can’t even imagine how Moshe Rabbeinu would handle this disunity since titles seem to be so important in our times that they practically walk in the door before we do.

A poem that I often have used through the years at this season in my teaching is Moshiach’s Hat by ANOMYMOUS BEN KOLANYMOUS (which can and should be found and read at ) -- it is a thoughtful and actually chilling piece that walks us through the journey of the Moshiach who comes back to earth and tries to find where he fits in and cannot. Either he is not accepted by the “black hats” or looked at as suspect by this and that Hassidic group, not accepted by the more liberal Jews who want to be sure he is safe and so on. You get the point – think the Jewish version of Tom Lehrer’s National Brotherhood Week! It’s funny if you find tragedy amusing.

So, I have been reading this wonderful book that my daughter Rachie gave me for Channukah. It is SHUVA by Yehuda Kurtzer about how we fashion our identity today through consideration of “the future of the Jewish past.” I highly recommend this book to those who are struggling, as am I, with what has become and is becoming of that thing we call Jewish community or AMCHA! Then to add to my already pensive mood, this morning I opened up my most recent email from Morethodoxy (also a wonderful resource for thinking and consideration of difficult issues) and I see this word that keeps appearing lately in so much I am reading – PERFORMATIVE – namely the notion that to be Jewish we have to DO Jewish. So what does this mean? Well according to the Moshiach’s Hat it is ALL about the dress – what you wear and how you look wearing it. In our Jewish communities it is about who is allowed to play with your child or mine or where we are allowed to announce a variety of Semachot that may not resonate with the larger community. What will they say if my daughter has a public Simchat Bat? What if we have people of color in our shul? Where can I share the good news that my lesbian daughter and her girlfriend have decided to spend their life together? Who accepts me, with my Modern Orthodox ways and look, as a teacher of Jewish texts? Who does not accept the conversion of my son? And so the list goes on…..

Now I often say that I am going to write a book one day called “I stand in one place and they change what they call me” or some more catchy shortened version of the notion. I was born to an Orthodox identified mother who INTRAmarried my father from a non-religious background and we grew up Halachically conservative. Yes, chevra, there was once such an entity! So I learned how to be actively and purposely Jewish – you got it. PERFORMATIVE in an intentional way. Then I become an adult (at least I think I did) and there is no such thing any more. So now, I am Orthodox, then it is important to distinguish that I am Modern Orthodox and now they call me Open Orthodox. Go figure! Again, comedy is surely to be found in this tragic insanity.

So as we are in the midst of the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah/Ten Days of Repentence and return to G-d and to our rooted identity, I take stock. I am clearly intentional about my Judaism and it is most definitely performative – filled with codified actions and involvements both individually and as part of a community. So, when the Moshiach comes to look for me, he can look in my inclusive pluralistic INTENTIONAL PERFOMATIVE Jewish community and place. Please do feel free to join me.

Gimar Chatimah Tovah to all.

Monday, August 26, 2013


Yesterday morning, Sunday, August 25, 2013, I was already thinking in Baltimore terms while sitting in our Elkins Park Pennsylvania kitchen. We were preparing to go take my parents out for their 63rd Anniversary along with some of our cousins. As we were having a wonderful family breakfast the Sunday news magazine shows were on the television and the focus was on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the pivotal “I have a dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard a statement by one of the commentators that absolutely jolted and chilled me. The observation was made that fifty years ago prejudice and exclusion and segregation was by intent in the south and de facto in the North. How much has this changed?

I well remember my freshman year in college in 1971. I quickly formed a wonderful friendship with two girls, one from South Carolina and one from New York. Having gone through my high school years in Baltimore Maryland and having been active in Student Council in my school as well as the county and state level, we constantly talked about, showed concern about and wrestled with the lack of integration of whites and blacks and all others who were part of the American tapestry as concerned, idealistic a-bit-too-young-for Woodstock baby boomers. Integration was ALWAYS the topic of discussion and dreams. By contrast, my friend and soon-to-be roommate from New York was from de facto land and my Southern friend and other soon-to-be roommate was from intentional and obvious segregation country. I on the other hand who lived in the North according to the Southerners at school and was part of the South by the estimation of the Northerners learned that this topic and angst so characterized my formative years while I also learned that no one had yet figured out exactly where that Mason-Dixon line was really drawn.

I was really already on the civil and human rights wagon, even though I was too young for the March. In student council we were constantly pushing lines of integration much to the chagrin of many of our parents. We learned to “fight the establishment” and to hold on to those dreams, the ones of Martin Luther King Jr. and others of that era for a better and more shared collective future for all members of the human family. I remember being horrified by the words of prejudice and cringing from the lack of acceptance indicated by too many of the adults in my life at that time – definitely part of the generation gap from my perspective.

And here I sit FIFTY years later. I can say the word FIFTY but I still cannot fully grasp much less fathom what it means, personally or historically – a topic for another post, to be sure. What I do note is that on one hand I agree with the commentators that we have made incredible, though slow and at times rocky and painful progress. What I also note is that we still have so far to go. So at the same time we can feel pride and happiness at goals achieved in the acceptance and appreciation of those different than us in any way (actually, wait, aren’t we all different from each other if we really think about it?!?); while also wanting and needing so much more.

While we were eating breakfast and watching television, we were also reading the paper. We are such great multi-taskers, aren’t we?!? Lo and behold as if in not-so-hidden hidden code, while the front page of the main section of our Sunday paper was about the same fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s dream and the pivotal March, the first page of the local section was about another set of dreamers for something better, a lesbian couple who had been married recently in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. These women were celebrating that they were finally accorded their civil rights as two partners sharing their lives and simultaneously not sure this recognition will stick, given the political battles now waged in Pennsylvania amongst other states.

Our Jewish tradition reminds us that we will not complete the serious work and task at hand by ourselves or immediately but that we must all do our part as the course of time moves on. So here we sit on the cusp of the next fifty years. Tom Lehrer reminds us across generations about how easy it is for all to hate the other in his seminal parody, National Brotherhood Week. But as we move into these coming decades, let us remember “it is not for you alone to complete all of the work, but neither are you exempt from doing your part” and that only by all of us doing our part will all of our hopes and dreams, dare I say expectations, of being accepted by each other, be a goal we can realize together. As Jewish tradition also teaches, “If you will it, it is not impossible.” Here’s to the next fifty years and making dreams reality!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


LETS GO TO THE CIRCUS! Mark Rosenstein and I never officially met (and no we are not related to each other!) but our professional lives crisscrossed and at different times and in different gilgulim, we each gave so much on behalf of an institution in which we were involved, Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion, Pa. Mark went on to make Aliyah and I continued to try to do everything I could for Jewish Education and Jewish communities in North America. Through the years, our paths crossed briefly. But this I know, we also share a dream and a vision for our collective future, in addition to our shared stints at one Jewish educational institution. We both just want us to realize that at the end of the day we are all much more alike than different and if we do not learn how to play nicely on the same playground, there will be no playground on which we may play – my words and image, but a shared vision, I think, perhaps, nonetheless. So several weeks ago, again our paths briefly crossed. And for those of you who have been wondering what ever became of Mark, I can fill you in on at least part of his wonderful story as a committed educator, a passionate Jew and a successful professional. Mark has joined the circus! Let me explain. The Galilee Circus is explained in the following way in its brochure: “In the world – and a region – where fear and distrust between peoples lead to insecurity and violence daily, how can the individual make a difference? One way is through the circle. After all, what is circus all about? It’s about overcoming fear, it’s about trust, it’s based on non-verbal communication, it represents a multicultural tradition, it creates a place of shared culture – and its purpose is to make people smile.” Our group from Hartman went to the circus as part of our Arab-Israeli experience and we did smile. Not only that, but they were GOOD! I felt at times like I was at training camp for Cirque d’Soleil hopefuls. The aerial acrobatics and the gymnastics included some very impressive routines. And what is most important was that these routines were based on the complete trust between Arab and Israeli from beginning to end. The Galilee Circus includes kids who are Arab and Jewish aged 6 through 19. This is a project of the Galilee Foundation for Value Education from Moshav Shorashim of which Mark is a part. As the consummate educator that he is, Mark explained that when the kids met, there were definitely negative reactions to each other. But, through trust building exercises, peer work, and a shared goal of creating a circus, that eventually dissipated and wonderful friendships and trusting relationships were formed. Now that is truly an accomplishment! I was thinking of the teaching -- “All of Israel is responsible for each other.” Yes, truly these kids were responsible for each other and trusted that the other would hold on to them and protect their safety as their responsibility while they were jumping through the air, on top of a human pyramid, doing stunts over each others’ bodies, and so on. This became part of the collective culture and individuals made this happen, where they were Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, or …. It was indeed a lesson in action, devoid of words. Maybe it is words that get us into trouble. It certainly seems that way. I know I spend a lot of time trying to fix the harm that words do in many venues. What a concept – instead of sitting at tables and negotiating ourselves out of the very corners we get ourselves into, let’s all join the circus. Oh and by the way, the clown was also entertaining. That is the only part I would have a chance of trying out for, as my gymnastics skills are, shall we say, underdeveloped or more accurately never developed!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What I Learned In The Corner of an Arab Woman's Kitchen

One of the many things I love about being part of the “Hartman Institute Gang” every summer is the field trips. This year, as I usually do, I went into and was able to explore areas and meet people that represent the widest breadth (and breath for that matter) of what it means to live in Israel and be Israeli and maintain so many complicated identities at once. So allow me to introduce you by way of these words to an amazing Arab woman named Amna Kanana. Amna lives in Kafr Kara nad is originally from Kafr Ara. She is an accomplished Israeli Arab woman who directs Man Ajliki (For You: Awareness). This organization was begun in 2003 by a group of women with the stated goal of improving the lives of Arab women in the Wadi Ara area and empowering them to go forth and do wonderful things with their lives. So, Amna, modestly dressed in her hijab, graciously invited into her beautifully appointed home and brought us to the Arab woman’s “place” in the home, the farthest corner of the kitchen, where the men who are sitting in the salon (living room and dining room combination) would not see her and the required sense of modesty she must maintain in her community, culturally and religiously speaking, would not be compromised. Amna is a religious Druze woman and shared with us her stories of rebellion and acclamation of self (and trust me, this woman rocks!). We stood crowded in the corner of her kitchen in front of a very large floor to ceiling pantry. She explained how oppressive life can be for a religious Druze woman and continued to beckon us to crowd in the corner so we could better understand “her place.” Then she said something to the effect of the following: “So now I want to show you what I have turned my corner into.” At that point, she opened the pantry doors, and expecting to see shelves of food, there were curtains through which we walked into a large welcoming and colorful room. This is the place where “Amna School” occurs and you immediately see the joy and pride in her beautiful face. Amna meets with women here and she and others support their religious sisters and encourage them to follow their dreams. There are colorful posters, a white board with markers for lessons and tables of crafts that the women have made and are for sale. This corner has become a haven, a sort of intellectual and educational spa for women of Wadi Ara, if you will. She spoke lovingly of her work and the triumphs of the women she works with, while showing us their handiwork with pride and joy. She also told us the beautiful story of how she met her husband and married him (a very cool guy by all standards and the details of her story) – who totally supports what she does (obviously). There is definitely a revolution going on in this room and Amna is the capable general, teaching, encouraging, guiding – and all without compromising who she is as a religious observant woman who is also educated and has great dreams and hopes. Hers is an undertaking we can all understand. What she has so expertly done is turned her corner to which she was confined culturally and religiously relegated by convention into a wonderful and lighted room of learning, growing, laughing, hope, sharing and so much more. May we all take this lesson from Amna and turn those dark corners imposed upon us into something light and airy and wonderful! May you continue to be blessed in your wonderful work, Amna!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fragmentation or Fusion, You Choose!

Fragmentation or Fusion, You Choose! Some years ago, I heard Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (one of my favorite voices of our contemporary world, truly a Gadol – great and singular teacher – as far as I am concerned!), quote and expound upon the following statement: “Peace is counter-intuitive to the human nature; unfortunately war and conflict is a much more comfortable domain for us. Why, you ask, did he make such a statement? The moment he said it, I was hooked. Peace, you see, involves giving up a bit of ME for the greater good of WE. In Peace, we see all people and sides of a potential problem as equal with equally legitimate voices. The OTHER becomes a legitimate and important voice in our own gestalt. This is not something we in our modern era do so well collectively. This thought was reinforced for me during the last few weeks as I have read through an amazing book, "The Sacred Hoop" by Paula Gun Allen, which is subtitled “Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions.” Forgetting for a moment the clear feminist orientation (perhaps a topic for another post), I want to share one specific paragraph about identity that I found resonates so loudly within me as an American Jew or …. Just substitute the words of your choice that apply to you and your own identity when you read “American Indian” or “Indian” in the following passage: A contemporary American Indian is always faced with a dual perception of the world: that which is particular to American Indian life, and that which exists ignorant of that life. Each is largely irrelevant to the other except where they meet -- in the experience and consciousness of the Indian. Because the divergent realities must meet and form comprehensible patterns within Indian life, an Indian poet must develop metaphors that not only will reflect the dual perceptions of Indian/non-Indian but also will reconcile them. The ideal metaphor will harmonize the contractions and balance them so that internal equilibrium can be achieved, so that each perspective is meaningful and that in their joining, psychic unity rather than fragmentation occurs. Throughout this wonderful treatise, Allen talks about identity and the ongoing internal dialectics between the various elements of our identity. She goes on to lament how the portrayal of the American Indian as a war chief and with weapons of conflict is not accurate and that the American Indian’s world is traditionally and generationally invested in the maintaining of peace at all costs. This, as some of us may recall, was actually their undoing when the Europeans came to this ground and the indigenous population was willing to share all that they had in a peaceful manner. This overture was misunderstood by the Europeans and perceived instead as “their victory” over the lowly Indian. How sad! This is precisely what I, as a Jewish educator, have been trying to address with my students and the communities with and in which I have worked and learned and grown. I often find that this very issue is the ultimate disconnect between others and myself. Where so many see internal conflicts, yes, even wars, I see confluence and the need and desire to unite all elements of our multi-faceted being in a calm and unified matter of fusion. I DO respect and honor others with view different than my own; and I suspect that others do not always understand the space that I occupy in this universe, being personally observant and accepting the standards and ways of others as legitimate and possible as well. Many see this as compromising or not standing by what you believe, or worse, not having defined beliefs at all. Oh, quite the contrary. Allen, in her well written book, talks lovingly and with a connection that is palpable about her beloved Indian heritage and its beautiful feminine unity and fusion that is often not seen as such and worse, rewritten into male dominated conflict language that inaccurately skews how many of us have come to learn and understand the American Indian. She proclaims that the picture that we have which has been sifted through the eyes and pens of male dominant writers is not the heritage and rootedness of American Indian tradition at all. Funny, in addition to sympathizing, even empathizing with Allen, I feel some of the same pangs about the Judaism that I know and live and love and have tried to communicate to family, students, friends and colleagues. This explains why my involvement in human rights issues is NOT antithetical to my Orthodox observance but mandated by my adherence to Halacha. For me the Shechina, the feminine presence of the G-d Force and Power, The One and Only, is not relegated to obtuse discussions of mysticism or warm and fuzzy nostalgia, but part of the daily world in which I live and learn. I see the unity and fusion of my life as a Jew, woman, American and citizen of the world in a multi-faceted yet unified way. Thus I care about the asylum seeking refugee in Israel, am proud of the work that Jewish scientists and doctors are doing to heal people throughout the world, always encourage my students to work for wonderful organizations like Habitat for Humanity, do see that our concern for the environment and its resources IS a Jewish OBLIGATION according to Halacha, and that we are kind and caring and non-judgmental towards all members of our human family. Yes, for me the texts, teachings, values and deeds of Judaism are fused and unified. I guess I would make a wonderful American Indian or at least could be good friends with one or two. Rabbi Sacks would also enjoy the shared perspective, I suspect!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Oh, The Choices We Make In Living Our Lives

As a means of updating and full disclosure, I just returned from three weeks in Israel with family and friends and my annual pilgrimage to the Shalom Hartman Institute. I have so much I want to share from this wonderful two-week seminar and will do so in later posts. I also want to continue to share thinking from Malcolm Gladwell’s important book, Outliers, and my present reading of an amazing book called The Sacred Hoop by Paula Gunn Allen, which also has SO MUCH to teach us all as we peek inside another cultural context and heritage, that of the American Indians and their Feminine focus. This will be done. Finally, I have been forced out of the school I created, Solomon Charter School, and this is definitely a topic for another time. It was horrible but I always allow the objectivity that the passage of time allows before reacting, so for now we will leave this at rest. As for me, I am returning to consulting, curriculum writing and am trying to get more teaching at the University/Graduate School level so please keep that in mind if you hear of anything. I am continuing to focus on the beauty and lessons of Jewish texts, the importance of inclusion and acceptance of all, and new perspectives on difficult and complicated challenges in our lives. Most important, my family and friends are generally doing well and we are all healthy, and this is what must be kept in mind in the face of daunting challenges to our professional lives and other aspects of our existence that we hold dear. Now for the subject at hand – how we live our lives. Years ago, we were in San Antonio, actually for many different CAJE conferences through a period of about 20 years. We loved to go to this fair held annually at a large museum campus in which senior citizens displayed their woodworking, fabric art, weaving, cooking, musical talents and so much else. In Texas, there is this program where adults in their FIFTIES (which I am about to exit, EEKS!!!!) are encouraged to take up hobbies, you know, that second career we all dream about in a talent area from which we may have been discouraged as young adults because “you can’t make a living doing THAT.” But the State of Texas learned something significant and has an important lesson to teach us all. What you may not be able to make a living doing MAY JUST BE the trick to keep living in an active and purposeful manner later on. These 80-somethings and 90-somethings and others… are vital, alive, active and TALENTED!!!!!! I think of them often these days. You see, my parents are 89 (dad) and 90 (mom). They are not cut of the same cloth as those amazing older citizens in Texas. I have pleaded with them for decades to have hobbies, interests and to pursue something outside of work, kids and house. They did not! And now they sit, angry, hurt and feeling like life has passed them by. It is sad and painful to watch and yet I am powerless. Oh, we make the two to two and a half drive back and forth from Baltimore as much as we can and spend time with them and try to entertain them. My siblings and cousins are also there as much as possible. But they basically sit and look at each other all day and I just feel the boiling point of their individual and collective anger and frustration at the injustices of life reaching a most dangerous point. I know my children are so affected by this as well. It is not easy to see or explain. And yes, as my husband Ken keeps reminding me, I am realistic. Why should they change habits that have taken 89 and 90 years to develop? Is it even a possibility to think that this can happen? I look at Betty White, my friend Susan’s 101 year-old mom - Yetta, my amazing Aunt Sandy, some of the retired Rabbis I see at the Hartman Institute who still come and learn, and other wonderful examples of aging and living. I am sad that I cannot count my parents in those numbers. Maybe they would have fared better if they lived in Texas. So, Ken is 60 and I am not too far behind him. On one hand what a scary thought. On the other hand, I never understood the 50s and am quite sure the 60s will not compute either. I am still working, running, cleaning my own house, swimming every chance I get, I WALK A LOT when I am in Israel (my friend counts15,000 to 20,000 steps a day on her pedometer, I suspect many days I am not too far off that number!) and I CANNOT SIT STILL (like my father’s sister, Aunt Sandy). I KNOW I feel differently and act differently than my parents did at my age. To be fair, I know they each faced difficulties in their life that are part of the equation. That being said, I suspect and know for a fact in many cases that this is also true for many of us. The blessing we give each other is that we should live until the age of 120. Personally, I love Deepak Chopra’s idea of living until 200, and by then they will figure something out. In the meantime, I am living today as I hope I will live years from now. Oh, and that hobby --- well I love sewing, want to go back to playing piano and take an art class. What are you planning to do? Let’s share.

Monday, June 24, 2013

If Prophet Micha and Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) Would Meet

If Prophet Micha and Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers) Would Meet This past Shabbat we read from the prophet Micha in our Haftarah for Parshat Balak. In Micha 5.6 – 6.8, the prophet tells us that we will arise successfully over every adversary that ever tries to push us down, clearly the message of what Balak tried to do to Israel through his emissary, Balaam. On the surface of this story Balak sends Balaam to curse the Jewish nation and of course instead we get these beautiful uplifting words of Mah Tovu (BaMidbar 24.5) that we all say as we enter our Batei Kneset/synagogues: “How goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”. It’s a nice story and it warms the heard of every five year old and their great-grand parents. BUT, claims, Gladwell, not so fast! Let’s look carefully at this story. Maybe Balaam was a prophet with a conscious or one who was scared by the solidarity and sense of purpose he observed, perhaps not so familiar to him from his own people and experience. The people of Israel WERE in fact dwelling and working and cooperating together. To be sure, they must have been of different personalities and characteristics, but they were invested in each other. Just as the group of people that Gladwell opens his book Outliers with, namely the Rosetans of Pennsylvania, originally from Roseto Valfortore in the Alpennine foothills of Foggia, Italy. This group of people intrigued ethnographers and Gladwell himself as they were generally and significantly healthier and more successful in living their lives than other people and other communities. This group was relatively small and obscure but did not suffer from the diseases that plagued other people and generally were doing well. So what was the secret to their success? Their genetic markers were studied with no hints yielded. Their diet was examined—don’t ask, -- lard was used plentifully. So clearly, that did not explain anything. Location? From foothills to obscure location in Pennsylvania – nothing compelling here! So after much study and observation the secret was found. And here is the secret in Gladwell’s words: As the ethnographers, Bruhn and Wolf were studying this people they walked around town. “They looked at how the Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town’s social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty two separate civic organizations in a town of just under two thousand people.” I suspect Balaam might have said, if he had seen this, “How goodly are your tents oh Rosetans, your dwelling places , people of Roseto.” In other words, these people were not living under the magic earned spell of peace, they were creating it day by day, action by action. THIS was what earned them their health and happiness. Now, let us return to the prophet Micha for a moment. This Haftarah begins with what many people find problematic, the notion that Israel will prevail over all enemies and peoples that confront her. This will occur with G-d’s help and presence. Some people find this ethnocentric and question Israel’s part in such an unearned legacy. BUT WAIT!!!! IT IS EVERY BIT EARNED! Let’s skip to the end of this Haftarah, after we read how Israel will indeed preserve itself and succeed in the fact of enemies and challenges to its existence. In Micha 6.8, we read as follows: “O man, what is good and what does HaShem seek from you: only the performance of justice, the love of kindness, and walking humbly with your G-d.” Rosetans, YOU WIN YOUR PEACE!!!! You are doing these things. Rosetans, I would like to introduce you to the B’Nai Yisrael. They (or we) too visit each other, care for each other, meet in synagogue, chat with each other on the streets, have more civic organizations than people sometimes, and just generally care genuinely about each other. Well, anyway, that must be what Balaam saw!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Being Wholely Present and Being Holy

Being Wholely Present and Being Holy Nechama Leibowitz joins the rest of the world of study of Tanach and asks the obvious question about what it was precisely that the Meraglim did wrong. Many posit that it was their fear of the land, the giants that they perceived were there, or that G-d would not protect them from what was to befall them. Nechama suggests another reading that has great relevance to our lives. She teaches that “they feared freedom as a whole, independence, responsibility for their deeds, for ordering their life in all its aspects which would henceforth be conducted not at the behest of some oppressor or tyrant but by themselves alone..” They would have to take the initiative to do what was required of them individually, collectively and in terms of fulfilling the word of G-d. In other words, to earn the status of KEDUSHA – Holiness – they had to be WHOLELY there with their entire being and all of their own choices and risks and acceptance of consequences. Let us consider the reflection of national hysteria after the report of the Meraglim as indicated in BaMidbar, Perek 14, Passukim 1 – 4: The entire congregation got up (singular) and raised their voices (plural) and they all cried that night. All of the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aaron and said to them: If only we had died in Egypt or in this wilderness.” Why has G-d brought us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken; isn’t it better for us to return to Egypt? And THEY all said, each man to his brother, “Let’s make a new head and return to Egypt.” Leibowitz cites the last verse of this section, 14:4, as pivotal in showing the mentality of oppressed people who see no other way to be present but to be oppressed, not allowing them to WHOLLY express themselves, their ideas and their dreams. They would rather give up the sense of self and submit themselves, individually and collectively to the regimen and strange discipline oppressed lives bring. We know that there is a mentality of people who have been freed from oppression who have to LEARN how to live as free people. To be sure there are rights and there are also responsibilities as well. The question is to what degree can we understand and accept the interdependence of each on the other? We in the Jewish community have watched many gilgulim of attempts at finding a way for us to be HOLY by being WHOLE. There are spiritual paths, dovening communities, shiyurim, doing deeds and Mitzvot that connect us to each other and so much else. The importance of connectedness to each other and something greater than ourselves can never be understated. It is a known fact that as people age, for example, their health and well being is definitely connected to the degree of this connectedness that allows them to be WHOLLY present. When people suffer from depression, as they pull away from others they hide in themselves and virtually disappear. Nechama teaches that we need to carefully look at how this very book begins with the census and all of the details to insure that the HOLY nation was WHOLLY present. She asks why the specific details, why the names, if the reason was, as generally accepted, for military service? Clearly, Nechama teaches that the reason for the articulation of these details goes well beyond this perfunctory purpose. She speaks at length about the greater reason, the notion that EVERYONE COUNTS and the Nation can not be HOLY/Kadosh, if every member is not WHOLLY PRESENT. Only then, says Nechama, will G-d bless the nation and its members and ALL that it is. She explains that Nahmanides understood this, stating that the detailed counting was MUCH more than a logistical census and was connected to the important part every member of the nation plays in being WHOLELY there so we can be truly HOLY. We may learn … a valuable lesson [here] regarding the maintaining of the judicious balance between trust in God and self - help, avoiding the twin dangers of relying overmuch on God in the sense of: "the heavens will be merciful", and human vainglory in the sense of: "my power and the might of mine hand have gotten me this wealth". On account of this Nahmanides does not rest content with the strategic rational motivation of this census but adds a further reason and explains as well why this numbering had to be individual. So, taking this lesson to heart, I want to speak briefly about a wonderful community of which our family is now part in which everyone is WHOLLY present. That community is ESHEL, a community of Orthodox GLBTQ members and, most recently for their parents and by extension their families as well. Our daughter, Rachie, Ken and I went to the first Parents’ Conference run by Eshel a few weeks ago and we felt the HOLIness of the place due to the complete and WHOLE presence of all that were there. As you all know by now, I am not shy about talking about who we are and about the members of our family individually and collectively. I refuse to hide or to allow any of our children to be OPPRESSED into feeling they must hide. We are proud of ALL of our children, and that weekend, I could not have been more thrilled with the amazing young woman Rachie has already shown herself to be. Rachie has SO MUCH to teach all of us in our collective community and is willing to make us more HOLY by her WHOLE presence. I know that many parents at this retreat are struggling with this and there is a lot of feeling of hiding, shame and so much else around this issue. Remember that estimates show that approximately 10% of a given community is GLBTQ. We now KNOW that this is applicable to the Orthodox Jewish community as well as any other faction of our or other communities. How can we call ourselves an AM KADOSH if we are excluding ANY percentage of our community? As time goes on, the learning curve continues to gather more and more of us. As this happens, I hope that the numbers of those who want to be part of the amazing community that ESHEL already is becoming will be able to stand up and say I am WHOLLY here and I also pray that our larger Jewish community will continue to increase in HOLINESS/Kedusha as we are all WHOLELY PRESENT, freely moving about, doing Mitzvot and being who we are without any oppression or fear of being part of the WHOLE of Am Kadosh! Then we will be using the lesson we have of EARNED FREEDOM that the B’nai Israel may not have understood in their times. Let us learn from their mistake of not using freedom and independent thinking responsibly. Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

So YOU are my community!

So YOU are my community! We all know the Groucho Marx line that goes something like this: “I would never join a club that would have me as a member.” I have never been one for self - deprecating humor and I strongly and respectfully disagree with Mr. Marx. We as Jews are taught NOT to separate ourselves from community and that community is what makes us as individual components that much more powerful, more fulfilled and more effective. Community is EVERYTHING for us, whether that community is our family, organizations to which we belong, a team on which we are a member or the shul where we daven. There are so many laws (yes, actual Halachot) about how we are to be part of community, from honesty in our business dealings to taking great care with what comes out of mouth in terms of our speech, from not embarrassing another to giving each other the benefit of the doubt and so much else. One of my favorite stories to teach and learn and share is the one about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a noted Tanna/scholar, who stays in a cave for many years only to study and learn. He and his son are confined to this secluded dwelling AWAY FROM COMMUNITY after his prolific and extensive criticism of the government thus putting his life in imminent danger. After his prolonged isolation of thirteen years, upon hearing of the death of the cruel leader from whom he escaped, he exits his long-term cocoon and notices a man working his fields. Bar Yochai does not understand what the man has been doing and his reality. So learned and dedicated to his study and prayer, Bar Yochai screams in agony at the man for forsaking Torah for the purpose of menial labor. Easy for Bar Yochai to say -- having been protected by his cave, having his food provided. and needing for nothing for all those years. As soon as these words were heard, the entire field was burned. A voice (Bat Kol) came from the heavens, directed at Bar Yochai, inquiring, “For this you came out? To destroy my world?” Back into the cave went Bar Yochai for many more years – this time to reconsider for what purposes we learn and pray? We all know that Torah can be the elixir of life or the poison that brings death. It is up to us in terms of how we use it and the choices we make in terms of that use. Torah teaches us how to farm so we should farm. Bar Yochai sadly did not understand this. Torah teaches us to be honest in our business dealings. Our Orthodox minyanim that exist inside of prisons are clearly made up of individuals who do not abide by this. Torah teaches us how to speak with each other and respect each other. Unfortunately too many of our learned and devoted Jewish community members need to remember this as well as the verses of Torah and the words of daily prayers. We have so many explanations of the different types of members of our community in our Torah and prayers – the very words we study and recite in our devotion to G-d. We know we need BUILDERS as well as CHILDREN WHO LEARN to quote one verse. We have Jews who do Mitzvot, Jews who learn Torah, Jews who do both and Jews who do neither, but as we hold the Arba’ah Minim together on Sukkot, we remember that WE ARE ALL PART OF THE SAME COMMUNITY. Our four children in our Pesah Seder and the different types of questioning included reminds us of the variegated fabric we call Jewish community. Our community is as colorful as the many different people that make it up and THIS is what we are supposed to be part of. This is the club in which we all belong. It is made up of those who pray, those who learn, those who farm, those who observe more, those who observe less, and so on. MOST IMPORTANT, every member is BE’TZELEM ELOKIM and BELONGS TO THE CLUB. Maybe even Groucho Marx!

Friday, March 15, 2013

I'm Left-Handed

I’m left handed, my daughter Rachie has poor vision and her friend Liz is very tall. But that’s okay, because we believe in accepting and appreciating differences as well as the people who have them. These are just singular factors of our individual identities and attributes, but they do not define us. Being a left handed person who learned to write in the late 50’s in elementary school I have very clear memories of people trying to get me to write with my right hand. Both of my parents are right-handed and therefore, ACCEPTABLE as the majority position of society. Being left-handed was always considered a bit SINISTER and lefties were often thought by others to be a bit off. In Eighth Grade when I broke my LEFT arm twice, family and friends thought “Great, now for sure she will end up learning how to use her right hand (and of course, be so much more acceptable, normative and more comfortable for all).” Well, that didn’t happen, not for writing and eating and other small motor activities anyway. You see, I am not even a straight clear left-handed person, but rather I am mixed dominance (or what some people call mixed up!). That makes me defined as being really “out there.” If I were a person that wrapped Tefilin, which arm do I use for which reason? When I do shake the Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot, which do I consider myself, determining which hand I hold each item in? There are all types of problems regarding certain Mitzvot for lefties, and as far as mixed dominance people go, well, don’t ask! Then there is Rachie. She had to take her drivers’ test four times before passing, and only did that after being taught how to accommodate for particularly poor vision that renders her legally blind in one eye. So, now comes another question of Halacha. What is the legal standing of a visually impaired/blind woman (much different than Rachie’s case, but the point is still valid) in Hadlakat HaNerot, the lighting of the candles for her family for Shabbat and Yomim Tovim? So, just to let you know, I actually checked this out some years ago. One of my students asked me this question and when I went to a Rav to inquire about the answer, he did not know as well. A few weeks later, he came back to me and explained that another Rabbinic authority had JUST published a Teshuvah (Halachic position) on this very issue. The response was that out of Chesed (kindness) for the woman, she can do the Mitzvah but her family cannot have their responsibility fulfilled by her lighting candles since the required part of the Mitzvah is to see the lights. Therefore a second family member, who can see the lights, must light the candles for the rest of the family members. What this really shows is that in looking at our Mitzvot and system of Halacha, there are various considerations in responding to people who want to do various Mitzvot but might not be able to do so in a normative way, or may not have an obligation to do a particular Mitzvah due to some physical variance or feature of the individual. To be sure there are many other examples in our daily Jewish lives, such as the fact that I am not allowed to fast for medical reasons but have found an amended fast that I can use so that I can participate in that Mitzvah, By the way, the only one of our four children who has inherited my own left-handedness, at times questionable personality/genetic trait is my daughter Rachie. So the poor dear has two strikes – she is left-handed and has some thankfully corrected visual impairment. So while, we are talking about physical realities that might be less than normative or even desirable according to some, perhaps I should also point out that we are all amongst the somewhat, though not profoundly vertically challenged in my family. At 5” 2 3/4” I am the tallest woman in my generation and those that preceded me. So, when Rachie brought Liz to meet us, she warned us that Liz is quite tall. It doesn’t matter. We all got along just fine, went to shul together, celebrated Sukkot together, and had a great time. Oh, I almost forgot. Liz is Rachie’s girlfriend and they are a couple. So now, while I am accepted for holding the Lulav and Etrog in the non-normative manner, Halacha is kind to the blind woman who lights her Shabbat candles, and my need to fast is accommodated, I certainly hope that the Jewish community will be accepting and appreciate the amazing talents and contributions of these two amazing young women, as they each fulfill their own Mitzvot. May we all go forth from strength to strength and have the same compassion for each other that Halacha has shown it can exhibit for all of us.