Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another Lesson from Masechet Eruvin: Balancing Leniencies in Jewish Law with Insuring Our Children Do Not Forget How to Practice their Judaism

One of the Jewish areas of law that has often puzzled me is that of Eiruv, that set of rules and regulations that govern movement and transporting of things on Shabbat. For many Jewish practitioners, this is not something that is often on the radar screen. Yet, for those of us who do worry about this defining element of domain in which we can walk our strollers, carry food, or just hold onto our house key, this is a factor of our lives every week on Shabbat. Let’s begin with the fact that moving our selves or things that we may wish or need to use in an unfettered manner is one of the 39 defined areas of WORK that are proscribed on Shabbat according to Jewish Law. We are not the only ones who have difficulty finding a category into which Transportation and Transporting should properly be placed. Even in the United States Government, the history of this department and what comes under it and what does not as well as who supervises it has shown interesting developments through the history of our government, leading to questions of its status not unlike those in Jewish law.

So what is the big deal in moving one self or something in one’s possession from place to place? After all, you are not changing its status, creating anything, destroying anything, improving it (generally, unless it is plants for example, that need sunlight), or in any way truly altering its substance, as IS the case in the other 38 forms of Melacha (work) as defined by Shabbat observance guidelines. It is clear that this was puzzling as well to the Rabbis and authorities of the Mishnah and Gemara as indicated in the rather long and detailed discussions dedicated to this issue. And further, how can placing a string with posts (what is called an Eruv, and is actually one of three types of categories in declaring such domain) around a community to define it as such override so many proscribed actions associated with moving things or people?

Within the laws of Eiruv, those actions or intentional initiatives that effect movement of objects on Shabbat are described in great detail and often, there are NOT clear conclusions reached, or alternatively, the discussion ends with one practice being accepted by some authorities while another one is the custom of yet others. This tells me something – namely that the sanctity of Shabbat is so important that every change one makes, including movement, is to be a conscious affair – and yet, we are not supposed to get so lost in the details and proscriptions that we lose the joy and richness of Shabbat. Therefore, the deliberations are valid, while we are to be careful in terms of not observing every possible level of strict adherence excessively. The point is NOT to limit our lives to the point of discomfort, but rather to adhere to the nature and the different domain of time that is Shabbat by thinking about and making pointed differences in our domain of movement on Shabbat.

Within the laws of Eiruv, I found the expression of the following three elements that are present within the context of many detailed discussions about what may or may not be moved from this type of domain to another specified area:

a) The use of Eiruv is to enhance and increase one’s joy and not create a burden;

b) When leniencies can be used, they should be implemented; and

c) We should maintain laws of Eiruv so our children do not forget its use and purpose.

Within the many stringencies that are presented, there are also a great deal of practical details that is needed and appropriate for the reality of the time and the way in which people lived. Access to bodies of water (remembering that this is BIP – Before Indoor Plumbing), placement of food (in this age of BR, Before Refrigeration), movement of utensils, walking to a designated location and so many other aspects of daily life will look different on Shabbat because the essence of Shabbat itself is so different.

Yet within this framework, it is often determined who can use what area for transporting of things that are used according to who benefits the most. In other words, if one has to climb a high wall to get to something, this is difficult and therefore its being allowed is a great source of discussion. Will the acquisition of said object take away from the rest and re-creation of Shabbat? Therefore, judgments offered by the Rabbis of the Talmud are based on “who gets comfort and enjoyment through the use of X” in many cases.

As a ritualistically observant Jew, I am very aware that movement of items and their use, so taken for granted on weekdays, IS INDEED a conscious and intentional matter on Shabbat. Further, I do not think that this is not a good thing. What many people may look at as inconveniences is actually one of the things that make Shabbat so special. If Shabbat is, as has been suggested, G-d’s weekly STOP SIGN, then using that to think about our selves and our movement makes sense to me in the context of intentional living.

Another teaching that often peppers the discussions and deliberations of Masechet Eiruv is that when one can use a leniency, one should do so. I am often so amazed at how individuals in our community will in fact go for the most restrictive understanding of Jewish Law when in fact there are often such warnings to not use too many stringencies. This is to make our lives comfortable and meaningful (as indicated in topic #1 above), not be an obstacle course. I think we would do well to remember this aspect of Jewish Law – it is NOT a matter of who can be the most strict in all cases, but rather how we achieve meaningful observance!

Finally, we are to teach and use the laws of Eiruv intentionally so that our children will not forget them. What a lovely idea! We should observe and live in a way that our children will remember and utilize in their lives. Now where have I heard that before?!? It is also important to remember that our children will observe not just what we practice but how we do so and how we accept the observances and practices of others, as did the Rabbis of the Talmud. No, our children should not forget the practices that have tied generations one to the other, nor should they forget the humility and questions, some of which are still not resolved, about those practices.

After this intensive study, I know I will never look at this string that wraps and defines my community in the same way again, and will feel differently about preparing my Eiruv Tavshilin for Hagim/Shabbat observances. Yes, the details of the observances are important, but even more so is the notion of how this limitation of movement better facilitates the joy, rest and remembrance of so much that is important on the Shabbat day.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Do Not Live Amongst a Talebearer, A Lesson of What is Really Important in Jewish Law

I find it fascinating that according to Jewish Law, we are specifically proscribed from living amongst and participating in social interactions with those who gossip. Yet, not only are we NOT adjoined not to live with those who believe differently than we do or who do not observe Kashrut or Shabbat, but rather, there are long discussions throughout Jewish law about how we interact with these neighbors, how we are to do business with non-Jews in a scrupulously honest matter, and so forth .

Let’s really think about this a bit. For example, in learning about how one creates an intentional community (as described in Masechet Eruvin) there are long discussions about the inclusion of property owned by non-Jews in communities where Jews reside and need to negotiate movement on Shabbat, about how one can or cannot take over ownership/rights to such property in business arrangements, with the approach of Shabbat, no less, and how one can or cannot carry and move things in a community with mixed populations. This is all to say that we have always understood a couple of basic truths:

1. We will live in areas that have mixed populations of Jews and non-Jews.

2. There are regulations that we must follow to maintain both the integrity of those relationships and the adherence we, as Jews, have to a life of MITZVAH individually as well as collectively.

3. These regulations are designed to maintain our own community as well as good relations with others, as we are told elsewhere that we should always give some of our resources (Tzedakah) to non-Jewish causes, we are not to take advantage of ANY human being in our midst, and so forth.

As I often teach my students, we cannot be an OR LAGOYIM in the corner of ME’AH SHEARIM – think about the statement. In other words, we HAVE to be part of the big vast world in which we live in order to truly have an impact on it. This is truly a responsibility. It means finding ourselves in spaces in which keeping Kashrut or Shabbat might be a challenge, but this we do. Further, we are to do it without compromising the integrity of others in our midst, for ALL HUMAN BEINGS, according to our belief as Jews, are created by THE CREATOR of all!

WHAT WE ARE NOT TO DO is to become insular and subject to the ills of society such as tale-bearing, gossip and doing damage to others around us in use of our words, our business practices and any other of the “24/7 Mitzvot” that govern the very way we live our lives with consistency and in the spirit of Mitzvah. We are enjoined to follow this practice both in terms of other members of the Jewish community and all members of society.

In the Jewish world, we find ourselves in the period of Selichot for ALL of us at this point, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, Jews of all ideological movements, and so forth. Take a moment at some point to really look at the Vidui and notice HOW MANY of these missed marks in our lives are about these 24/7 Mitvot. Then notice how Religion too often in our fractured world has such a bad name due to extremist expressions, which unfortunately do plague ALL of our religious groupings. Look back at the Vidui. Imagine (in the words of John Lennon) if we would all truly observe these practices – that is stop ourselves before spreading a rumor, hurting someone else with our words, speaking falsely, and participating generally in such activity either actively or passively.

IMAGINE… what such actions would do to curb bullying, help our fellow human beings feel better about themselves and maybe eventually others as well, and change the tone and the impact of our interactions with others. What steps we would all be taking to truly heal our fractured world – to do the real and dedicated work of TIKKUN OLAM.

As 5775 is ready to dawn, let us all imagine what a world we could all help to make if we continue to work on our personal religious and ritual selves as well as intentionally create community with those who will heal it and not compromise the collective. Shanah Tovah U’Metukah to all and may this coming year be a one of healing words and actions for all of us.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Empowered or DIY Judaism

What interesting times these are for practicing Jews. I guess we are actually still practicing… and figuring out what we want to be when we grow up. We (specifically my husband, Ken and I, though I am sure I speak for many of us here) have raised our children in a home in which we are intellectual, ritually involved, spiritual, thinking, exploring and yes, practicing Jews. We are aware of the recent PEW report with all of its foreboding data analysis. We know that large synagogues and communal agencies are losing ground. Simultaneously independent minyanim, different learning options, and so many additional individualized expressions of Jewish engagement are sprouting up all over. Maybe we can no longer correlate these numbers of Jewish involved people with official Jewish-affiliated numbers. If this is the case, how do we keep track of who is doing what? What criteria do we implement to do so that is truly reflective of the status of the spectrum of American Jewry at this present time?

I recently completed reading a critically timely and important book, EMPOWERED JUDAISM by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (USA: Jewish Lights, 2010). Further looking at the other books available from this particular publisher, there are words like Rethinking, Building and Engaging utilized in titles about Jewish being. So, maybe we no longer identify ourselves by belonging to Beth Israel Synagogue or Beth El Temple or Sha’arei Tfilah Congregation, but rather by what we DO in our lives and the process of engagement with which we are involved – you know, the Judaism we live.

Kaunfer speaks at great length in his book about our educated and engaged Jews who are sophisticated and knowledgeable and need to be involved in their Jewish experiences, not sit passively and have someone else do it for them. Many years ago, I actually had a Rabbi yell at me when I was running Learners’ Minyanim in a synagogue because then “what would the purpose of the Rabbi be if everyone knew what to do?” I was nothing short of flabbergasted at the time but realize after reading Kaunfer’s book that there was definitely that expectation among too many that Jewish clergy would be “doing Jewish observance and prayer” for their flocks. Our 20-somethings and 30-somethings, according to Kaunfer, do not see themselves as flocks. I guess I never did either and this is why I was empowered in my own Jewish search before the name was bestowed on the process. Fortunately for our children, they can now name what they were guided towards in our home.

As a Jewish professional, I have always felt we are too absorbed by numbers. What is wrong where we use a Geiger-counter type of mechanism to say 1,100 people attended this service or that program and thus we deem it to be a success! Do we ask about impact; do we check in to see what has changed in their lives as a result of attendance; do we follow up in terms of the quality of their lives? One of the programs that Kaunfer brings to task is the much-touted Taglit Birthright program that takes college and young adult aged members of our community to Israel for a 10-day program, which is clearly to be lauded for the work it does. I always wondered “what next?” Now we have NEXT, the program that follows up with these 20-somethings, and guess what… they too test their success by the number at this picnic or that social or a given Shabbat dinner. After this wonderful and inspiring living experience in Israel, does it really come down to that? What about ongoing learning programs (that can be cyber delivered as an option, if that helps), what about ongoing commitments to local Tikkun Olam projects… just indications that I am “living my Judaism in a meaningful and empowered way!” and doing so on a continual basis! That, to me, and to my understanding of Jewish Law, would be success!

As an educator, parent and person who is a practicing Jew who lives Intentional Judaism (see earlier posts on this blog), I want to know how the impact I have made on my students is part of a process in which they continue to grow, explore and experience themselves as Jews and human beings. This is accomplished through a process of ongoing engagement with them, not what we call “splash” (one time) programs! What is the ongoing process in which they are engaged? How are their daily lives enriched? What are they seeking? How are they using their knowledge? These questions go beyond data and statistical variables.

My experience is that more and more of our 20-somethings and 30-somethings know this intuitively whereas too many of my generation missed it. I have always been drawn to places of Jewish energy more than performance and to individual empowerment as opposed to sitting as part of the “flock.” This, to me, is precisely WHY we have so many texts and guides and writings on HOW TO DO Judaism, and parenthetically this is PRECISELY why I get so jazzed about learning and sharing them with others.

I often run into former students in various places and they will share memories in my classes. There are texts they remember, amazing AHA moments and such. BUT, and this is most important to me, they all tell me how I taught and showed them how to own their Judaism and use it in empowered ways. They will often then proceed to share with me what they are doing in their lives to accomplish just that. This is Kaunfer’s point, I believe. It is not enough to show up and be counted, but know what you are doing and why. If we use these latter criteria as our marker of success, I am so much more optimistic about our future than the PEW report adherents are. I believe our success is that we are still practicing and isn’t that the point!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

FINDING YOUR VOICE: What I learned from Zora Neale Hurston

In between my teaching, reading and learning, being there for family and involved with community and in the midst of all of the aspects of just generally engaged life, I go on a scavenger hunt through my children’s bedrooms – all of whom are now no longer living at home – looking for a good book from time to time that is not in my personal library. My most recent find was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, which three of our children read in their later high school years. At first it was difficult to get into the book, as the language was distinctly Hurston’s and one of her many compelling contributions to our bird’s eye view of her world as a black woman generally during the first half of the twentieth century.

Of particular note is the explanation in the biographical outline included at the end of the book that she was all but forgotten and passed over and her voice almost not heard, if it were not for the efforts of Alice Walker. She brought Hurston’s important work to the public’s attention 13 years after she was buried in a pauper’s grace in 1960. Hurston had received awards and acclimations during her impressive literary career, but this was not enough to sustain or protect her in her later years when she was forced to work as a domestic just to survive because in those days, whatever literary world was available to the world of the black/African American population, it was basically only accessible to men. How sad!

Hurston’s voice is critical to our understanding of what it meant to be a black woman in a world where there were limited if any choices and one’s own destiny was most often not in their own hands, but determined by the circumstances in which they were trapped. Her voice is quiet and polite but loud and striking in its own way. It is explained by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Afterword that while men had been writing epistles of the social situation of their people, Hurston wanted to share a lone voice through a narrative of a real person. She was a novelist, not a social scientist as Gates explains, and perhaps, the world was just not ready for her honest and painful voice in which the action and inaction of so many readers in terms of their own understanding of her reality might be too much to absorb, as they see this reflected in her words.

The picture that Hurston paints with her words and distinctive dialect are about the inner battle of a woman named Janie, who is seen one way but in terms of her own internal reflection is quite focused on her two things that have to be done. She writes that there are “two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” And this is precisely what she does. Hurston is true to herself through the characterization of Janie, who is contained by a different type of shackles than the physical ones of her predecessors but works just as hard to throw off the cultural and psychological ones that would threaten her well being. Her spiritual and personal fortitude are her only weapons and it is here that her voice is most powerful.

I wrote some time ago about Yalta, the woman in the Gemara who smashed 400 jugs, perhaps because she too could not find her voice in a male-dominated world. I felt a great admiration for this woman who found a way to make herself heard, and in a very physical way showing strength and sense of purpose, no less. Her action was clearly understood by the male world in which she lived. This is the lesson of Hurston’s Janie, who comes to treasure life in a way that most of the people around her never could. While others may define her actions in terms of the larger social context, she knows that they come from a much deeper place.

In our world today, where there is so much more freedom and so many choices and a great deal of liberation for us, it is important to remember that there are still too many Janies, Zora Neale Hurstons, and Yaltas, still waiting for whatever juxtaposition of circumstances will present that will allow their voices to be heard.

We have to remember that these are our sisters and … brothers in our human family and use our voices to help them find theirs as Alice Walker did for Zora Neale Hurston and her Janie.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


This post will be relatively short as I would much rather everyone go to


and listen to what Douglas Murray has to say. (Thank you PF for bringing this to me!)

I am often so hyper-aware of the many different aspects of our love for, admiration for, frustration with and questions about Israel and how it handles the ongoing threats to her existence.

Yes, I and many of us do expect and hope for better, as indicated in a recent completed curriculum I have developed in dealing with Human Rights issues in Israel. Those of us who approach our vision of and for Israel from a foundational set of Jewish values do in fact expect so much of this remarkable country and its people and that is okay.

However, and this is critically important, we can never compromise Israel’s well-being – not in terms of our perspective as Jews, as Americans, and as human beings. Our world desperately needs Israel; don’t ever forget that!

Wanting to be better is one thing. Hoping and trying to be better is noble. Protecting the right to be is something completely different, and this we must always preserve and maintain.

And now, I turn this posting over to Douglas Murray and so many others who have expressed their outrage at the condemnation Israel seems to evoke just for trying to continue to be all of the things we want from her and so much more.

Am Yisrael u’Medinat Yisrael Chai!