Monday, June 22, 2015

What Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz and Charles Kimball Teach us About Religion and our Leaders

In the most recent Orthodox Union magazine of Summer 5775, Jewish Action, a great deal of attention is devoted to a recent hurtful chapter of betrayal and abuse of Rabbinic power and authority in the life of North American Orthodox Jewry. The title of the article and the very issue is “When Leaders Fall.” The lead article was written by a scholar and Rav for whom I have great respect and is truly one of my favorite Jewish leaders today, not that I agree or have to agree with everything he says. Rabbi Breitowitz uses his unique and wonderful combination of scholarship, Jewish knowledge, erudite articulation, and most important compassion and maintaining a strong sense of humanity to explore what elements in our social and cultural context may lead our leaders to fail. He begins by advising us to not condemn the Torah and Jewish Law for the failings of mere mortals. As I often say, it is too easy, in this instance to throw the baby away with the bath water and we as individuals have to remain reasonable about who we all are as humans and what we can reasonably expect from leaders and when we have to take action in difficult situations.

A second point that he speaks about is how people may expect too much from their leaders; and how leaders can fall into the position of power that such expectations can engender. We must always work carefully and purposefully to protect ourselves from the failings of others – insuring that individuals are safe, spaces are not exclusive and individuals in positions of authority do not take on more power than is theirs to take. People who are harmed must be able to speak and not be intimidated by self-serving authority. It is our responsibility collectively to insure that no one individual’s safety is compromised for the sake of the position or authority of another.

Of course, all of this makes so much sense in terms of Jewish teachings, what we hold to be true as civilized human beings, and with respect to common sense! There is so much in Jewish Law that insures this safety and protection of the potentially vulnerable. Yet, unfortunately we too often hear about those who take advantage of women who cannot get a divorce, converts, and others in such positions. In Pesachim 114b there is a most curious teaching that converts and servants like each other, because they are both in a lowly position and do not expect much from each other. This is within the context of a larger discussion about honorable behaviors and those that are not so honorable and how leaders can think that they can “do it all” and it is these leaders that are to be avoided. Essentially, we would not want to use the least common denominator in our expectations of others; but rather, work so that we all try to be the best we can be and ask the same of others.

How do we as members of our community hold onto our own agency and act with confidence and expecting the most of each other possible; while simultaneously have a more realistic set of expectations regarding our leaders? How do we allow our leaders to lead but not abuse that leadership? This is indeed a tricky question that has sparked many conversations on the part of scholars, social scientists and all of us who are part of social and religious institutions. In a day and age where practically every authoritative religious agency or representatives of them are under scrutiny because of the misdeeds and abuse of position among others who have been found guilty, not to mention the terrible harm done to the victims of these abuses, one must wonder who is minding the store, so to speak, in these bodies?

Years ago I became an avid fan of Charles Kimball when I read his book When Religion Becomes Evil. He speaks at length about Absolute Truth Claims and Blind Obedience, two of his markers for when religion does not function in the protective, embracing, instructive and supportive way it is supposed to in our lives as human beings in need of the big answers (or approaches) to the big questions. It is these two characteristics, I believe, that are taken on by the Rav/Rabbi (or any comparable religious leader in any community) who says “Don’t question me; I KNOW the truth,” and the member of the community who is embarrassed by such chastisement and ends up blindly following for fear of sanction. What flawed person in this flawed collection of human beings is of such a level that they are not to be questioned by others! Even the most recently appointed Pope is loved for his humanity and his desire to engage in dialogue with others. When did religious leadership in ANY of our traditions become such an elevated position that one cannot challenge those in its ranks in any way? This is clearly NOT allowed in Jewish law on any level; and yet, we are still dealing with far too much collateral damage including generations of NCSY’ers who were victimized by their head; converts who were taken advantage of; students in Yeshivot who were sexually, physically or emotionally abused; agunot (women who cannot attain a divorce) because of complicit Batei Din (Rabbinic courts); children who are abused by parents and cannot complain because it would go against Shalom Bayit (a peaceful home) and so on. THIS IS NOT THE JUDAISM OF OUR TORAH AND OUR TREASURED HERITAGE and yet it is happening.

What can we do? So here is just one thought to consider in engaging this potentially ongoing discussion. We are taught Aseh Lecha Rav, or find for your self a Rabbi. In other words, we are to take responsibility for finding and designating a leader we can respect and is appropriate for us. Our leader that we go to is NOT dictated, but rather should be chosen by us.

I will draw a quick analogy. I have dealt with some ongoing health challenges throughout my life. I am blessed to have been successful in this endeavor and here is one of my secrets. At points when my health was compromised, I would ONLY go to a doctor I could respect, a doctor who would discuss options with me, one who would share the findings in the PDR with me, one who would allow and encourage, even ask, that I be a participating partner in my health care. In this fashion, I have been blessed with wonderful doctors along the way.

Years ago, the village where one lived was where one’s Rabbi was located. Maybe, we have to challenge this with so much that has changed in our lives. We must each CHOOSE intelligently and intentionally the one that we will go to as our Rabbinic authority. Maybe then, the voice of those that do use the humility that is to come with leadership will be heard more than those who claim to know all the truths and demand blind leadership. WE HAVE TO DO OUR PART in choosing wisely! Our tradition asks that of us; our humanity demands it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

So Let Me Tell You About My Daughter and Daughter-in-Law’s Amazing Wedding!!!!!

Where shall I begin? Many months ago when I wrote an article for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia about our daughter Rachie, her upcoming marriage to her beloved Liz, and her identity as an observant and knowledgeable Jewish woman who is, that is happens to be, gay, I received mostly amazing positive and validating feedback. One lone Rabbi, who does not know Rachie or us at all, wrote rather passionately about how wrong I was, how I should retract my statements, how I could not properly call myself Halachically observant and so on. At one point he asked what type of ceremony could there possibly be for my daughter and her fiancée as they joined their lives together?

No problem, I responded. We made up wonderful creative and intentional ceremonies for the coming of age of our three daughters, their B’not Mitzvah and once again, I would look at the spirit of who we are as Jews, figure out what foundational ideas and narratives we could use and go from there. With the help, creativity, Halachic knowledge, and guidance of my good friend and as Rachie calls him, Rav Steve, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, we did just that! And here is what happened at a lovely retreat called Woolman Hill in Deerfield, Massachusetts from June 5 – 7, 2015.

First of all, I must begin with Shabbat. We arrived after a very long drive (where it felt more like we walked through Connecticut than drove through it) somewhat frazzled but immediately taken by the bucolic environment of the retreat that would be home to the community we were about to be part of and have a hand in creating for the next 48 hours. Fairly quickly, we were introduced to members of the amazing community that our daughter Rachie, our soon-to-be daughter-in-law Liz, and another daughter Talie (Rachie’s twin sister as it happens to be) call their own. What a wonderful and warm and sincere group of relatively newly minted adults, generally in their third decade of doing and initiating ways of changing and repairing our world. Oh and yes, this is all intentional! They are kind, gentle, and just amazing. Shortly after arrival, one of our dear friends remarked, “I want to meet every one of these people.” I could not have agreed more with her!

So, let me describe a lovely and often forgotten piece of Jewish tradition and community practice. Years ago when two young people were ready to embark on their life together, the entire community would come out and work to make their simcha truly joyous and amazing. They were the original DIYers (Do It Yourself), an art we have generally lost! In our day where these matters are now turned over to caterers, professional wedding planners and others whom we meet at the point we are beginning to craft our events; this community of gifted, talented, caring adults pulled together to create a simcha in the way of our previous generations – a truly traditional way of celebrating and validating each other. They cooked and prepared food, designed and built the Chupah (wedding canopy), designed and printed the invitations, helped with and designed the breathtakingly beautiful Shtar Shitufim (Business Contract or Merger, if you will) that was used, and helped with every aspect of this weekend and the ceremony that would be its highlight! This weekend was a testimony to each and every one of these amazing young(ish?) adults!

Throughout Shabbat about 55 or more people from our lives, from the world of Liz’s family and from our daughters’ and daughter-in-law-to-be’s amazing community came together to relax, share space and celebrate Rachie and Liz, while observing Shabbat as a collective. The dovening for Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning was expertly and fully done and it was so clear that there are many Jewishly knowledgeable skilled and committed members of this community that is centered in the Boston area. There was a sensitivity to those who doven with a Mechitza and those who do not; there was respect all around! Beautiful Divrei Torah, soulful singing and Tefilot (prayers), and words of blessing for Rachie and Liz also added to the joy and spirituality of the group.

The meals were nothing short of amazing, with no less than thirteen members of this group working cooperatively for the previous week to “prepare massive amounts of food,” as articulated in the printed wedding program. There were board games, Frisbee, walks through beautiful nature, singing and music for those who wished to take part, and other activities which were available to those with a wider understanding of what their Yom Menucha (Day of Rest) could contain, as well as a Shiyur (lesson, learning experience) for those who wished to participate. People floated in and out of various options and we WERE truly a community of embracing, inclusive and clearly intentional Jewish practice.

Havdalah was a beautiful separation service between “Kodesh v’Hol” (that is between sanctified and secular), though I could not help thinking of it as between Kodesh and Kodesh (sanctified and sanctified), as the ceremony would be on Sunday and there was NOTHING regular or secular about this group and this community nor would there be about the celebration to come! The night ended with a lovely campfire, built by our son the Eagle Scout (go Brian!) with help from members of the community as is the nature of this wonderful group; and musical “singing around the campfire.”

The wedding the next day that affected marriage according to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the business and life partnership designed according to Jewish practice was beyond amazing. The community swelled to 150 as the guests all arrived. We began with a Tisch (table around which we all joined) where members of family and community showered Rachie and Liz with blessings and hopes for their future and the future of the community of which they are such an integral part. The ceremony reflected a beautiful acceptance of the reality of Halacha and what it can be expanded to include as well as accepted limits regarding what was not incorporated. The interfacing of these elements resulted in a nod to the special nature of this union and what it can be looked at within the constructs of Halachic reasoning with appropriate expansion. The language was different, the cadence was different, those standing under the Chupah were different, but the feeling and emotion were NOT all that different, perhaps elevated if anything! No one present felt that either Halacha was slighted nor was the couple being joined through an act of Kinyan (acknowledgement of a life partnership and shared space) and Nedarim (vows to attest to the former); rather all were awed (very appropriately used here) by the beautiful fusion of authentic Jewish expression and authentic love of two Jewish souls within a model true to itself.

Some of us cried of course, and obviously I shed those tears of joy. People did not want to leave. The dancing and joyful noise created by these 150 people was nothing short of amazing. The celebration went on for seven hours, including dancing to a music mix created by yet another member of the community when the band finished their part! Truly everything was thought of for this entire weekend and this showed!

Incidentally, several people remarked that they witnessed a completely circular rainbow around the sun during the ceremony and afterwards. My son explained to me that this is a Sun Halo, which is produced by light interacting with ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. He also tells me this is a rather rare phenomenon. So, how do we explain this? Rav Steve conducted this beautiful ceremony based on the narrative of the interaction and partnership of the sun and the moon and the need for equality between them – a fusion of shared respect and love to enhance their co-existence. Interestingly enough, the rainbow is the symbol of inclusion and equality for the LGBTQ Community. Was G-d giving us all some type of nod of approval by showing us this rainbow, which we know from Bereshit (Genesis) is a sign that God will always protect us and never destroy us again? Was G-d coming into our celebration in a “physical” way?

All I know is that the joy, love, celebration, validation and Jewish expression of the day was “over the moon,” so to speak. As Rav Steve explained, this was not just (or even primarily) a lesbian wedding; it was so much more – it was a joining of two Jewish souls! What more could a mother want for her beloved child!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

PARSHAT NASO 2015/5775

Please note that this was a Shabbat Drasha this past week but continues to be relevant as we move through the texts of BaYikra/Leviticus.

Throughout our Torah and the texts of our heritage we interact with various aspects of God’s persona, ranging from Rachmana (The Compassionate One) to Dayan HaEmet (The Judge of Truth) to aspects of what would be called in anthropology and mythology the Warrior God, the Creator of All, in our case, who is so zealous for all of those beings that God has created with a special place reserved for those members of the Jewish Nation with whom we are taught God has a special relationship. In thinking about our Compassionate and Protecting God, it is sometimes difficult to interface that set of characteristics with what we read in VaYikra, the middle of our Hameshet Humshei Torah that is dedicated to the particular stringencies of Jewish practice and to be sure, there are many. These are some of the most difficult texts to address on so many levels, yet once again I will try to do exactly that.

We will focus on the first set of instructions in our Parsha after the B’nai Yisrael are counted and accounted for as each and every one is important in and of themselves as well as to the community and as a Created Being of God. We read as follows in Chapter 5: 1 – 4:

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 'Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath any type of discharge, and whosoever is unclean by the dead; 3 both male and female shall ye put out…; that they defile not their camp, in the midst whereof I dwell.' 4 And the children of Israel did so, and put them out without the camp; as the LORD spoke unto Moses, so did the children of Israel

As we are so hyper-aware of exclusion of any kind, this text begs that we attend to it. What is going on here? What is being suggested that would be consistent with God as Rachmanah? In Masechet Pesachim, there is a lengthy discussion about what exactly occurred and whether people who needed to be pushed out of the camp were indeed forcibly removed; or did something else transpire?

First of all we need to understand the context of this situation. We are discussing the set up of the camp of the B’nai Yisrael and the entirety of the EDAH, the congregational grouping. The camps were set up in concentric circles with the Mishkan in the center serving as the focal point for the community and indicating the everlasting presence of God within the camp. Immediately around the Mishkan was the encampment circle of the Levites who were attending to the direct service of the Mishkan and all it entailed. Then finally the third circle was filled with all of the B’nai Yisrael, arranged by their tribal units.

This encampment brought together the people individually, tribally, their central focus of the Mishkan and the presence of God. It was in the full sense of the word a truly Holy Assembly, elevated in so many ways. So after this explanation, we come to the aforementioned exclusions.

1. Those with leprosy 2. Those with any type of bodily emission that would render them spiritually unclean. 3. Those who had been in contact with a corpse.

In Masechet Pesachim, we are taught that the individuals themselves exited from the main camp and were not forced out. In fact, this is correlated with the notion that for the Metzora to leave the camp is a positive commandment for them to observe. To be sure, there is a great deal of discussion of what is Tum’ah/ ritualistically impure and what is Tehorah/ ritualistically pure throughout Torah, Gemarah and so many sources. How do we understand what this means in a way that does not feel excessively restrictive or exclusive of one’s ability to participate? How do we discuss this without in any way detracting from the value and validation of individuals?

Rabbi Avi Weiss teaches as follows:

"The truth is that there are several terms in the Torah that have no suitable English equivalent. Such terms should not be translated. Leaving them in the original Hebrew makes the reader understand that a more detailed analysis of the word is necessary. Tumah is one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and requires a deeper analysis. Rav Aharon Soloveichik suggested that the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms, which says: "The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever." (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality or finitude, that which withers away.

The point is that the skin of the one with leprosy will heal and then he or she, along with the one who has had an emission, can go to a Mikveh and be admitted to the camp. The waters literally revive the person and the soul after the Tumah is expunged. The corpse withers away and we are left with our memories of the one who has departed. Here too, through Tahara we “water the soul” of the one who has left us. We validate and protect the integrity of what is Tahor, that which is pure and everlasting; while we let go of Tumah, that which is finite and will leave us."

This notion that what is to be excluded from the camp is not the person per se but the Tumah – that which is NOT lasting – makes sense in that the Mishkan and the camp in its very formation celebrates and is based upon that which lasts forever, namely Ribbonu shel Olam.

Later in our Parsha we learn about the Nazir, the one who takes specific vows that separate that person from the general population. In this case, the individual is choosing to not be part of the collective and not celebrate nor participate in several aspects of communal life. We read as follows in Chapter 6: 1 - 8

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the LORD, 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink: he shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or dried…. 5 All the days of his vows … no razor shall come upon his head; until the days be fulfilled, in which he consecrates himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long. 6 All the days that he consecrates himself unto the LORD he shall not come near to a dead body. 7 He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because his consecration unto God is upon his head. 8 All the days of his Naziriteship he is (exclusively) holy unto the LORD

Here the individual is choosing a life of solitude, in which his dedication to God pre-empts any connection to other people. We learn very quickly that these periods are to be limited and that the Nazir is to bring very specific and particular offerings; to indicate that he will now embrace being part of the entirety of communal life that he has exited from during the period of this self-imposed seclusion. This is not meant to be permanent, nor is it set up as an ideal state in the context of Jewish living.

So here we have two types of exclusion – one that is required due to a condition of one’s present status and the second that is taken on by personal choice. In both cases, we are shown that this separation goes against the intended nature of community as taught by the maxim AL TIFROSH MIN HATZIBBUR (Do not separate oneself from the community) and that there are remedies for what is seen as a temporary condition.

Clearly, it is the community, that is, the collective, which is seen as lasting and permanent. Consider for example, the complicated instructions regarding offering of the Pesach sacrifice, which is incumbent upon all members of the B’nai Yisrael, both as individuals and as members of the group. There are two specific teachings in these sets of laws that are quite remarkable in their relevance to this topic. First, the Pesach offering is to be offered in CHABUROT, or in groups, in which individual members are to be registered. Secondly, the Pesach is to be offered in a state of TEHORAH and those who are individually Tamei can delay their involvement until Pesach Sheni. However, if the community as a whole or a reasonable number of members of the community are Tamei, then one insures that this is the case with the majority of the group, even going so far as to intentionally have an additional group member touch something that is Tamei; and then the offering is given with the majority in this state. Why? Because the importance of group participation trumps individual states of ritual purity. This is not to say that the latter is not important, just not so core as to invalidate participation of the masses.

There are many ways that we try to achieve this state of TAHARA, of ritual purity and raised spiritual existence. Jewish law gives us strategies to do so, though sometimes we get lost in the details and forget the ultimate goal. We have to remember that God as RACHMANA wants all of us to participate, to be counted, and to be able to reach our own spiritual heights. This is fundamental to the structure of Halacha and should not get lost in the details of how we work towards this goal. VaYikra gives us the parameters of what to do; it is up to us to figure out how and why through the use of CHAZAL and our own sense of purpose in trying to achieve that which is permanent and not subject to deterioration!

Shabbat Shalom.