Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Another Cyber Siyyum: Masechet Moed Katan

Several days ago I completed my learning (this time around, as we all hope to return and learn more at a later date from all of the texts we explore and interact with) of Masechet Moed Katan. This ended up being particularly meaningful for me for very personal reasons.

Those of us who are Halachically observant (living according to Jewish law) are often asked if there are things that bother us about this system as it is articulated and in how it developed. Even as we look at where we are presently in the Jewish calendar, there are those who have issues with Purim, which we just celebrated with great merriment, due to the mass killing that is carried out at the end of the narrative by the Jews and its sometimes troubling message of destroying Amalek and who Amalek may be taken to be in various generations. Further, as we are presently learning Parshat Shemini (the third portion of Torah reading of the book of BaYikra/Leviticus) and read the narrative about Aaron’s sons who are killed for showing their love for G-d in an original and unscripted manner as well as laws of dietary restrictions that too many people do not understand, this quandary is clear and present.

I am reasonably sure that most, if not all religiously observant Jews must have some area of law that troubles them, usually connected to personal experiences, where perhaps, if I can be so bold, they feel let down by this system that dictates our lives. For me it has always been in the area of the laws of Avelut, or mourning. I remember many years ago, when I had just lost a pregnancy a bit more than mid-way into gestation, I did not listen to the rules about bed rest and went with my husband to a class given by an area Rabbi. I will always remember his reference to the teaching that “to mourn is public and can be dictated; to grieve is private and one has to do what is needed for themselves.” This always stuck with me and the more I engage in my learning of Talmud, the more I see that this kindness and compassion is clearly present.

As I have learned in Moed Katan, there is a great deal to be taught and learned about mourning and what we do when we lose someone in our lives. So one of the set of rules and regulations about mourning is that if you lose one of your primary relatives (parent, spouse, child, sibling and assorted associated others according to some of the voices in the Talmud and elsewhere), the seven days of staying at home to be consoled by others is canceled if the death occurs within a set period before a Yom Tov/Holiday. Further, if such a death occurs within a certain window, say before Yom Kippur and thus a set number of days before Sukkot which occurs five days later, then the Sheloshim – the thirty days of restrictive practices that the mourner observes is also cancelled. I just lived through this with the death of my mother on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat immediately before Yom Kippur. When my dad died on Rosh Hodesh Elul, just five weeks before, we observed all of the various periods of restrictions, coming slowly out into full public life. It made sense. When my mom died, I had a hard time making sense out of the loss of these periods of time to share with others, to think and just adjust, especially having lost both parents in five weeks. I ended up doing most of my processing by myself and with one cousin with whom I am particularly close. It felt more solitary and at times that was challenging for me.

Enter my study of Moed Katan and the explanations. Why does the observance of these community celebrations trump the restrictive isolation of the mourner? Is this fair? As I continued to go through the arguments and the back and forth discussion so characteristic of the Talmud and the many voices it contains, I finally and slowly got it. The community comes to the mourner to console the one who is bereft of a loved one. However, the public festivals are important for all to follow and to rejoice together. The thinking is suggested that perhaps the mourner will actually be helped along in their process more by being part of the public than continuing their isolation while everyone else observes these special holidays. Before Sukkot, we had a lot of scheduled guests for all of our meals, as is always our practice. I had indicated to my husband, Ken, that I did not think I would feel up to it this time around and perhaps we should cancel all of our plans. He promised to do all of the work to make these meals happen if I could not do so and that it would be better for me to participate in these celebrations as I always do. I am always the planner and just did not want to have to disinvite people at the last minute if I could not handle being with people. Lo and behold, a mere eight days after burying my mom, people were in our home – lots of people. Yes, actually it was quite okay and I did feel better. I may very well have felt worse if I had been isolated from all of this community interaction.

The more I engage in my daily learning of Gemara (Talmud), the more I appreciate the principles that guide our lives and provide for a consistency that may (and often does) elude us when looking at various practices in isolation. I always teach that Halacha and life as informed by it is a giant jigsaw puzzle in which there is an interdependence and interfacing between the various pieces and in which the sum total is so much greater than the arithmetric sum of the parts. Here my own teaching was put to the test as I was a bit lost in the intersection of the coming of Sukkot after Yom Kippur, so close to my mom’s death, coming a mere 30 days after my dad could no longer stay in this world. But as I often teach, in driver’s education, you are taught that when the car skids, DO NOT turn against the direction of the skid, but into it and you have a better chance of a good result. I guess I sort of turned into the skid of Halacha and let it guide me, and it did! Thank you for the explanation, Moed Katan. I will return to learn from you again at some future point.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Who’s in your family?

I am truly one of those truly fortunate people who thank G-d every day for my amazing family. I get to live with my favorite people in the world and that is pretty cool. To the outside world who does not know us so well, we look like a close nuclear family – a dad and a mom, four children, two of whom are married and three cute little girls whom I call my daughter’s daughters, while my husband refers to them as grandchildren. (I do not use the G word!) We talk to each other all of the time, continue to make amazing family vacations happen, are so close to each other and genuinely love as well as like the people we each are. This is truly a blessing.

So how did this family come together? I will preface this part by sharing one of my very familiar quotes – “I think I am a really together person and how my life turned into a soap opera is so NOT my fault.” Those of you who kow me well have heard that one many times – I know. Here goes! Yoella, my eldest daughter is from my first marriage to her father. Our middle daughters, Rachie and Talie are identical twins and were the product of my second marriage to their father. They also have another sister and brother who are the children of their father from a previous marriage. Then, there is Ora, another parent figure in the family who is now the third ex-wife of their father and we have all kept her as part of our own family constellation. Ken and I married twenty-two years ago (our anniversary is actually in three days!) and Brian is our adopted son, brother to Yoella and Rachie and Talie. This was so confusing and head spinning to people, that Rachie, being the kind person she is, prepared a lovely flow chart explaining our family to everyone who needed to reference it on her dorm door in Israel. Eight and a half years ago, Yoella married her high school boyfriend, Jeremy, who has his own family tree to explain and now they have Neli, Neima and Adel. Rachie, our second married child, is with the love of her life, Liz. As we always tell Jeremy, he is definitely my favorite son-in-law; he now informs me that he does not feel there will be much competition.

This all resonates in a particularly humorous manner when we are out and about and people say, oh, you all look alike. Rachie and Brian look like Ken and Talie and Yoella look like me. Little do they know that this would not be due to genetics, not where Ken is concerned and certainly not where Brian is concerned. So we got it!!!!! This is our amazing, interconnected to other people, family!

Then the last week happened. Brian, who was adopted from Karelia, supposedly a type of territory of the FSR, though no one can quite pin down what the relationship is, was brought into our family close to nineteen years ago. At that time, we were told that there were no relatives who had been looking for him and we were given information regarding his birth mother’s name and the name of a brother and sister, who were aged 12 and 11 respectively. We knew that his brother and sister were actually raised by the grandmother and that the mother was out of the picture. That was it! He had no connections where he lived in The Childrens’ Home in Petrosovodsz and we would be his first family when he was 2 ½ years of age. Further, we were informed that we should never try to find out about his birth family because there was no way to get the information and that the members of that family would never be able to locate him.

Fast forward three months shy of nineteen years and what has changed remarkably in our world? SOCIAL MEDIA!!!! Lo and behold, Brian listed his identifying information on an adoption web site and within a few days a wonderful young lady from Spain named Caroline contacted him and asked if he wanted her help. We were just a bit skeptical given the many scams and dishonest things that do happen in the reality in which we live, but we took a leap of faith and Brian responded. We are truly grateful to Caroline, who we hope will forgive us for any hesitation in just accepting this lovely gift she was about to bestow upon us! Within another 36 hours, we had so much information about Brian’s birth family. Brian was nervous and overwhelmed; I was just really excited. Between finding out that Brian did in fact have a birth family that had been searching for him, specifically his birth sister, Zina on Saturday night and Tuesday night of this week, Brian and Zina became Facebook friends, chatted extensively on that medium, and Brian had pictures of Zina, her daughter, and his brother Dmitry. Zina had just joined Facebook about two months ago incidentally, so talk about timing! On Tuesday night, Brian and Zina skyped for over an hour with the help of Zina’s wonderful husband who was the only one who could speak and understand both Russian and English and could serve as translator. Brian introduced Zina to me, to Ken, to Yoella and Jeremy and the three girls and we also told her about Rachie and Talie. She was rather impressed (overwhelmed!) by our large family! It turns out that Zina did see Brian when he was four days old (and named originally Victor Alexandrovitch Chingin) and did try to find him on numerous occasions – but apparently regulations and protocol took over and she was not allowed to be in contact. And now here we were -- It was an amazing experience. Zina confirmed what I could see in the picture – Brian and his birth brother Dmitry look alike. Zina asked if Brian likes to draw. Why, because while Zina did not know that much about their birth mother, she knew she drew well. Brian draws beautifully, by the way. He appears to have real talent. It turns out that his birth family includes an uncle as well as the maternal grandmother that raised his birth siblings. And then there is this funny coincidence that no one could make up.

Zina’s birth date is September 11, 1987, the very same date of birth as Rachie and Talie! Funny enough, apparently, Rachie and Talie used to joke with people that they had a third sister (triplet) in the attic… Who knew? So, we have not even begun with the cousins and aunts and uncles in our family…. But I imagine, Rachie, it might be a really good idea to go and update that Family Tree Flow Chart some time soon!

I am often asked why I maintain and encourage maintaining all of the family connections we have. After all, don’t I have enough people to be concerned about and keep track of…. So, here is my answer. I know that Ora ADORES Rachie and Talie and I adore her for doing so. Yoella benefits from the love of her dad’s family and I love how everyone keeps in contact with all sides of each of these nuclear units. All of those aunts and uncles and cousins that are part of my children’s lives … I think it is wonderful to have so many people in your life who love you and whom you love. This is truly a gift that enriches the lives of all who benefit from it. And now, my dear Brian, you too, have a whole other family to include in your life. We hope you will share them with all of us and that one day we can move past Skype and actually meet your sister Zina, brother Dmitry and other family members. More blessings have just appeared in our lives! I am again so very grateful!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Story of a Yom Iyyun - An Important Day of Study

Let me tell you the story of a Yom Iyyun – a day of study of Jewish texts and issues that just occurred this past Sunday in the Greater Philadelphia area. This is a story of how we work within the system to get people to talk about challenging topics. As you know, I have been extremely involved on many levels with ESHEL, the Orthodox consortium for LGBTQ Inclusion in our Orthodox Jewish community. Due to a generous grant, I am working on several initiatives with ESHEL, including building community models of Orthodox Jewish inclusion. One of those initiatives is to join forces with another colleague locally in our Greater Philadelphia area and shuls and communities that are able to become more welcoming, thus amplifying the Welcoming Shuls Project (WSP) presently a large focus of ESHEL. The goal is to insure that we keep our LGBTQ members in our Halachic communities and not have them feel, unfortunately with legitimate reasons, that there is no place for them. This is a matter of validation, acceptance, and most importantly, נפש פיקוח, the foundational Jewish dictum to save a life and protect the well being of all of our community members.

We have been here before, excluding members of our community. Before 1976 and the advent of PTACH, the acceptance of the responsibility to educate all of our children, including those with learning differences and a variety of disabilities was too often not observed. We hid our children who were not unencumbered for whatever reasons – ranging from shame to fear that this was some type of punishment to some thinly veiled understanding of their lack of inclusion in our Halachic world. Baruch HaShem (Thank G-d) this has mostly been resolved, though truth to be told we still have miles to go in this regard in too many of our schools and Jewish institutions in our Orthodox Jewish world.

Then there is the matter of our women. Halachically, there are different levels of being bound by obligation ( חיוב ) that result in legitimate differences between men and women in various areas of religious functioning, such as making up a minyan ( מנין ) – a prayer quorum and fulfilling certain roles on behalf of others. However, within these definitions and differentiations, there is NOT any permission granted for misogyny, which unfortunately has occurred. Women have been maligned, excluded, and relegated to the category of “other” increasingly in too many aspects of religious observance and public assembly. This is NOT the Halachic way, and here too in many Orthodox circles the conversation has accommodated this disconnect and there is advocacy in many (though clearly not all) circles for correcting this situation, adhering to Halacha while not amplifying additional restrictions that are coming from elsewhere.

In the trajectory of both of these narratives, we have observed that where there is an honest will, there is a Halachic way to include and embrace, to validate and protect. This IS our Halachic obligation. It is within this context and using these precedents that I would suggest we can honestly discuss the inclusion of our LGBTQ members; and this is precisely what we did this past Sunday.

Years ago, a colleague of mine who was Orthodox and gay was never able to come out of the closet and even within the protective shield of our friendship and my caring for her, she could not say the words that would validate her being – the way the God chose to make her. I knew she was in great pain and tried to validate her in every way possible. She and her partner were at our Shabbat table, we sat together in shul, and yet, she knew it just was not enough. Some years later, she was found dead in her apartment, apparently or possibly having taken her life. This should NOT be in a community that adheres to the value of protecting each and every life. And to be sure, we know for a fact that there are too many others!

So, we as Orthodox Jews must discuss how we are endangering our own community members through inflammatory rhetoric, mean-spirited exclusion, lack of education and learning, and most important, not adhering to the very Halachic principles we claim inform every aspect of our lives. This was the purpose of this particular Day of Study – to engage in this dialogue, to learn about Halachically legitimate approaches to how we address our community members, and to check our politics, our socially informed fears and personal prejudices at the door. G-d created all of us – women, left-handed people, visually impaired community members, hearing-impaired people, physically disabled individuals, those who are mentally and emotionally challenged, and yes, LGBTQ individuals the way that G-d chose to create us. Within the tomes of Halachic discourse, all of these categories, not to mention children, are often indicated as “except for’s” in various listings (e.g. hearing a Shofar, Torah reading, sitting in a Sukkah, offering sacrifices, hearing Megillat Esther, etc.) but then Chazal – our teachers of blessed memory—engage in thoughtful and often caring discourse about what such exclusion means and so often, initially excluded groups are brought back into the fold of the practice under discussion. So often there is honest and caring concern in these discussions of 1400 years and more ago regarding our various groupings that make up who we are collectively. Would it not be wonderful, not to mention, well within the parameters of honest Halachic discourse, to do the same today?

As more than a few Orthodox Rabbis and scholars have suggested, yes, there is an act that is forbidden. That does not lead to complete exclusion of 10 – 13% of our population, not does it even speak to the individuals who were born outside of the presumed binary sexuality or gender spectrum. In fact, Mishnah Bikkurim, chapter 4 specifically addresses how we as a community must acknowledge and facilitate the performing of מצוות - Mitzvot (obligated actions) of our hermaphrodites and androgynous community members, and let’s time that text at about 1800+ years ago. Then there are Midrashim, other texts that cite everyone is obligated to do various things, and so forth. OUR ROLE AS COMMUNITY is to include all of our members so that these obligations can be fulfilled, NOT TO EXCLUDE members of our community due to other prejudices and politics. This is NOT the Halachic way.

As one Rabbi explained to me in a very well articulated way, his shul follows the “Sephardic way.” All are welcome and included to the maximum level allowed by Halacha. For this Orthodox Rabbi, whom I interviewed for an ESHEL survey dedicated to this topic, of course, gay men would be given Aliyot, of course, they could doven (pray)from the Amud, of course people should sit on the side of the Mechitzah (divider between men and women) that reflects their identified gender, and of course no one is asking any questions – any more than we would ask about Shabbat observance, honest business dealings, or a myriad of other issues. This is what we are asking – no more and no less – just accept and embrace our children and our other family members, our friends and our colleagues.

We are taught that the Mitzvot are given to us so that we may LIVE by them and not die because of them. If every member of our Orthodox Jewish community (and any other faith communities for that matter) would follow this single dictate, we will successfully move in the right direction in our observance of Halacha, both collectively and individually. Let us do for our LGBTQ community members what we have already come to learn we are obligated to do for ALL community members, including women and those with various differences! Then we will properly take our place as a Light to the Nations ( לגוים אור ) and NOT before!

So many Orthodox Rabbinic families have LGBTQ members and others have spoken out beautifully about this issue. For one example, read the following:


If you want to hear more about ESHEL, the Welcoming Shuls Project or have a Day of Study in your community, contact me at shulisrose@aol.com