Remembering Leonard Nimoy z”l

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP – @TheRealNimoy

That was the final tweet from Leonard Nimoy, who used Twitter like the artist he was in so many other media. Like most people, I first encountered him playing Spock, the misfit officer on the Starship Enterprise. Like any good actor, he used pieces of himself to give life to that role. Two years in the US Army as a Jew must have been great preparation to play the only Vulcan on the Enterprise.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Nimoy but I know several people who did meet him in various settings. What strikes me now is that I’ve never heard anything bad about the man: he was kind and polite in his dealings with fans and he was a pillar of his synagogue. I gather from his artwork that he was a good Reform Jew, asking questions of the tradition at every turn. If you doubt that, check out The Shekhina Project (NSFW.)  He had a true artist’s eye, seeing beauty where others refused to see it: check out The Full Body Project (also NSFW.) He and his wife Susan gave generously to their communities via the Bay-Nimoy Early Childhood Center and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles – and those are just the gifts of which I am aware. Everything I’ve heard suggests that there were many small generosities that will never be public.

All of this is to say that the man was a mensch. He played a role that became a big deal in pop culture, but it was only one of many roles he played in his life. Some had more artistic merit, perhaps, and one was the role we all should play, that of Human Being.

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch! – Hillel, in Pirkei Avot 2:

If those of us who never met the man are sad to see him go, I ache to think of the grief his family and friends are feeling. May they be comforted among all the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem.

Perfect moments and good people are with us only for a moment. We can preserve them only in memory. Thank you for all you taught us, Leonard Nimoy.

 

Being Jewish, Doing Jewish

A great question came up in class last night, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. A student asked:

You say that Judaism is about actions, not about belief. But how does that connect to whether a person is Jewish or not?

Being Jewish is a state of relationship between an individual and the Jewish People. A person cannot become Jewish by him- or herself: a person is Jewish because of a particular relationship, either a birth into a Jewish family or an adoption-like process later in life. A person either is or isn’t Jewish; there are no intermediate states. (Note: “Who’s a Jew?” is a major source of disagreement in the Jewish world. If you have questions about your status, talk with your rabbi.)

Being Jewish is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is an identity which makes me part of something larger than myself and gives me full membership in the Jewish People. On the other hand, it makes me a potential target for antisemitism which can materialize anywhere, anytime. And yes, as a Jew I am responsible for many sacred duties. Even if I do not observe them at a particular time in my life, I know they are there.

Jewish actions include those sacred duties (mitzvot) but they also carry the real rewards of Judaism. “Doing Jewish” includes:

  • the weekly miracle of Shabbat
  • saying the Shema “when I lie down and when I rise up:” daily prayer
  • a cycle of holidays and observances
  • life cycle traditions that enrich my passage through life
  • teaching Judaism to my children and/or to newer members of my community
  • mobilizing to assist other Jews both nearby and far away
  • participation in a Jewish community where I can develop relationships with people and grow from those relationships
  • a template for grief and mourning that will embrace me just as my life seems to spin out of control
  • access to the great treasury of Jewish thought, thousands of years of road-tested advice about how to handle life’s most challenging moments
  • and many, many more things

Many of those benefits are available not only to Jews but to others as well. Non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people are welcome at our Shabbat, seder and study tables. More and more synagogues are developing policies that make synagogue life available to non-Jewish spouses and relatives while preserving the boundaries that maintain authentic Jewish life.

Becoming Jewish, crossing that line between not-Jewish and Jewish, is a complex experience. Some things don’t change: I had been going to services and doing many other Jewish things for years. Some things were new after the mikveh: once I became a Jew, I was doing mitzvot not only because I wanted to, but because they had become part of my sacred duties as a Jew. And yes, there were things I could now do that I could not do before. My rabbi would perform a wedding for me. I could wear a tallit and be called to the Torah.

Being Jewish and doing Jewish are really two separate but related things. This is sometimes confusing to people from other traditions.

 

The Blog’s New Clothes

We’re reading Parashat Tetzaveh this week, known to a friend of mine as the “Fashion Parashah.” In it we learn all about the priestly vestments that Aaron and his sons will wear.

My blog has been wearing the same outfit since 2010, through 618 posts. I woke up today and decided it was time for a new look. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but it is clean and readable and I think it will be friendlier for folks reading via tablet and smartphone. If anything about it is acutely uncomfortable for you, let me know. WordPress is a powerful platform, and I have options.

 

 

Don’t Forget this Purim Mitzvah!

will_work_for_food3gPurim’s coming! Don’t forget: one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is a gift to feed the poor.

In its strictest interpretation, that’s a gift to make sure that poor Jews can celebrate the holiday. You can fulfill that mitzvah, feeding Jews, by a couple of routes:

MAZON is a Jewish organization that feeds people in both North America and in Israel. They do not turn anyone away, but they are primarily focused on Jewish food insecurity.

Alternatively, you can give money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Every congregation has members who are living with food insecurity, usually silently. The rabbi sometimes becomes aware of these situations and the discretionary fund can help buy groceries. A rabbi’s discretionary fund is not a private slush fund for expenses. Those funds have to be spent on things that preserve the deductible status of the original gift (in the USA.)

However, we are taught by our tradition to feed ALL hungry people, not just Jews. Some other options:

  • Donate cash or goods to your local food pantry or food bank.
  • Persuade others to give to your local food bank.

This is different from the usual “tzedakah before a holiday” thing, although that’s certainly good on its own. This is a particular part of Purim observance.  Partly this makes sure all can celebrate the holiday, but also look at the calendar: this holiday comes at what can be a brutal time of year for people with food insecurity. It’s cold and wet in many locations, and has been for months. Nutrition affects people’s resistance to colds and flu. Many kinds of produce are more expensive because of the season, too.

The Hebrew name for these Purim gifts is Matanot L’Evyonim (mah-ta-NOTE l’ev-yon-EEM): Gifts to the Poor. Purim is actually the traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday: we give gifts to the poor, and food gifts to friends.

The root of tzedakah (charity) is tzedek, justice. It is unfair that so many are hungry. In my own home state of California, 15% of households – that’s over 2 million people! – are currently suffering with food insecurity. There are parents going hungry to feed their children and children going hungry because there isn’t enough to go around. This is a shanda (scandal.)

Before we put on our festive masks, let’s each choose a place to send what we can!

 

 

No Stupid Questions!

One of the routine challenges I face as an educator is that people are afraid to look stupid. They don’t ask questions, or if they manage to get the courage together to ask questions, they apologize for asking. I don’t think anyone should be afraid to ask an honest question, ever, as long as they are doing it to become informed. The fact is that the best questions, the questions that must be asked, are the questions that come out of ignorance. 

Asking a pure question, an explain-this-to-me question, is in Jewish tradition the foundation of study. Look at our sacred texts: the Talmud is full of questions: “Why is this?” “What is that?” The great commentator Rashi anticipates our questions and answers them generously. A good question requires humility and courage, because it admits ignorance.

Asking a pure question, an I-don’t-know-please-fill-me-in question is also the foundation of education. Asking questions is how we learn.

image from the msnbc.com website
image from the msnbc.com website

I’ve been thinking about questions ever since seeing a piece on the The Rachel Maddow Show on Feb. 23. Ms. Maddow, whom I usually admire, is setting up a story about another matter entirely. She plays video of Idaho State Rep Vito Barbieri asking a question about human anatomy. I can’t get a link to the video to work, but here’s the quote from the msnbc.com website:

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.
The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.
Dr. Julie Madsen was testifying in opposition to the bill when Barbieri asked the question. Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

Yep, I get it. The man doesn’t know basic female anatomy and he’s a state legislator, about to vote on a bill that affects women’s agency over their own bodies. That’s not good. What troubles me is that the man asked a question and then Ms. Maddow and now a large number of my fellow liberal Americans laugh at him for it. Social media were immediately awash with people making fun of him; #VitoBarbieri became a popular hashtag on Twitter.

I wish more conservative lawmakers had the humility to ask questions of scientists and listen to their answers. We’ve got people making laws who don’t know basic anatomy: that’s terrifying. The immediate fix is for them to ask questions and learn. Come the next election, I hope the voters will do a better job of electing someone qualified. But to shame the man, to make him and his wife and his mother the butt of jokes is dead wrong.

I am not going to repeat any of it, but if you search Twitter for #VitoBarbieri you’ll see it. If I were on the receiving end of that, it would be a long time before I asked another curious question when someone might catch me doing it.

Rep Barbieri’s question seems to have come from genuine curiosity. That is profoundly different than the sort of pompous, ignorant pronouncement that often comes from politicians about scientific matters. Too often our lawmakers make up their minds on the basis of what they think will get them elected next time and then spout ignorant statements about women’s anatomy. They don’t ask – they just presume and vote. Rep. Barbieri asked.

Rep. Barbieri and I disagree about most things, as far as I can tell. But I applaud him for the curiosity and humility to ask a question. I am sorry and sad that people are laughing at him, because asking questions is a noble thing to do.

 

For more about Jewish tradition and shaming: Thou Shalt Not Embarrass.

Mishloach Manot: A Delicious Mitzvah!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/shinyhappyworld/5634941531/
(image by Wendi Gratz)

Ask most American Jews about Purim and they will mention children’s parties, silly Purim Shpiels, costumes, and masks. They may tell you the story of Queen Esther. They might tell you about drinking alcohol in quantities not seen on any other holiday. They are less likely to mention one of the sweetest customs of the day: mishloach manot. (meesh-LOW-ach mah-NOTE) This is the mitzvah of wrapping up small gifts of food or drink to give to family and friends. If the Hebrew name is a tongue twister, call them Purim Goody Bags.

While it is a commonly observed mitzvah in some places, I had never seen it in my home congregation in Oakland. My first experience with mishloach manot was when one of my teachers at Hebrew Union College, Dr. Rachel Adler, showed up at class with a shopping bag loaded with a small brown paper bag for each student in her classes. Mine had a tiny bottle of kosher grape juice and 2 cookies. I was thrilled, then immediately felt guilty that I hadn’t brought her a goody bag, too.

Most sources give two reasons for this mitzvah: (1) to make sure that everyone has good things to eat to celebrate the holiday and (2) to promote good feelings and harmony in the Jewish community. It’s based on a verse in the Scroll of Esther:

Therefore the Jews of the villages that dwelt in the unwalled towns made the 14th day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting, a holiday, and of sending portions to one another. – Esther 9:19

The gifts must be food, not money. They must be delivered during the day of Purim. They are given in addition to a special gift to feed the hungry, not instead of it, and one should not buy the gifts with money from one’s tzedakah (charity) budget. And despite my initial guilt feelings over Dr. Adler’s generosity, mishloach manot do not require a reciprocal gift.

The minimum to fulfill the mitzvah is a package of two prepared food items to one person. “Package” is a flexible term: I have seen fancy gift baskets of food for sale for Purim in Israel, but I have never received a sweeter mishloach manot package than the little brown bags Dr. Adler passed out to us with cookies and juice. One hectic year I used foil to make shiny little packages with wrapped candies inside. Mara Strom has written a charming article with 101 ideas for mishloach manot on a budget. The idea is generosity and delight, not ostentation or excess.

There are four main mitzvot of Purim: The Reading of the Megillah, Eating a Festive Meal, Giving Gifts to the Poor, and Mishloach Manot. Which of these mitzvot have you done in the past? Which might you like to try this year?

Where Do You Sacrifice the Animals?

This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi, can we see where you sacrifice the animals?”

A group from a local Christian church was touring the synagogue. I explained that we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. We haven’t sacrificed animals since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in year 70 of the common era. Our rules said we could only do that in the Temple in Jerusalem, so once that building was gone, we had to find a new way to stay connected with the Divine.

I don’t think he believed me, but it is the truth.

In a Reform synagogue, not only do we not sacrifice animals, we are no longer hoping to rebuild the Temple. We agree with Maimonides, who wrote in about 1190 in The Guide for the Perplexed that what God wanted from us was prayer, not sacrifices. The sacrifices had been instituted, he wrote, because we saw other people in the ancient world making sacrifices to their gods, and so God gave us a limited program of sacrifice: only certain animals, and only in one place. That program was meant to move us towards prayer as worship. Maimonides never wrote “so don’t bother to rebuild the Temple” but that became the position of the Reform Jews of the 19th century.

Instead of the sacrifices in the Temple, Jews say a prayer every day at the times appointed for the sacrifices. That prayer, often called “the Amidah” [standing prayer] is a series of short blessings said without a pause or interruption. Rather like the pyre on the altar that they replace, these prayers are layered one upon another in a particular prescribed order. For Orthodox Jews, the Amidah includes a prayer for rebuilding the temple, but in the Reform version, that prayer becomes a prayer that God will “pour out Your spirit” upon us, instead.

There are some people so interested in rebuilding the Temple that they have built elaborate models of it, and others who are trying to develop a red heifer so that the new Temple could be properly purified.

I think there are enough mitzvot that need doing in the world without rebuilding the Temple. I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Hosea, and other prophets as well:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

The Temple was one of the wonders of the world in its time. Today, that space is occupied by someone else’s house of worship since the year 703. Meanwhile, Jews have moved on to a new, more portable form of worship, the layered daily Amidah, and the shorter Amidah for Shabbat. Personally, I’m glad.

What about you? Would you like to see the Temple rebuilt? Why or why not?