Suffering is Not a Show

September 19, 2014
Puna district, Lava Flow

Map Showing Lava Flow and Population in Lower Puna District (Dr. Mark Kimura)

Dr. Mark Kimura of the University of Hawaii is on a mission. He wants (1) to empower the people of the Puna District of Hawaii by giving them information, and he wants (2) people “on the mainland” – that is, not living in Hawaii – to understand what is happening in the rural communities of the southeast corner of the Big Island. Kilauea volcano is erupting, creating new land and destroying everything in its path, and human beings are already suffering uncertainty and loss.

The trouble is that usually we folks on the mainland are not interested in such things until they become a show. In 1990, I remember watching the network news and seeing the homes of Kalapana burning up as lava from Kilauea volcano oozed through the town. The human beings who had only hours or days before evacuated those homes were not in the picture. They were not as photogenic as molten lava flow, glowing in the dark, setting houses on fire.

Twenty years after, I and a group of other tourists picked our way across the lava, on our way to see the steam and fire where the burning rock was now entering the sea. Someone casually asked our guide where he grew up, and he pointed across the lava field. “In Kalapana, about there,” he said. “But we had to leave in 1990.” Suddenly I realized that what I had seen on TV was someone’s home. I was ashamed that I had not understood that before.

This past June 27, the volcano began erupting in a new direction, towards the subdivisions around the town of Pahoa. The area around Pahoa is dotted with small farms and homes in subdivisions. It is a world away from the big resorts on the Kona Coast. Right now, the lava is flowing, and no one is sure exactly where it will go, only that sooner or later it could destroy homes and businesses, and sooner or later it could cut the highway that provides land access to the world outside. “Sooner” could be next week. “Later” could be anytime after that.

Sooner or later the photographs of burning houses and flowing lava could be on the news here on the mainland. Sooner or later those photos or photos of another spectacular disaster will be part of the flow of info into our TV’s, our computers, our smartphones. I ask that we all take a moment, when we see those photos, to remember that real people live there, that real people are losing their homes, that someday someone will point across a lava field and say, “My home was about there. It’s under the rock now.”

I will finish with Dr. Kimura’s words from the Facebook page he set up to inform others about the situation:

I wanted two things when I started this FB page: (1) people in lower Puna feel empowered (at least a little) by understanding the possible ramifications of the lava flow reaching the ocean; and (2) the rest of the world learns how serious the situation is and responds accordingly. This one is for the latter.

I don’t want people outside of Hawaii to just come here right before the lava hits a residential area (if it does) and simply enjoy the “show”. I want them to care. They need to know real people exist, not just the hot lava burning down the trees.

At the moment, the only place I can suggest to send funds to help is the Hawaii Chapter of the Red Cross. If I learn of other options, I will post them here.


Why is the Synagogue So Expensive?

September 17, 2014
Temple_Israel_Memphis_Chapel

Temple Israel, Memphis, TN

Why is synagogue membership so expensive?

• Synagogues run on membership subscriptions because that allows for predictable cash flow and budgeting.  Every synagogue has its own formula for setting dues.

• Costs vary by the cost of living in an area, by the size of the staff (salaries are usually the biggest single budget item) and by the services offered. A small synagogue that rents a room in a local strip mall one day a week and has no rabbi can operate very cheaply, and it will have low dues. It may be a wonderful Jewish community, but it will not be able to offer many things that people want from a synagogue.

• IMPORTANT: Most synagogues offer “dues relief” when needed. If you want to join a synagogue with dues of $2000 a year, and you can’t afford it, say so! Please do not assume that you are not wanted, or that it is a synagogue only for “rich people.” Explain that you want to belong to the synagogue, but that that amount will not fit into your budget. They will usually have a way to meet you at a level you can afford.

• Sometimes people ask why they should pay for services they don’t personally use. For instance, why should I pay the full membership rate when I don’t have children in religious school?  Educating the children of our community about Torah is a basic Jewish value, and it is the responsibility not just of the parents, but of the whole community. If you think the synagogue is spending your dues on something foolish or unfair, talk with a member of the board and learn about who uses that program and why it is a priority. If you still think it foolish, you can talk to more board members about examining those priorities.

• They call it a “membership” because you become a member. Once you join, at whatever dues level, you are not merely a consumer. Look for ways to keep expenses low by being a good member: cleaning up your messes, helping with set up and clean up, serving on committees, volunteering, and participating in events like congregational meetings and fundraising.

For more about how to be happy with the synagogue you join, I’ve written How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips.

I have a bias on this subject: I don’t work for one, but I’ve been a member of a synagogue for twenty years. When there’s trouble, I call the rabbis; when I have good news, I share it with friends there. My beloved and I were married there. It is my Jewish family, my first and primary tie to the larger Jewish world.

Don’t let sticker shock drive you away! There are ways to make it work. Synagogue membership is one of the great bargains around.


All of You: Netzavim

September 16, 2014

U.S. Embassy, Tel Aviv, 9/3/2012

Today you are standing, all of you, before the Eternal your God — your chieftains, your tribes, your leaders and your officers — all the men of Israel,  along with your little ones, your women and your resident aliens here with you in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water. – Deuteronomy 20:9-10

When Moses officiated at the solemn ceremony of the covenant between God and Israel described in Deuteronomy he began with this preamble. The verb netzavim has a special meaning that mere “standing” doesn’t fully convey. The people are officially present to make a sacred promise. The closest usage of “stand” in English is “to take a stand.” The People of Israel are not just hanging out; they are ritually and officially present to take action.

In case “all of you” might be mistaken for “just the guys,” Moses made it clear that he meant everyone from the heads of the clans to the lowest hanger-on. He makes it specific: all the men, plus children, women, and foreigners, including day laborers. This vow was not to be taken by proxy: no one “stood in” for anyone else.

In other words, everyone mattered. The covenant is both communal and personal, and no one is left out. There are no second-class Jews in the eyes of God.

 


Ten Books That Influenced Me

September 15, 2014

Rabbi Steven Fuchs published My Ten Most Influential Books on his blog today and invited his readers to post theirs. I thought it made an interesting exercise, and perhaps an interesting blog post. Here goes, in no particular order:

Bible1. Exodus – I read the second book of the Torah for the first time when I was in second or third grade, in a Catholic Bible. I was absolutely riveted by the story and the characters, so much so that I read it over and over, memorizing parts of it. The story of an enslaved people making their way to freedom thrilled me. I was as impressed by their cowardice as by their courage: every time things got tough, the Israelites got scared. I could identify. I still love that story with all my heart.

2. Gods, Graves and Scholars, by C. Ceram. The summer before sixth grade, I came down with mono. In the 1960s that meant that I spent the whole summer on bed rest and teasing (it was “the kissing disease,” and I got very tired of insisting that I hadn’t kissed any boys.) I found this book on the shelf in the den at home and it entertained me for hours. It is a history of archaeology, with an emphasis on glamour and adventure that probably makes real archaeologists laugh, but I loved it. I’ve been interested in ancient civilizations ever since.

Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends3. Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends – Part of the reason the previous book appealed to me was that my mother had read to me from Myths and Legends from the time I was little. Greek and Norse mythologies were as real to me as the Disney Princesses are to little girls today. This book led me to read and love Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The illustrations enchanted me, too.

4. To Raise a Jewish Child, by Hayim H. Donin – I read this book because back about 1990 I had had several conversations with Jewish friends that left me feeling embarrassingly ignorant. I saw it in a used book store, and thought, “that should answer my questions.” By the end of the book, I was on the path to Judaism. Why that book? I have no idea. It was there. It was cheap. I was ready.

5. Judaism as a Civilization, by Mordechai Kaplan – This book made me think deeply about Jewish life and Jewish theology in ways I hadn’t dreamed were possible. I don’t subscribe to it 100% or even 80%, but Rabbi Kaplan approached his enormous subject with such creativity that the phrase “blew my mind” applies.

6. Berakhot, Artscroll Edition – Not too long after my conversion, I joined a little group in Oakland who were reading books of Talmud together. It wasn’t traditional Talmud study. We gathered once a week and read the Artscroll edition of Tractate Berakhot to each other, including all the footnotes. Reading it, I developed an affection for the rabbis and a fascination with the literature from which I hope I never recover.

7. Anne of Green Gables, entire series – I loved these books as a little girl, and over time I’ve come to realize that a lot of my values came into focus reading L. M. Montgomery’s Anne. Not a bad choice, really: the books advocated for kindness, honesty, and education for women.

The Marvelous Land of Oz8. The Marvelous Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum – This is the second book in the Oz series. It stirred up all sorts of interesting ideas in me. It raised questions about feminism, about politics, and most of all, about gender and orientation. Most of the story was about Tip, a boy who’d been raised by a witch. It eventually comes out that he’s not a boy at all, but an enchanted girl, Princess Ozma of Oz. When I was small I identified powerfully with Princess Ozma. Now I think that I was looking for a role model to help me make sense of my feeling that I didn’t quite fit in the role conservative Southern society laid out for me. Granted, Tip/Ozma was more transgender than anything else, but that was as close as I got to a lesbian role model for my first thirty years.

Engendering Judaism9. Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler – Rabbi Dr. Adler is my teacher and dear friend, but even if she weren’t, this book would have changed my view of Judaism and the rabbinate. I began reading the book with the idea that halakhah (Jewish law) was too inflexible to deal with some of the complexities of modern life. By the time I finished, I understood that what was inflexible was my (previous) understanding of halakhah. I would never again allow myself to be cowed by someone citing a medieval code as if it were the last and only word on a subject involving real human beings.

Margery Kempe10. The Book of Margery Kempe – Margery Kempe (c.1370 – c.1440) was an English Christian mystic who dictated the first autobiography written in the English language. Margery was a businesswoman, the mother of at least 14 children, and she was prone to depressive episodes and visions. She believed herself to be called by God to a life of devotion, prayer, and tears in public. She annoyed many members of the clergy by crying loudly during their sermons. She traveled the great pilgrimage routes of Europe, and left her account of them in a book that was “lost” and rediscovered in an attic in the UK in the 20th century. Google her – she’s a trip. During the period when I’d left Christianity and was not yet Jewish, I found in Margery a fellow-traveler.

So, which ten books have influenced you?


‘Twas the Night before Class

September 14, 2014
Circle of Chairs

“Circle of Chairs” by Chris Campbell

I’m up late tonight, because I can’t sleep.

I’m too excited about tomorrow: the new cycle of Intro classes starts promptly at 10:10 tomorrow, when I meet a new roomful of strangers. Over the next eight months we’ll get to know one another very well as we wade through Jewish holidays, Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish texts, Jewish history, and a bunch of other topics. More than anything, I’ll try to equip them for living in Jewish community.

Some were born Jewish, but never got a Jewish education. That can generate a lot of shame, but it really isn’t their fault. I love seeing them realize what they know, and what they can learn.

Some are considering conversion to Judaism. I’ll try to equip them for this journey. They need not just facts and “how to” directions, but some clues about the context of American Judaism today, and their own Northern California Jewish community. They need some help in navigating this new Jewish world they seek to enter.

Some are there because they love someone Jewish. They want to understand the language and crack the codes. If I can help with that, their families will be stronger and Judaism will be the better for it.

Some will say they there because it’s Sunday morning, their kids are in Religious School, and someone (their rabbi?) suggested they take the class while they’re waiting. Later in the year I may (or may not) find out what they are hoping to get from the class.

Some will be shy. Some will be full of questions. Some will want to talk all the time, and others will be loathe to talk at all. Some will be easy to love, and some will challenge me to find the tzelem Elohim [image of God] in them.

I have my bag packed, my handouts at the ready. I really need to get some sleep.


What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

September 13, 2014

  1. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Jews have observed Yom Kippur for millennia.
  2. Yom Kippur observance is based on Leviticus 16, where procedures are laid out for atonement for all the sins of Israel. The key verses are 29-31: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
  3. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifices were no longer possible. Yom Kippur remains a day of fasting and earnest prayer. Even in extreme situations, Jews will do whatever they can to fast from sundown to sundown.
  4. The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, but it only atones for sins against one’s fellow human beings if one has already gone through the process of teshuvah. Follow the link for more information about teshuvah. Because often proper teshuvah takes time, the entire month of Elul is set aside for preparation for the Days of Awe.
  5. The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre, after the legal formula with which it begins. Kol Nidre means “all vows.” It is both a nullification of foolish vows we may be tempted to make during the day of fasting, and a remembrance of the many times our people were given the bitter choice of conversion (to Christianity or Islam) or death.
  6. Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish Year in that there are five complete services for the day. A normal Jewish weekday has three services. Shabbat has four. (The number of services corresponds to the number of sacrifices in Temple times.)
  7. On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally observe five different practices:  We fast from food and water, we do not wear leather shoes, we do not bathe, we do not “anoint ourselves” (use lotions or wear makeup) and we refrain from sexual relations. Fasting is the most widely observed of these among liberal Jews. However, people with medical problems and pregnant women are forbidden to fast. Children under 13 do not fast.
  8. Yom Kippur is the day when Jews who do not otherwise enter a synagogue will go to services. Many Jews spend the entire day at synagogue, going to services, studying, confessing personal and communal sins, and discussing serious matters.
  9. On Yom Kippur, Jews who have lost close relatives attend Yizkor, a service of mourning and remembrance.
  10. The last service of the day is Neilah, “locking,” which refers to the poetic idea that during the Days of Awe, the “gates of repentance” are open. It is a dramatic service in which the cantor and service leaders plead for God’s forgiveness for Israel.
  11. Yom Kippur appears to “move around” in the Gregorian calendar. That is because Jewish holy days are set by the Jewish calendar, which is lunar and works differently than the Gregorian. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur always falls on the 10th of Tishri, in the autumn.
  12. In 2014, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on October 3.

What is the Book of Life?

September 11, 2014
Cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform Tablet: Assyrian accounting

There is an ancient tradition that on Rosh HaShanah our names are “written in the Book of Life” if we are living good lives, and that sinners have the ten days to Yom Kippur to do the work of teshuvah. (Click the link if you are not familiar with teshuvah. It means more than the English “repentance.”)

Do modern Jews believe that God has an actual account book in which our lives are measured? In a word, no.

This tradition has its roots in Biblical metaphor. In Isaiah 4:3, the prophet speaks of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion as those who are “recorded for life in Jerusalem.”  It is referenced more clearly in a book of midrash called the Book of Jubilees that was not accepted for inclusion in most Bibles. The idea of a divine accounting book has its origins in Babylonia, where the concept of a Day of Judgment also first appeared. The civilizations of Mesopotamia were enthusiastic about bookkeeping. Much of the written materials we have from them are accounting books; it’s not surprising that they thought the gods would love accounting, too.

So why keep this tradition, if we don’t take it literally? The written word is a powerful image in the Jewish imagination. Words are powerful (they are the means of Creation in Genesis) – the written word even more so. God writes on the tablets at Sinai, to establish the laws of the covenant. The medieval teacher Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote that “our days are scrolls, and we write upon them the Torah of our lives.”

God may not keep an actual accounting book, but our lives are finite. None of us knows when we are going to die, only that we will not live forever. On Yom Kippur, we take a day to think seriously about our lives. What have we neglected? What have we done that we would regret? On Yom Kippur, there is still time to make it right. But the image of the Book of Life pushes us to get moving. Do not delay another hour! Because we don’t know how long we’ve got, how many more pages there are in our book.

While Jewish tradition is very vague about afterlife, it is sharply clear about this life, and unromantic about death. Death is an end to this life. On that day, whenever it comes, we’ve used our last opportunity to do good or to reconcile. Yom Kippur is a day and the month of Elul is a season, when we remind ourselves of that.

What would you regret if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you change?

What can you do about it while you are still alive?

 


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