Who Saves a Life, Saves a World

October 22, 2014

Bad news from Jerusalem today: a man in a car mowed down passengers exiting a light rail train. Some were Israeli, some American. A three month old infant is dead. Video makes it clear that this was a deliberate act, not an accident.

Hamas is celebrating, although reports conflict as to whether it has taken credit or not. I do not understand people who celebrate the death of an infant.

On October 1, Ibtisam Rashid was at a checkpoint in Israel, trying to take her 5 year old grandson to a chemotherapy appointment. She had a fatal heart attack and died after being denied crossing.

I lived in Israel before they built the infamous security wall. Buses were bombed regularly. My grammar teacher came to school once after helping to pick up the bodies of schoolchildren whose bus blew up in front of his car.

I do not know the answer to the matzav, the situation. I cannot fathom the pain of the parent whose child was smashed by that car. I cannot fathom the pain of the little boy whose grandmother collapsed at the checkpoint.

This week we read the story of a man named Noach. He received word from God that his family alone was to be saved from the Flood, his family alone out of all those on earth. He followed the directions he received from God: he built the ark, he put the animals on it, he shut the door when it began to rain.

Noach (whose name is related to the word for comfort)  was comfortable with the idea that God had singled out his family for survival. He did not question the idea that others would suffer and perish. He did not ask if innocents might die along with sinners. He shut the door.

Some of our sages point out the contrast between Noach and Abraham. Noach had concern only for God’s command and his family’s well being. Abraham was concerned about the suffering of theoretical innocents, the people he thought might be in Sodom.

Let us not become Noach, concerned only for ourselves. Let none of us, on any side of this conflict, be callous to the suffering of the other. Let us be like our common patriarch Abraham, concerned for more than his own. Let us remember that every death is a tragedy, a whole world lost.

May the day come when all people on all sides can see the humanity of the other.


Conversion Manifesto

October 21, 2014
A New Jew receives the Torah

A New Jew receives the Torah

Bethany S. Mandel wrote a powerful article, A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts and published it in the Times of Israel this week. She wrote primarily for an Orthodox audience, but there is a lot in there for liberal Jews to ponder as well.

Rabbis need to have conversations about some of Ms. Mandel’s points. However, many of the things that are difficult about being an adult Jew-by-Choice are things that have to do with the behavior of ordinary Jews.

Let me speak to this as the Jew-by-Choice that I am, in the form of a 10-point manifesto:

  1. Don’t introduce me to others as “a convert.” That is contrary to Jewish tradition, and just plain rude. In some contexts, it is bullying.
  2. I may choose to reveal my history as a person who came to Judaism as an adult, but I don’t owe every Jew an account of it.
  3. My status as a Jew is not appropriate subject matter for small talk. Ever.
  4. If there is something about my conversion that doesn’t meet with your approval, take it up with my rabbi or with yours.
  5. If you don’t approve of my rabbi, keep it to yourself. Really – what do you expect me to do about it?
  6. Don’t gossip about your perceptions of my history, and don’t listen to such gossip from others.
  7. If you see someone bothering me with 1-6 above, please interrupt and change the subject.
  8. If you see someone mistreat converts more than once, take it up with them or with your rabbi.
  9. If I do something out of ignorance that will cause me difficulty, bring it up with me privately and kindly.
  10. Want to help? Invite me to Shabbat dinner. Sit with me. Include me. Smile.

The Book of Ruth teaches us that we never know how a particular Jew is going to fit into the big picture of Jewish history. Ruth was a particularly unpromising candidate for conversion. She was a Moabite woman, looked down upon by many respectable Jews of her time. However, through her choice to become one of us, and participation in the communal life, Ruth became not only the wife of a communal leader, she became the ancestor of King David himself.

Programs can be useful and have their place. However, the thing that makes a synagogue “welcoming” is not the programming, not the service, not the board, and not even the clergy: it is the behavior of each individual member of that community when they encounter someone new or different.

 


A Tale of Two Grandmothers

October 19, 2014
My Two Grandmothers

My Two Grandmothers

A student asked me today, “What can I do, when both sets of grandparents go crazy with gift-giving in December? It’s as if it is a competition!”

The question set me to thinking about my grandmothers. Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I loved both my grandmothers and I know that they both loved me.

Due to circumstances, I didn’t get to see much of one grandmother. She traveled a lot, and sent me beautiful dolls from every place she visited. Those dolls enriched my life: I learned about other cultures, about climate and geography. I kept the dolls in a cabinet, and enjoyed looking at them and dreaming about all the places they represented.

I have only a few vivid memories of that grandmother. She hated waste (we’re alike that way) and she thought I should take French in high school (I took Spanish.) The conversations I remember best are from a train ride we took from Chicago to San Francisco. I remember that she taught me how to play canasta. She always kept ginger ale for children. Other than that, I don’t remember a great deal about her, which is really quite sad.

My other grandmother took me along on errands. I learned a lot of my values from her, just watching the way she treated people. I saw her give money to poor people when they asked for help. When there was an obituary in the paper about someone she vaguely knew, she’d say, “Get dressed up, we’re going to the funeral home!” She taught me the power of simply showing up.

She loved to drive a little (maybe a lot) too fast, but she taught me to drive after my father had given up in despair.  I still hear her voice when I have to wait a long time for a left turn: “Just wait, Punkin, the right opening will come. There’s no rush. You’re doing fine.”

She always told me what I was doing right; her silences told me what I was doing wrong. When I became an adolescent, she had a lot to be silent about, but she persisted in telling me when she was proud of me. The only painful memory I have of her was my own failure: when she was dying she tried to talk to me about death, but to my eternal regret, I changed the subject.

So this is what I told my student: If the grandparents want to compete, you can’t stop them. But remind them that the way to “win” the competition is with relationship: get to know your grandchildren. Let them get to know you. Share your values by example: don’t tell, show. Expensive gifts are not memories. Tell stories. Take them along.

My grandmothers died two months apart, in the spring and summer of 1974. One I remember faintly with fondness and gratitude; the other is key to the person I grew up to be, and I mourn her still.

The photos above are the only ones I have of either grandmother. Neither conveys their true beauty. 

 


Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?

October 17, 2014

When God was creating the heavens and the earth…. – Genesis 1:1

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

I’m from Tennessee, home of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan in the tiny court house in Dayton, TN. I learned as a child about Creationism and its variants: Young Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc. And no, I am not providing links: google them if you want. As far as I’m concerned, they are all nonsense.

Lately I’ve heard from the New Atheists (ok, I’ll give them a link) that “all religion” teaches such nonsense, and therefore religion is bunk. None of these folks appear to have been near a synagogue lately, because I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis. I’m sure that there are Jewish fundamentalists somewhere who believe it, but if you ask a panel of rabbis, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, we’ll all say politely that the Creation stories are meant to be understood as metaphor. Then we’ll disagree about how to interpret it, and that’s where it will begin to be interesting.

Anyone who gets all hot and bothered over six days of Creation and monkeys and whatnot is missing the point of the Creation stories. (Yes, stories plural, because there are two of them in Genesis, and they contradict one another in more than details. Read Genesis 1 and 2, if this is news.)

Among other things, these narratives point to a notion of the world as a place that teeters between order and chaos. At the beginning of Genesis 1, all is tohu-va-vohu: a sort of murky chaos where “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God makes order of the chaos, separating light from darkness. Then this same God makes new things with words: light, sky, dry land, sea, plants and animals. Every step of the way, God is separating, organizing, making order out of that original, chaotic tohu-va-vohu. 

And then, with words and clay and breath, God makes human beings. We are different from plants and animals; it took more than words to make us. We make choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes good choices. In that, we are like the Creator. As the story says, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Which brings us back to the Monkey Trial: the distress of the Creationists was twofold: first, that the scientists seemed to be saying that the Bible was not true. Certainly scientists say that Genesis is not literally true. Science does not comment on whether Genesis may convey some other kind of truth, because all it can speak to is scientific knowledge.

The second thing that bothered the Creationists was the idea that somewhere back in the past, grandpa might have been a monkey, or a monkey-like being. This idea was profoundly repulsive to them, because they saw in the Biblical story and they felt in their guts that human beings are different from animals in an important way.

I agree that they are seeing an important Biblical truth: humans are different from animals. We have responsibility for our behavior in a way that animals do not. Where the Creationists and I differ is that they think it is important that human beings were never anything but human. I would argue that in the Bible it already says that we were something else: in the Bible it says we were clay. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether grandpa was a monkey or a mudpie.

And what about God? What if we were to see “God” not in some cartoon image, but as a Factor that moves the world from tohu-va-vohu, from entropy, towards something organized and meaningful, separating light from darkness, sea from dry land?

The real problem with Creationism and its ilk is that it wants answers, not questions. Good science asks questions, and when it gets an answer, looks for more questions. Judaism does the same: it seeks questions, and more questions. The more often we read the Creation stories, the more questions we will ask.

 


Sukkah in the Wind

October 14, 2014
sukkah

A Windy Day, ~15 mph

Success! This is my sukkah in a stiff wind, as a Pacific storm blows by the California coast. (Please let it rain! Please let it rain!)

There are several delicate balances to be struck with a proper sukkah. The roof must provide more shade than sun, but it must also be open enough for one to see the stars at night. It should be comfortable and pretty enough for celebration, but not permanent. It must be a temporary structure, but it must not blow over in a reasonable amount of wind.

That last – the wind – is a real issue here in the San Leandro Hills. While the roof is not yet quite right (the schach promptly blew off in the wind) the fishnet walls are ideal for this setting.

Moadim l’simcha!  – May your days of Sukkot be filled with joy.


From Generation to Generation

October 13, 2014

Women_of_the_Wall_Holding_Torah

I’m going to attend a bat mitzvah next weekend. A young woman from my first student pulpit is being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, a “daughter of the commandment.” While I’ve been growing up as a rabbi, the little girl who used to call me “Wabbi Woot” has been growing up into a young woman of great intelligence and dignity. She will lead us in prayer and read to us from the Torah scroll.

I’m excited, because this is one of those moments in the rabbinate when I can see something that is often invisible: the chain of tradition. Rebekah has learned some of her Torah from me: not her portion, but the lived Torah that is the fabric of Jewish life. I’m going to watch her ritualize her movement into adulthood in the Jewish community, knowing that some of my Torah goes with her.  Not mine alone, by any means: she has internalized Torah from her parents, her grandparents, and her many teachers. But for me, as a relatively new rabbi (ordained in 2008) it will be a very solemn moment, watching a bit of my Torah pass to the next adult generation of Jews.

Where did I get my Torah? I got it from the rabbi with whom I converted, Rabbi Steven Chester.  I got it from my mentor and friend, Dawn Kepler. I got it from the cantor who taught me Torah trope, Cantor Ilene Keys. I got it from my first study partner, Fred Isaac. I got it from the rabbi I worked for at the URJ, Rabbi Michael Berk. I got it from all my teachers at Hebrew Union College. I got it from the elders at the Home for Jewish Parents in Reseda, CA. Today, I get it from colleagues and yes, from my students.

100 years from now, I don’t expect anyone to remember Rabbi Ruth Adar. But I know that just as the chain of tradition goes back behind me into the mists of history, to the teachers of my teachers all the way back to the Chazal, the great rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, so too the Torah I transmit will be alive and well in 5875 and however far into the future Jews continue to exist. Rebekah and my other students will teach their children, and their students, and a little of my Torah will travel with them far into the future.

Every moment, every encounter, each of us has an opportunity to teach Torah. We teach it most strongly with our behavior, with the tone we take in dealing with other human beings. We teach those with whom we interact and anyone who happens to be watching. The majority of the transmission of Torah does not happen in the yeshivah: it happens in the marketplace, in the parking lot, in the casual conversations of everyday. This is true for every Jew, not just the professionals.

Hold that Torah gently. Do not try to hold it alone.


The Most Beautiful Sukkah

October 12, 2014
"Red Door with Lock"

“Red Door with Lock” by Liz

There was once a man in Anaheim named Yacov who built a beautiful sukkah. It had an expensive carpet, and golden furniture, and Israeli art on the walls. It was so beautiful, that the man decided after the holiday that he wanted to keep his sukkah forever.

Still he worried. What about the golden furniture? What about the carpet?

So he put a door on his sukkah, and a great big lock, and he locked that sukkah up tight. He slept on a pallet in the sukkah every night.

The sukkah was a kosher sukkah.  It had a flimsy roof of palm fronds. He worried about that roof, and thought to himself, “Thieves may come in by that roof!” So he got some lumber, and he put a roof on the sukkah that was more secure. He closed that roof up tight. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

And when he was in the sukkah, he noticed that he could no longer see the stars, or the moonlight, and he felt a little sad, but he had to keep his sukkah safe! For he loved his sukkah very much, and he slept in the sukkah every night.

Then a neighbor complained to the city, and a building inspector came. The building inspector said to Yacov, “Yacov! You have no permit for this structure!” And Yacov said very importantly, “This is a sukkah! You can’t penalize me for a sukkah! It’s my religion! First Amendment!”

And the building inspector said, “I think I need a note from your rabbi.” And Yacov lay awake in the sukkah that night.

The next day, Yacov went to his rabbi, and said, “Rabbi, I built the most beautiful sukkah. Would you come and see my sukkah, and tell the City of Anaheim that they have to let me keep it?”

The rabbi said, “Yacov! It’s almost Chanukah! What are you doing with a sukkah?”

Yacov said, “Rabbi, come see it. It’s the most beautiful sukkah ever.”

So the rabbi shook his head, and visited Yacov’s house. He saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the protective roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” he asked.

“Yes, and it’s beautiful!” Yacov said, beaming. “Come in and see!”  He unlocked the door, and opened it, and the rabbi peered into the dim interior. He saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. He saw the pallet on the floor. He looked up at the roof. He sighed.

“Yacov, my friend, this is not a kosher sukkah.”

“What? It’s the most beautiful sukkah in the world!”

“No, Yacov, I cannot see the stars. And whoever saw a sukkah with lock on it?”

“But I have to keep it safe, Rabbi! I love this sukkah, and I am going to keep it forever!” The rabbi sighed again, even deeper.

“Yacov, my dear, the day you decided to keep it forever, it stopped being a sukkah. The sukkah is here to teach us that nothing is permanent. We cannot keep anything forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what wind will come tomorrow. What treasure have you been neglecting, while you tried to keep the sukkah?”

Yacov began to cry, and the rabbi cried with him. They sat on the golden furniture and cried.

So Yacov took the sukkah apart, and put away the furniture. He rolled up the rug and went inside, where his wife was waiting, and his children.


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