What I’m Reading Lately

Some books I’ve been reading since the secular New Year:

Didion, Joan – The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion wrote a painfully honest book about the year following her husband’s sudden death. Didion writes honestly but artfully, using her considerable craft to walk us through a year of irrationality. It is a magnificent book; I could hardly put it down.

Boyne, John – A History of Loneliness. Edmund Burke wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I do not want to give away too much about this book, but it is about the price to be paid when good people refuse to see what is before their eyes. It is a book about paralysis of the soul.

Laymon, Kiese – How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. I don’t recall who recommended this book to me – someone on Twitter – but I thank them. Laymon is a brilliant essayist and I am going to look for his novel, Long Division.  This one slim volume convinced me that I’m woefully ignorant about African American realities and I plan to remedy that.

Bliss, Eula – On Immunity: An Inoculation – This is a wide-ranging book on the history and science of vaccination, on the fears that may underlie current controversies around it, and about this one mother’s uncertainties in facing motherhood. I found it fascinating and yet eventually the confessional portions wore me out. Ms. Bliss is not a great writer, merely a competent one, but I will grant her this: she made me think and stirred my compassion.

Almog, Shmuel, ed. – Antisemitism Through the Ages – Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, editor Almog was born in Berlin in 1926. He (and presumably his family, although I do not know for sure) emigrated to then-Palestine in 1933. The book is from 1988 and is no longer in print; copies are expensive, so I have not provided a link. This is one of the books recommended in a class I’m taking on antisemitism. When I have a book on the topic I can recommend that’s a bit more available, I’ll do that, I promise.

What have you been reading? Anything to recommend?

Thoughts on Parashat Terumah

V’a’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham. –Exodus 25:8

Make me a sanctuary, and I will live in the midst of them.

These words appear in and on many synagogues. Usually they get a fancier translation, something along the lines of “Build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them” or some such. I think there’s something to be gained from the rawer version: Make it, and I will live with you.

It appears in the early part of Parashat Terumah, when God tells Moses to ask for a free-will offering. The offering will be used to build the mishkan, the portable Ark of the Covenant, and its setting, the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. He asked specifically for a list of things I would never imagine to be in the possession of runaway slaves in the midst of the Sinai Wilderness:

These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver and bronze;  blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and sea mammal skins; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense;  and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece. – Exodus 25: 3-7

Other writers will offer you theories on why the Israelites had these things. But for a moment, let’s just focus on the fact that much of this list is beyond precious and rare. The “blue, purple, and scarlet” dyes were so scarce that they were reserved for royalty even centuries later. I can imagine Moses thinking to himself, “Uh-oh. I don’t think we’ve got half this stuff.”

Moses transmitted the message to the people: here’s what we need. And Am Yisrael delivered. The people of Israel came through, bringing precious metals, precious dyestuffs, rare leathers, precious gems.  That’s the miracle of this parashah: God asked, and the people stepped up. The rest of the parashah talks about the people bringing such a pile of loot that it turned out to be more than was really needed.

Today we face an analogous situation. “Oy gevalt, how will American Jewry make it to the next generation?” say the pundits and pollsters. They follow this statement with a list of what the people aren’t bringing. Jews are intermarrying! Jews don’t learn Hebrew! Jews don’t come to synagogue! Oy gevalt!”

But here’s what I learn from Parashat Terumah: Look at what Am Yisrael, the Jewish People are bringing. Many American Jews are intermarrying, yes, but a significant percentage of them are raising their children as Jews. We are in the midst of an avalanche of conversions, people bringing themselves to us, jumping through hoops to become part of us, anxious to participate and build a Jewish future. Jews are bringing innovation to the table, too: Internet learning, online services, nontraditional minyanim, a thousand interesting experiments, any one of which may turn out to be durable for the next ten generations.

Perhaps our next tabernacle is not a holy place hung with linen and studded with precious gems, not a fabulous modern building. Perhaps it is a gathering of rare and lovely souls, a gathering of Jews themselves, bringing heads and hearts and hands. I know that when I am in the midst of Jews celebrating a holiday, or studying together, or doing social justice work, I can feel the presence of God, living in the midst of us.

Let us bring all that we are and see what we can build together.

Joy Increases – Welcome to Adar!

A few blooms announce the arrival of spring.

“Mishenichnat Adar marbin b’simchah” B.Ta’anit 29a

“When Adar enters, joy increases.”

Sunset on February 18, 2015 brings us Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, of good luck, of silly games and pranks.

The quotation above is from Masechet Ta’anit in the Babylonian Talmud.

Ta’anit means “fasts.”  This masechet [book] is a compilation of discussions about fast days (with, of course, digressions on those discussions.) Fast days are somber occasions: Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement] and the Ninth of Av [the memorial of the destruction of the Temple] are the best-known fast days. They are not happy occasions. How did this line about Adar wind up in there?

When we look at the context, the rabbis are in the midst of a sobering discussion about the “curtailment of rejoicings” in the month of Av. There’s a heartbreaking story about the young priests going to the roof of the Temple as it was burning, reaching their arms up to throw the Temple keys into the hands of the angels.  Then the young priests, their duty done, fall into the fire. There is a sad quotation from Isaiah about people dying, and God weeping.

Then a new bit of Mishnah is quoted: “WITH THE BEGINNING OF AV REJOICINGS ARE CURTAILED.”

Then the Gamara expounds:

Rab Judah the son of R.Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab:

Just as with the beginning of Ab rejoicings are curtailed, so with the beginning of Adar rejoicings are increased. 

R. Papa said: Therefore a Jew who has any litigation with Gentiles should avoid him in Ab because his luck is bad and should make himself available in Adar when his luck is good. 

To give you a future and a hope: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: By this is meant [an abundance of] palm trees and flaxen garments. 

And he said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: As the smell of an apple orchard.

… and then the text returns to the grave discussion of the “curtailment of rejoicings” of the month of Av.

 Too many of us know tragedy at some point in our lives. But just as this discussion of Adar bursts in upon the discussion of tragedy for a moment, so does the month of Adar burst in upon us at the point where winter appears to be endless.  Good surprises burst in upon gray skies: sometimes instead of bad luck, we have good luck. Sometimes a new baby is born, and he smells wonderful. The message: The truly devout remain open to the possibility of joyful moments.

Adar comes with a command to “increase joy.” To do that, we must stay attuned to the possibility of the sacred moment when laughter breaks through tears, sun through clouds, beauty through the gray winter. If we are paying attention, we will be awake for joy. Adar is the month to cultivate that sacred skill in ourselves. For indeed:

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.

Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. 

And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:

How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!  [Gates of Prayer]

Happy Adar!  May our joy increase, and may we be awake to it!

May it give us all “a future and a hope.”  Amen.

Antisemitism, Again.

Photo credit: Beny Shlevich
Photo credit: Beny Shlevich

Antisemitism is alive and well in Europe. The news in the past few weeks has been grim: a shooting and murder outside a synagogue in Copenhagen and the kosher supermarket murders in Paris are the most serious. There has also been a disturbing video of a man being harrassed as he walks around Paris in a kippah.

These things are frightening, no doubt about it. My heart goes out to the Jews of France and Denmark. I am disturbed, though, by something I’m seeing on social media. Jews all over the world are upset, and are talking loudly about being upset, but a lot of the conversation is not constructive. Some thoughts:

1. If we are worried about antisemitism, we should learn more about it. The media are not reliable when it comes to this issue (remember the reporting about Israel last summer?) If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, I recommend this article by Eve Garrard, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. There are some excellent new books on the subject as well, both antisemitism in the past and the so-called “new” antisemitism. Better yet, organize a study group at your synagogue – not a coffee klatch to worry, but a group that will study and learn.

2. It is true that the gunmen in Paris and Copenhagen have identified as Muslims. However, blaming the current wave of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere on Islam is far too simplistic. White Americans who identified as Christians bombed synagogues in Sacramento, CA as recently as 1999.  Again, I recommend learning about antisemitism, which has deep roots in history and Western culture.

3. Instead of worrying and ranting, how about doing something? Support the Anti-Defamation League. Send letters or emails of support to synagogues in Paris and Denmark. Many have websites, and you can search for them at the World Union for Progressive Judaism website. Ask your rabbi for more suggestions: maybe there is a local group you can join or support or a class you can take.

I am currently taking a class on the history of antisemitism, and doing the reading connected with it. When I feel ready I’ll post to this blog about some of the things I’m learning.

It is a sad fact that antisemitism has been with us in one form or another for many centuries, since classical times. We need not feel helpless in confronting it. Hysterics won’t help, nor will denial. What will make a difference is educating ourselves and supporting one another.

 

 

 

New Jewish Disability Resource Online!

Neil and Denise Jacobson and I, pausing long enough for a photo. Image by Linda Burnett.
Neil and Denise Jacobson and I, pausing long enough for a photo. Image by Linda Burnett.

What untapped resources are hidden in plain sight in your temple membership?

My friend and teacher Neil Jacobson has a bold vision for congregations. He says it so well that I am not going to try to paraphrase. Just watch: Ask Not What the Temple Can Do for People with Disabilities, Ask What People with Disabilities Can Do for the Temple. This video is as un-sappy a take on disability as you will ever experience.

It’s part of a new website co-sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism and the Ruderman Family Foundation. The website is designed for use by Reform congregations, but it is so well done that I hope it gets broad use both within the movement and beyond it as well.

Many good Jews want to observe the mitzvot concerning blindness and deafness:

Do not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God. – Leviticus 19:14

Too often these mitzvot are approached from the Dark Ages, when a cheresh (deaf person) seemed incapable of communication, and more recently, when people with disabilities were seen as objects of pity or as heroes. In fact, people with disabilities are first and foremost people with gifts to give and talents to share.  We are human beings, made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine.

Shake off the Dark Ages! Stop wasting the gifts of members in your congregation! If you want to learn about disability, if you are part of a congregation that wants to make better use of its resources, if you want to observe the mitzvot addressed in Leviticus 19:14, check out DisabilitiesInclusion.org!

 

The Barriers In our Hearts

disabilityWhen congregations talk about becoming more accessible to people with disabilities, there’s an underlying assumption that the congregation has something to offer to the person with a disability.

There’s the usual stuff, of course: the rabbi, the religious school, somewhere to go on Yom Kippur. But if the congregation is full of people who don’t know how to be friends with a person who looks different from themselves and who don’t care to learn, what’s the point? That congregation can have all the ramps and hearing devices imaginable, but it will never be a congregational home for Jews with disabilities.

So if we want to make our congregations into places that are truly welcoming, that do not put stumbling blocks before the blind, then we have to work on our attitudes as well as our architecture. And face it, it’s easier to talk about architecture. Stairways don’t get offended when someone says they have to change; people often do.

A question for every one of us (me included) to ask ourselves periodically: among the people not like myself at my congregation, whom do I know well? By “well,” I mean: Have we ever done anything together outside of the synagogue building? Have I ever given them help, or asked for their help? Have they been invited to my home, or I to theirs? Or make it even more basic: do I greet them by name when I see them on Shabbat? Do I smile?

Often, when challenged about such a thing, we feel defensive and embarrassed: “I don’t know what to say” or “I can’t understand her speech.” If the person has a mental illness or developmental disability, or looks very different, we may feel afraid and be embarrassed to admit it. This is a good reason to reach out to clergy, to say, look, I want to be more welcoming of so-and-so, but I haven’t a clue how to talk to him, or what to say to her, or I feel scared of him.  Your rabbi can probably give you some ideas about where to start and will likely be delighted that you have asked.

(Note: as someone pointed out to me recently, there are situations where interaction itself is unwelcome, as with autism. Again, temple staff and clergy can help you figure out what’s welcome and what isn’t.)

Every person brings something unique to our communities. At my home congregation, people with disabilities include a published author, an educator, a bank vice president, a rabbi, and several other people with interesting jobs and/or life stories. People who are different from me in other ways (older, younger, have funny accents not like my funny accent, different income or education level) are also fascinating once I stretch a little to meet them. All of them bring their own gifts to give to the congregation as members. Each of them brings a lot to the table as a potential friend, too.

February is Jewish Disabilities Month. We can look at that as a month to make ourselves more aware of barriers in our synagogues and institutions. Or we can look at it as a month to make ourselves more aware of the barriers in our hearts. Either way, this is the month to remove the stumbling blocks.

Purim Resources

Rabbi Adar, Purim 2012
Rabbi Adar, Purim 2012

Purim’s coming at sundown on March 4, 2015! In preparation, here are some posts from years past with information and ideas about the holiday:

The Basics of Purim

Purim for Beginners

For Your Enjoyment: Purim Videos!

Purim for Grownups?

Purim has a Dark Side

What’s Shushan Purim?

What do you look forward to about Purim? Is there anything you’d prefer to skip?