Slow Cooking Monday

August 18, 2014

cookerThere are people who are quick with ideas – maybe we could call them the Microwaves, since they can cook their ideas in a flash – and then there are folks who need time, maybe LOTS of time, to cook on an idea. When an idea is challenging I can be a slow-cooker.

I don’t have much to offer you today.  I’m cooking on something complex AND I have a bunch of promised work that must get done today.

Have you ever just had to stew on an idea for a while?


Washington and the Jews

August 16, 2014

George WashingtonOn August 17, 1790, President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island on a goodwill tour celebrating the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. While he was there, he was given a letter from the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport,” written by the warden of the congregation, Moses Seixas. The letter expressed the hopes and dreams of the Jews of Newport for a true home in which they need not fear religious persecution.

President Washington answered the letter with a gracious letter of his own which marked a milestone in the American separation of church and state. In Europe, Jews had been outsiders, unwelcome and at best tolerated, and they did not hold citizenship.

Washington wrote:

…The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid…

There would be severe challenges ahead to this liberal doctrine. (if you are wondering about that, Google “General Order No. 11” or watch the film Gentlemen’s Agreement.) But it set a tone and an expectation quite different from that in other western nations. Jews were to be part of America, not a separate and despised class of foreigners.

 


This Shabbat, I’m grateful.

August 15, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the last several weeks, every time we’ve gotten to Shabbat I’ve thought, “WHEW! Glad that week is behind me!” and I’ve thought naively that surely next week will be better. Here I am again, with the WHEW, but I find that I’m learning to find the things for which I am grateful even if they are small.

I am grateful that Captain Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol has shown such humanity and genius in his approach to the people of Ferguson. May we all learn from him!

I am grateful for cease fires in Israel, Gaza and everywhere, however long they can last.

I am grateful for journalists, even though they inform me of scary stuff.

I am grateful for my opportunity this past June to meet Rivka Selah z”l, a beautiful soul who departed this week, mother of a dear friend and mother-in-law of another.

I am grateful for all the small blessings of the week: for the gorgeous sunshine pouring in my windows, for the cucumbers and tomatoes growing in my garden, for the hummingbirds who put on a continual carnival in the back yard. I am grateful for zinnias and milkweed and those weird strong tendrils that help grape vines climb.

I am grateful for the friends who got in touch after reading my blog post on depression. I am doing OK, and all those caring friends are a part of that.

I am grateful for a number of things that confidentiality bars me from posting anywhere public. I am grateful for work that I love, and for students who learned from me, and who taught me wonderful things.

I am grateful for my sons. They rock. And for my beloved spouse, and for the little dogs who snuggle and dance and make us laugh.

I am grateful for my synagogue, Temple Sinai, where I will go to services tonight and count more blessings, and hear familiar words, and sing familiar songs with people I’ve known for years.

I am grateful for the blessings I haven’t noticed yet. May the peace of Shabbat make them apparent to me.


Shabbat shalom!


Reading List: Basic Judaism

August 14, 2014

Jewish Shelves

Looking for some basic reading about Judaism? Here are some of the best bets around:

Settings of Silver, an Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M Wylen – This is the book I use for my Intro courses. I chose it because the information is solid, it includes a brief history, and it has a good index.

Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Tradition, Belief, and Practice by Wayne Dosick – Another good basic text, used by many rabbis.

Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg – Published in 1947, this is still a classic work. It’s small but powerful.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzer – This book has a Q&A format and it’s extremely basic. If you are looking for just some basic facts without details, it might be the right book for you.

These are not holiday or “how-to” books – I’ll post a list of those soon.

Do you have a favorite basic Judaism text?

 


My Friend is Depressed: Now What?

August 13, 2014
Van Gogh "Sorrowing Old Man" 1890

Van Gogh “Sorrowing Old Man” 1890

What can Jewish tradition teach us about helping people who are depressed?

REACH OUT – Make contact, either by phone or in person. There is a beautiful story in tractate Berakhot 5a-b of the Talmud about three rabbis. The first rabbi, Chiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him, and asked him if he welcomed his suffering. Rabbi Chiyya said no. Then Rabbi Yochanan reached out his hand, took the sick rabbi’s hand, and raised him up.

Rabbi Yochanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina, his teacher, went to see him. He asked the same question, and got the same answer. Then he took Rabbi Yochanan’s hand and raised him up. The text itself asks then, why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan heal himself? It answers itself, saying, “The prisoner cannot free himself.”

Finally, Rabbi Eleazar fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him. He finds the rabbi lying in a dark room and crying. Rabbi Yochanan asks some questions about Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness. When Rabbi Eleazar says, “i am weeping because you are going to die someday.” Rabbi Yochanan says, “Yes, that’s very sad” and then they both cry for a while. Then Rabbi Yochanan says, “Do you welcome your suffering?” and Rabbi Eleazar says no, and Rabbi Yochanan takes his hand and helps Rabbi Eleazar up.

What can we learn from this? First of all, it is good to visit people who are sick, whether they are physically or mentally ill. We don’t know exactly what was wrong with Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba, but Rabbi Yochanan visited him, expressed his care, and helped him get better.

Second, we learn that people can’t heal themselves. Never tell a person with depression to “snap out of it.” Instead, ask how they are feeling, listen, and if you can “give them a hand,” literally or metaphorically, do so. Few of us can heal miraculously like Rabbis Yochanan and Hanina, but friendly contact can help.

The case of Rabbi Eleazar is particularly interesting. In his case, it’s clear that the illness is depression. So one thing we learn is that the ancient rabbis saw overwhelming sadness and “lying in a dark room” as a genuine illness. Secondly, Rabbi Yochanan treated Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness with respect. He didn’t say, “That’s silly, everyone dies sometime!” He agreed that it was sad, empathized with his student, and then helped him up.

OFFER COMFORT – In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah hears that Queen Jezebel wants to kill him. Initially, he runs for his life, but after a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sinks down to the ground under a tree and says, “I just want to die.” Then he falls asleep. After he sleeps for a while, an angel comes to him and sets down food and water, saying only, “Get up and eat.” Elijah does so, then lies back down to sleep some more. The angel comes again, bringing more food and water, and says, “Get up and eat; the journey has been too much for you.” Elijah eats and drinks and feels stronger – he is able to travel ahead to Mt. Horeb, where he has an encounter with God.

The angel brings food and water to Elijah. He offers sympathy (“the journey has been too much for you”) but no advice or analysis. He doesn’t scold or tell Elijah to snap out of it. And he is not impatient when Elijah says nothing, just eats the food and goes back to sleep.

The angel is an example of one way to help a depressed friend. Don’t ask “what can I do?” because that requires thought and decision making. Simply bringing by a bit of comfort food, and delivering it without demanding much social interaction can be very helpful. A brief bit of human (or angel!) connection can be helpful. If you decide to bring food, bring it in a disposable dish. That isn’t very “green,” I know, but washing dishes takes energy. It also doesn’t have to be a whole meal. It can be a slice of cake or a bowl of soup to heat in the microwave.

The same is true for some small errand or chore. Don’t do housework (that may feel like criticism) but visit briefly and bring in the newspaper or the mail that has collected on the doorstep. All of these things say, “I care about you.”

The important thing is to keep it simple.

Finally, we have an example of the wrong thing to do for a depressed person:

DO NOT GIVE ADVICE - The Book of Job offers some powerful examples of “how not to help.” Job suffers one misfortune after another, and when his friends come to see him, they focus on their belief that he must have done something to bring his misfortune upon himself. He needs to repent his sins and get right with God! (Job 4-27)

When our friends are distressed, we are distressed. The desire to fix things can be almost unbearable, especially if we think we know a remedy. We want to point out the obvious and give advice. We ache to tell our friend to get some exercise, to eat right, to see a better therapist, to snap out of it!

Just as it was for Job’s “comforters,” this impulse is worse than useless. Many depressed individuals are already mired in a swamp of “shoulds” and “oughts,” and the depression has paralyzed them. Giving even the most well-meaning advice can make them feel worse. If they want help finding a therapist or getting some exercise, that’s different – but pushing unwanted “solutions” will be unproductive.

GET HELP: If someone in your community is depressed, tell your rabbi! He or she wants to know and will know how to contact the person.

Finally – this is very important! - If a person talks about suicide, take it seriously. Call a suicide hotline or their doctor. Never assume that talk about suicide is “kidding” or attention seeking. If there was anything at all to the talk, it’s important that they get help immediately. Even if later they say they didn’t mean it, you can’t take that chance. The principle of pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life – demands that we take such talk at face value and react.

Being a good friend to a person with depression is a mitzvah. It is tempting to stay away from people who are in pain – pain is unpleasant, after all. But reaching out, checking in, offering food or simple help – those things can make a huge difference. Be a mensch!


Reading about Israel and Gaza

August 11, 2014

gaza

Two pieces came across my computer screen yesterday that I think worth sharing with readers who want to understand the situation in Gaza and Israel. One is by an expert on Middle East politics, and it gives a broad view and some background. The other is a first-person, very personal account, a voice that I haven’t heard in all the noise, and that I think should be heard.

First, the broad piece by the expert: this  article in the Washington Post is worth reading if you want to get a handle on the background of the current situation. The author is Dennis Ross, who was chief negotiator for the Clinton Administration and who has worked for the Obama Administration. Pay no attention to the headline; Ross didn’t write it and the person who wrote it apparently didn’t read his article. Ross gives background to the current mess and a fair description of the parties involved. Then he suggests a path towards peace. I am not qualified to judge the latter, but the first part of that article is as reality based as anything I’ve seen.

The second item came my way this week via my colleague Rabbi Mark Hurvitz. I’m sharing it here on my blog because it offers a point of view on this war that has thus far not gotten much attention. It’s not polished, but it is eloquent.

First, I’ll let Rabbi Hurvitz introduce the piece:

While I have never met Mette Hvid Hansen. She lives in Denmark, but also spent some time on Kibbutz Hulda. Mette recently posted this to the Hulda Facebook page. You might want to share it with those who think that all Israelis are “bloodthirsty” and care nothing about their adversaries. She has given me permission to repost it. (Forgive the spelling errors, English is not her 1st language.)
Now, the post by Mette Hvid Hansen:

Yet another weekend ahead of me where I will send my thoughts and prayers to people at war.

My heart breaks whenever I read the horrorfying stories from Gaza – children and civilians trying to escape the bombardments but being held back by hamas – hospitals, mosques and schools are being used as weaponstocks and ramps for firing rockets bringing death and wounds to my friends and their children who must spend most of their time in bombshelters – even when a truce is called.

The “bloodthirsty” Israeli soldiers who are sons and husbands of my girlfriends – some of the soldiers I have known since they were born and all of them are soft,wonderfull young boys – with all the same kind of dreams and hopes that my own son have.

Boys who will protect their families against monsters that appear through tunnels build for some of my taxmoney – tunnels used to kill, maim and kidnap from the kindergartens where the tunnels end

Boys who feel surprice and despair against the society that condems their every step and for whom we almost do not dare show our worry, sorry and pain in public since they are officially named “the bad gys” – Who understands this? – Well I really dont!

I KNOW that these boys will stay scarred forever for what they have to go through and what they have to do – hamas knows this too and use the fact that these boys have the same way to see life as you and I – every life counts – not as dead people on horrifying pictures but as living people who can help build a society where peace and calm rules…

Those boys have a very short time – seconds to decide weather they can help the old wounded man on their parth or if he is just another dirty trick to collect as many people around him as possible before he push the botton on the explosivebelt
Those boys must decide if they can help the two children standing crying out for help – on a balcony – and when they decide to help they all get killed instantly when they step into the boobytrapped house.


Those boys have all but a few seconds to decide – boys at the age of 18-20 years – who would prefer sitting at the beach, play the computer – watch girls (or other boys – in israel homoseksuality is allowed..) or have a drink.

Im grieving for all the dead children i Gaza – but Im also grieving for the sons and husbands of my girlfriends – and Im impressed that they are able to stay focused.


I think of all my friends that miss their husband and sons and the fact that their whole life can be changed by a tekst or phonecall.

I think of all my friends who spend most of their time in bombshelters.

I think of my friends who have children and grandchildren who never slept in their own bed becourse of the risk of rockets and where the alarm can make the difference between life or death – within maybe 30 seconds – same amount of time if you are 6 or 90 years old 


I think of how they all must feel when they see how they are judged from the fact that their country decided to spend millions of dollars to protect its people – and now have to read that it would be more “fair” if more of them would die – who of my friends would have to die to make all this more fair so that all of us – here in Europe could feel better about my friends sons and husbands wiping out hamas? 

The hamas that wont recognize Israel and actively work on the destruction of Israel?
The hamas where proof have shown that they use civilians and children as human shields in front of the schools,hospitals and mosques where they hide and use their weapons ?
The hamas that do not recognize basic womans rights?
The hamas who executes people on the street without any kind of trial and many time just on a suspicion?
The hamas who spend my taxmoney to build huge and long tunnels – each tunnel could have finansed maybe 19 medical clinics?
The hamas who wants to kill so bad that they dont care if their rockets backfire and hit their own hospitals, schools and powerstations and thereby kill they own people(this is also proven) ?

The sons and husbands of my friends fight against all that – they DONT fight the children that are used by hamas OR the civilians who are theatend by hamas – all they want is to return to my girlfriends and their families and work for peace and calm..

Hoping for a shabbat shalom for all
Mette/Tikva

—————–
You’re welcome to discuss these articles in the comments – that would be great. Disagree and/or discuss all you want, but please remember that there are other human beings behind your computer screen. Please choose both your words and their tone accordingly.

Resource for Conversion to Judaism

August 9, 2014
Dawn Kepler & Linda Burnett

Dawn Kepler & Linda Burnett of BecomingJewish.net

Are you interested in conversion to Judaism? Did you recently become a member of the tribe?

BecomingJewish.net offers support and information for anyone seeking conversion or recently become Jewish. It has additional resources for users living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

They have solid information about the process of becoming a Jew and about conversion outside the U.S. They also have first-person accounts by Jews by Choice about their own experiences.

Their directory of rabbis is a resource for anyone “shul shopping” [looking for a synagogue] because it includes stories by people who have converted with each Bay Area rabbi, and who have gotten to know their rabbi well. If you want to get a taste of what the rabbi at Beth Somewhere is like, this is a great way to do it.

Full disclosure: The site is staffed by my dear friend Dawn Kepler (who mentored me through conversion) and my spouse, Linda Burnett. But seriously, even if I didn’t love the people running it, this is a great resource!


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