Why Ants & Mosquitoes?

ants

Sometimes real life intrudes on blogging. Yesterday I spent too much of my day fighting an ant invasion. Since I have dogs, I needed to avoid poisons, which meant that whatever I did was going to be a bit more labor intensive than liberal use of a can of Raid.

We have called a truce, I think. I was too much trouble and they are looking elsewhere. (I hope.)

In the midst of all this tsuris, I had an appointment with my trainer to work out. She asked me, “Why do Jews think God made ants and mosquitoes?” I’ve been thinking on that one ever since.

My first thought was a resounding “I don’t know.” A lot about God is mysterious, as I wrote last week.  Only fundamentalists think that religion should answer every question. For most Jews, religion raises more questions than it does answers, and that’s how we think it should be. Torah spurs us to ask the big questions and to struggle with possibilities.

But it occurred to me that in this case, we have a little more information. In the book 1491: New Revelation of the Americas Before Columbus, science writer Charles C. Mann points out that many species we take for granted as “local” today actually are exotics, foreign imports, that traveled to far parts of the globe after Europeans began traveling and trading.  The mosquito is one such critter. Originally most species were confined to Southeast Asia, but soon after 1492, they spread over the globe. In other words, in the now-distant past, many species we experience as pests may have lived in a much better balance with nature in the past than they do now.

So perhaps “Why did God make the mosquito?” is not the right question. Maybe the better question is, “What are we going to do about the fact that mosquitoes are a vector for disease in our world today?” And perhaps, since the ubiquity of ‘skeeters is an unintended consequence of mercantilism and colonialism, we should learn to ask more questions before we embark on ambitious projects, and keep an eye out for the fallout of our experiments.

When it comes to ants, I know that they have many useful and admirable qualities. I just don’t want them in my house. For now, I am trying to convince the Ant Mob to stay outdoors by deploying diatomaceous earth in their trails leading into my home. It’s my way of saying, “Go away!”

Here’s hoping they take the hint!

A Gift for the Rabbi?

gift

One search string I’ve noticed more than once on the list of terms that brought people to this blog from a search engine: “What to give a rabbi for a gift?”

A donation to the rabbi’s discretionary fund is always a fine thing to do; it’s a gift that allows the rabbi to do something good for others. (Discretionary funds cannot be spent on personal purchases of any sort.)

Here are some other ideas:

  • Donation to their honor to a charity you know they support
  • Gift certificate to a bookstore
  • Gift certificate for the rabbi and spouse to attend a sports or cultural event (Tickets for a particular evening can be tricky – rabbis work many evenings.)
  • Gift certificate for restaurant
  • Gift certificate for something you know they enjoy
  • Gift certificate for something you think they would enjoy with their family
  • Homemade preserves or baked goods.
  • A bottle of good kosher wine.

The key to this, as with all gift-giving, is to think about what the person might enjoy. If you know of a particular interest or hobby that your rabbi enjoys, then that will make this an easy choice. Things that they can enjoy with their spouse or family are thoughtful gifts, as time with family is often particularly precious. Something that will provide a small comfort: a free cup of coffee, for example, can be very nice.

You might be surprised that Judaica is not on this list. Many rabbis have all the candlesticks, kippot, tallitot, seder plates, and so on that they can use. The same is true of Jewish-themed ties, earrings, and so on. The exceptions to this are things made by children: if your child colors something for the rabbi, it will be treasured.

Ask The Rabbi: Working at the Bar Mitzvah

Photographer by jarmoluk

I recently had a lovely email exchange with a young person who had been hired for his first job working as an artist for a bat mitzvah. He had a lot of questions, and I thought that the answers might be useful to others. Thank you, Benjamin, for asking good questions, and making me think of other things that might help!

What is a bar or bat mitzvah? A bar mitzvah (bat for girls) happens when a young person turns 13. It actually happens whether there is a celebration or not; a Jew over age 13 is bar or bat mitzvah regardless. The usual celebration in North America has two parts. First, a synagogue service at which the young person leads the service, or reads Torah, or both. This is serious business and requires years of study and preparation. Secondly, there may be a party, which can range from a very low-key affair at home or the synagogue to something quite fancy at a hotel or other venue.

How big a deal is it really? For the young person, the synagogue service requires a year or more of preparation. For a Jewish family, this is a life event on a par with a wedding. Relatives travel from far away to attend, and most families save for a long time to pay for the party.

What is proper dress for a bar or bat mitzvah? Dress professionally. Unless you have heard otherwise from the parents, a suit and tie for men, a professional dress outfit for women.

What terminology should I know? Bar mitzvah is for a boy. Bat mitzvah is for a girl. B’nei mitzvah is plural, unless there are only girls involved, in which case it is b’not mitvah.

Is there a customary greeting that I should know? As a non-Jew, you are not expected to know any Hebrew. “Hello” and “Congratulations” are fine. However, these are nice phrases to know:

  • Mazal tov!– (MAH-zel tov) – “Congratulations!” suitable either for the young person or for family members.
  • Shabbat Shalom! (Shah-BAHT shah-LOHM) – “Happy Sabbath!” – suitable from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday.

Who is actually in charge? In the synagogue, if the rabbi or cantor (clergy) tell you to do or not do something, you are wise to comply. During the service, ushers may remove someone who doesn’t follow the rules set by the congregation. (If they tell you no photos, or no flash, during the service, believe them.)  At the party afterwards, the hosts are in charge.

Good luck! And if you are reading this and have other questions, I hope you will ask them in the comments, so I can continue to improve this resource!

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear?

Question

I’ve been looking at the Google search strings again, the words that people use to get to this blog. Yesterday one set caught my eye: “Jewish Rabbi Vestments.”

I’m going to take that to mean, “What special clothing does a rabbi wear?”

The most accurate answer to that is that a rabbi does not wear any special clothing. Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves “rabbi.”  Rabbinical study involves multiple languages (Hebrew and Aramaic, at least) and it generally takes five or more years.

Rabbis wear what other people in their community wear. A rabbi from a Hasidic group will dress like other adult men in his group. I dress like a 60 year old woman from the Bay Area of California. If I lived in New York City, I’d dress up a bit more (because, New York!) but otherwise I would look very much like one of my congregants or students.

I imagine this person was thinking about worship. To lead a service at any time of day, most rabbis will wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and they will wear a head covering, called either a kippa or a yarmulke. But any service leader will wear the same things; those are not reserved for rabbis. And in theory, any adult Jew should be able to lead a service. (In Orthodoxy, men only can lead the service, unless only women are present.)

U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le'il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base's Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma'ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so.  Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)
U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le’il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma’ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so. Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung) Note Rabbi Captain Schechter is wearing her tallit over her U.S. Air Force uniform.

In a morning service, adults may wear a tallit (in a Reform service, some will wear one, in a Conservative service, most adult men and women will wear them, and in an Orthodox service, you will see the tallit on adult males only.) Alternatively, some men wear the fringes you see on the prayer shawl on a sort of undershirt, so you don’t see the tallit but the essential part, the fringes, are there. In addition, in the morning service, in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues you will see people wearing tefillin, also known as phylacteries. Those are the black boxes attached to head and arm with leather straps.

Here is a photo, showing a boy and two men dressed for morning prayers. Notice that they are not all dressed alike. We cannot assume from the dress that any of them are rabbis.

Photo by  Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

In an afternoon or evening service, you will not see the tallit except on the leader (it shows who is leading) and you will not see tefillin at all. Head coverings will still be in place. For an example, look at the first photo on this page, of U.S. Air Force Rabbi Chaplain Captain Sarah Schechter leading an evening service. Notice that except for the tallit, she is wearing her uniform.

Now, there are some Reform congregations that have a custom for the rabbi to wear a pulpit robe (like a judge’s robe) with or without a tallit. They are increasingly rare, though. Also, I anticipate (and welcome) comments about the customs at local synagogues, or in various communities: there is a great variety of Jewish practice, and my statements here about what Jews wear for worship are meant only to be general.

Rabbis and cantors are primarily teachers: the rabbi teaches Torah, and the cantor or chazzan,  is a specialist in the language of the service and in liturgical music. Both also officiate at lifccycle services, like baby namings, funerals, and weddings, and if they went to accredited schools, they have training in things like premarital counseling, grief support, and in navigating the gray areas and complexities of Jewish custom.

But we really don’t have special outfits. My “vestments” for prayer are exactly the same as you would see on any other observant Jew in my community. Gender can make a difference, depending on the tradition of Judaism in question.

We all stand before the Holy One as members of our community. We each bring different gifts and different skills, but our clothing is basically the same.

Being Jewish, Doing Jewish

Question

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.

Ask the Rabbi: Should I Keep Kosher?

Question

A reader asked: “I’m in the process of converting to Judaism. Should I keep kosher? How do I get started?”

First of all, thank you for asking. It’s always good to ask. I have some questions for you before I answer directly, though.

You say that you are in the process of conversion to Judaism. Are you studying with a rabbi? If you are, this is really a question for your rabbi, not for some random rabbi on the internet. Sit down with your rabbi and talk it through. If you don’t feel that you can ask your rabbi, then perhaps you haven’t found the right rabbi yet. Go meet some more rabbis! You need to work with someone with whom you can talk.

If you do not yet have a rabbi, you need to get one. Saying “I’m in the process of conversion” isn’t really accurate; the first step is to find your rabbi, one with whom you feel comfortable and who is willing to work with you. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read, how much you know, how many holidays you’ve celebrated: until you get yourself a rabbi, you have not yet gotten serious about conversion. A lot of the conversion process takes place within the relationship of rabbi and candidate. If you are not sure how to find your rabbi, I’ve written about it in Choosing a Rabbi.

I know that this answer may be annoying or a disappointment. But it is really the truth: you need to talk this over with your rabbi. Here’s why:

When you become a part of the Jewish people, you do so as part of a specific community of Jews. Different communities have differing customs. If you check out the kashrut (kosher) customs in several different Jewish communities, there will be differences. The sage Hillel teaches us “Do not separate yourself from the community.” You need to learn the customs of your community. So talk to your rabbi, and follow his or her guidance.

You will get different answers from different rabbis. Depending on the congregation and the movement – and depending on the rabbi! – he or she might do any of the following:

  • suggest some reading about kashrut, and discuss it with you before you disrupt your kitchen and your household.
  • caution you about taking on too much too quickly, and direct you to explore other mitzvot first.
  • match you up immediately with someone in the congregation who is knowledgable and who keeps a kosher kitchen, so that you can learn from them.
  • direct you to a class on kashrut and encourage you to get on with it.
  • talk with you about your reasons for interest in kashrut and explore with you what observance might be right for you and fit in with your community.

So there’s my answer for you: talk to your rabbi. If you don’t have one, get one. Conversion is a long complex process, involving growth and change in many areas, and you need more than an anonymous rabbi on the computer. You need someone with whom you are willing to be honest, and who can read body language as well as email.

Make the most of your exploration of Judaism, and of the sacred partnership with your sponsoring rabbi. Good luck!

Statistics and the News

Question

When I began this blog, I hoped to make some of the “insider” things about Judaism more accessible. I think I’ve had some success. Certain posts are “hit” regularly from the search engines, posts like “Jewish Greetings 101” and “Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners.” I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that somewhere out there, someone is a bit less stressed and a bit more prepared to enjoy a happy occasion.

One thing I did not expect was that the list of “search engine terms” would give me a consistent readout on the news. One item in particular always spikes when there is sad news: “Baruch Dayan Emet‘ – Why Do We Bless God when Someone Dies?”  It means “Blessed is the True Judge,” the first response of a devout Jew to hearing about a death. Last summer, during the Gaza war, that post got so many hits that it was the most frequently used post on the blog. This week it has been a busy post again.

If you ever have questions about practices or terms, dear Reader, I hope you’ll ask me via the Ask the Rabbi page. While I try to keep my mind tuned to things that may puzzle newcomers, you are the real experts on what beginners want to know.

May we all go from strength to strength, as learners and teachers!