Hillel: Do Not Separate Yourself!

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Hillel used to say: Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.  –Pirkei Avot 2:5

Here’s one of my favorite sayings by Hillel, who said a lot of famous things.

Whenever I find myself drawing away from Jewish community, I think of this passage. I usually have what I think are excellent reasons: someone was unkind, I was feeling bored, there’s some sort of squabble going on and I hate squabbling, etc. I have been a member of the same Jewish community for most of 20 years, and from time to time these things come up.

But whenever I notice that I have pulled away with these excellent reasons, I am reminded of this passage: “Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” Now I will grant that this is a multi-part verse, but notice the word “and.” These two phrases were meant to go together.  Hillel is saying to me, “Oh? You have separated yourself for excellent reasons? And who has decided those reasons are excellent, pray tell?”

At that point I have to admit that the only person I’ve consulted is myself. I’ve decided to separate from the community because I’m hurt, or mad, or bored, or whatever. Hillel reminds us that when we are feeling all “I vant to be alone”-ish, we are not necessarily employing our best selves or our best judgment. That moment, when I most want to pull away and sulk or feel superior, is exactly the moment when I should be talking to someone.

When I talk, it should be either to the person with whom I have the problem, or with someone who can help me put it into proper perspective so that I can do something about it. Simply “venting” to a friend or an outsider can do terrible damage, because it spreads poison without actually resolving anything.

Talking to the person with whom I have the problem, or to someone who can help me resolve matters is a lot harder than fussing to my friends. A good advisor will listen to me, but they also won’t let me get away with judgmental talk or cryptic statements. Talking with them ultimately means re-engaging with the community.

And if it turns out my reasons really are excellent, a good advisor will affirm that. There are times when a situation is so destructive that the only thing to do is leave. A good advisor will help me discern if that’s the case, and help me figure out what I need to do to leave with integrity. That’s very different from hiding out at home in a bad mood.

Hillel is often contrasted with his colleague Shammai. Of the two, Hillel has the reputation for being patient and kind. I suspect that while he may indeed have been patient and kind, he was also a shrewd old bird who would not let his students get away with foolishness. Certainly he doesn’t let me get away with much, every time I read him!

Purim, Pi, Patrick, Passover!

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OK, I admit it: I love alliteration, and that title was just too good to pass up. We just celebrated Purim. Pi Day is today (yay! Pie in the oven right now!) St. Patrick‘s Day is soon, and all this takes place in the midst of Passover preparations (there’s another P!)

This does have a point.

I celebrate Purim and Passover specifically because I’m a Jew. I understand myself to be obligated to celebrate them. They are required for me, optional for any Gentiles who wish to celebrate, although they are certainly welcome at my table.

I celebrate Pi Day with other members of my Jewish community. We celebrate it because (1) we love pie,  (2) we love puns and similar geekery and (3) some of us love math. I would never have met any of those friends were it not for the fact that we happen to go to the same synagogue. We weren’t friends before synagogue; we are dear friends now. Pi Day is neutral religiously, but it offers the added Jewish benefit of using up flour before Passover.

Which brings me to the other P: Patrick. St. Patrick’s Day is a bit more complicated. Start with the “Saint” bit. First, Jews do not celebrate saints’ days. Not our tradition. There are people in our past whom we revere, but we tend to call them tzaddik (righteous person) or chasid (pious person) or we use their names with a certain hush. Second, Christian saints in past centuries were often hostile to the Jews, to put it mildly: see the writings of Ambrose or John Chrysostom. Third, certain Christian holidays became days with excuses for being nasty to Jews: that’s where Patrick gets into the mix.

I am a Jew of Irish-American descent. That ancestry is an important slice of my identity, as important in its own way as “Californian” or “expatriate Southerner” or “queer.”  It’s so important that had one of my sons been a daughter, she’d have been named Bridget. My grandmother’s stories, handed down from her grandmother, about the Famine and our arrival in America were key narratives in my childhood. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day is the day to celebrate that heritage.

Unfortunately, when I wear my bit of green on March 17, I am sure to hear a story or three from Jewish friends and colleagues about their childhood experiences of St. Patrick’s Day. Their memories are of hostility from Irish-Americans that day: pinching (“Where’s your green?”) and excuses for the ongoing antisemitism of the schoolyard: people throwing pennies at the Jew, etc. I don’t recall ever witnessing such as a kid, but since I was part of the majority (at school, not in the culture) I may well have overlooked it.

I still wear green on March 17. I embrace the contradictions, because face it, I embody them. I eschew the leprechauns and green beer because they only play into the worst stereotypes: there is more to Irishness than superstition and alcohol. I don’t celebrate the conversion of Ireland, but I celebrate Irish culture, Irish art, and Irish literature. I celebrate Irish-American grit, and stubbornness, and enterprise. I celebrate my grandmother and her stories and her love.

And yes, as a Jew, it’s complicated, that particular P.

Pi, anyone?

Being Jewish, Doing Jewish

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.

 

The Holiness in Doing

Rabbi Heschel
Rabbi Heschel

Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. – Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l

Heschel wrote those words long before the advent of the Internet. His words are truer today than ever before: we are drowning in information.

When I first began to study Judaism, I read everything I could find. The Internet was in its infancy, and there was not yet much there, but I scoured the public library, the congregation’s library, used book stores, and anywhere else I might be able to buy, beg, or borrow Jewish information. I was fortunate in finding a Jewish independent book store owner who was both kind and ethical: he’d sell me one book at a time, and ask me to come back and tell him what I thought of it before I got another.

Now, with so many sources online, and with much of our book-buying online, it’s a whole new world. I worry for my students: if you Google the word “Jew” or anything like it, you get a wild mix of Jewish information, messianic information, and anti-Semitic filth, and they are not always easy to distinguish from one another. The quality of the Jewish information is uneven.

Facts alone do not make a good Jew, or even a good person. I can study about tzedakah all day long, but until I give tzedakah, I will be ignorant about it. I can learn all the prayers in Hebrew, but if I do not actually pray, it is a pointless exercise. Judaism is a religion of doing. One of the things we do is study, but if we stop there, we are failing to fulfill our mission as Jews.

What does this have to do with Heschel’s appreciation? We appreciate the world and its wonders by engaging with the world via mitzvot. The pause for a blessing gives me a moment to appreciate the food I am about to eat. Giving tzedakah reminds me to appreciate my economic power, even if that power is small.  Saying my morning prayers properly helps me appreciate the fact of life itself and the body within which I live it.

The blessings for mitzvot include the phrase “Who sanctifies us with mitzvot.” This reminds us that the mitzvot are there to make us holy by sanctifying our experiences. With every pause for appreciation, every mitzvah, we invite the Holy to break in upon our mundane existence. Amazement crashes in upon the world, bringing life itself to life.

What’s in a Hebrew Name?

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Your Hebrew name is your Jewish ID. You will need it every time you are called to the Torah, when you sign your ketubah, and when you are sick. Those who mourn you will need it for your funeral.

A Hebrew name consists of a name, a relationship, and the names of those through whose merit a person claims membership in the Jewish people.

For example: My name is רות, Ruth, and בת, (daughter) followed by the names of those through whose merit I am a member of the Jewish people: in my case, אברהם ושרה, (of Abraham and Sarah) since I became Jewish as an adult.  A male who was born Jewish might be named דוד (David) בן (son) יעקוב ורבקה (of Jacob and Rebecca, his Jewish parents.)

What if you don’t know your Hebrew name? First, if your parents are living and are Jewish, ask them (ask for their names, too, while you are at it.) If it has been forgotten, look for any documents that might have it: a bris certificate, a naming certificate, or a bar/bat mitzvah certificate.

If you never received a Hebrew name, it isn’t too late! Talk to your rabbi. Tell them you didn’t get a Hebrew name and you want one. It is, after all, your Jewish ID! The rabbi can help you choose a name (perhaps a Hebrew form of your legal name, perhaps another name meaningful to you.) It is never too late for a naming.

What is your Hebrew name? Do you know why it was chosen for you? Or if you chose it, why that particular name?

 

 

What if I Can’t Get to Synagogue?

Isolated House by Hugh Venables
“Isolated House” by Hugh Venables

Location and/or illness make it difficult for some Jews to get to synagogue. How in that situation are we to access Jewish community?

First, the offline solution: If you live in a city that has synagogues, but you just can’t access them, call the synagogue. Express your interest in being a part of their community. Ask to talk to the rabbi, and explain your situation. I can’t promise you that every synagogue will have outreach to shut-ins, but I can promise you that rabbis care about the Jews in their neighborhood. Understand that options may be limited for non-members. However, it is always worth contacting them.

Years ago, before I became a rabbi, my rabbi called me and asked if I would be willing to visit a widow in the congregation who had agoraphobia. Her husband had been her major tie to the world, and now that he was gone, my rabbi was worried about her. I began visiting Anne (not her real name) once a week and doing her grocery shopping. We developed a friendship. Later, when my schedule changed and I could not be as reliable for shopping, I went back to the rabbi and told him. He found someone else to visit, but Anne and I stayed in touch. (Note that this required a large enough community and a willing pool of volunteers; not every synagogue will be able to deliver on something like this.)

Second, the Internet raises many more opportunities for Jewish connections. Here are some resources to check out if you don’t live near a synagogue, or if you are confined to home by illness or disability:

OurJewishCommunity.org provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both OurJewishCommunity.org and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati.

ReformJudaism.org maintains a list of congregations that live-stream Shabbat services, with information about access. Services are currently available in four US time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and at least one congregation archives services on YouTube.

JewishWebcasting.com offers a wide variety of Jewish experiences online, with links to news, podcasts, and opportunities for prayer.

Lehrhaus Judaica based in Berkeley, CA offers some of its classes online. Click this link to see the current list of courses on the Hebrew Language, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish texts, and other topics. (Full disclosure: I teach one of their online courses and am on the board of LJ.)

I hope that whatever your situation, and whether it is a short-term challenge or a long-term situation, you can find a way to connect Jewishly. Certainly I appreciate your readership and look forward to conversation in the comments on this blog!

A New New Year’s Resolution

resolutionConsidering New Year’s resolutions for the upcoming secular holiday?

You can make the same old resolution (lose weight, exercise, save money, etc) or you could try something new.

For those readers who are considering a new New Year’s resolution, let me offer you some possibilities:

Try a new mitzvah on this year. What mitzvah have you thought about but never actually taken on? Commit to trying out a new mitzvah, and give it a year. Here are some examples:

Take a class. It doesn’t have to be a heavy subject! Learn to bake challah. Learn about the Jewish history of chocolate. Learn about Passover customs. See what your area synagogues and adult education programs are offering!

Read a book (or set a number of books.) It might be an ambitious commentary on Torah, but it might also be something a lot lighter. Some of my favorites:

Watch more Jewish films and discuss with friends

Are there other New Year’s resolutions you are considering to deepen or enhance your Jewish life? I invite you to share them with us in the comments!