Fantasy and the Jewish Future

"Morning Prayer" by Michelle W. Some rights reserved.

A reader asked me recently, “Which mitzvot do Reform Jews observe?”

My answer (this was on Twitter, so I had to be brief), “Like all Jews, some observe many mitzvot and some do not.”

I’ve noticed that we have interesting fantasies about our fellow Jews. Reform Jews fantasize that all Orthodox Jews (“the Orthodox”) observe all 613 mitzvot meticulously. Some do, to the best of their ability, which is to say that they do so imperfectly but with the intention of keeping them all: kosher home, kosher lifestyle, kosher family, a seamless way of life. Others identify as Orthodox, but in practice they live a much less observant life. I have met Jews who identified as Orthodox but who were not observant at all: they eat pepperoni pizza except when they think a rabbi is looking.

Correspondingly, there are Orthodox Jews who have fantasies about Reform Jews: we eat cheeseburgers with abandon, intermarry like crazy, and spend Shabbat shopping till we drop. The reality, again, is messier: sure, there are Reform Jews who do those things, but there are also Reform Jews who keep kosher, keep Shabbat, and study Gemara regularly. There are also Reform Jews who interpret kashrut differently, and who have rules for Shabbat but not the traditional rules. There are Reform Jews who care deeply about Israel and about the Jewish future and who work to preserve both.

In other words, it is dangerous to gauge any Jew’s level of observance or love of Am Yisrael merely by asking, “Are you Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform?” It is destructive and divisive to indulge in fantasy about our fellow Jews. Such fantasies get in the way of having genuine relationships with them.

So what, then, is the real difference between Orthodox and Reform? The difference has to do with our respective understandings of halakhah, “the way,” also known as “Jewish Law.” For Orthodoxy, halakhah is given by God and is immutable. For Reform, halakhah is the product of human beings, with inspiration by God, and human beings can reinterpret it if we choose, after study and consideration.

In practice, the vast majority of Jews do things the way their parents did them, whatever their affiliation. If their parents went to synagogue, they go to synagogue. If their parents didn’t, they probably won’t. The same goes for home observance.

None of this is set in stone. Those who want, can learn. Those who are willing can do things differently than their parents. Indeed, I know many intermarried Reform Jews who keep observant homes and raise Jewish children who have every expectation of raising Jewish children themselves someday. I know many converts to Judaism (both Reform and Orthodox) who are pillars of their congregations. I know Jews who did not get a Jewish education, who knew nothing when they knocked on the door of the community, who now are active, participating members. It is possible, but only with nurturing and encouraging support from the Jews already in those congregations.

My dream for the Jewish future is that someday instead of indulging in fantasies about other Jews, we’ll get to know them one-on-one. And that someday, instead of wailing about the Jewish future, we’ll see it in every human being who walks in the door of the synagogue.

An Apology to My Readers

I’m one of those people who thinks best when I’m talking or writing out my thoughts, “talking it out.” Every now and then, I do it in an inappropriate setting and I live to regret it.

I withdrew a post just now because I said too much in it, and obscured the meaning for which I was reaching. I posted it last night, instead of letting it “cook” for a day, my usual practice, and I think I have upset some readers. For that, I am very sorry. I will let such posts “cook” longer in future.

And now I think I’ve probably upset some others who are wondering what the heck Rabbi Adar put up on her blog. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything but the messy inside of my head!

When we sin, when we “miss the mark,” the only thing to do is make teshuvah: feel the regret, own the behavior, apologize, and do what we can to make sure it never happens again. I am sorry for putting up a poorly thought through post, and I will think longer and harder in future.

My Adventures with Kashrut

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to submit humbly to someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans, and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: my nearest classmate-neighbor was David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont. David had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! He was very helpful. After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I no longer keep a kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities. When and if the day comes that I can keep the kitchen kosher without the martyrdom shtick, I’ll go back to keeping a kosher kitchen. Right now I lack sufficient holiness for it.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

Nowadays I am more concerned with the sources of my food than with kashrut per se. Where did this food come from? Who grew it? How were the growers and harvesters treated and paid? Were animals mistreated? Is it sustainable agriculture? What kind of carbon footprint is involved? Unlike kashrut, which is very clear and straightforward, these ethical and moral questions are complex and require balancing. And – I should add this, lest I set up a false dichotomy – there are many Jews who keep kosher and worry about the complicated questions, too.

Bottom line: These days, my kitchen is easier to keep, but the shopping is complicated. I’m OK with that. Check back with me in 10 years and I will have learned more.

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

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.

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?