Once I got used to keeping Shabbat, I began noticing a change in my Saturday evenings, after Shabbat was done. During Shabbat, I direct many thoughts to “the back of the stove,” the mindspace where my unconscious may be working on it, but my conscious self is not allowed. When a nagging worry shows up to nag, I push it to the back of the stove. When a possible solution to a work issue shows up, I shove it to a back burner to cook some more. At the time, it’s a relief – I don’t have to do that now. However, it gives the half-baked idea some additional cooking time, and builds a little pressure to get on with it come Saturday night.
Thus Saturday evenings went from a time generally wasted to my most productive night of the week. Havdalah is made, ending with Eliahu HaNavi, and I rise in a ball of energy, pulling the pots to the front of the stove. Suddenly I’m cooking with gas.
What is Motzei Shabbat (the evening after Shabbat) like for you? Is this “burst of energy” just my little quirk, or is it a common thing?
Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?
In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.
Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.
Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?
Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.
Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t. Go figure.
There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.
How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?
Some of us missed out on a Jewish childhood. We were raised in another tradition, or no tradition at all.
Some of us missed out on parts of it, or something happened that messed everything up.
Let me tell you a little secret: it’s never too late to have a Jewish childhood.
Want to have a bar or bat mitzvah? Talk to your rabbi about studying for an adult bar mitzvah. Yes, you can have a party, too.
Depressed that you never got to play dreidel? Invite people over for a night of Chanukah games and latkes!
Mad that you didn’t get to go to Hebrew school? It isn’t too late to take Hebrew classes.
Sad that you’ll never ask the Four Questions at the seder table? Host a seder with adults, and schedule yourself to chant them – you can do it!
Longing to dress up like Queen Esther on Purim? Or like a firefighter? Why not?
Yearning for a bubbe or a zayde? Talk to your rabbi about adopting a “grandparent.” Someone needs you as much as you need them.
Envious of youth trips to Israel? Ask your rabbi to help you find an affordable program open to your age group.
Wish that someone had taught you how to keep a kosher household, lay tefillin, make matza brei? Ask a friend or take a class!
You are the person in charge of your Jewish experience. If there’s something you want to learn, there’s someone teaching it. If there’s something you want to do, there’s a way. Will it be easy? No, but it might not have been easy as a child, either (ask any bat mitzvah if that Torah portion came easily!)
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.”
And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3
Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.
There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.
It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.
On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!” Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense. Aaron is silent.
There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:
“This is God’s plan!”
“He’s in a better place!”
“At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.
Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.
Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain
You may or may not be able to tell from my “voice” here on the blog, but my speaking voice includes a Southern accent. I have lived in California for over 25 years, but my Tennessee accent remains. It fades in and out, depending on my emotions and my energy level, but it’s always there.
When I first moved west, I tried to get rid of it. I was making fair progress, when an acquaintance said, “I’m SO glad that you are losing that ignorant-sounding accent.” I replied in my best Southern-lady voice, “Martin, you have just guaranteed that I will go to my GRAVE with this ignorant-sounding accent.” In that moment, I decided that I’d rather be myself, southern accent and all.
Odd cultural fact: I get more comments about my accent from other Jews than from any other group of people I encounter. They comment in different ways: they ask where I’m from, or say that they “love the cute twang,” or jokingly speak to me with an exaggerated “Beverly Hillbillies” sort of accent. I used to shrug it off; lately I’ve come to realize that regardless of the intent behind them, all are “micro-aggressions:” subtle ways of reminding me that I’m an outsider.
As I became more conscious of these micro-aggressions, I also began to notice the ways in which we inflict them on many other people. Well-meaning members of a congregation welcome the visitor in a wheelchair by talking about wheelchairs. If a visitor has an unusual accent, they are questioned about it. Dark-skinned visitors are quizzed for their story: not born Jewish, right? All of this is done with the idea that it is friendly, but it’s counterproductive. Commenting on differences, even in a “friendly” way, is not a friendly act. I realized to my chagrin that I, too, had the habit of making small talk out of the very things that would make a person feel least at home.
There have been times and places when Jews had good reason to be nervous about strangers, but 21st century America isn’t one of them. If we want to be truly welcoming of newcomers, if we want them to come back and be a part of our community, we need to unlearn this nervous habit.
The best way I’ve found to unlearn it is summarized in three words: Seek Common Ground. Instead of commenting on the things that make a person different, I look for topics that we have in common. I can start with that old chestnut, the weather (we do have it in common, after all) or with a shared experience, “I enjoyed the music tonight, what did you think of it?” but the important thing is that it is something shared.
Shared experience is what binds a community together. By offering another person a conversation about what we have in common, I build my community. We can still disagree about plenty of things, but by looking for the common ground, we give them the most basic message of welcome: we assume that they’re “one of us.”
These words from Genesis 1 are simple and eloquent:
God saw ALL that God made, and behold, it was VERY GOOD.
This little line is key to many areas of Jewish thought, but none more so than in the arena of human rights. Human beings are all equal, whatever our race, whatever our gender, whatever our abilities, whatever our sexual orientation, we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we are part of creation, which is tov me’od, very good.
This is especially important in the realm of disability rights. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of racism or sexism, and there’s general agreement that those are wrong. But then we look at a person in a wheelchair, or a person with a hearing loss, or a person with developmental, mental, or emotional disabilities, and we forget that they, too, are “very good” just as they are. This is “ableism” and it is pernicious.
Ableism whispers that the women in the wheelchair whose speech is slurred has nothing important to say. Ableism suggests that the developmentally disabled man who makes us uncomfortable should not be visible in our congregation. Ableism suggests that when accommodating a person is “too expensive” or “too much trouble” or “too uncomfortable” we can write it off with a shrug. Ableism suggests that some people’s feelings are less important, that their lives are less important, and that it is OK to write off certain human beings because gee, they are a lot of trouble.
Ableism is wrong from a Jewish point of view because it flies directly in the face of our core belief that all human beings are equal, and all creation is very good.
Jewish tradition has a rocky history around issues of disability rights. While in Leviticus 19:14 we are commanded “not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind,” two chapters later we read Leviticus 21: 16-21, which outlines physical requirements for the priests who will lead public worship. The priests who lift their hands in worship and participate in the sacrifices must be physically perfect. Maimonides explains this rule by writing “most people do not estimate a person by his true form, but by his limbs and his clothing, and the Temple should be held in the highest regard” (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:45.) In other words, people are ableist, and this requirement is in place because of our shortcomings, not because there’s anything wrong with the person with a disability.
Ableism is as bad as racism, as bad as sexism, as bad as homophobia, as bad as ageism, as bad as any other “-ism.” We can learn better. Just as we can fight racism and other prejudices in our hearts and in our behavior, we can fight ableism. We can change. We can demand change in our institutions and in our communities.
God saw what God had made, and behold it was very good. Isn’t it time we took God’s word for it?
Members of the Jewish community of Sochi and Israeli delegates to the Olympics held a memorial for the 11 Israelis killed by terrorists in Munich at the Summer Games in 1972. [from a report in The Forward, 2/10/2014]
Jews live in lots of interesting places. The largest Jewish community in the world is the one in the State of Israel, and there are large communities in Los Angeles and New York City. But there are also small communities all over the world, little groups like the one in Sochi, Russia.
Wherever Jews live we feel a connection to other Jews everywhere and in every age. Thus the Jews of Sochi feel a connection to 11 Olympic athletes who were murdered in Munich 42 years ago. This is what Klal Yisrael means: “All of Israel.” Klal Yisrael includes both the yeshiva boys and the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem, the intermarried Jews and Chabadniks in Los Angeles, the totally secular and the totally Satmar in New York. It includes the Jews of Singapore and Nashville and Auckland, the Jews of Buenos Aires and, yes, Sochi.