Teaching and Learning and Joy, oh my!

September 29, 2013

I’m happy. I launched two classes this morning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. I think it’s going to be a very good year.

Even with classes I teach again and again (this is my third round with “Exploring Judaism”) the people in the class make the experience different. Jews don’t do a lot of solo learning; we learn in groups and in pairs, noisily. When I see a room full of people (19 of them!) and I think about all the Torah I’m going to learn, I get happy. Beginners are fantastic, because they ask questions I’m too routinized to ask for myself.  Beginners are a precious resource.

“Money & the Mensch: Jewish Ethics and Personal Finance” is especially exciting. We’re not sure whether it will happen as an official class yet, since we have low numbers, but they’re excited and I’m excited and I’m going to give them the class reader anyway next week. This was the topic of my rabbinic thesis, and I’m practically itching to teach it, because it is a wonderful, practical subject with some great stories in it.  We’re going to learn about the terrible Men of Sodom and Maimonides’ Torah Scholar and Munbaz II of Adiabene and some other interesting tales.  We’ll use those stories to figure out the questions we need to ask about money: how to give charity wisely and well, how to make choices about investing and consumption, how to decide when a boycott is a good idea.  We’ll have a blast.

I love to teach. It’s what I do.


Why Do Good?

August 4, 2013
British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do good?

Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:

I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.

All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?

I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe  that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.

When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.

When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.

When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.

None of this requires metaphysics.

My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution.  We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.

Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy.  I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.

When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.


I’m Not Done: Thinking about Racism

July 20, 2013
Negro boy near Cincinnati, Ohio  (LOC)

Human Being (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Every time someone is reported to have done something racist and all his or her friends begin hollering that good ole George or Paula isn’t “a racist” as if that is the worst, worst thing in the world one person could call another, I want to bang my head on the wall.

For starters, can we quit worrying about who’s a racist and start talking about the effects of racist acts and words? I think we’ll get further in changing people’s behavior. A person who doesn’t intend anything bad can still do a bad thing. I can step on your foot without setting out to do so. The fact that I didn’t plot it with malice does not change the pain I cause when I do it, and i fact, I should look where I step. At the very least I should remove my foot from your instep immediately!

Jewish tradition has a lot to say about unintentional sin: we call such a sin a “chet,” using a term for a missed archery target. Chapter 4 of Leviticus prescribes the proper offerings for atoning for such sins when they have been committed against God. Treating another human being with disrespect or discrimination, even if we do so unintentionally, is such a sin against God, because all human beings are created in the image of God. Someone who calls our sin to our attention (because obviously we didn’t know about it, it was unintentional) is doing us a favor, giving us a chance to redeem ourselves.

These days, with no Temple available for purification or sacrifice, the remedy for sin is teshuvah. (For a description of how to go about teshuvah, check out “The Jewish Cure for Guilt.”) Defensiveness will not work: defensiveness makes these things worse, not better. When I argue that a person who is bringing an unintentional sin to my attention is hallucinating or malicious or “playing the race card” I am missing the point and compounding the error. Those who rebuke me are letting me know how my actions or words came across, and now it is up to me to correct that — with teshuvah.

Secondly, the effect of my words is not limited to the hurt feelings or sensibilities of the listener who speaks up. My words effect all the other people who hear them and who may therefore decide that speaking that way is OK. We teach others with our actions and our speech, not only our children but also other adults. We teach when we fail to speak up about offensive language – when I let something pass, I give it tacit approval. When racist behavior and attitudes are as socially unacceptable as the n-word, we’ll be making real progress.

If I did not intend for my words to teach racism, how much more important is it for someone to let me know that that’s what I communicated?  My intent has been obscured by clumsy words, and the words are teaching evil – better fix them, and fast!

Full disclosure: I was born in Tennessee in the mid-1950’s. My parents are white and during my lifetime, the family has been very prosperous. The only minority experience of which I was aware in childhood was that of being a Catholic in the very Protestant-Christian Southeastern US. I knew lots of  African Americans as a kid, but until I was fourteen, all of them were domestic servants or manual laborers. My parents were open about thinking segregation was a good thing back in the 1960’s. I lived in an environment where I heard the “n-word” all the time, and the only sense I had that there was anything wrong with it was that “nice women don’t say that, they say ‘colored.'” Before I started school, I was explicitly taught that people with any African ancestors were not as smart as white people, and that “civil rights” was an unAmerican movement.

Thank heavens my parents sent me to school with the Dominican Sisters who taught me, and modeled for me, that treating people of color differently was wrong because all human beings are equal before God.

However, the sisters could not flip a switch in my head so that I suddenly became enlightened and would never do another racist thing or think another racist thought. I have said and done things in my life that make me cringe to remember them. I have done what I can to make teshuvah for those words and actions. I continue to make teshuvah for mistakes I make in the present. I do not kid myself that I will ever completely unlearn what I was taught as a child, but I can make an effort to do better, and to teach differently than I was taught.

My background on the subject is very simple to unpack: I was explicitly taught racism, and I am spending my adult life learning to speak and act and think in better ways. This does not make me a bad person – if anything, it is the mark of a good person that I am trying to be better, but only as long as I continue to grow in Torah and treat other human beings with respect.

I realize that for some other whites, things may be a bit less clear. But it is my observation, with my ears that were tuned as a child to such things, that nobody in the United States is untouched by race. Not a single one of us is truly color blind except for very young children (and there have been studies that show that they learn racism early.). Defensiveness speaks volumes, whether it is a liberal insisting frantically that Clarence Thomas‘s race is not an issue or a conservative insisting the same about Trayvon Martin. The mantra of “I don’t care if they are white, black, green or purple” just underlines otherness, and it reeks of desperation. The key word in that phrase is “they,” who are not “us.”

By the way – if this discussion sends some readers to thinking about the ways in which you feel that African Americans have been racist, understand that I am not talking about those behaviors. I’m talking only about the ways that whites talk and behave towards African Americans. Switching over to the “reverse racism” discussion is the equivalent of one child on the playground hollering that another started the trouble: it’s a ploy to change the subject. I’m talking right now about OUR behavior, not anyone else’s, and yes, it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable.

Torah calls us to love the stranger, to love those whom we perceive to be different from ourselves. (Leviticus 10:10) The fact that it repeats this over and over again is a mark of how difficult it is to see someone different as a beloved child of God. How much the more so, if we have been programmed to see that person as dangerous, or stupid, or exotic?

Every time we say a blessing before a mitzvah, we say, “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who sanctifies us with mitzvot [commandments]…” We are given the commandments so that we may become holy. We are not required to already be holy, just to do the work that will take us towards holiness. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say (Pirkei Avot 2:21):

It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it. If you have studied much in the Torah much reward will be given you, for faithful is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come. 

How will we know when we are finished with the task? When can we congratulate ourselves that we don’t need to worry about racism anymore? Not in my lifetime, for sure – I know what’s in my head. If the day comes that I don’t feel the slightest urge to change my behavior in the presence of a black male, when I don’t hear my father’s or my grandmother’s voices in my head, when I no longer notice that the new friend I made is a person of color I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m not done.


Listening to Isaiah: Thoughts for Tisha B’Av

July 14, 2013
homeless

homeless (Photo credit: Bagunçêiro)

During the three weeks before Tisha B’Av, Jews read the three Haftarot of Affliction warning us about the penalties for ignoring our responsibilities as Jews.  Those readings are a bracing antidote to fusses over fine details of liturgy or who-slighted-whom in the High Holy Day honors. A little taste from the first chapter of Isaiah:

Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands  I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

According to Isaiah, unless we care about those who suffer, and we do something about poverty and injustice, we have missed the point of Torah.

John Scalzi at the Whatever blog points to an interesting article that includes a calculator for the cost of raising a family in several major metro areas in the U.S. and compares it to the official federal poverty line, which is currently $23,550 for a family of four. The same article points out that a single adult with a full time minimum wage job will make $15,080.  To sum up, in my own neighborhood:

  • Cost for a family of four to live in the SF Bay Area with a minimum level of security:  $84,133.
  • Federal poverty line for that same family: $23,550.
  • Minimum wage job, 1 adult: $15, 080.  Even with 2 adults working: $30,160.

Contemplate those figures for a few minutes.

In my own personal circle of acquaintance, I know of several folks who lost jobs during the Great Recession and who have not managed to find work again above the minimum wage level. Most are middle-aged adults who have responsibility for teenaged children and/or aging parents. They are not stupid people, nor are they lazy people. They are unlucky people in fields where employers would prefer to fill positions with younger employees who don’t have as much experience and therefore cost less.

I know of another person who worked at a job she loved for many years. It wasn’t the sort of thing that made a lot of money, but she saved what she could. However, she could not afford disability insurance, and when her knees and back gave out (it was a physical job) she, too, was middle-aged and uninteresting to employers. She’s been tangled in the red tape of public assistance for months, and I am worried that she will become homeless.

I know way too many young people for whom college wasn’t an option, because they had no wealthy relatives and they have a healthy fear of the crippling debt that a college education requires of such people these days, even for a state college. The ones who went to college are in a different pickle: they are mostly underemployed and drowning in debt. See, they had to work summers to pay for college (even with the debt) and wealthier peers spent that time at unpaid internship jobs. A resume with a well-chosen internship on it trumps one with none – so the poorer student cannot compete.

Seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

I’m focusing here on the personal economic misery among people I know, but the cost to us all is staggering. The great boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s was fueled by a large educated workforce in the United States. Now no one but the wealthy can afford to go to school. (If you are grumping about “part time jobs” and “scholarships” you have not sent anyone to college lately.)

Back in 590 BCE, Isaiah preached that if Israel did not take care of her poor, disaster would result. God was fed up with the fancy ritual that substituted for the Torah virtues of hesed [lovingkindness] and tzedakah [relief of the suffering.]

I do not have the eloquence of Isaiah, but if Tisha B’Av has any meaning for us today, it is that we neglect the care of the poor at our peril. When we focus so tightly on the Temple edifice, we fail to hear the voice of the speaker in Lamentations, the scroll we will read this Tuesday: he does not wail at length about the loss of that edifice. He weeps for the suffering that he has seen, the destruction and waste of a great city.

This Tisha B’Av, whether you fast or not, let us consider what we personally are going to do about the suffering all around us. Have we given as much tzedakah as we can to the agencies that relieve suffering? Have we explained to our elected officials that we are not going to vote for them again unless they can manage to get something done?  have we organized with others on behalf of those who suffer? Have we done everything in our power to see to it that every neighbor can go to sleep at night feeling “minimally secure?”

Jeremiah and Isaiah are crystal clear that our fast does not matter, is in fact offensive, if we are not doing something to right the wrongs around us. Nor do I think that we get points for indignation, unless we are actually Doing Something.

Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of mourning, but if it is only that, then we are trapped in the past, a dead religion.

Torah is more than a museum piece. This Tisha B’Av, let us arise, let us say, “Torah is alive, it lives in each of us, and there is work to be done!”


Transition Time

July 7, 2013
Kiddush Lunch at Temple Sinai

Kiddush Lunch at Temple Sinai

For the past six months, I’ve been helping out at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA while Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin has been on sabbatical. She and her family have been living in Israel. I filled in on a part-time basis, assisting Rabbi Andrew Straus.

I grew up as a Jew at Temple Sinai. I began the process of formal conversion to Judaism when I knocked on Rabbi Steve Chester’s door in the  early 90’s, and all my first lessons in what it meant to be Jewish happened in and around that big old wedding cake of a building. Later on, they sent me out into the big Jewish world, first doing committee work for the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, and then as a regional board member for what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the URJ. I went on to work at URJ, and eventually decided that I would be happiest as a rabbi. I applied to Hebrew Union College, and was ordained in 2008. All the way through, I could feel the folks back at Sinai encouraging me.

I never thought I’d be back in Oakland, much less on staff at Sinai. The hardest part of the decision to become a rabbi was the fact that it was unlikely I’d ever live here, or be a regular at Sinai again. Then in the middle of my student years, one of my sons was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and it was clear to me that with or without employment, my family needed me in Oakland. I bounced back and forth between Oakland and L.A. until ordination, and then I headed home for good after ordination.

Since then I’ve worked at a variety of positions and served a lot of people in California and over in Henderson, NV. Coffee Shop Rabbi came into being in 2010 when I decided to quit “looking for a job” and do the work I saw before me, reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and meeting them in convenient places near their work or home. I did that, and taught classes, and provided funerals and grief support for the unaffiliated.  I found the rabbinate for which I was born, best described by Hillel in Avot 1.12: Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace. [Be] one who loves one’s fellow creatures and brings them close to the Torah. 

And then last fall I got the call from Rabbi MM, and had the chance to serve for a while at the congregation I have loved for all my Jewish life. It was a joy to give back, to serve the people who had been so good to me. It has been a pleasure to work with both Rabbi Straus and Cantor Ilene Keys, and to learn with them as I did so. I have enjoyed the day-to-day company of the office staff, something that the “Coffee Shop Rabbi” doesn’t have.  I got to know people at Sinai that had been there all along, but we hadn’t met; old friends trusted me with new sides of them.

But this week Rabbi MM is returning, and while I’ll miss some things, I’m glad she’s back. I kept my teaching schedule during the past six months, but the work with unaffiliated Jews had to go on hold; there just wasn’t time for it. Now I’m chomping at the bit to go back. I’ll go back to advertising my services, and Lehrhaus Judaica has expanded my teaching schedule for the fall.

Will I miss Temple Sinai? Nope – I’ll still be there as a Jew in the pew! And I’ll still be doing work that I love, teaching Torah and hanging out with the Jews.

l’shalom [towards peace],

Rabbi Adar, the Coffee Shop Rabbi

P.S. My son is doing very well, by the way – he’s stable now, and is an artist-fabricator running the shop at an outfit called the Department of Spontaneous Combustion. (If you are curious, follow this link and watch the video. He’s the guy in the white tee shirt.)


On Being Good: “Is this the fast I have chosen?”

July 1, 2013
mmmm doughnut ...

(Photo credit: bunchofpants)

“I am not going to eat that doughnut; I’m going to be good.”

If you are an American, you’ve heard it. If you are an American woman, you’ve heard it a lot. But when was the last time you heard yourself or someone else say it about something that actually had moral value?

“I’m to obey every traffic law today. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m going to lobby against my own financial interests in favor of the interests of the poor. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m going to speak kindly to every person I meet for the next hour. I’m going to be good.”

… or even in reference to food:

“I’m not going to buy or eat chocolate that might have been produced by enslaved children. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m not going to buy or eat food that causes human or animal suffering. I’m going to be good.”

In Isaiah 58, God says to Israel:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

What kind of a world could we build if we put the energy into actual good deeds that we put into dieting and diet talk?

This post was inspired by: 


Bending Towards Justice

June 26, 2013
Waiting for decisions

Waiting for decisions (Photo credit: vpickering)

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

These are the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, after the completion of the Selma to Montgomery March on March 25, 1965. His prophetic words are a beacon of hope for all who wish to fulfill the Biblical commandment, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Today the US Supreme Court declared parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and allowed a lower court ruling to stand striking down California’s Proposition 8, which had attempted to redefine marriage in such a way that same-gender couples were excluded. There are still legal and practical matters to be worked out about both, but two great obstacles to human rights have been much reduced.

I am not objective about these matters. I am a citizen of the State of California, and the combination of Prop 8 and DOMA affected my family in tangible ways. Discrimination has shaped our choices over and over again: choices about matters as trivial as vacation and as serious as end-of-life. I still don’t know exactly how today’s legal decisions will play out in my life, but I know that their effect will be far-ranging and profound.

Our children are, if anything, more excited than Linda and myself. The official illegitimacy of our relationship disturbed them deeply.

All that said and done, there is so much left to do!  Getting married will help a lot of LGBT folks with nice things like estate planning and dignity, but it will mostly make a difference for those who are middle-class or wealthy. We still face workplace discrimination and immigration discrimination, and for transgender Americans, the battles are still over rights as basic as the right to use an appropriate public restroom. Some of us still face the threat of violence when we drive through the “wrong” county, or walk on the “wrong” street.

Today’s progress, wonderful as it is, is not enough. We can’t declare the work done yet.

We can’t declare the work done until every U.S. citizen’s vote is counted, and every U.S. citizen can get to the polls.

We can’t declare the work done until no one, anywhere, gets stopped for Driving While Black.

We can’t declare the work done until no one, anywhere, is deported to a strange country where they don’t know the language because of cruel immigration law and decisions made by others before they were born.

We can’t declare the work done until rape culture is only an historical footnote.

We can’t declare the work done until everyone, everywhere, has the chance to make of themselves what they can: until everyone has a fair shot at education and a job.

We can’t declare the work done until the very young and the very old can feel safe and secure, without fear for shelter or their next meal.

I am sure that you can think of something that needs to be done before we declare the work done, and I tell you, go work for that change!

There are those who look to a mythical past for the “good old days.” I am here to tell you, those good old days never existed. Those good old days are ahead. May they come speedily and in our lives!


RABBI SHARON SOBEL

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