Guilt and Responsibility

sunset-76207_640

It’s been very hot here today in Northern California. Normally we have a cool breeze from the ocean, but today there was only a hot wind from the east. Such weather makes everyone nervous: it’s fire season.

There’s a kind of foreboding that goes with hot windy days in fire season, especially in a drought year. Any tiny ember can start a huge fire, whether it’s from some fool tossing a cigarette butt or something more innocent, like a piece of equipment that happens to throw a spark. So those of us who have lived here for long pay attention and call the fire department if we even think we smell smoke.

Days like today I am reminded that Torah teaches us about communal values. In a few weeks, we’ll be saying Vidui, a prayer of confession. That prayer will include some sins that I know I have never committed. I have never personally committed murder, for instance, but I will confess it as if I had.

The first time I said that prayer with the congregation, it felt ridiculous. I didn’t murder anyone! I haven’t robbed anyone, or given bad counsel! I felt angry that I was supposed to say those things, even though I hadn’t personally done them. I felt misunderstood.

But now I understand the Vidui prayer differently. Even though I haven’t done those particular things, I am part of a community in which people may very well have done them. Even though I have not personally committed arson, I am part of a community in which some people are criminally careless with fire. (Witness all the illegal fireworks on July 4.) Even though I have not and would not make money from the exploitation of children, I live in a community notorious for its child sex trafficking.

What the Vidui teaches is that even if we don’t participate, if it happens in our community, we are responsible. As Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l said:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – The Prophets, p. 19

I have never thrown a cigarette butt anywhere (I’ve never smoked.) But as part of my responsibility for fire safety in my area, I pay taxes for the fire department, and on days like today, I pay attention to any sign that there might be a fire. Anything less could cost lives. I am not guilty, but I am responsible.

I also live in a society that is racist to its core. People with dark skins suffer all manners of indignities I with my white skin do not suffer. I have never had any reason to be afraid of cops. I have never been trailed in a store. Nor is the suffering merely to dignity: my forebears benefitted from the accumulation of real estate wealth in the mid 20th century, and thanks to red-lining, African Americans did not. I have tried for most of my life to be a good, non-racist white person; I am not guilty of personal misbehavior since I learned better, but I am still responsible.

I am responsible to see to it that no one says racist things in my hearing without being challenged. I am responsible to see to it that my elected representatives vote for remedies to racist policies. I am responsible to keep my civil servants honest about their policies and the implementation of those policies. I am responsible to make sure that some of my tzedakah funds and volunteer time goes to address the wrong that still exists in my society. I am responsible not to interrupt, but to listen, when a black person shares their truth with me.

And as for all those other things, I’m responsible there, too. For instance, since there is that horrible child sex trafficking down on E 14th Ave. in Oakland, I support organizations that work to relieve the suffering, and I vote for elected officials who will work to end it. Since we live in fire danger country, I garden appropriately and do everything else the fire department suggests.

We don’t live on this planet alone. We can’t do whatever we want. And we cannot absolve ourselves with “it’s not my problem” when something is expensive or inconvenient or embarrassing. We are responsible to do what we can.

No Nagging Shabbat

NoNAGGING

So you have heard about Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. What you heard sounded very good, but the logistics are intimidating: no cooking, no electricity on and off, no work of any kind, no electronics. You look at your family and wonder how you are going to sell them on this idea.

Stop. Let me tell you about how I began to keep Shabbat more than 20 years ago.

It was about the time I began to study for conversion to Judaism. My enthusiasm was building, even though the other members of my family weren’t interested in going to services. I wanted to have some Shabbat at home, too.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. Their rooms were disaster areas, they preferred wearing old rags to clothes, they were not industrious students, and I felt responsible for them.  There were a number of areas where it seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted to take a break from it, I wanted them to take a break from it, and I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.'” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

What are Kinot and Piyyutim?

Francesco Hayez, "Destruction of the Second Temple" 1867, photographed by marsmet543

I’m spending the remainder of Tisha B’Av studying Rav Yosef Soloveitchik‘s commentary on the kinot associated with the day.

What is a kina? To explain that, I must first explain piyyutim. Piyyutim are Hebrew liturgical poems. Some are as old as the 3rd century CE, and many are from the Middle Ages. They are elaborations on the themes and emotions associated with the prayer service, especially the services on special days. One is most likely to encounter a piyyut during the High Holy Days, because there are many famous piyyutim associated with those services, and at those very long formal services we often read a few of them.

To get the full effect of a piyyut, it is best to hear it read in Hebrew, because the music of the language does not come through in translation. Many piyyutim are acrostics (the first letter in each line spell a word.) They take the theme of a service or prayer and then bring in images and word-play from midrashim associated with the words in the prayer. That’s why studying them with a commentary can be helpful: otherwise the ordinary person will miss a lot.

Kinot (singular kina) are a particular kind of piyyutim.  They are liturgical poems of lament, formal expressions of grief. The great majority of them are associated with Tisha B’Av.

Here is the beginning of a famous old kina attributed to Elazar ben Killir, who lived in the 6th century CE (translation mine):

On this night my children cry and keen,
For tonight my holy Temple is destroyed, and my palaces burned.
And all the house of Israel tells my agony,
And cries for the fire kindled by the Holy One.

On this night my children cry and keen.

I find that the poets of kinot can help to bring a particular day in the Jewish year to life for me. Just from this one verse, it immediately projects me into the reality of a Jerusalemite in 586 BCE or 70 CE: I am sitting in the ruins of the city, listening to my children sob. They’re hungry. We’re in shock. The unthinkable has happened: God has turned on us.

The kina goes on to elaborate the trials of homelessness, and it accepts that in fact, we brought these evils upon ourselves. The forces of Babylon and Rome were merely agents of the Eternal, taking away the blessings we foolishly took for granted: home, security, peace.

If you would like to hear some kinot chanted, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music has a very nice collection of them for sale online, and it makes samples available for free listening.

Reading the kinot, I am struck by the fact that many of the sufferings we remember on Tisha B’Av are felt by far too many people in our own day: homelessness, hunger, and fear. May we rise from today’s fast renewed in spirit to relieve the sufferings of others!

What is Sinat Chinam?

"Hatred" by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

Sinat chinam (see-NAHT hee-NAHM) is  usually translated “baseless hatred.” It has also been translated as “useless hatred.” We practice sinat chinom when we hate another person or group of persons without having a good reason.

The sages teach us that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinam. Jews quarreled fiercely and allowed those quarrels to escalate to mistreatment of one another. They forgot to look for the image of God in one another.

Hatred can be subtle. We hate when we can no longer see the other person as having the spark of the Divine within them, as human as ourselves. We tend to say, “I don’t hate anyone” because we know it is an ugly thing, but the proof of hate is not in our perceived emotions but in our behavior. Do we speak ill of a group of people we do not actually know? Do we deny others basic courtesy or rights? Do we ignore them, failing to give them the courtesy of our attention? Do we fail to speak up when others mistreat them?

Racism is a form of sinat chinam. Antisemitism is another. Political and religious disagreement can escalate into sinat chinam if we allow it.

As we begin the solemn day of remembrance of Tisha B’Av, let us search our hearts for sinat chinam, and cleanse ourselves of it with acts of love and compassion for those from whom we differ. Then perhaps we can begin to build a better world, healed and whole.

(Image: “Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly, used under a Creative Commons license.)

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.

What’s a Megillah?

download

A megillah (meh-gee-LAH or meh-GILL-ah) is a scroll. Usually, the term refers to one of five specific scrolls (megillot) read on specific days of the Jewish calendar:

Song of Songs (Shir ha Shirim)- read on the Shabbat during Passover.

Ruth – read on Shavuot

Lamentations (Eicha) – read on Tisha B’Av

Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) – read on the Shabbat during Sukkot

Esther – read on Purim

The megillot are not merely read, they are chanted to a particular tune or trope for the day of observance. This is not the same tune used for Shabbat Torah readings – it’s quite distinctive. I’ve linked each of the titles above to recordings, so that you can get a little taste of the trope.

Listening to a recording is a poor substitute for the experience of hearing a megillah chanted in person. Each reading takes place in the context of a community, and in the case of Lamentations and Esther the congregation also has a role to play. You’ll get a sense of that, too, from the recordings above.

Have you ever heard a megillah chanted live? What was that experience like for you?

A Visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scrolls

The California Science Center in Los Angeles has an exhibit titled The Dead Sea Scrolls now through Sept 7, 2015, and yesterday my friend Rabbi Sabine Meyer and I went to see it. If you live in L.A., or will visit there anytime soon, it’s well worth the admission fee.

They have done a nice job of putting the Scrolls in their historical context, explaining how they relate to other documents (the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bibles, and the Quran) and to the history of the Middle East. They also explained some of the science involved in their restoration. I could have used a bit more of the science: without it, the scrolls would have been nothing more than a curiosity, because we would not have been able to read them.

There’s a nice archaeological exhibit included as well, with a huge stone from the Temple Mount, pottery and building stones, figurines and inscriptions. Those who wish to read scripture as history, or who wish to read the Bible as infallible will be uncomfortable with it, but I liked the forthright approach to the science of the scrolls.

The scroll fragments come at the end of the exhibit, in a display that echoes the display at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. It is always a shock to see how tiny the fragments are, and how difficult it is to make out anything on them. I wish there had been more to explain how the scientists who reclaimed the scrolls made it possible for scholars to read them. When I looked at the blown-up images of the scroll fragments, enhanced for legibility, the calligraphy on them is beautiful and in fact easy to read – but the little flakes of actual scroll are hard to see, much less read. (If you’d like to see the scrolls for yourself, you can also take a look at them at the Digital Dead Sea Scrolls site maintained by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.)

So if you get a chance, go! But if Los Angeles is far away, let me give you a brief primer on the scrolls:

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered accidentally by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. They include most of the books of the Hebrew Bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther. They also include some other texts which seem to have been exclusive to the Jews who lived together at Qumran in the first century CE.

The people who owned and hid the scrolls may have been Essenes, a sect of Judaism mentioned by Josephus in his history of the Jews. However, this is by no means certain. What we do know is that about the time of the failed revolt against Rome, the owners of this library of scrolls sealed it up in jars, stashed it in hard-to-reach caves above the Dead Sea, and there they stayed until the 20th century.

For more about the history and significance of the scrolls, the Virtual Jewish Library has an excellent set of articles.