Rabbis and Converts: A Sacred Relationship

November 17, 2014
A New Jew receives the Torah

A New Jew receives the Torah

Many people take my class because they are quietly checking out Judaism. Something has led them to consider conversion, and they are doing research. Actually, that’s a great reason to take the class.

Eventually, I will get a call or an email: “Rabbi, how do I convert?” That’s when I break the news that (1) they have to get a rabbi and (2) it can’t be me.  I believe people are better off working with congregational rabbis, because they come with a Jewish community.

Rabbis are the gatekeepers to the conversion process. That is the tradition. We shepherd people through the process of getting to know the Jewish People, getting to know a little of the tradition, and in getting a sense of whether they will be happy being Jews. Some people have an intellectual attraction to Judaism, but when they encounter real Jews they are less comfortable. For others, Judaism is fascinating, but giving up what they loved about their past affiliation is too difficult. Some people are on a spiritual journey, and Judaism is a stopover or a necessary side trip. It is the rabbi’s job to discern what’s really going on and to help the candidate navigate it, whether the ultimate destination is Judaism or something else. That kind of discernment can only take place over time, in a relationship between rabbi and candidate.

Recently, there has been a lot in the news about a particular rabbi who abused the trust in such a relationship. He behaved as a predator, taking advantage of the trust of those in his care. I am glad that his congregational board immediately reported him to the police. I am glad that the rabbinical association to which he belongs promptly began changing their process to put better protections in place against such abuses. Horrible as the situation was, my hope is that it will lead to better process in the future. I hope and pray for support and healing for the victims of that rabbi’s dreadful behavior.

The vast majority of us take the process of shepherding converts very seriously, and regard it as one of the greatest trusts of the rabbinate. A vulnerable person trusts us to guide them towards Sinai. The Jewish People trust us to nurture Jews who will flourish as members of Am Yisrael. 

If you are considering conversion, realize that nothing can really begin until you find a rabbi. Not every rabbi is the right one: you need to find your rabbi. Anything before that is a preliminary, no matter how many books you read or classes you take.  When I approached a rabbi about conversion, I had read everything I could find, and I had an academic background in religion, and I thought I had little more to learn. The truth was that the journey to real Judaism was only beginning; all that I had learned was theoretical.

If you are on that journey, good luck to you! I wish you a fruitful trip, wherever it takes you.


I Love You, JTA!

November 11, 2014

JTA

How do you keep up with the news of the Jewish world?

Sometimes it can seem as if “the Jewish world” consists of my own little Jewish community plus whatever is in the news about Israel. In the summer of 2014, if you believed the television, the only things going on anywhere were war in Gaza and a terrifying rise in anti-Semitism in Europe.

Granted, it was not a happy summer for Jews, but if you were tuned in to Jewish news sources, you (1) had a more complete picture of the bad things and (2) knew what other things were happening with Jews globally.

My favorite Jewish news source is JTA.org. The long form of its name will give you a clue how long it has been serving the community: Jewish Telegraphic Agency. One of the things I love about the JTA is the depth of its archive: they will give you the current story, then background on the issue.  For instance, today there is an article about the history of tension around the Temple Mount. Less savvy news services might give you the idea that trouble at the Temple Mount is a current development, but the JTA article gives you the background. Sometimes stories read a little differently when you know the history.

You can sign up for daily news from the service. Sometimes I only have time to skim that email, but it gives me the headlines for the Jewish world.

I know that JTA.org is not the only source for Jewish news: do you have a favorite? Tell us about it in the comments!


What, You Mean I Have A Real Disease???

November 9, 2014

rabbiadar:

Bipolar Disorder is a physical illness: this blog post from “Bipolar for Life” will lead you to an article in Psychiatric Times that documents it. Bipolar is as “real” as Type 1 Diabetes, and those who suffer from it don’t deserve jokes or shunning, they deserve compassion and decent treatment.

Originally posted on Bipolar For Life:

Holy mackerel, Bullwinkle, there’s actually physical evidence that our brains are different from the neurotypicals!   Yes indeedy, bloggie friends, the picture is not a pretty one, but hey, we knew that already.

The link to the article in Psychiatric Times is below.  If you have trouble with it, let me know in the comments and I’ll copy-paste it in its entirety.

Unfortunately the only way to qualify for this test is to have a post-mortem.  So there’s plenty of time to kick up our heels and enjoy being Bipolar, Schizophrenic, Schizoaffective, or any or all of the above!

Feel free to print this out, and if anybody gives you any shit about “Just snap out of it,” shove it up their, uh, nose.  We have a Real Physical Disease.

Isn’t that great?

Explains a lot, anyway.

Bipolar Disorder Shares Pathophysiologic Features with Schizophrenia | Psychiatric Times.

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Sarah’s Choices

November 8, 2014
Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky

Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky

Imanu Sarah: Sarah, Our Mother. Sarah was the wife of Abraham, and yet she is a mystery. The Book of Genesis has many passages that mention her:

She was the half-sister and wife of a chieftain. (Genesis 20: 11-12)

We know that she was beautiful, so beautiful that the Pharaoh of Egypt wanted her for his harem.  (Genesis 12:11)

She was sometimes cruel in her dealings with her servants. (Genesis 16)

She had a sense of humor, but laughed at the wrong moments. (Genesis 18:12)

At 90, she was still so beautiful that the king of Gerar wanted her for his harem. Twice in her life her husband handed her over as a concubine to men that he feared. (Genesis 20)

Later that year, she conceived a child by Abraham and gave birth – at age 90. (Genesis 21: 1-8)

She was fiercely protective of her son Isaac, and demanded that his half-brother Isaac and his mother, her servant, be sent out into the desert to die. (Genesis 21: 9-21) The text is unclear exactly what Ishmael was doing to Isaac, but certainly he was an older male with a claim on Abraham’s estate, and Sarah was ruthless in getting rid of him and his mother.

At some later date, Abraham believed he had been told by God to take Isaac and sacrifice him. God intervened, and Isaac lived.

We do not know what happened between Abraham and Sarah after that. In Genesis 23, the text says that Sarah died at Hebron, where she was apparently living apart from Abraham, since he had to “come” [vayavo] to mourn for her and bury her. We know from the previous chapter that he had taken other wives or concubines, and had children by them.

We know nothing about Sarah’s feelings, except for the times that she was jealous of Hagar. We know about the time she laughed at Abraham, although God covered for her and said she was laughing about herself. (Genesis 18: 12-13) We don’t know how she felt about being passed off as a “sister,” handed to two different kings as a concubine.

We know that her son mourned her for a long time. (Genesis 24:67)

All that we know, we know through a narrator who was much more interested in other people and things. But even that narrator cannot deny that Sarah’s decisions had consequences: her choices to twice play along with the fiction that she was single, to give Hagar to her husband, to banish Hagar and Ishmael, to protect Isaac. Even though she was not much more than property in the world she inhabited, Sarah’s choices had world-changing consequences.

When ever I feel that no one is listening, that I am too small to matter, I remind myself of Sarah. Every choice we make has powerful potential.

Choices have consequences, sometimes long-ranging ones. May we all make good choices this week, for we never know when it may turn out to be important.


Shabbat Shalom!

November 7, 2014

rest area

It was quite a week.

I had another near-disaster on the freeway. The alternator died, with the result that by the time I was able to get off the road and stop, it was just me, 2 tons of car, and the laws of physics. Still a good day because I lived to tell about it.

Friends have had unhappy things happen: serious bicycle accidents, skunks under the house, car accidents, failures of technology with consequences, illness.

The Jewish People have had a hard week: violence in Jerusalem, rising anti-Semitism in Europe, nasty stuff on the internet. We remembered a very difficult week 19 years ago, when we lost Yitzhak Rabin, one of our heroes.

We are coming up on an anniversary this weekend: the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht.  If you don’t know about it, or are only vaguely clear about it (“a Holocaust thing”) then follow the link and read about it. We should reflect upon it before slinging around the word “Nazi.”

Many heavy burdens to carry, but tonight the sun will go down, and we will welcome the Sabbath in all her glory. Let those burdens drop from our shoulders, take a deep breath, and let us welcome the peace, if only for a little while.

If we make our best effort to experience the Sabbath, perhaps we can carry some of that peace into the week that follows.

Kein y’hi ratzon: May it be the will of the Eternal. Amen.


Remembering Rabin

November 6, 2014
Probably the most famous photo of PM Rabin, taken on Sept 13, 1993.

Probably the most famous photo of Prime Minister Rabin, taken on Sept 13, 1993.

This week we observed the 19th yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I have read several remembrances of him, which I would like to share with you:

“Remembering Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin” on ReformJudaism.org

“Remembering Yitzhak Rabin, 19 Years Later” by Times of Israel blogger Arielle Yael Mokhtarzadeh.

“For the sake of Zion I will not remain silent,” Remembering Yitzhak Rabin on Food for Mind, Body and Spirit, Rabbi Sharon Sobel’s blog. This post includes a remarkable poem by Rabbi Zoe Klein.

“Choosing Life over Land in Genesis 13 and in Peace Politics: Following Abraham and Remembering Rabin” by Ayala Emmett, in The Jewish Pluralist

 

Also, if there are readers who are thinking, “Who was Yitzhak Rabin?” here is the official biographical material from the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Israel.

 

 


Vayera: The Care of Visitors

November 6, 2014
"The Hospitality of Abraham" 13th c. Byzantine icon

“The Hospitality of Abraham” 13th c. Byzantine icon

Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24) offers a lesson on the mitzvah of hospitality. Abraham, our role model, runs to greet his guests, even though they are unexpected, even though he is old and recovering from circumcision. The text is generous with details: he washes their feet, calls upon Sarah to bake, and orders a calf slaughtered and dressed. Abraham himself waits upon their table.

The contrast is stark between that story and the next. The angels proceed to the city of Sodom. Lot greets them at the gate, hurrying them to his house. Lot is afraid for a reason: a mob surrounds the house and demands that the strangers be given to them: they intend to rape them. The prophet Ezekiel clarified: “See, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, gluttony, and uncaring were in her and her daughters, nor did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) The Talmud expands on the story, explaining that the men of Sodom systematically abused all strangers and the poor in their city, enshrining that abuse in law. (Sanhedrin 109a-b) Like all rape, this was not a sin of sex, but a sin of violence. These sins merited their utter destruction.

This week we might ask ourselves: when did I last personally welcome a stranger to my table? Or have I reserved my personal hospitality for those best known to me, and to those who might profit me? Does my community welcome visitors, or only look to profit from them? Are we following the example of Abraham, or Sodom?

A version of this d’var Torah [word of Torah] originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.


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