Waxing Gibbous: Torah “Secrets”

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. – Deuteronomy 30: 11-14

There’s a big old nearly-full moon in the sky tonight (the scientific name is “waxing gibbous.”) It may be the first of July in the Gregorian calendar, but it is also nearly the middle of the month of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar. The full moon comes at the middle of every Jewish month.

This week we also have a “double star” event in the sky, a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. The astrologers are excited over it (“romantic yearnings” – I looked it up!) Some scientists think that this may have been what was happening in the sky when ancient astronomers got all excited roughly 2015 years ago to make what the New Testament calls the Star of Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:1-12)

It is not Jewish tradition to try to foretell the future. (We are, in fact, forbidden to consult fortunetellers.) We’re supposed to cope with life as it comes. That’s because we are taught that we are already equipped to deal with whatever comes, through our study of Torah. That’s what the passage from Deuteronomy above is telling us: there is no secret to Torah. Everything in it is right there, if we are willing to study, and it is sufficient to live out a good life.  It isn’t in a foreign land, or in the stars, or in the deeps of the sea, rather it is right in our mouths, right in the words of Torah.

Rabbis don’t know “secrets of Torah.” We study as much Torah as we can – we devote our lives to it – and we make it available to others. The luckiest, happiest rabbis are the one whose students surpass them in learning.

What Torah have you been learning lately? With whom do you study?

Who is Legitimate? Who is Authentic? Who is a Jew?

"This is your destiny, to serve the Jewish People."  (5/18/08)

The rabbis taught: When someone nowadays presents himself for conversion, we say to him: Why do you wish to convert? Are you not aware that nowadays Israelites are careworn, stressed, despised, harassed and persecuted? If he responds, “I know, and I [feel] unworthy [to share their troubles]”, we accept him at once. We instruct him in some of the easy mitzvot and some of the hard ones. – Yevamot 47a

Some snapshots from my own experience as a ger tzedek, a convert to Judaism:

– A conversation I had with a non-Jewish relative about a week after my conversion. She said to me, “But you aren’t racially Jewish.”

– A conversation with a leader in my congregation, who said, “You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger,” pointing to our new assistant rabbi.

– A conversation with a fellow congregant at Temple Sinai, who learned that I was applying to rabbinical school: “Are you going to upgrade to an Orthodox conversion?”

– A conversation with a woman who worked for El Al in a security position, right before she allowed me on a flight to Tel Aviv after a 36 hour delay because my story didn’t make sense to secular Israelis: “Why would anyone want to be Jewish if they didn’t have to?”

– A conversation with a supervisor at a chaplaincy internship. After grilling me and finding out that the rabbi who sponsored my conversion was Reform, he said, “I don’t recognize Reform conversions. OK… well, we’ll start with you on the floor with the dementia patients, you can’t do much damage there.”

– A conversation with a woman at a Sisterhood meeting in the San Fernando Valley: “Rabbi, I need to ask you something: [pause for a deep breath] Where did you get your nose done?”

– A conversation with a woman who insisted that she had been Jewish in a previous life, so she didn’t need to convert.

– A letter from an attorney, a week after I got home from my father’s funeral: Seems that a while back Dad had decided I wasn’t his daughter. He disowned me.

– My rabbi, looking me straight in the eye just before my ordination, saying, “This is your destiny, to serve the Jewish people.”

– An email conversation with a guy who told me that he felt Jewish, and that he was the judge of what that meant for him.

– Last year my brother called me and asked me to officiate at his wedding. I did so with pleasure, a simple civil wedding. It meant the world to me that he wanted me to do it, that he still sees me as his sister.

Face it, authenticity and legitimacy are issues when we talk about “becoming Jewish.” Who is really Jewish and what makes them so?

Here’s what I think: Judaism is a family, a big, messy family. There is disagreement about who belongs and who does not, who is “real” and who is not, who is legitimate and who is not. And in my family of origin, as in many families, there is disagreement about who is family and who is not.

A person cannot wish themselves into a family; it’s a relationship that requires participation from both sides. There are many ways that people become part of an extended family: people are born in, or get informally adopted. But there is a point at which membership becomes formal and there is no going back, when one makes a commitment that cannot be easily dissolved. That’s official membership: when there is a commitment on both sides, and any break is a terrible rupture, like divorce. In a regular family, the moment of formality is adoption or marriage. With the Jewish People, it’s conversion: brit milah, tevilah, and a beit din. [Circumcision for men, Immersion in a mikveh, and a rabbinical court.]

When I sit as a member of a beit din, a panel of three rabbis that makes the decision on behalf of the Jewish people to go ahead with the conversion/adoption, questions weigh upon me. Does this person understand what they are getting into? Are they doing it with a whole heart? Are they equipped to participate? Will they be there with us when times are bad, when it’s really hard to be a Jew? Do they mean it, when they say they’ll raise their children as Jews?

There are no guarantees. At some point in the future, this person may disown us. Some other part of the Jewish family will try to disown them, for sure. Whether that works will be up to the individual Jew: some of us learn to say, “I’m sticking around anyway.”

Whatever happens, it will be messy, but it might be destiny, too.

This post first appeared two weeks ago, in a slightly different form.

What’s a Parashah?

Jews have a whole vocabulary for talking about the Torah. One of the words that puzzles newcomers is parashah.

For starters, we say it a lot of different ways: pah-rah-SHAH, PAR-shah and sometimes par-SHAHT in front of another incomprehensible word. So here’s the deal:

The Torah is a huge scroll, and without divisions, it would be hard to locate anything in it. First, the Torah is divided into 5 books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those are sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Those are their Greek names, by the way. The Hebrew names are Bereshit (buh-ray-SHEET), Shemot (sh’MOTE), Vayikra (vah-yee-KRAH), Bemidbar (b’meed-BAHR) and Devarim (d’vahr-EEM.)

Next, each of those books is divided into parshiot (pahr-shee-OAT.) Genesis has the most parshiot, at 12, Exodus and Deuteronomy have 11, and Leviticus and Numbers have 10. In the whole Torah, there are 54 Torah portions, or parshiot.

Torah portions are not the same as chapters in the Bible! Sometimes they begin or end with a chapter, but sometimes not. Chapters were actually the divisions made by Christian scholars, although they are so useful for finding things in the text that Jews use them today, too. Parshiot tend to be much longer than chapters, too.

If you are interested in how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, I have an article, Beginner’s Guide to the Jewish Bible, which will explain some of it. (Clue: it isn’t just that the Christian Bible has the New Testament.) For a chart comparing the Jewish Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Christian Orthodox Bible, and the Christian Protestant Bible, there’s a good chart at Catholic-Resources.org.

In general, Jews read one Torah portion aloud every week in synagogue. ]However, the Jewish year is on a lunar calendar, so every few years we double up some of the portions, reading two in a given week. The schedule by which this is done is complicated. Most Jews just look it up on a calendar. If you’d like to see a list of all the Torah portions and their names, there is a good one at http://www.hebcal.com, a good online Jewish calendar.

Verses are an even smaller division of the Jewish Bible (and they are usually the same as in the Christian Bible.) In very old rabbinic literature, bits of Torah are not referred to by “portion and verse” but by a word or two of the verse. The ancient rabbis had the entire Torah memorized, so when they heard a few words of a verse, they knew exactly what was up for discussion! Today in a Torah study, we refer to chapter and verse, don’t worry!

Now, as for those words for portion that I mentioned earlier: pah-rah-SHAH is the Sephardic or Modern Israeli pronunciation. PAHR-shah is the Ashkenazi pronunciation (these are different ways of pronouncing Hebrew.) And pahr-SHAHT is a form meaning “The Portion of” which is always followed by the name of the portion. For example, I might say, “This week we are reading from Parshaht Devarim, which is the first parashah in Devarim (Deuteronomy.) Parshaht Devarim translates literally to “the portion of Devarim.”

Are there words or phrases you have heard people use at Torah Study that confused you? Don’t worry about the spelling – all transliterations of Hebrew are approximations. I’d like to help demystify the words – words should illuminate, not get in the way!

When the Synagogue Doesn’t Fit – Guest Post

Recently, I posted a message about how Jews tend to gather at synagogue when the news stirs up strong emotion. I talked about the value of a “home synagogue” at such times.

In the discussion that followed, Anne Ireland, a former student, added her own experience with a congregation that she could not feel at home in, no matter how hard she tried. She finally left that congregation to seek out a place that would be better for her and her husband.

Anne posted the steps she went through in first trying to resolve the difficulty, and then in moving on. It was such an excellent list that I asked her for permission to repost it here.

Here is Anne Ireland’s advice for a process when a synagogue just isn’t home:

1. Talk privately to leaders at your shul, to see if problems are resolvable.

2. Be clear about what you need.

3. Do not be ashamed if you have needs the congregation does not have.

4. Before leaving, expand. make sure you are participating in a variety of community alternatives. I am a member of Kol Hadash, and a meditation group, Kol HaLev.

5. Listen and be aware that you might not be the only one with these problems, not only at your shul, but elsewhere.

6. Don’t rush to join, until you see the new shul is really an excellent fit.

7. As a bottom line, how much is your participation welcome? are the core people doing everything, and stretched so thin, but they don’t need any help? fine, be that way.

8. Leave when you’re ready. Go back when you’re ready for a visit if an offering is good for you.

9. Leave ’em laughing when you go. If the shul isn’t responsive, and you have taken the above steps, cancel you membership, and put a stop payment on your shul’s monthly dues. They will notice that, I assure you. Would that it would make them think. If not, you are out of there.

The only caveat I’d add is that before you put a stop payment on dues, check back and see if you made a commitment for a full year. If so, it’s best to terminate at the end of that year – otherwise, you’re breaking a contract.

Anne, thank you for sharing your experience with us! I particularly appreciate the effort you put into trying to communicate with the leadership at the synagogue. I’m sorry that things did not work out, but I appreciate your willingness to talk about how you made your way to a synagogue home that felt comfortable for you.

The End of the Zero-Sum Game

“Zero-sum game” – a game in which the sum of the winnings and losses of the various players is always zero, the losses being counted negatively. (Dictionary.com)

Lately I hear arguments about a zero-sum game:

IF we pay attention to institutional racism,

     we might miss an opportunity to deal with gun violence.

IF we focus on gun violence,

we might drop the ball on disability rights.

IF we focus on the rights of disabled people,

we might forget the violence against women and transwomen of color.

IF we focus on justice for transgender people

what about women’s rights?

IF we focus on women’s rights

what about economic justice for all?

And if we are so focused on economic justice for all

what about… surely by now you get my point:

Justice is not a zero-sum game in which I am the natural enemy of another.

Justice is when we notice that we are natural allies: the queers, the browns, the blacks, the ones on wheels, the blinds, the poors, the last in line, the fats, the funny-looking, the girls, the trans, the bis, the dispossessed of all nations, the Palestinians AND the Jews, all the people who usually get shown the back door…

Until we notice that we are all at the same door

Until we notice that we are all

One.

And on that day, we will be One

And God’s Name will be One. – Jewish Prayer Book

I don’t know exactly  how we get there, but I am determined to work for it. I am determined to see the miraculous spark of the Holy One in every single face before my own. I won’t lie down in the road to be run over, but I will do my best to lift up every other person that I can. I will deal with my fears.

Because I am really, really tired of zero-sum games.

Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof.

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The past couple of weeks has been full of highly emotional events, times of joy and times of anguish. On weeks like these, I am glad I have a synagogue home.

Friday night, Linda and I went to services at Temple Sinai. We arrived extra early, but it almost wasn’t early enough. I wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was full. I’m not the only one who wants to attend services at my shul after a tough week.

Rabbi Mates-Muchin started the service with Shehecheyanu, the blessing for extraordinary moments. We celebrated Obergefell v Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that made same sex marriage legal in all 50 states. We celebrated King v Burwell, in which SCOTUS affirmed the Affordable Care Act. And on the side of anguish, we prayed for those who are mourning in South Carolina, as the funerals begin for the nine people murdered in Emanuel AME Church. Many of us had been deeply moved by President Obama’s eulogy for State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

After the service, at the oneg, there were hugs and stories exchanged. The guy who was organizing the group to march at Pride in San Francisco was at one table, signing folks up. Regulars and newcomers were crowded around the cookie table, and another little group (me included) were crowded around the hot water for tea. I had an impromptu subcommittee meeting with one person, and set up with another for study later in the week.

Synagogue is a place Jews go when we need to be with fellow Jews. In moments of great joy or great sorrow, after bad news from Europe or Israel, after anything in the national news that touches us strongly, it is good to sit with the Jews and take it all in. After 9-11, which took place in the midst of the High Holy Days, we gathered anxiously to ponder the meaning of events. During the Gaza War last summer, attendance was high. At such times, we need to be together.

And true, these are also times when newcomers seek out the synagogue, because they haven’t felt the need for one until just that moment – and that is fine. They’re welcome, and odds are, they’ll see us at our best. But synagogue is even better when it’s a familiar place, with familiar faces, and you know who gives great hugs. (If you are reading this and thinking, gee, my synagogue isn’t like that, may I suggest How to Succeed at Synagogue Life?)

Why join a synagogue? Because after a Very Bad Day, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and feel at home.

When Queer Moms Come Out: A Flashback

A sense of humor is essential for good activists.

This is an updated version of a post I originally published on Open Salon in September of 2010.  In thinking about the things I’m grateful for this LGBTQ Pride Month, it occurred to me it was still very timely.

I posted it again in 2012, when things had changed a lot. And now I find I’m reposting it again, partly as a reminder that we’ve come a long way, and partly as a warning that if we are not vigilant in preserving our progress, we may be back there someday, heaven forbid. Here’s my 2015 version.

___________

I came out in 1988, just after a rancorous divorce became final. A very nice woman asked if I’d ever tried kissing another woman, and a few minutes later it was clear to me that I’d been barking up the wrong tree all my life.  It was a moment of great joy, followed by sheer panic.

I had two little boys, ages 4 and 6, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to me than the two of them.

Was I going to mess them up for life?  Was I going to lose them?  Should I just declare celibacy and give it up?  I wrote to  an acquaintence who had been “out” many years, with two daughters from a previous marriage, and poured out my fears.  She wrote me back with the phone number for the National Center for Lesbian Rights saying, “Call them.  Do whatever they tell you.”  Then she said my kids were going to be fine.

I did, and they are. But there’s much, much more to it than that.

The attorney to whom NCLR referred me informed me that for the umpteenth time in my life, I was the Queen of Dumb Luck. My divorce had become final in one of the very few counties in the United States where my orientation alone was not grounds for taking my kids from me in 1988. My best bet was to come out of the closet completely, so I did.  On March 17, 1988, I phoned my ex and told him. To his credit, it has never been an issue.

I told the boys that I had fallen in love with a girl. They liked her. Unlike their boring mom, she was good at catch and knew everything about baseball. Sure, fine, and what’s for dinner?

The kids were in kindergarten and first grade, and there I wavered. Surely this was my private business. Surely it wasn’t appropriate to phone up the principal and say, “Hi, I’m a lesbian.”  So I waffled along for a while, hoping for the best. And that’s where I went wrong.

Aaron began getting into fights at school. The teacher called. I went in to chat, and it turned out that he was out there defending my honor.  The words “gay” and “fag” were favorite schoolyard epithets (in first grade!) and whenever someone used them, he took it personally on my behalf. He told them to take it back, and then two little boys would roll on the ground, fighting.

I outed myself immediately to the teacher, explained that this was a young man defending his mother — and please, could we just ban those words on the playground?

“You are what?” she gasped,  and when I repeated it, she said she’d have to take it up with the principal. Over the next few weeks it became clear that the words “fag” and “gay” were a lot more acceptable than a lesbian mom and her spawn, and we needed to find a new school if my kids were going to feel remotely safe in class.

Finding a new school where we could be out as a queer family turned out to be quite the project in 1988, even in the liberal East Bay of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. Initially I was hopeful: “diversity” was a big buzzword. So I went from school to school, asking directly if “diversity” included “lesbian parented children.”  I was privileged to have the means to check out every school in town, and I was hustled out of most of their admissions offices like an unwanted peddler.  [All those places now trumpet the fact that they love queer families, and all I can say is, hallelujah.  I am not naming names, because the guilty parties have mended their ways.]

God bless St. Paul’s Episcopal School. When I asked the admissions director, Laroilyn Davis, if a lesbian family would be welcome at St. Paul’s, she said, “It’s time we included a family like yours.” In the years to come, the administration there always had our backs: individuals might find our presence distasteful, but there was never any question that we belonged.

But the damage was done. My children spent far too long in a situation where they knew we were a second-class family, where we were the objects of open disgust. I am well aware that my younger son is a social worker partly because he has a special affinity for children who don’t feel safe. His older brother will still offer to punch you out if you use the word “fag.”

And as for me, I am torn between gratitude for being the Queen of Dumb Luck, who came out in the most liberal area in the country, who had the means to seek out a safe place for her children, who had legal support and moral support and two courageous sons — and fury that any of that was necessary.

Things are much better for LGBTQ families in California now than they were in 1988. We are kidding ourselves, though, if we think that Marriage Equality fixes everything. There is still a long road ahead for employment rights, immigration rights, and for the simple safety of transgender persons. We are not done.

When we discriminate against any group of people, we are all the less for it.  When are we going to figure that simple fact out?