Yesterday I made a pilgrimage to see one of my teachers, Dr. Reuben Rivera. He’s my optometrist, but he’s much more than that. Over the past 20 years, he has not only helped me keep my vision clear and my eyes healthy, he has acquainted me with the wonders through which I see the world. I always leave his office in a state of amazement, murmuring to myself the words of the ancient prayer for the body:
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the time and space, Who formed human beings with wisdom and created within us openings within openings and hollows within hollows. It is well known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would become impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.
You see, I’ll be 60 in March. I’m aging. Dr. Rivera always reminds me how wonderfully our bodies age and compensate and heal. I was hit in the eye with a stick when I was about 14. The scar’s still there, on my cornea, but the eye healed and sees just fine. I am very, very nearsighted, and now that I’m older, there are issues that go with that, but my eyes are aging with grace, plastering over the thinning places with pigment, keeping clear my window on the world. My retinas are hanging tight. My astigmatism seems to be rotating, which makes no sense to me at all, but darn, it’s a wonder!
When Dr. Rivera looks into my dilated eye, he cannot see my soul, but he can see what’s happening inside my body: how are all those fine veins and capillaries doing? How’s the blood pressure, the blood sugar, the cholesterol? What news is there from the openings within openings, the hollows within hollows? He reads all that, and he tells me about it, tells me enough that I can marvel with him at the beauty of it.
Our bodies are miracles. We lose track of that sometimes, when we worry about Hollywood standards of beauty and even more so when we confuse those standards with health. Nothing is more wonderful, more beautiful, than the simple fact that we survive.
This is the reason that I don’t worry about a conflict between science and religion. Science at its best helps us appreciate the miracles of everyday existence. Religion at its best is the response to those miracles.
May your day be full of miracles, and your eyes full of wonder.
One of the major stereotypes about American Jews is that we’re all political liberals. There are in fact many prominent conservatives who are Jewish: Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Eric Cantor, Ken Mehlman, Michael Savage, and more.
What is true is that American Jews tend to be politically engaged. We vote, and we get involved in political campaigns. Our engagement goes way back; I have written before about the letters of congratulations four congregations sent to President Washington and his reply. In 1790, American Jews were acutely aware that this new form of government offered a new hope for minorities like ourselves to live in peace.
In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant’s office issued General Order #11, a decree which summarily expelled all Jews from Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Cesar J. Kaskel of Paducah, KY immediately set out on a Paul Revere-like ride for Washington DC with a copy of the order, and persuaded a congressman from Ohio to take him to the White House so that he could show it to President Lincoln. The President immediately wrote to Grant, ordering that General Order #11 be revoked.
When General Grant ran for president in 1868, he was faced with a Jewish community who wanted answers about General Order #11, and assurances that no such thing would happen were he elected. He, too, repudiated the order, and later called it “his greatest regret.” (For a readable and complete account of G.O. #11 and its aftermath, I recommend Jonathan D. Sarna’s book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews.)
Ever since then, American Jews have understood that it is important to our survival to be engaged in the political process. We don’t agree on the right candidate, we don’t always agree on the right policy, but we understand that without engagement in the process, we lose our voice in the public arena. Many Jews understand voting as a way to do tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. Again, there’s no consensus: how any one Jew defines “better” is individual!
We’re coming up on an election in the United States. In many places, the polls have already opened for “early voting” and many absentee voters have their ballots in hand. Voting is not required by Jewish tradition, but it is a great Jewish American tradition. Whatever your politics, I hope that my American readers will honor this tradition and vote!
I teach Introduction to the Jewish Experience, a Basic Judaism class for beginners, and this year we are extending our reach to include distance learners. That’s right, if you have a computer and access to high speed internet, you can take the class, too. We began last week, but recordings of each class are available online for registered members of the class. It’s not too late to sign up.
This is not a “conversion class,” although some of the people who take it may be studying towards conversion. People take the class for many reasons: they are in an interfaith relationship and want to learn more about Judaism, they are born Jewish but want an adult Jewish education, or perhaps they have begun working for a Jewish institution and want to understand Jewish life. If you are curious about Judaism, that’s all you need.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are studying with a rabbi for conversion, ASK YOUR RABBI before signing up for any online “Intro” class. He or she may prefer or require a particular class.
The class has three parts, which may be taken in any order:
- Fall: Jewish Lifecycle & Holidays
- Winter: Israel & Texts
- Spring: Traditions of Judaism
To sign up for the class, visit the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog online. There you will find more info about the class, including the schedule and tuition.
I read this, and I cannot move on without calling the attention of my readers to it.
Originally posted on Ruth Jacobs:
Guest post by Sue Allen
It’s October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The world is pink. We race for the cure. We stand up to cancer. We support our loved ones battling or surviving the disease, but there is one population we never mention: women with breast cancer behind bars.
Imagine the feel of shackles on your ankles. Hard, cold steel does just what it’s supposed to do. It cuts into your ankles and restricts your movements to baby steps. Even when you are very careful, you wind up with blisters or ankles rubbed raw. The weight alone drags you down.
Now imagine handcuffs. They too are designed to restrict and they can chaff and cut, especially if the guard who cuffs you is having a bad day. His bad day becomes yours.
It’s two o’clock in the morning and the halls of the jail are…
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Bad news from Jerusalem today: a man in a car mowed down passengers exiting a light rail train. Some were Israeli, some American. A three month old infant is dead. Video makes it clear that this was a deliberate act, not an accident.
Hamas is celebrating, although reports conflict as to whether it has taken credit or not. I do not understand people who celebrate the death of an infant.
On October 1, Ibtisam Rashid was at a checkpoint in Israel, trying to take her 5 year old grandson to a chemotherapy appointment. She had a fatal heart attack and died after being denied crossing.
I lived in Israel before they built the infamous security wall. Buses were bombed regularly. My grammar teacher came to school once after helping to pick up the bodies of schoolchildren whose bus blew up in front of his car.
I do not know the answer to the matzav, the situation. I cannot fathom the pain of the parent whose child was smashed by that car. I cannot fathom the pain of the little boy whose grandmother collapsed at the checkpoint.
This week we read the story of a man named Noach. He received word from God that his family alone was to be saved from the Flood, his family alone out of all those on earth. He followed the directions he received from God: he built the ark, he put the animals on it, he shut the door when it began to rain.
Noach (whose name is related to the word for comfort) was comfortable with the idea that God had singled out his family for survival. He did not question the idea that others would suffer and perish. He did not ask if innocents might die along with sinners. He shut the door.
Some of our sages point out the contrast between Noach and Abraham. Noach had concern only for God’s command and his family’s well being. Abraham was concerned about the suffering of theoretical innocents, the people he thought might be in Sodom.
Let us not become Noach, concerned only for ourselves. Let none of us, on any side of this conflict, be callous to the suffering of the other. Let us be like our common patriarch Abraham, concerned for more than his own. Let us remember that every death is a tragedy, a whole world lost.
May the day come when all people on all sides can see the humanity of the other.
Bethany S. Mandel wrote a powerful article, A Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts and published it in the Times of Israel this week. She wrote primarily for an Orthodox audience, but there is a lot in there for liberal Jews to ponder as well.
Rabbis need to have conversations about some of Ms. Mandel’s points. However, many of the things that are difficult about being an adult Jew-by-Choice are things that have to do with the behavior of ordinary Jews.
Let me speak to this as the Jew-by-Choice that I am, in the form of a 10-point manifesto:
- Don’t introduce me to others as “a convert.” That is contrary to Jewish tradition, and just plain rude. In some contexts, it is bullying.
- I may choose to reveal my history as a person who came to Judaism as an adult, but I don’t owe every Jew an account of it.
- My status as a Jew is not appropriate subject matter for small talk. Ever.
- If there is something about my conversion that doesn’t meet with your approval, take it up with my rabbi or with yours.
- If you don’t approve of my rabbi, keep it to yourself. Really – what do you expect me to do about it?
- Don’t gossip about your perceptions of my history, and don’t listen to such gossip from others.
- If you see someone bothering me with 1-6 above, please interrupt and change the subject.
- If you see someone mistreat converts more than once, take it up with them or with your rabbi.
- If I do something out of ignorance that will cause me difficulty, bring it up with me privately and kindly.
- Want to help? Invite me to Shabbat dinner. Sit with me. Include me. Smile.
The Book of Ruth teaches us that we never know how a particular Jew is going to fit into the big picture of Jewish history. Ruth was a particularly unpromising candidate for conversion. She was a Moabite woman, looked down upon by many respectable Jews of her time. However, through her choice to become one of us, and participation in the communal life, Ruth became not only the wife of a communal leader, she became the ancestor of King David himself.
Programs can be useful and have their place. However, the thing that makes a synagogue “welcoming” is not the programming, not the service, not the board, and not even the clergy: it is the behavior of each individual member of that community when they encounter someone new or different.