Why Go to Funerals?

May 20, 2013
Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

As regular readers know, sometimes I get topics from looking at the searches that brought people to my blog (thank you, wordpress.com, for the great info!) Here’s a great one:

How is it a good thing to go to a funeral?

Let me rephrase it just a bit:

Why would anyone in their right mind go to a funeral?

Jewish tradition gives us two big reasons to go to a funeral. The first, levayat hamet [accompanying the dead] is exactly what it sounds like: we accompany the dead person to the grave. The reason behind that is that dead bodies are vulnerable. They can’t defend themselves. Bad things can happen to them. So we accompany the dead person to the grave to be sure that he or she is put in the ground with respect for the person that they were.

The second reason to go to a funeral is menachem avel [comforting the mourner]. “Comforting” does not mean “make them feel all better” – that’s impossible. Comforting, in this context, means simply being with them, letting them know that people care. You do not need to “say the right thing” – all you really need to do is to avoid saying the wrong thing. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be silent.  “I am so sorry for your loss” is perfectly fine. The traditional words of comfort are “May you be comforted among the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem” – another reminder to the mourner that he or she is not alone.

Things not to say:  “You’ll get over it.” “He was old.” “He’s in a better place.” “She’s better off.” or even “She’s watching you from heaven.” You have no proof that any of these things are true, so don’t say them.

Funerals are uncomfortable if you are not used to them. Jewish funerals are generally quite short and simple. There are a few traditional prayers and psalms, and either the rabbi or the family stand up to talk a bit about the person who died. At graveside, there are brief prayers and then family and friends take a shovel of dirt and put it on the casket in the grave. These things are done to help bring home the reality of the death and to help the mourning process get moving.

The more funerals you attend, the more accustomed to them you will become. For tips on attending your first Jewish funeral, check out this article. Death is a part of life. It is a great kindness to mourners to reach out to them when they are grieving, and especially to attend the funeral.

How is it a good thing to go to a funeral? It is a good thing, because it is a kind thing. No one should stand alone by the grave of someone they love.


Passing the Torah

May 13, 2013
Rabbi Steve Chester passes the Torah to me (again) at ordination (5/18/08)

Rabbi Steve Chester passes the Torah to me (again) at ordination (5/18/08)

When I watch the passing of the Torah at a bar or bat mitzvah,

I wonder: Who passes the Torah to me?

My father was Irish Catholic,
and my mother a Catholic who was once a Presbyterian.
My name is Ruth bat Avraham v’Sarah
But Abraham and Sarah died a long time ago.
I have no family stories about Passover.
Like Ruth, I’m here only because I wanted to be.
Who passes the Torah to me?

When I approached a rabbi about conversion
He gently suggested we study together
And passed the Torah to me.

When my first Hebrew teacher patiently
guided me right to left through the aleph-bet
She passed the Torah to me.

When I shivered in the water of the mikveh
and the cantor led me through the blessings
She passed the Torah to me.

When I talked for an hour with the Beit Din
When the Torah study class showed me how Jews study Bible
When the Talmud group welcomed me for discussions and stories
When an Israeli acquaintance corrected my Hebrew
When my study partner clapped a kippah on my head
They passed the Torah to me.

When a little girl showed me how to tear the challah
When a woman offered me my first taste of a Hillel sandwich
When the guy at the bakery said, “Shabbat Shalom!”
When a committee chair said to me, “Here, you can do this.”
When friends shared recipes and stories and customs
They passed the Torah to me.

If it takes a village to raise a child
It takes a congregation to raise a convert:

We pass the Torah from hand to hand
and make sure all the Jews who want can hold it:
can write it on their hearts,
speak of it in their homes,
teach it to their children,
bind it on their hands,
hold it before their eyes,
and write it – in golden letters! –
on the doorposts of their gates.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar


Can I Convert to Judaism Online?

May 5, 2013
_MG_0680

Jews pray and celebrate in community.

Often I get email from people who want to know if online conversion is an option. Here are my thoughts about that.

IT TAKES A JEWISH COMMUNITY TO MAKE A JEW.   I believe very strongly that conversion should take place within a Jewish community setting, probably a congregation. The process of conversion is not just about study, it’s about becoming part of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, and it’s very important that a candidate spend lots of time with Jews and get a feel for life in a Jewish community.  What if a person went through the rituals, became officially Jewish, then found out that he or she didn’t really much like Jews, or felt terminally out of place with Jews?

IT TAKES JEWISH EXPERIENCES TO MAKE A JEW.   Often people who feel drawn to Judaism first explore it by reading books and looking around online. Those are legitimate activities for learning about Judaism, but they will take you only so far. A person interested in Judaism should experience the whole range of sensory experiences that go into Jewish life: the crunch of matzah at Passover, the taste of traditional Jewish foods, the sounds of Jewish worship, the rhythms and unusual scales of Jewish music, the adrenaline of a good Torah study session. The candidate need not like all of it (I personally will never learn to like chopped liver, although I have grown fond of gifilte fish) but it’s important that experience be real, not theoretical.

IT TAKES TIME TO MAKE A JEW. Sometimes people want to know “how long does it take?” The answer to that is that it takes as long as it takes. Study begins with a class or with a rabbi without a fixed goal. The process of study may end with conversion, or it may be a step along some other journey that the candidate is taking. Until both the rabbi and the student are sure that Judaism is the only possible destination, options stay open. Most rabbis like for a student to experience Jewish life for at least a full year’s cycle (there’s that “experience” word again) to see what happens. Without face-to-face contact, it’s hard to sort out what’s going on with a person, and that is critical knowledge for a rabbi working with a conversion student.

Now, you may be saying, “But I don’t want to be a synagogue Jew!  I have a different vision of my Jewish life!” And my answer to that is to say, as gently as I can, that conversion to Judaism involves a massive transition of identity – you do not know where it will take you. I did not know where it would take me. But what I do know, for sure, is that community and experiences are key to the process of becoming Jewish. We are a communal people, so much so that we don’t read Torah or say Kaddish without ten Jews present. We have Jewish Film Festivals because we like to get together to watch Jewish movies.

I am aware that there are websites advertising rabbis who will study with conversion students online. And there may be circumstances in which there is a vibrant Jewish community with which to learn but no rabbi. Perhaps in those circumstances, if there’s really no better alternative, it might work.  But I worry when I hear about online conversions. I worry that students will not get what they need and will not be adequately prepared for life as a Jew.

First, check out your local options. If there really isn’t a congregation near, is becoming Jewish so important to you that you are willing to relocate, to live near more Jews?.  Why do you want to become a Jew? And if you do become Jewish, what will you do about being Jewish, if there’s no one else with whom to celebrate holidays, or lifecycle events, or pray?

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you well on your spiritual journey!


The Class I Hate to Teach

April 24, 2013

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can make it much easier for outsiders to become fellow travelers in Jewish community, whether they are Gentile relatives of a Jew, or Jews who got no Jewish education, or someone looking to become a Jew.  It has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.

But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it is the only class specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.

It’s the one class to which I bring a printed-out lesson plan, because I know I will go off-topic like a giddy puppy at the first opportunity. I march through the list: the misgivings about Jews in classical civilization, Christian attitudes about Jews that took shape in both church doctrine and in civil law, and the obsession with Jewish ancestry that surfaced in Spain in the 16th century that presaged full-blown ethnic hatred of Jews in the Western world.  I talk about Herzl’s realization, as he covered the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews of Europe faced something terrible. I talk about all of that as a prelude to the Shoah. And then we talk about the “New” anti-Semitism.

We talk about the memes that have dogged Jews through history: blood libel, moneylending, court Jews, conspiracy, communism, socialism, anarchism, pinko-Commie-whatever-ism. I tell them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I tell them about the origins of the term “Anti-Semitism,” that it was invented by a German journalist as a sophisticated-sounding substitute for Judenhass, Jew-hatred.

Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I name those feelings, and acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening. I share the fact that it was hard for me, when I took the class long ago. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.

My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.

Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note.  But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic.  I hate, hate, hate it.


Beginner’s Guide to Brit Milah (“Bris”)

April 5, 2013

English: A new born baby in his Godfather's ha...

You’ve been invited to a bris! If this is your first bris, there are some things that you should know.

1. WHAT’S A BRIS? A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision of a Jew. A bris is not merely a medical procedure, however. It is a symbol of the Jewish partnership with God, the covenant of Abraham. For the son of Jewish parents, a bris is usually on the 8th day after birth.

2. WHERE? A bris may take place in a home, in a doctor’s office, or in a synagogue. If you have been invited to attend as a guest, dress for the place: a bris at a home will be a bit more casual than one at a synagogue.  When in doubt about dress, ask!

3. TIME? A bris is often scheduled for the morning, usually on the eighth day after birth.  The actual bris takes only a few minutes, but there will be schmoozing before and schmoozing and a festive meal afterwards, so allow an hour or even two.

4. WHO PERFORMS THE BRISA bris is performed by a mohel (moyl),  a Jew who has been trained specifically for this ritual. Generally,  liberal (Reform or Conservative) mohelim (mo-heh-LEEM) are physicians who have received additional ritual training. Orthodox mohelim may be doctors, or they may have graduated from a program that trains mohelim in surgical techniques, aseptic techniques, and Jewish ritual and law.

5. DO I HAVE TO WATCH?  No. The mohel will tell everyone where to stand, but unless you are the sandak (the person who holds the baby and delivers him to the mohel) you are unlikely to see much anyway. If blood bothers you, don’t look.

6. DOES IT HURT THE BABY? At most of the brissim I have attended, if the baby cried, it was when his diaper was removed (cold air).  An experienced mohel will do the circumcision as painlessly as possible.

7. PRESENTS? It is not customary to give a present at a bris. However, if you wish to take a baby gift or something for the parents, it is OK to do so.  “Gag gifts” such as one might have at a baby shower  are in poor taste, however; this is a serious religious ritual.

8. GREETINGS “Mazal tov!”  A bris is one of the happiest occasions in Jewish life, when the covenant moves to the next generation.

9. NAMING A Jewish boy receives his name at the bris. Many parents do not call him by name until after the bris; before that he is simply “Baby Lastname.” If you ask about the name and they are cagey about it, that’s what’s going on – go to the bris and you will learn the name when everyone else does.

 


Hungry for Passover?

March 23, 2013
A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven.

A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

In a few days, we will read those words from the Haggadah.

 

Very soon, Jews all around the world will sit down to a seder meal, to listen to the story, to ask questions, to laugh, to share one another’s company, and to eat. Every family has its own favorite recipes: for my family, it is the brisket I slow-cook every year, 8 hours at least in a low, low oven, simmering with tomatoes and root vegetables until we all go crazy smelling it.

 

But there are other families, Jewish and not, where there will be no feast that first night of Passover, where the phrase “bread of poverty” is not simply a ritual observance. In 2011, over 50 million Americans lived in “food insecure households.” Stop and ponder: Fifty million Americans were unsure of their next meal last year. 

 

That means that if you live in the United States, somewhere within easy driving distance of your home, someone is going hungry.

 

I have learned, as a rabbi, as a person to whom people tell their secrets, that many of the hungry are not the stereotype in your mind. Some of them are your neighbors. Some of them do everything they can to keep their dignity, to not let on. But they line up for some free vegetables behind a church where they think no one will recognize them. They don’t tell their kids where the food came from.

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

How can we keep our words at the seder from being a cruel farce? In the long run, it will require political action, and we are yet to come to agreement about how to proceed about that as a nation. In the short run, there is much we can do, and it is easy to do. Find your local food bank (the link will lead you to an online tool). Send what you can afford. Food banks are organizations that do the buying and gathering of food for many local agencies, to make every dollar go the farthest. If you want your tzedakah dollar to go far, to be a “good investment,” give to your local food bank. It’s very easy to give: most food banks offer an online donation link.

 

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah, to give charity funds for the relief of suffering, before every holiday feast. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms, Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).  People in our neighborhoods suffer from food insecurity – they are not sure of their next meal. It is up to us to act. It is up to us to make sure that the words we read aloud from the Haggadah are true:

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat. 

 

 

 

 


Preparing for Passover: Six Ways to Prepare

February 26, 2013
housekeeping

(Photo credit: pucci.it)

Traditionally, Jews spend the month after Purim preparing for Passover. A lot of the holiday is in the preparation: the seder and the week that follows are the fruit of what we’ve put in the month before. I thought it might be helpful to look at the various ways we prepare for Passover.  If this is your first year observing Passover, don’t try to do everything at once. Choose one or two, and get all that you can out of them.

 

1. HOUSE CLEANING. Yes, literal house cleaning! For more on this, and a sane way to approach it in the spirit of learning something (as opposed to merely making yourself exhausted and crazy) here’s an article I wrote last year. One of the things about the physical cleaning is that you can pursue it while you think about some of the more brain-intensive possibilities below.

 

2. PONDERING A PERSONAL PASSOVER. Passover is the festival of telling the story about “deliverance from Egypt.” If you are truly to experience deliverance, it helps to notice from what you need deliverance. Spend some time, between now and Passover, thinking about your own personal Egypt(s). The name for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim,” which also means “a narrow place, a tight spot.” Questions to ask myself: Where in my life am I stuck? To what am I a slave? In what parts of my life am I Pharaoh? Do I depend on the slavery of others? What would freedom look like, in any of these cases? What would freedom cost? What is freedom worth?

 

3. PLANNING FOR SEDER.  Notice that I don’t say “planning A seder.” I covered that last year in the post, “Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success.”  The question is, what am I going to do about attending seder this year? Participation at seder is not optional: Jews are supposed to be at a seder the first night of Passover (in some understandings, the first two nights of Passover.) This does NOT mean that each of us have to host a seder, however. Now is the time to make seder plans, to touch base with the family with whom you always have seder (are we observing together this year?) or to make your own  list of guests, or to find out what’s available to you.  If you are reading this and thinking, “But I don’t know anyone!” then you need to get busy. Phone your synagogue and tell them that you need a seder invitation (yes, this is perfectly OK, if you belong to a synagogue.) OR phone almost any local Jewish organization and ask them to point you to a seder you can attend for a fee. If this makes you feel incredibly anxious, watch for upcoming posts on this blog about being a seder novice with “nowhere to go.” I’m going to write about it.

 

4. PLANNING FOR THE WEEK. When I was first learning about Passover, I got so excited about the cleaning and the meal, I forgot that Passover goes on for a whole week.  Plan what you will eat during that time: lots of matzah? Special recipes? Or use the time to “renew your diet” by moving away from processed foods and spending a week eating fresh fruits and vegetables? If you are going to buy special products for Passover, now is the time to buy them (and to find them in the store.)

 

5. PONDERING CHAMETZ. Another thing to think about, as Passover approaches, is chametz. It’s what we clean out of the house (see the link in #1 above.) Technically speaking, chametz is any product of the five grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt) that may have gotten wet. (What? you say, I thought it had something to do with leaven? And the answer to that, is that in Bible times, leaven was all by sourdough method: if grain got wet, sometimes it got infected with yeast and swelled.) In pondering chametz, the questions are: what in my life is crummy? What has gotten swelled up, out of proportion? What is stale? And now that I’ve identified those things, what am I going to do about them?

 

6. TZEDAKAH. Tzedakah is the Jewish term for charitable giving, which we are commanded to do. At Passover, the story reminds me of slaves and refugees, both of which the present world has in miserable quantity. This is a great time to give tzedakah to relieve their suffering. This, too, takes planning!

 

So, enjoy your planning! Get all the “juice” out of this fruitful time of the Jewish year!

 


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