Responding to Terror

April 15, 2013
Tikkun Olam

(Photo credit: AjDele Photography)

“He [Hillel] used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are occupied excessively with business will not become wise [in Torah]. In a place where there are no human beings, endeavor to be a human being.” (Avot 2:6)

I am horrified at the bombing that took place in Boston today. Instead of assigning blame, spreading rumors, or ranting, I’m going to take positive action in the world: I’ve made an appointment to donate blood.

I challenge you: if you are feeling strong emotion, DO SOMETHING: give blood, give to the food bank, take some other action to relieve suffering. All the nattering on social media and all the pontificating on the TV will accomplish nothing, but the actions of a few good people could make the world a better place.


Giving Justly

November 26, 2012
Food Bank Donations

Food Bank Donations (Photo credit: NJLA: New Jersey Library Association)

After the last long weekend (almost a week, really) of consumption (Thanksgiving aka Turkey Day, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday) two clever nonprofit executives have come up with the idea of “Giving Tuesday.” So let’s see:  first give thanks, then consume, then give?

Jewish tradition suggests that giving be part of our budget from the beginning, not an afterthought at the end.  However this new holiday (?) offers is a reminder near the end of the secular year that our lives are not just about us. One measure of a person is the good that he or she manages to do in the world.

How much should we give for tzedakah? That’s the Jewish word for charitable giving. Let me ask you that question another way:  guesstimate the following figures:

  • the cable bill per month
  • amount spent on coffee drinks per month
  • or some other not-necessary-for-survival budget item

Now compare that to “given in tzedakah a month.” Tzedakah includes:

  • money to charities
  • to your temple
  • to Cousin Fred to pay his rent last month
  • in-kind gifts to charities (canned goods to the Food Bank)
  • the dollar to the homeless woman

The idea is that this giving relieves suffering and makes life more livable for people who need help. The question is, how much was it? And how does that compare to your cable bill? Your coffee bill? How does it compare to any other nice-but-not-necessary-for-life item in your budget?

If the numbers appear to be out of balance in favor of tzedakah, good for you! If they are out of balance the other direction, I encourage you to think about writing a check  on Giving Tuesday. It’s another way of keeping life in balance.

(If you’d rather do this by a more traditional method, you can use Maimonides‘ rule of thumb: 5% of income if you have a low income, 10% if you are well-off. I know, those are challenging percentages, but it is the ideal, and there are people who manage to do it, most of them on the lower, not the upper end of the income scale.)

Consider giving for justice’s sake, not just on Tuesday, but on a regular basis.  As Hillel says, “Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has.” (Avot 4.1) The more we give, the richer we feel.  That’s the miracle.


Other People’s Opinions

June 26, 2012

Today I saw the following message on twitter:

I feel like everyone is always mentally judging moms when they’re out with their kids. Like they cannot mess up, w/o being visibly judged.

TheKnottyBride‘s tweet hit a nerve for me. I was a new mother thirty years ago when I discovered that every stranger had an opinion on my parenting. Was my baby wearing the right kind of shoes? Was I dressing him properly? Was I feeding him properly? One woman looked at me sternly and said, “You don’t want to be a Bad Mom, do you?”

Later on, I heard about it when I let the boys watch TV (Bad Mom!) and when I got rid of the TV (Bad Mom! Kids need TV or they will not be able to socialize with other kids!). I was a Bad Mom when I restricted their movie watching to only G movies (other parents said, “That’s kind of ridiculously strict!”) and when I made an exception to the rule, of course, I was a Bad Permissive Mom. When I divorced, I was definitely a Bad Mom, and as a divorced woman, I received even more unsolicited opinions.

As I’ve discussed in another post, there were a lot of folks who were sure I was a Bad Mom when I came out as a lesbian.

Eventually I learned to listen only to people I had reason to trust: our pediatrician and most of their teachers.  I had a circle of friends with whom I’d consult about parenting decisions.  I paid extra attention to parents of adults who’d turned out well. I learned to tune out everyone else. The “Bad Mom” theme became a family joke.

Later, when I became a Jew, the experience fielding other people’s opinions was handy. I converted with a rabbi who is still my model of a mensch and a rabbi. He is a Reform rabbi, so mine was a Reform conversion. I went before a beit din [rabbinical court], I immersed in the mikveh [ritual bath], and I threw in my lot with the Jewish People. I continue to grow in the observance of mitzvot, and hope to grow Jewishly until the day I die.

And yes, there are people who will insist that I am not a “real” Jew, or that I’m not as Jewish as a born Jew. I give them exactly the same amount of attention as the people who thought I was a Bad Mom. When I am having a low self-esteem day, it can get to me, but for the most part, I pay them no attention at all.

There are issues of interpretation of halakhah [Jewish law]  that I understand and accept. In Orthodox settings, most of the things that a non-Jew cannot do are forbidden to me anyway because I am a woman, so  really isn’t much of a problem. I’m already married, and I don’t expect an Orthodox rabbi to bury me.  Not all Jews understand the Covenant in the same way; I accept that. What I don’t accept is the opinion that the only “real” Jew is a born Jew.

Just as with the parenting, I have teachers and friends whom I trust.  I take their tochechot [rebukes] very seriously; I do my best to listen humbly and to make teshuvah [a return to the right path]. By doing so, I learn and grow as a human being and as a Jew.

There are people for whom I will never be a Good Mom, and people for whom I will never be Jewish Enough. It was a great and liberating day when I realized that I cannot change those people. Most of them are speaking from insecurity or some pain deep in their own souls.  It’s their problem, not mine: I can’t fix it.

So I will close by giving my own Free Advice to new moms and new Jews. In Pirkei Avot, the sage Joshua ben Perachyah says, “Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.” Find people you can trust to give you good feedback. Listen to them. As for everyone else, assume that they are being rude out of pain or insecurity or a misguided desire to help, and don’t worry about them. Do your best and LET IT GO.


Misogyny? Or Something Else?

April 11, 2012

Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna. – Pirkei Avot 1.5

This verse from Mishnah begins with sentiments that are challenging but easy to affirm:  let your house be wide open!  Let the poor be members of your household!  Then it serves up what looks to be the worst sort of misogyny.

When I see something troubling in a text, the first thing I do is back up and look at the Hebrew.  What EXACTLY does it say?  Here’s a very literal translation:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household.  But do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman.  In speaking to his wife, so much the more so his friend’s wife.  Therefore the sages say, excessive conversation with the woman causes evil to himself and neglect of Torah and he will eventually inherit Gehinnom.

At first reading, that’s not much better.

Short of shrieking and throwing the verse away, I see only one possible way out with this text. That’s the phrase תרבה שיחה, which I translated as “excessive conversation.” We might also read it as “too long a conversation.”

Excessive how?  Too long for what? Let’s look at context. The verse begins with two statements about the household:  “let your house be wide open” and “let the poor be members of your household.” In the patriarchal society of the sages, the household was women’s domain, specifically, the wife’s domain.

Given this context, is it not possible that this is a warning to the men to back off and not interfere in the domain of their wives? That also makes sense of the phrase, “so much more so his friend’s wife”: Don’t tell your wife how to run her house, and definitely don’t tell your friend’s wife how to do so!

There is also a detail in the text that most translations gloss over that supports this interpretation. The phrase “the woman,” repeated twice in this verse, includes the definite article:  it is not “all women” but a particular woman about whom Yosi ben Yochanan is speaking. HaIshah, the woman, can also be translated “the wife.”

So let me try for a paraphrase:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. But do not micro-manage your spouse about it, much less the spouses of your colleagues. Nothing good will come of it; it will lead to neglect of Torah and a bad end.

I believe this text may be read not as a misogynist rant, but as a reminder to the men that they are not the bosses, or the experts, of everything.  They should not meddle in the domain of their wives, and meddling in how other people’s homes are run is even worse.

What can this teach us today? Stay humble.  Remember that everyone has his or her area of expertise. The large principles are good — don’t neglect those first two items! — but I should respect the expertise of others, no matter how much Torah I think I know.

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The Chain of Tradition

April 9, 2012
The Aleppo Codex is a medieval manuscript of t...

The Aleppo Codex, a manuscript of the Tanakh.. The Masoretic scholars wrote it in the early 10th century, probably in Tiberias, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pirkei Avot 1.1:  Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. 

The transmission of Torah is like a bucket brigade:  starting with God on Sinai, the Torah has been handed down, hand to hand, from that day to this.  We call this the sharsheret shel masoret, the chain of tradition.

I learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA.  She learned from Cantor Nathan Lam at Stephen S. WIse Temple in Los Angeles.  I don’t know who Cantor Lam learned from, but I know that the style of chanting we do is a variant of a style that goes all the way back to Eastern Europe.

Once, in the British Library in London, I saw a 9th century text of the Tanakh with the te’amim (cantillation marks – the musical notations) in it, and I was able to stand at the case where it was displayed and chant the text softly to myself.  That codex was ancient — more than a thousand years old! — but I could read it just fine.  That was the first time I really felt the weight of that chain of tradition.  I could imagine the masorete who wrote that book teaching his student… and then the student teaching his student… down through the centuries until Cantor Lam taught Cantor Keys and Cantor Keys taught me.

The same is true of every d’var Torah — every word of Torah — that I know.  Someone taught it to me.  God willing, I will teach it to others.

A hundred years from now, I do not expect that many people, if any, will remember me.  But I take great comfort and pride in the knowledge that the students of my students will still be learning Torah and teaching it to their children and their students.  I may be just a link in the chain — but what a chain!


Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

April 8, 2012
Omer table, depicting the number of days in th...

Omer table, depicting the number of days in the omer (top) and its equivalence in number of weeks (middle) and days (bottom)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why count the Omer?

In my effort to get myself to do it properly and on time, I have asked this question and looked for answers.  Here are some ideas about why we count the Omer.

(1).  GOD SAID TO:  “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In other words, God said to make sacrifices to mark these days.  We don’t have the Temple anymore, so instead we count after dinner each night.

(2) IT CONNECTS PASSOVER TO SHAVUOT:  Passover is a big holiday of celebration.  We celebrate freedom, which is mostly a happy thing (no more slavery, yay!) By preserving the count of the Omer, even without the Temple, the rabbis are reminding us that the Passover is not truly complete until we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot.  Freedom without responsibility is incomplete and unreal.  By counting, we remind ourselves that the process is not yet finished.

(3) SELF IMPROVEMENT:  In preparation to receive the Torah, we work to become better Jews.  The Kabbalists point out that the Omer is counted for seven weeks of seven days, and they match them with the seven sefirot through which God interacts with the world.  Each of the seven days within those weeks are matched with the sefirot, also, and those various permutations of Godliness provide an opportunity for study and self improvement.  Another tradition is to read and study Pirkei Avot [the first chapter of the Mishnah, which consists mostly of advice on proper behavior and attitude] during this season.

(4) AN EXPRESSION OF ANTICIPATION: When we are excited about something, we count the days to that event.  It is also true that when we behave a particular way, we cultivate the emotions and the thoughts that go with that behavior.  When we count the Omer, we cultivate excitement about Torah in our lives.

(5) MINDFULNESS:  This one is my own, as far as I know.  I know that the reason I never make it through the omer is that I get distracted.  It’s as if I have ADD of the soul.  49 days is a long time to do anything, especially something as small and easy to forget as an additional blessing after eating.  This year I want to improve my attention span for Torah.  I want to be mindful of Jewish time, and in the process, perhaps make better use of my time.

If you count the Omer, why do you do it?  Do you know any additional reasons for counting?


Counting the Omer

April 8, 2012

A Polish abacus (liczydło)

I have a confession to make:  I have never made it all the way through counting the Omer at the proper time, Passover to Shavuot.  This year I’m going to do it (she says, feeling a little like Charlie Brown facing Lucy and the football one more time).

The #BlogExodus project gave me an idea, though:  I’m going to blog the Omer.   Today I’m announcing my intent to do this thing.  Last night I counted Day One of the Omer, but since it was the second day of Passover, I figured I’d wait to blog it until the yomtov [holy day] was over.  With the next post, I’ll begin looking at Pirkei Avot, a rabbinic text that we traditionally study this time of year.  Occasionally I may have something else on my mind but the point is, this year I will (1) say the blessing (2) count the day of the omer and (3) post something to this blog.  If I have to choose, (1) and (2) will take precedence.  I’m hoping that the commitment to do something public in connection with it will generate sufficient Jewish guilt or shame to get me there.

You see, rabbis struggle with observance too.  For years I have struggled privately, but this year I am going to struggle in public, with an eye to improving my observance and maybe also to let others who struggle have some company. I try my best to observe the mitzvot, and sometimes I succeed.  Other times I fall short.  Then I try again.

Last night I counted at the community seder at Temple Sinai.  Tonight I counted here at my home.

May this year the the year I finally manage to stay mindful enough to do it!


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