Is Judaism a Religion or a Culture?

January 11, 2014
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Ethiopian Jews meet with Israeli President Ezer Weitzmann

A lot of Americans are puzzled when they look closely at the Jewish community, because sometimes it looks like religion isn’t very important to Jews. Many Jews only go to synagogue at the High Holy Days. Many more never go to synagogue at all. We have lots of “secular Jewish” organizations that do social justice work or poor relief or jewish community service of some kind. Some Jews refer to themselves as cultural Jews. (When was the last time you heard someone refer to themselves as a cultural Christian?)

It gets even more confusing when you look at world Jewry, because Judaism encompasses a number of ethnicities. Here in the US we are most familiar with Ashkenazi culture (think Fiddler on the Roof.) Ashkenazi means “Jews from Eastern Europe.” However, the first Jewish Americans were Sephardic, meaning that their ancestors had at one time been part of the Jewish culture of Spain. There are also Mizrahi Jews, Jews of the Middle East, who have rich and interesting subcultures such as Persian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Egyptian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and so on. Most of the Mizrahi communities today survive in Israel or the US, because they were evicted from their home countries in the 20th century, but the music, the food, and the liturgy survive and are distinct from anything else in the Jewish world.

Judaism is a religion, but it is more than that. It includes religion, worldview, lifestyle, a calendar and a sense of connection to the other Jews of the world. It is rooted in a Teaching, which we call Torah, and the language of that Teaching, Hebrew. Jews disagree about the pronunciation of Hebrew or about the interpretation of Torah but even the most a-religious Jew is linked to other Jews by those two things. Our concepts of justice, of law, and our priorities of life find their sources in Torah. Our ways of measuring time, of eating and drinking, of welcoming children and mourning the dead are rooted in Torah. We do not agree on interpretation, but that is interpretation, not the source itself.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan said it best when he called Judaism a civilization. It defies limitations like “religion” or “ethnicity;” it is one of the oldest civilizations on earth.  That is why, when the sage Hillel was asked to sum it up while standing on one foot (in the 1st century!) he concluded his precís with the words “Go and study,” and why the sage Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

So, go and study. Turn the scroll and learn, but resist any temptation to confine Judaism to a tidy package. There’s nothing tidy about it.

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Reframing Privilege

December 24, 2013

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 


A Beginner’s Guide to the Torah Scroll

December 12, 2013
Hakhnasat Sefer Torah

(Photo credit: Avital Pinnick)

Ten facts about Torah scrolls:

1. The proper Hebrew name for a Torah scroll is Sefer Torah, a book of Torah. It’s pronounced “SAY-fehr toe-RAH,” or in the Yiddish/Ashkenazic pronunciation, “SAY-fehr TOE-rah.” It means “book of Torah.”

2. A sefer Torah contains exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters in a special script. There are no vowels and no punctuation. One must study in order to be able to read or chant from the sefer Torah.

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...

Numbers 10:35 in a sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. It takes a sofer (SOH-fehr) (specially trained scribe) approximately 18 months to produce a sefer Torah. It takes so long because every letter is written by hand, every detail has to be checked and rechecked, and there are special rules for writing the name of God. As a result of this care, the text has been preserved over the centuries.

4. The sofer writes the text in a special ink on parchment produced from the skin of a kosher animal. If he or she makes a mistake on an ordinary word, they scrape the word off the parchment with a knife and continue. If they make a mistake writing the name of God, that entire panel must be cut from the scroll and a new panel sewn in in its place.

5. A typical sefer Torah weighs 20-25 pounds, although some are as heavy as 50 pounds. A sefer Torah is both massive and fragile.

6. Reading from a sefer Torah is a public act, normally performed on Monday mornings, Thursday mornings, Shabbat and holidays. The text may be read or chanted to a traditional melody called trop. It is always translated, or a translation is provided, for all who do not understand the Biblical Hebrew.

7. We carry the sefer Torah around during the Torah reading service in a ceremony called Hakafah, (hah-kah-FAH). You may see people reaching out to touch the torah with the fringes on their prayer shawls, or with their prayer books, and then kissing the object that touched the Torah. We do this out of reverence for what the Torah represents, thousands of years of tradition, learning, and revelation. We do not worship the Torah scroll.

8. During the Torah service, and at other times, we stand when the sefer Torah is out of its cabinet, often referred to as the Ark or the Aron. We always face the sefer Torah if possible, so during Hakafah we turn to follow its path around the room.

9. On Simchat Torah, (“Joy of the Torah”) a fall holiday, we celebrate finishing and restarting the yearly reading of the Torah with singing and dancing, often with the sefer Torah itself.

10. Every synagogue has customs and rules about who may handle a sefer Torah. Generally speaking, only a person who qualifies as a member of a minyan may hold a sefer Torah. When in doubt about the custom of a particular synagogue, ask the rabbi.


The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 1

November 17, 2013
On my scooter.

On my scooter.

When I applied to rabbinical school in 2001, they told me to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam.) On the opening screens of the test, it asked demographic questions, including a question about disabilities. I had never used that word to describe myself, and I started to click past. Then I remembered: oh yeah, the learning specialist I saw made me go see an audiologist, and I’m hard of hearing.  OK, I’ll click that.

And as my eye moved on, I realized with shock that I had other boxes to click. Learning disabilities? Uh, yes. That was why I’d seen the learning specialist. Mobility problems? I eyed the cane propped against my chair. Yeah, I guess. I quit reading and clicked to the next screen, where it fed me back my demographic info, including the words “multiple disabilities.” I felt queasy, clicked past, and shoved the whole thing out of my mind to take the test.

That was the first time I admitted to having ONE disability, and I will admit now that I read “multiple disabilities” as “object of pity” which I had no intention of being.  I spent the next year proving I could keep up with my twenty-years-younger peers, in class and out, and by the end of the year I was on antidepressants (for one of the other little issues I hadn’t mentioned) and my body was a wreck. I was deep into chronic pain territory, and determined to deny everything.

Because, you see, I had two problems with this multiple disability thing: first, I looked down on disability, so I couldn’t possibly have one (much less lots of ‘em) and secondly, my disabilities weren’t legitimate. Other people had worse disabilities so I couldn’t possibly take up room in that category. Or something.

It was years before I finally owned the category of “disabled,” thanks to the encouragement of friends whose disabilities I regarded as legitimate. Then, and only then, was I willing to take the blue placard the doctor offered me, which has made life so much more manageable. There were more years, and more isolation, before I was willing to step up and get myself a scooter so that I could go places that required more than 10 minutes of walking or standing. And I must confess that to this day, I spend more energy than I should worrying that someone will think I am using the scooter because I’m fat, and they’ll judge me, and — what? I’ll die? I will eventually grow up and quit worrying about that, too, I hope.

So why am I yammering about this on a Jewish blog? To start, Torah covers all  of life: there is no subject about which there is no Torah. I needed to learn to accept the body I’ve got, to regard it as holy, and I’ve made strides in that direction. But even more, there’s this legitimacy thing.  I was hesitant to accept a handicap placard for the car because I didn’t see myself as legitimately needing it. In the same way, I remember my longing for Jewish legitimacy: the thrill when I stepped out of the mikveh, the struggles I had every time someone questioned my legitimacy as a Jew, because no one questioned it more than me. And then eventually I learned the truth: I would be a real Jew when I acted like one.

So here I am, 100% Jewish and definitely disabled. Also fat, lesbian, Southern by birth, Californian by choice. Pretty smart in some subjects, remedial level in others. A work in progress.

I believe that every human being has a spark of the Divine. I have very little trouble believing that, except when it comes to myself.

I gather a lot of people feel that way. So to all of you (and myself) I will say: Wake up! Life is marvelous, terrifying, a gift we have only for a short time. Figure out how to make the most of yours, and do what you can.

As for legitimacy – well, more about that later. I’m on a roll.


Shabbat Isn’t Just Friday Night

November 8, 2013

Kiddush Lunch

Kiddush Lunch (Photo credit: jordansmall)

From the articles you see for beginners about “Keeping Shabbat,” you might get the idea that Friday night is the whole shooting match.  Not true!

Friday night is “Shabbat dinner,” true, and in many Reform synagogues, Friday night is the most-attended service, but Shabbat goes on until sundown on Saturday, and for me, Saturday can be the best part. Some things I love about Saturday and Shabbat:

  • Yes, the Saturday morning Torah service is long. It’s also beautiful, and we get to take the Torah out and march around with it and handle it and read from it. There are few more powerful ways to connect with our ancient past (more about Torah scrolls in a future post, I promise.)
  • Saturday kiddush lunch is the meal after the Saturday morning service. It might be at synagogue, or it might be at home. It starts with the kiddush (a toast to Shabbat, basically) and involves tasty food eaten in a leisurely fashion, preferably with friends. Yum.
  • Saturday afternoon is full of possibilities. For starters, there is Napping. Napping on Shabbat is glorious and decadent: it perhaps says better than anything that we are not slaves.
  • Saturday “naps” can also be put in quotations. If there is a time during the week when it is the accepted routine for the entire family to nap, that frees parents for affection and lovemaking. 
  • Saturday afternoon can also be a time for hanging out and chatting. Before electronics took over every nanosecond of our lives, when the world was young… you remember. Or not. But that world can come back for a little while on Saturday afternoon.
  • And then – let’s be real here – maybe your world is set up in such a way that Friday evening Shabbat, services or dinner, simply can’t be observed properly. If that is the case, then don’t despair – find some Shabbat on Saturday.

Maybe you have your own ideas for Shabbat afternoons – I invite you to share them in the comments section.  But whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you that Shabbat is only Friday night, because Friday night is only the beginning!


Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

November 5, 2013

 

I’m so tired my eyeballs are falling out.

I forgot to post yesterday. So much for the great resolution. But I shall get back on the horse and ride, even if the horse feels dead at the moment.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yetze, we read the story of Jacob and Laban, a story of a man and his horrific relationship with his father-in-law. Jacob and Laban spent all their time and energy circling one another, trying to get an advantage or get even after the other had taken advantage. Their foolishness would haunt the family for generations.

Laban had two daughters, one beautiful, one with “weak eyes.” Jacob wanted the pretty one. Laban (and his daughters) deceived Jacob and married him to Leah, the one he didn’t want. So he wound up working another seven years for the wife he wanted. Jacob, who had tricked his brother out of his birthright in the last Torah portion, was now the victim of a cleverer trickster. He got even by breeding Laban’s sheep and goats in such a way that he profited from the deal. Meanwhile his two wives had a fertility competition, dragging in concubines and competing to see who bore the most sons.  It is no surprise that those sons grew up to be a contentious lot.

Why on earth do we keep this stuff as holy Scripture? Perhaps it is to teach us that all of life has the potential for holiness, even the messiest, most unholy bits of it. The God of Israel insisted on seeing potential in a bunch of people who seem more suited to The Jerry Springer Show.

So yes, it’s been a rocky day at Chez Coffee Shop Rabbi. I’m tired and dirty and can’t think what to type. But I refuse to give up on my potential, because if God could see potential in scheming Jacob and his two fussing sister wives, then maybe there’s hope for me.


Pass It On!

October 31, 2013
English: Girl lighting shabbat candles

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been a Jewish professional for almost 14 years.

I started with the Outreach Department of the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.) There I was part of a national staff that assisted congregations in planning programming to be more welcoming to new members of the community, including converts to Judaism, interfaith households, and Jews who had grown up without Jewish community.

“Programs” were at the heart of the work. We designed programs to help people integrate into their congregations. We designed programs to help the congregations grow into more welcoming places. We designed programs to help people talk about difficult topics like Christmas trees, and in-laws. And all that work was important.

Looking back, though, I think the most important programs were those that taught people how to “do Jewish”: how to light Shabbat candles, how to prepare for the High Holy Days, how to set a Passover table, and so on. Those programs taught people that they didn’t need programs: they needed to take action themselves. And in retrospect, we left out a very important instruction: Now that you know how, go include others in this mitzvah you’ve learned how to do.

I continue the Outreach work in this blog with my “Especially for Beginners” category of posts. I’ve got posts on cooking Shabbat dinner, and posts on Synagogue Vocabulary. I’ve written about what “Yashar Koach” means and how to find a rabbi. And all this is good and necessary, judging from the fact that the blog gets lots of readers via searches, people looking for bar mitzvah etiquette and rules for funerals and whatnot.

But “programs” are not the reason that Jewish civilization has thrived for three millennia – Jews living Torah and teaching it to others is how we have survived to this day. Instruction books can only tell “how to,”  whether written in codices by 16th century mystics or in blogs by modern day rabbis. They cannot transmit the warmth of the table, the camaraderie of an afternoon spent decorating a sukkah with friends, the laughter around a Shabbat table. They cannot transmit the power of simple human presence at a shivah.

Many of us want the warmth, the camaraderie, the laughter, and the comfort. But we will not get them from “programs.” We will get them from living Torah with other Jews. That is why I’m moving into a place where I can more easily have people over: I want to teach Torah by Doing Torah. And what I want to tell you is that you can do this too.

Join me on this adventure. Invite someone for this Shabbat. Invite others to join you, even if nothing is kosher, even if it is at a restaurant, even if you do it with takeout on a card table. Don’t think of it as entertaining – think of it as what it is: Torah.


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