Ask The Rabbi: Working at the Bar Mitzvah

Photographer by jarmoluk

I recently had a lovely email exchange with a young person who had been hired for his first job working as an artist for a bat mitzvah. He had a lot of questions, and I thought that the answers might be useful to others. Thank you, Benjamin, for asking good questions, and making me think of other things that might help!

What is a bar or bat mitzvah? A bar mitzvah (bat for girls) happens when a young person turns 13. It actually happens whether there is a celebration or not; a Jew over age 13 is bar or bat mitzvah regardless. The usual celebration in North America has two parts. First, a synagogue service at which the young person leads the service, or reads Torah, or both. This is serious business and requires years of study and preparation. Secondly, there may be a party, which can range from a very low-key affair at home or the synagogue to something quite fancy at a hotel or other venue.

How big a deal is it really? For the young person, the synagogue service requires a year or more of preparation. For a Jewish family, this is a life event on a par with a wedding. Relatives travel from far away to attend, and most families save for a long time to pay for the party.

What is proper dress for a bar or bat mitzvah? Dress professionally. Unless you have heard otherwise from the parents, a suit and tie for men, a professional dress outfit for women.

What terminology should I know? Bar mitzvah is for a boy. Bat mitzvah is for a girl. B’nei mitzvah is plural, unless there are only girls involved, in which case it is b’not mitvah.

Is there a customary greeting that I should know? As a non-Jew, you are not expected to know any Hebrew. “Hello” and “Congratulations” are fine. However, these are nice phrases to know:

  • Mazal tov!– (MAH-zel tov) – “Congratulations!” suitable either for the young person or for family members.
  • Shabbat Shalom! (Shah-BAHT shah-LOHM) – “Happy Sabbath!” – suitable from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday.

Who is actually in charge? In the synagogue, if the rabbi or cantor (clergy) tell you to do or not do something, you are wise to comply. During the service, ushers may remove someone who doesn’t follow the rules set by the congregation. (If they tell you no photos, or no flash, during the service, believe them.)  At the party afterwards, the hosts are in charge.

Good luck! And if you are reading this and have other questions, I hope you will ask them in the comments, so I can continue to improve this resource!

Lo Tirtzach: Do not murder.

DoNotMurderHeb

Yesterday in synagogue we read the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-17.) Among them were the unequivocal words:

Lo Tirtzach.

Do not murder.

And yet twice in the hours before Shabbat, we learned about heinous acts by Israelis: one murder, and six attempted murders.

Worst was the murder of Ali Dawabsha, an 18 month old child who was burned to death in an arson attack on her home in the village of Duma in the West Bank. The house was tagged in Hebrew with the words “Revenge” and “Long live the messiah” and four people were seen fleeing towards the settlement of Ma’aleh Efraim. Ali’s family are in hospital now, grievously wounded in the fire set by a Molotov cocktail thrown through their window. They were asleep in their own home. Their baby has been burnt to death, murdered horribly.

The other murderous act was only better because it was unsuccessful. (Not any more, see update below.) Yishai Schlissel managed to stab six marchers in the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade before he was overpowered by onlookers and police. This was the second time Mr. Schlissel has attempted to murder participants in the parade. He was released from prison for his first attack only a month ago.

In both cases, the murderers used Jewish religious language to justify their behavior.

There is nothing that justifies this behavior; it is chillul Hashem, a desecration of the name of God. It is of course a violation of the commandment, “Do not murder.” Anyone who makes excuses for this behavior, for burning little children to death, for stabbing citizens in the street, participates in the chillul Hashem.

I have no words for the depth of my disgust at these actions.

It is not enough for the Israeli government to wring its hands and say that this is bad behavior. While its labeling of the attack in Duma as terrorism is accurate and laudable, too often the perpetrators of “price tagging” attacks and other attacks on Palestinians are left unsolved and the perpetrators go free. Too many will shrug and say, well, Schlissel is ultra-Orthodox, what can we do, beyond jailing him?

Israeli law enforcement needs to treat these terrorist attacks with the same rigor they treat terrorism by Palestinians or anyone else. Nothing less will do. “Price tagging” should always get more than a wink, even when no one is hurt. Security at that parade was too lax, if a known threat like Schlissel was able to penetrate it. Israeli security is famous, some would say infamous, but Jews need to begin demanding that it defend equally all lives, not just some.

Crime is crime, terror is terror, whoever is responsible.

What can an American Jew do in the face of such things? Ask tough questions about where your dollars go before you give them! Be clear with any Israel organizations you support that you are gravely concerned about lawless behavior by zealots. Support organizations that defend democratic ideals in Israel, for instance, the Israel Religious Action Center or Rabbis for Human Rights.

Update: Sunday morning, one of the stabbing victims died of her wounds. 16 year old Shira Banki died at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. I am speechless, heartbroken. Baruch Dayan emet.

May the day come, and soon, when a news stories like these are completely unknown.

Yirat Hashem at the CJM

Night Begins the Day Photo by Linda Burnett

Recently Linda and I toured the exhibit “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time and Beauty” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, curated by Renny Pritikin and Lily Siegel. The exhibit explores the notion of yirah, awe or fear, which is one of the core concepts of Jewish theology, as it plays out in the work of 27 “artists, scientists, and creative thinkers.”

The concept of yirah is a troublesome one for many modern Jews. “Why would God want us to be afraid?” some ask. Sometimes our personal theologies develop in reaction to antisemitic notions of Judaism, statements that the “Old Testament” message is about fear while other books are messages of love. It’s understandable that in pointing out the ways in which the God of the Hebrew Bible is loving and caring, we down-pedal the fearsome. However, “fear” as a translation for yirah also falls a bit short; there is no tidy English translation for it.

Exodus 9 offers us a lovely juxtaposition to help us understand of the concept of yirah. Before sending the plague of hail upon the Egyptians, God sends Moses to warn Pharaoh and the people of Egypt that the plague is coming, and to get the servants and animals inside before it comes. Then some took heed of the warning, and some did not:

He that feared the word of the Eternal among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses, and he that did not pay attention to the word of the Eternal left his servants and his cattle in the field. – Exodus 9:20-21 (translation mine, very literal)

“He that feared” took the warning seriously. But “he that did not pay attention” left his people and animals in the fields to die. The parallel phrases suggest that another way to define yirah is “paying attention.”

Artists and scientists are in the business of paying attention. They see the world in very particular ways, and they call our attention to aspects of the world that we might otherwise miss. That’s what goes on in this remarkable exhibit at the CJM: artists and scientists invite us to see the world in all its grandeur and mystery, and to engage with it in awe.

If you are wondering what the title means, consider that in Jewish time, a calendric day begins at sundown: night begins the day. It is a fundamental Jewish idea, and it is also a way in which Judaism is out of step with most ordinary ways of perceiving time. For more on this idea, read Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

Some of the objects in the exhibition are what you expect when you hear the word “art.” Some of them are not. What they all offer is a trip outside of ordinary reality by way of paying close attention: to the shape of a raindrop, to the sound of a pocket watch, to the idea of time, to the useful fiction of longitude. All, however, also point beyond themselves to the More we commonly call “God.” If you will be in San Francisco area anytime before Sept 20, go see this remarkable show.

Night Begins the Day is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until September 20, 2015. 

Diversity is a Jewish Tradition, Too

Qumran Dead Sea

I came away from the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit with a renewed sense of the diversity of Jewish life all through our history. Even though we talk about Am Echad, One People, we are one people with a multiplicity of opinions and practices.

The Jews at Qumran seem to have been deeply caught up in a fascination with the end of the world. They believed themselves to be living in the end of time. Indeed, that particular sect of Judaism was dead and buried and nearly completely forgotten until the scrolls came to light.

The exhibit also contained a vast number of female figurines and small private altars, both of which represent Jewish practices that did not survive. Today Jews do not make sacrifices at private altars (thank goodness) and we don’t reverence any deity other than the Eternal. But the evidence was there, right before my eyes, of how different Jewish practice had been at one time.

I hear regularly from other Jews who remind me that there are some Jews who disapprove of something I’ve said or something I’ve done. I am well aware of that. But I would ask you who are worried about “some Jews:” do you realize it’s always been like this? Jews disagree about Torah; it’s nothing new.

History sorts us out eventually, I hope for the better. We stopped keeping small idols. We stopped sacrificing animals (although there are those who’d like to go back to that.) Some of us have commenced giving women the privileges once reserved for men. Others of us are experimenting with other aspects of Jewish life.

The way I see it, we are all busily carrying Torah forward through history. I don’t know what Judaism will look like in 500 years, but I suspect some of the same old arguments will continue, and some new arguments will arise.

Beit Shammai didn’t approve of Beit Hillel’s rulings. The Ashkenazi rabbis were apoplectic over Maimonides’ Yad Hazaka. The cultured Sephardic Jews of New York were horrified by the Ashkenazi cousins who came off the ships in 1889. Reform Jews tried to do away with brit milah; we were wrong about that one.  My friend and teacher René Molho z”l was told (in Auschwitz!) that he couldn’t possibly be Jewish because he didn’t know Yiddish. Reform Jews ordained Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972 and “some Jews” predicted doom.

History moves on, and Jews still disagree. Everything changes, and some things remain the same.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

Geopolitics and “New PhD Disease”

PhD

My father-in-law, a very wise man, often used to say with some amusement, “So-and-so is suffering from ‘New PhD disease.'”  New PhD disease had one major symptom: the person suffering from it had the delusion that because he had become a bona fide expert in one field, he had magically become an expert in every field. A New PhD in mechanical engineering might lecture at length on a question of theology. His cousin, the New PhD in Physics, might consider herself an expert on finance. And of course, their friend the New PhD in History knows everything there is to know about child development!

(Jim holds a doctorate in metallurgical engineering and had a long career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since his PhD is no longer new, he claims expertise only on matters of metallurgy, fishing, and the vagaries of new PhD’s.)

I’ve been watching the debates about the Iran treaty, thinking that there certainly are a lot of New PhD’s in the world lately.

I am not going to tell you what to think about that treaty. I have some private opinions, but they are not of a quality that provides merit to my opinions. There are some subjects on which I feel I can say more than a bit: I have both academic and practical experience with economics and finance, and I know a thing or two about Jewish ethics, Biblical and rabbinic literature. What I know about geopolitics, nuclear weapons, and treaty compliance verification wouldn’t get me out of a wet paper bag.

The same is true for a lot of the people holding forth about this treaty. Even the people who might count as experts were spouting opinions long before they had a copy of the document in hand to read, which worries me. Personally, I like to check out the data before I offer an educated opinion on anything.

Here’s what I’m doing about this treaty: I’m praying. I’m praying that all those who vote on it will remember that the stakes are very high, far too high for this to be about personal likes or dislikes, or any petty consideration. I’m praying that however it comes out, the result in the long run will be peace. If there is some way to bring Iran back into the fold of respectable nations, to step back from bankrolling terrorism, that would be very good.

Mostly, I’m praying that whatever is decided, it does not lead to an escalation of woe in the region, because all the regular people there (Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Syrian, etc.) are suffering too much already. Sim shalom, Hashem – bring peace, God, and let it begin soon.

And please, God, help the New PhD’s stick to their dissertation topics!

Va’etchannan: Moses’ Mistake

Old man's hand

If we take it seriously, Parashat Va’etchannan (“And I pleaded…”) is full of love so tough that it breaks the heart.

The parashah begins with Moses pleading to enter the Land. God answers roughly, “Enough!” then directs him to go up Mount Pisgah (aka Mt. Nebo)  and take a good look at the Land, because he will not be allowed to enter. This passage troubles many who read it; on first reading it seems to be a punishment that far outstrips the crime.

After all, one of God’s early commands to Moses had to do with striking the Nile, and then striking a rock:

The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. – Exodus 17:5-6

Then, much later, during another water crisis, God gave Moses a slightly different command:

“Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” – Numbers 20: 8-12

Every sage has some commentary to offer, and none of them agree. When I look at it, I see Moses making at least two serious mistakes: he doesn’t listen (strike vs talk to the rock) and he appears to take credit for God’s work (“must we bring you water?”) I also see God saying, “You did not trust me enough to honor me as holy.” A literal translation of verse 12 is tough to make: depending on what one does with the prepositions, either Moses did not give God enough credit before the Israelites, or something was lacking in Moses’ faith.

What if the two are really the same problem? Moses was accustomed to doing things the way he had always done them. God used to say, “hit the rock” and Moses hit the rock. When God commanded “Talk to the rock” Moses failed to register the change.

Also, Moses was cranky with the people and he did take rather much credit for what was about to happen. The humility for which he was rightly famous slipped a bit. What I see is an aging man who is really not up to adapting to new circumstances, exactly the situation as they enter the Land.

As we age, we get used to things being the way they “always were.” Whether we remember them accurately or not, we can become very stubborn about our way of doing things. And sometimes, out of pride, anxiety, or maybe a bit of hearing loss, we don’t listen very well.

At that point, when we’ve quit listening, and we’re set in our ways, we are no longer fit for leadership. God delivers the news to Moses very sharply; there is to be no discussion. While it seems unkind, maybe God knew that this was the only way Moses would hear it at all.

I think about Moses, sitting on Mt. Nebo, looking at the land he would never enter, and I feel very sad for him. It must have been bitter to hear that his time of leadership was nearly done. But it must have been bitterer still that he had to be told, instead of figuring it out for himself. Surely he knew that he would not live forever: after all, he had groomed Joshua for leadership. But apparently, at the crucial moment, he could not see it; he wanted to continue leading into the Land.

Lives were at stake. There were wars ahead, and a group of people to hold together despite the attractions of a seductive land and its strange gods. Joshua son of Nun was better equipped for the next phase of the journey; indeed, he had spent most of his life preparing for that role.

After this short passage, things seem to go back to normal: Moses resumes teaching the people his final lessons, a recounting of their journey. Then, in chapter 34 of Deuteronomy, the story on Mt. Pisgah resumes: God shows Moses the Land again, tenderly this time, the whole land. The text says “He buried him,” suggesting that God personally buries Moses in a secret grave on that mountain in Moab overlooking the Land of Israel.  It’s clear, from the conclusion, that God holds Moses in high esteem.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that even the greatest people who ever lived have their flaws, because they are human. We can treat a leader with honor and still say, respectfully, “It’s time for new leadership.” We can learn that only God or a very close friend should deliver a message like, “Enough!”

And if I am that leader, I can make way for new leadership before someone has to tell me.

Moses our leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher, was certainly one of the greatest men who ever lived. Some of his greatest teaching follows later in this same parashah: the 10 Commandments, the Shema. Still, that one day at the spring, when he struck the rock, he taught us a very important lesson: even the best and the brightest can make crucial mistakes.

Judaism and Mental Illness – a Question

Question

There has suddenly been a run on the post Judaism and Mental Illness, which I originally posted in October of 2013. In July alone, there have been nearly a thousand “hits” or readings of that column. What is going on?

I’m glad people are finding it useful – at least, I hope that’s what’s happening – but I have to confess, I’m curious too. If you know, would you post a comment and let me in on the secret?