6 ways to become an informed voter

If you haven’t discovered Rabbi Rosove’s blog yet, I recommend it highly. I also recommend passing this particular column around to friends who may or may not know how to get ready for an election.

Rabbi John Rosove's Blog

My son, Daniel, has written a blog on behalf of “MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger” that he calls “6 ways to become an informed voter.”

Though the election campaign has not focused on the issue of hunger insecurity in America, it is a significant issue affecting millions of Americans, nevertheless.

Daniel (who handles all grants and grantees for MAZON) has written an important piece that I recommend you read. You can find it here:

  http://mazon.org/inside-mazon/6-ways-to-become-an-informed-voter

In his blog, among other things, he notes:

The freedom to vote is a fundamental political right. Elections and voting matter. The American Jewish community has always been civically involved. In the 2012 U.S. election, Jewish voter registration rates topped roughly 90%, compared to 74% in the general public. Our community also has unique power based on where we live. While the American Jewish population only makes up 2% of the general…

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What is Selichot?

Image: A waning moon. Photo by Thomas Bresson.

Tonight is Selichot at many synagogues around the world.

1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.”  The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s  forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah.

2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes.  We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.

3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach [tune], listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.

4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list can disturb the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. My neighbors and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so their sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.

5. WHY ALL THIS FOCUS ON SIN?  When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance.  All the sins listed in the vidui [list of sins] are behaviors that will have bad consequences if left unchecked. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility and take action to change our behavior in the future. Ideally, this is more than “resolving to do better” – it involves an action plan.

6. WHY IS THE SERVICE HELD  AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service.  Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”

6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if we don’t believe in God, we need to deal with things we have done.  Whatever is your highest ideal, focus on that and substitute it for the God-language.

7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. It is usually not a long service. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. But more than anything else, it is a service to get us ready to change our ways for the better. Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka!  I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!

Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tavo

Image: An open Torah belonging to Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Susan Krauss.

First fruits, blessings and curses – that’s a quick summary of this week’s Torah portion. It’s timely, coming as it does just before the High Holy Days, when we are asking ourselves:

  • What are the “first fruits” of my labor?
  • What do I share with the world and my community?
  • Which mitzvot do I keep?
  • Which mitzvot do I fail to keep?
  • What curses do I bring down upon myself and others by my behavior?

That last question isn’t very modern sounding at first blush, but it has modern implications. I do not expect a lightning bolt to strike every person on earth who does wrong. However, most mitzvot have consequences both for keeping them and for failing to keep them:

  • If I tell lies, I spread confusion in the world.
  • If I injure other people, they hurt.
  • If I fail to speak up for the underdog, the world will be a worse place.
  • If I do not pay my employees properly, they will go hungry.
  • If I use the environment carelessly, the world will be depleted and full of poison.

… and so on.

Mitzvot have consequences.

This week’s divrei Torah:

When We Reach the Place of Promise – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Unintelligible but Meaningful  – Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Ki Tavo – Rabbi Seth Goldstein (Podcast)

Creating Our Own Narrative – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

You’re the Best! – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Podcast – Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

Maimonides on Conversion – Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

Maimonides on Conversion

Image: Portrait of Maimonides, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Parashat Ki Tavo contains the famous formula for bringing the first fruits to the Temple, the same formula that we recall in the Passover Haggadah, beginning:

My father was a wandering Aramean. – Deut 26:5

This line was the subject of a question sent to Maimonides (1135 – 1204) by a man known to us only to us as Obadiah the Proselyte. “Proselyte” is a fancy word for “convert.” Obadiah wanted to know if it was permissible for a convert to Judaism like himself to refer to Jacob as “my father” when in fact Jacob was not his physical ancestor. He extended the question to phrases such as “Our God” and other phrases that suggest familial relationship. 

Maimonides’ gracious answer has been a comfort to gerim [converts to Judaism] ever since. “Yes!” he writes in return, “You may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least.” Maimonides reminded Obadiah that Abraham brought many souls into the covenant, and that ever since then, all those who have adopted Judaism are counted among the disciples of Abraham. Maimonides concludes by admonishing Obadiah: “Do not consider your origin as inferior!”

So, too, do the blessings, curses and commandments in this portion apply to all Jews, not only some. We are one people, whether we became Jewish in the waters of the womb or in the waters of the mikveh.

This d’var Torah appeared in slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.

Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tetzei

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei (“When you go out”) and it includes many commandments, some of them quite difficult to understand. The commandments for a woman taken in war are here, as are the commandment concerning an unloved wife and the one concerning a disobedient son. Those are just in the first eleven verses!

Many of these commandments continue to perplex us as we struggle to see how to live lives of Torah. Some concern matters we’d rather not think about at all. Some seem to propose impossible acts!

For instance, the rules for dealing with lost property begin with verses found in this portion. If we take the commandments literally as written, then any time we find any object that might be lost, no matter how beat up it is, no matter how hopeless it is to find the original owner, we must keep that object and search until we find the owner! If we read it literally, then every observant Jew would lug around a huge bag full of lost pennies, broken ballpoint pens, and other detritus, searching for their owners. This is where the process we know as “Talmud” kicks in – the Talmud is the record of our communal struggle with seemingly impossible or unfair commandments. (If you want to learn more about that, I refer you to the post What is the Talmud? elsewhere in this blog.)

Lots to talk about in this portion! So without further explication, here are some divrei Torah on Ki Tetzei:

On Right Relationship with Each Other – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

At Home and On the Road – Rabbi Dan Fink

Whether You Believe in the Metzaveh or Not – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Shimon Peres: Pursuer of Peace – Rabbi Sharon Sobel

Honor – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

To Wear is Human – Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Rabbi Reuven Zellman

Scholars Engage with “Torah of Truth”

Image: Study partners examine a Torah together. Photo by Linda Burnett.

I learned tonight about a marvelous study resource online that I’d like to share with you. Torah.com has organized a symposium of 25 major Torah scholars to write meditations on “Torat Emet” [Torah of Truth].  Their articles on the subject are available online for all of us to read.

I have only begun to delve into the articles myself, but the introduction is well worth your time. I decided to rush ahead and share it because this is a time of year when many Jews are looking for serious reading as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The scholars grapple with the notion of truth, of being a “Torah true Jew,” and of the problems an ancient text can present to a modern reader. There are many ways to read Torah, and it is difficult for all of us. Still, the rewards are mighty.

Enjoy.

 

What Should I Do if I See Bullying?

Image: “Bully” artwork by John Hain via pixabay.com

How many of us would feel confident intervening if we saw one person yelling slurs at another person? It might be someone harassing a woman in a hijab, or toughs pestering a disabled person, or kids teasing a fat person. What can we do that won’t make matters worse? What can we do to de-escalate the situation?

When someone sees others bullying another person and fails to intervene, it’s called “bystander syndrome.” It is specifically forbidden in Torah, in Leviticus 19:

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor – Lev. 19:16

What should we do, especially if we are nervous about intervening? This is something that has troubled me.

A wonderful woman, an artist named Maeril, addresses the solution to bystander syndrome in a cartoon specifically aimed at Islamophobic harassment. Her advice is solidly based in psychology, and its purpose is to de-escalate the situation. It would translate nicely to many other situations, however, and I plan to practice it the next time I see someone being mean to someone else. As with anything else, it will get easier the more often I do it.

I will put the cartoon in its entirety at the bottom of this post, but to summarize the steps:

  1. You see someone harassing a vulnerable person. Go to the person under attack, be as calm and collected and FRIENDLY as you can, and say hello. Sit next to them if you can. Pay no attention to the harasser(s).
  2. Pick a random topic and start chatting. The weather, a TV show, anything – something neutral and easy to ramble about. Continue ignoring the attacker; do not even look at them. They do not exist.
  3. Continue the conversation until the attacker leaves. Offer to escort the person to a safe place, but respect their wishes if they say they just want to leave.

This way of dealing with the situation is based in a psychological concept called “non-complementary behavior” – instead of “fighting fire with fire” we deal with a situation by doing something completely the opposite of the expected script. Think of it as fighting fire with water. In this case, if the attacker is yelling racist slurs at a woman, we sit by her as if nothing unpleasant is going on, and engage in a pleasant conversation, ignoring the screamer. He wanted to feel big and powerful – now he’s totally irrelevant! Even if he temporarily escalates to calling you names too (“slur-lover” etc) if it gets no reaction at all, he will begin to feel like a fool. That’s not what he wanted at all, so he’ll move on.

My pronouns assume that “he” is the bad guy and “she” is the innocent – that matches the cartoon – but harassment can come in any gender. A woman yelling at a transman is equally horrible and yes, he needs your support!

And yes, it may be that the bully won’t move on and someone will have to call the cops. At least in the meantime, the innocent person is not left alone to deal with the torture. And it really is our best shot at getting the creep to go away and leave the person alone.

I know I feel a lot better equipped to be a mensch after seeing this – I hope you do too!

maerilbullytumblr