Why I Chose Reform Judaism

Image: The logos of Hebrew Union College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism, the three institutions that organize the Reform movement in the USA.

I chose Reform Judaism when I chose to become Jewish. I did it over my inclination to “more tradition” and the talk I heard from Jews about Orthodoxy being “more authentic.”

At the time (1995), I chose Reform because I was out as a lesbian and I had no intention of lying or hiding something so basic about myself. Reform welcomed me as I was. For the Conservative Movement at the time and for Orthodoxy, my orientation was at least a problem if not a deal-breaker, depending on the rabbi.

Initially, I was sad that more traditionalist movements were not available to me. But by the time I applied to Hebrew Union College to study for the rabbinate, I was adamant about being a Reform Jew. Someone asked me if I had considered “upgrading” my conversion, since I kept kosher and was ritually observant. I said “no” because by then I had a strong sense of Reform Judaism as my home base within the Jewish People.

After ten years of service and study as a rabbi,  I can be more articulate: Reform is traditional in the sense that it hews closely to the creative spirit and adaptive genius of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, the great rabbis of early rabbinic Judaism. Those rabbis built a form of Judaism that could survive two millennia of persecution. Reform continues to build a Judaism that can thrive in modernity and into the future.

Does the Reform Movement make mistakes? All the time. So did the early rabbis – witness Rabbi Akiva’s declaration that Shimon ben Kosevah was the Messiah. Akiva gave him the sobriquet “bar Kokhba,” the name by which his disastrous attempt at a revolt is remembered. That revolt (132-135 CE) resulted in our long exile from the land of Israel.

Reform Judaism valued me as a giyoret [female candidate for conversion] because it has a commitment to the idea that all human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. If there were no Reform Judaism, would we have families sitting together in shul? Women rabbis? Women congregational presidents? LGBTQ Jews living their lives without lies and closets? We’ll never know, because the Reform movement pioneered those innovations.

There are other issues where the jury is still out. Intermarriage rates are high in the United States. Beginning with in 1978 with Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president of what we now call the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ,) our movement has reached out to embrace intermarried couples and their children, hoping to maintain the connection with them. We’ve had mixed results. Personally I know children of intermarriage who proudly identify as Jewish, but I am also aware of the number of families whose children identify as “both” or “nothing,” categories that most Jews understand to mean “gone forever from our community.” We are still struggling with that set of challenges.

As I see it, each tradition within Jewish tradition has a role to play in moving us forward in history. It would also be foolish to toss the “baby” of our tradition with the “bathwater” of superstition. It would also be foolish not to engage with the world as it is, in the present. But it is not possible to do all of those things at once. For every Jew, there’s a community somewhere that will feel like the right fit.  With our communities, each of us help to bring Judaism to the next generation, to the future.

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How Can I Give When Money is Tight?

Image: A person pulls their jeans’ pockets out, empty. (shuldnerhilfe/pixabay)

What is the responsibility of the low-income person in giving tzedakah (money contributions for the relief of suffering)? What are the tzedakah requirements for the person who may have income, but whose responsibilities are so numerous that they are “cash-poor”?

Jewish tradition is adamant that the commandment of tzedakah applies to all of us, from the wealthiest Jew to the poorest. For the wealthy, Maimonides prescribes a minimum of 5% of income after taxes with a maximum of 20%. That prescription may seem a mockery for anyone struggling to pay the rent. The Shulchan Aruch, an influential code of Jewish law, is adamant that even the poorest person is required to give something.

What is a low-income person supposed to give, if they have no money? Why require such giving from the poor? What are some strategies for giving when we simply don’t have the cash?

  1. What are the poor required to give? Most sources cite Exodus 30: 12-16, which states that “the poor will not give less than half a shekel.” A biblical shekel is estimated to be $2 or $2.50. The poorest person has fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah if they contribute at least $1 annually to the relief of other sufferers. The recipients  may be relatives of the giver. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei-ah 7:13) Those who can give more than that absolute minimum should do so, but not at such a level that their own subsistence is threatened.
  2. Why require such giving from the needy? Our tradition puts a high value on the dignity of every individual. The person who has to receive tzedakah may feel embarrassed at being the recipient of aid, but their dignity is bolstered by the knowledge that they, too, contribute to the support of the poor.
  3. Can a person not contribute instead by volunteering their time? Volunteer work is a different mitzvah: it is gimilut hasidim, deeds of lovingkindness. It cannot substitute for giving tzedakah.

Some strategies for giving when money is tight

I’m speaking here not to “the poorest of the poor” but to the average person who has limited income.

Take stock of the tzedakah one is already giving. If a person is in the habit of “helping out” friends or relatives with the rent or roceries, that’s tzedakah. If a person hands loose change to people on the street, that’s tzedakah. If a person is supporting an adult child or relative with a mental or physical illness, whatever they spend on that is tzedakah. Money one spends on groceries that are cooked into a meal for a needy person is tzedakah.

One may give tzedakah as a gift. If one is a member of any community, there are times when we are expected to give gifts, something that can become quite a burden. Where a gift of a very small amount might be all one can afford, one can give a donation of $5 to a charitable organization in honor of the wedding or the bar mitzvah. The organization does not report the amount given, they just send a card reporting the gift with thanks.

One may make a micro-loan through an organization such as kiva.org. Kiva brokers loans of $25 to create opportunities for people to become self-sufficient. While the money will be tied up during the period of the loan, it is exactly that: a loan. At the end of the repayment period, one can get the entire $25 back. Kiva loans are not risk free, but they are fairly safe, with a repayment rate of 96.9% or a failure rate of 3.1%. Such loans qualify as tzedakah because they allow the borrower to move from a situation in which they need aid to real independence. (According to Maimonides, this is the highest form of giving.)

Keep a pushke or tzedakah box. Collect small coins over time in a little box, and when it fills up, give the contents to any charitable organization or to a needy person. This little box can be a “penalty box” for sin (e.g. a swear jar)  or a “blessing box” for happy moments.

By the way, our tradition includes all money given for relief of suffering to be tzedakah, whether the recipient is Jewish or not. Giving money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents people suffering from injustice or those unjustly imprisoned, is a perfectly acceptable form of tzedakah. It is good to “take care of our own” but the sages also point out that giving that goes beyond the borders of our community promotes peace.

The Art of Staying Present

Image: The flowers in my front yard. Despite the inconveniences of plans made and thwarted, there is still beauty in the world if we choose to notice. Photo: Ruth Adar.

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט.

Der mentsh trakht un got lakht.

Man plans and God laughs.

This Yiddish saying speaks to all the times we make plans, only to have them collapse in the face of events. I’m meditating on it now as I deal with a new round of body aggravation.

Things had been going so well. After a rough year of pain problems, a new therapy seemed really promising. I got a bit more ambitious about projects. I began getting more exercise.

This past Monday night I noticed I was particularly exhausted in the evening, with a lot of unsteadiness. I didn’t sleep well, and by morning it was clear that a bunch of familiar bio-mechanical problems and pain problems were back with a vengeance. What a drag.

It is so tempting to get caught up in fake moral thinking about these things: What did I “do wrong?” Friends, expressing their concern, say things like, “What did you do?”

What I have learned is that sometimes there is no “what” that I “did.” I can frustrate myself by looking for causality or I can turn my attention to living in the present, paying attention to things as they are. Exercising mindfully and eating mindfully are more challenging when the experience of being in this body is painful or unpleasant. It is an important challenge both for healing and for spiritual well-being.

Judaism pushes us to pay attention to the present moment. Blessings make us stop before we eat to appreciate the food in our hands. Other blessings demand we pay attention to our bodies, to the sun in the sky, to the fragrance of a flower. The day begins not at an abstract time but when the sun rises, and it ends when the sun sets.

Does God really laugh? The Yiddish proverb used to sound cruel to me: “I make plans, and God says, ‘Gotcha!'”

Now I read it a bit differently. I get a little too involved with the future (plans) and God reminds me to stay in the present. It isn’t a cruel laugh; it’s more of a gentle chuckle. I am still learning, still growing, not dead yet!

I Voted! – Did You, Fellow Californians?

Image: My vote-by-mail ballot, which I will hand in tomorrow. (Photo by Ruth Adar)

I just filled out my vote-by-mail ballot for the June 5 Primary Election in California. Tomorrow I’ll take it by one of the collection points and drop it off.

I like voting by mail. I can think things through and give each choice the attention it deserves. I like reading the instructions, considering the choices, and making the marks that are my participation in the democratic process.

My grandmother felt strongly about voting. She was in that first cohort of American women who were eligible to vote after ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug 18, 1920. She used words like “sacred” to describe the right and the duty of each person to vote. She told me that she’d come back and haunt me if I didn’t vote in every election I could: “If you can, you must!” she said, poking my arm for emphasis.

So here you go, Meme: I voted again. Thank you for teaching me that it is important.

I regard voting as a sacred duty. There is no commandment that says specifically “Thou Shalt Vote” but almost every item on the ballot has sacred implications. When I vote for a legislator, I am choosing someone to be my voice in Washington or Sacramento, or on a more local body. They will make many decisions with ethical implications – I need to choose someone who will make ethical choices. When I vote for a judge or an executive, I am voting for someone who will have tremendous power to do good or to do evil. To make it even more complicated, I have to think, too, about the chances each candidate has: under what conditions should I vote for the good-enough person who can get elected, instead of the perfect candidate who can’t?

I understand why some people are so sunken in despair that they think their vote doesn’t matter. I have less sympathy for those who choose not to vote because they are cynical: I want to say, “You think you are so smart, why are you throwing away your power?”

I’m not going to tell you for whom I voted. (That was my grandmother’s advice, too.) But I will ask you: Did you vote? Will you vote when you next have a chance?

 

Summer Reading List, 2018

Image: Person sitting in a chair looking at an e-reader. (pexels/pixabay)

In the summertime, I catch up on reading. Some of it is professional, and some is just fun. Here’s my list, in no particular order.

 

Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright.

White Like Me: Reflections on Race by a Privileged Son by Tim Wise.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Thurston

Cultures of the Jews: A New History  ed. David Biale

Hasidism: A New History by David Biale, et al.

Shady Characters & Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston.

Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.

What’s on your summer reading list? Do you plan your reading list, or just read what looks interesting when you are ready for a new book? How do you choose your reading?

 

 

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, 2018

Image: “We are ALL made in God’s Image” in Hebrew and English, on a poster identifying the group from Temple Sinai, Oakland in the Oakland Pride Parade in 2016. For full picture, see the end of this article. All rights reserved, Linda Burnett.

When I think of “Pride Month” I think of stories:

I think of the queer folk at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, fighting back and starting what would come to be known as the Stonewall Riots. Click the link, or Google them, and learn your history, fellow LGBTQs. They weren’t respectable. They weren’t nice. But all the rest of us owe them for the progress we’ve made since. I was 14 and hadn’t heard the word “lesbian” yet, but my life had changed for the better, even though I didn’t know it yet.

I think of my first SF Gay Pride, in maybe 1987 . I was not yet “out,” and was terrified to come out, because as the mother of two small children I knew that there was a lot at stake. Women like me lost children to homophobic relatives all the time in those days. One court wasn’t deterred by the fact that dad was a convicted murderer: he was still seen as a better parent than the lesbian.

I think of the next Pride in SF, when I was out, and I took the kids. It was a defining moment for our family – we were not going back in any closets. Jim asked me why the guys on the Folsom Street float were dressed in leather. I told him, “They like to play dress up.” He nodded his five year old head and promptly lost interest in them, but the bear float guys throwing teddy bears into the crowd won his heart.

I think about the next few Pride marches in SF; the AIDS epidemic was raging. ACT-UP was re-teaching the lesson from Stonewall: fighting for our rights could not be “nice” because we were fighting for our very lives. I wasn’t at much risk for AIDS, but I saw what was happening to the guys, and I saw what the courts were doing to LGBTQ parents, and I knew that we were all fighting for our lives.

I think about how times have changed, and how people haven’t changed. We’re in the middle of backlash now: certain folks are trying to roll back the advances made by people of color, LGBTQ people, women, disabled people.

We must remember that we are all in this together. We must not let the  social conservatives roll back the calendar to the bad old days. “Social conservatives” sounds so nice, like sociable jam or something – but relative to us, they aren’t nice, not one bit. You may not have my rights, social conservatives. I will fight you every step of the way.

Celebrate! because they don’t want us to. Be proud! because if we aren’t, who will? And fight back, in the primaries, in the general election, whenever you have a shot at a voting booth, vote!

Judaism is unequivocal on the necessity of speaking up when something is wrong. Leviticus 19 commands that we not stand by while another human being bleeds. Hillel speaks of the necessity of speaking up for ourselves and for others:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot 1:14

This Pride month, let us be for ourselves and for one another and against hatred in all its disguises.

Pride Parade Sinai Group
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin,far right, with 4 members of Temple Sinai of Oakland, including me. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.

Tennessee Memory Lane: Remembering Governor Ray Blanton

Image: Front page of the Nashville Tennessean after Gov. Ray Blanton was convicted of selling alcohol licenses. Headline is “Blanton Guilty.” (from the Nashville Post)

I should mention up front, there’s no real Jewish content to this post, I’m just taking a trip down memory lane. However, I think you may find it interesting in light of recent events.

The President’s pardon of Dinesh D’Souza, convicted of campaign finance fraud, and his talk about pardoning Rod Blagojevich have sent me down memory lane.

In 1975, when I was still a Tennessean, we elected a scalawag named Leonard Ray Blanton to be Governor of Tennessee. He had already served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1967-1973, so it isn’t like we didn’t know what we were getting. He was famous for his poor attendance record in the Congress and his pursuit of pork barrel projects for his part of the state. (I must admit, the 7th congressional district had the nicest road surfaces of any rural counties in Tennessee.) He was also known for having come up as a politician through the Crump Machine out of Memphis.

In other words, anyone who thought Leonard “Ray” Blanton was an innocent was not paying attention.

Well, he got elected governor because in those days, we’d only elected one Republican governor in the previous 50 years. That was a nice dentist named Winfield Dunn, and everyone was so shocked at having a Republican governor that between four years of Dr. Dunn and the Watergate scandal, it just seemed safer to go back to what we were used to. (I say “we” although I voted for his opponent, Lamar Alexander, today a Senator from Tennessee. My politics have changed since I was in my 20’s, but I think Senator Alexander is a sight better a human being than Gov. Blanton ever was, despite his mistaken opinion on many matters.) Anyway…

Governor Blanton ran as a populist, putting together a coalition of assorted folks who believed that Republicans were practically the devil because they’d brought in Reconstruction 100 years before. (I wish I could say I was making that part up.) He talked a lot about morals and about honesty and Christianity, so of course he was going to be a good governor, right?

Once he was elected, however, he became known for heavy drinking and womanizing publicly, for vulgar language and high-handed ways. He gave himself a five-figure raise. The papers reported on his expensive junkets around the world to attract business to Tennessee and on the entourage of his friends who went with him. There were rumors about much worse, stuff like selling pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down in his Capitol offices. The state of Tennessee even paid his bar bills and those of his cronies, until the newspapers shamed him into paying us back. Meanwhile the legislature changed the law, so that he could be the first governor in Tennessee history eligible to serve a second term.

By 1977 it was beginning to smell pretty bad. He fired a single mother named Marie Fajardo Ragghianti, who his administration had hired to be Chair of the Pardons and Paroles board, an improbable hire given her youth and inexperience. She refused to release a shady bunch of characters he pardoned because she suspected they had paid bribes to someone for their pardons. It was a very bad business, but there was no proof Gov. Blanton was involved. For a while, Ms. Ragghianti was out of a job, her name was mud, and after she went to the FBI, she was threatened by thugs who felt she was not sufficiently respectful of the governor. If you want the details of that story, you can watch the movie Marie

By the next election, in 1979, everyone smelled the horse manure, so we elected Lamar Alexander governor over Blanton. However, Gov. Blanton wasn’t done with us. The Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court got a phone call from the Lieutenant Governor and the State House Speaker that Gov. Blanton was staying up late signing pardons willy-nilly. His plan was to turn loose every white murderer or rapist in the state prison system as a big “so there” to the people of Tennessee for not re-electing him.

They got Mr. Alexander up and swore him in real quick, three days early and in the middle of the night, so that Gov. Blanton couldn’t sign any more pardons. Lieutenant Governor John Wilder called it “impeachment, Tennessee style.”

Ray Hill of the Knoxville Focus would later write:

Despite his populist rhetoric and talk of honesty and political morals, Ray Blanton would preside over perhaps the most corrupt regime in Tennessee history. (Knoxville Focus, 1/22/17.)

The cooperation of politicians from both sides of the aisle put an end to Gov. Blanton’s shenanigans. They put love of the State of Tennessee ahead of their own agendas. I’m proud of them to this very day. After Lamar Alexander’s dramatic midnight swearing-in, law enforcement in the state and at the FBI went to work and eventually Blanton was indicted and convicted on charges he was convicted of charges of extortion and conspiracy for selling a liquor license, and he spent 22 months in prison. Two of his cronies were convicted of selling the pardons, but he was never officially charged with it. Governor Ray Blanton died in 1996, still insisting that he’d “never taken a dishonest dollar” in his life, and I’m sure somebody still believed him.

When good people are willing to stand up and be good people, when we are willing to put the common good ahead of our own pride and self-interest, good things can happen. If on the other hand, previously decent people can’t see past their ideologies and their greed, then evil will prevail.

That’s all I’ve got to say.