Keep the Change

“Keep the change.”

Is the change just what’s leftover, or is it a generous bonus?

What do I leave behind me, not just on cafe tables, but in every room where I spend time? Do people smile when they see what I’ve left, or do they feel cheated?

These are questions worth asking. Everywhere I go, I leave something “on the table.” It may be just a feeling or an impression but it affects others. How do others feel when I’ve left the room?

What do I leave behind me? Hurt feelings, or warmth? Pain, or relief? Confusion, or confidence?

If I don’t like the answers to those questions, what needs to change?

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The Freeway Blessing

English: A variable message sign indicating es...

This post originally appeared on Kol Isha, the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

As I perched on the hospital gurney, I reviewed the facts: the SUV slipped into the space ahead of me on the crowded highway and then braked abruptly. Its lights glowed red as I pressed and then stomped my own brakes. Time slowed as my car slammed into the SUV.

Air bags will save your life, but to do so they punch your chest like a champion boxer. For a 57 year old woman, chest pains demand a trip to the ER, even if they come after an encounter with an airbag.  Once I got to the hospital, they decided I wasn’t dying, but they wanted to keep me for a bit “for observation.” That’s how I wound up parked on a gurney, meditating on the seriousness of driving a car.

Until the afternoon of April 17, I prided myself on my good driving record, but it was no more than a nice report card. I seldom thought about the fact that when I’m driving I hold the lives of other human beings in my hands, and others hold mine.

The Torah regards life and health as precious gifts. Deuteronomy 22:8 commands us to put railings on the high places in our houses to prevent accidents. The rabbis of the Talmud went even further in Bava Kamma 15b, saying that one should not keep anything dangerous, neither a biting dog nor an unsafe ladder. PIkuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is such an important mitzvah that it can override almost any other mitzvah: better to violate the Sabbath than to let someone bleed to death, for instance.

And yet that afternoon, I had climbed into my little car with its 3,000 pounds of steel, and barely gave it a thought. I had been driving for 41 years, and driving had become routine. I didn’t speed or break the law. I didn’t chat on my cell phone or fix my makeup as I drove. But neither did I ever reflect that I was holding the lives of others in my hands.

Sitting on that gurney, I began to see that driving is a sacred activity, or it should be. Driving mindfully, aware of the lives flowing with me and past me on the highway, could be a form of worship of the One who created all those lives.  Conversely, driving carelessly, driving distracted, or driving sleepy is chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Name of God, because it invites the destruction of life given by God. Its very heedlessness is blasphemy.

I never found out why that car stopped so suddenly. All I know is that no one in the other  car was injured, my car was totalled, and I was lucky that I only had bruises. I am grateful that it was no worse.

Since that day, when I get in the car, I murmur what I have come to think of as the Freeway Blessing, a blessing to remind me to bring holy mindfulness to this sacred task:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hanoten l’chol chaim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.

“Choose life!” we are told in Deuteronomy. Behind the wheel of a car we each have that choice. I could have died on the freeway, but instead I was blessed: blessed with renewed awareness of the sacredness of life, and the responsibility we each have to preserve life.

#BlogElul: Return (In which the rabbi pitches a fit)

If you are wondering what “#BlogElul” means in the title, I’m one of a number of rabbis and others blogging together as we approach the High Holy Days this year. We’re organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, aka @imabima. If you’d like to hear a chorus of Jewish voices blogging this month, search for us on Twitter using the hashtag #BlogElul.

OK, so it’s the third of Elul and I’m only on the first topic: well, I’m a little rattled.  Actually, I’m a lot rattled, because I’m angry, and the topic of “Return” sums up what’s bugging me:

1. I’m angry at the RETURN of old lies.  US Rep Todd Akin of Missouri went on the record saying that pregnancy rarely results from rape. (Therefore, he suggests, raped women don’t need access to Plan B or abortions.) In case you were wondering, over 32,000 rapes in the U.S. result in pregnancy each years, according to a 1996 study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  Whatever your feelings about Roe v. Wade, vicious lies and misinformation do not help matters.

2. I’m angry at the RETURN of terms like “Legitimate Rape.” This brings to mind old canards like “she asked for it” and such. What happened, did I go to sleep sometime this summer and wake up in 1970?

3. I’m angry at the RETURN of outdated attitudes towards women in Israel, and the use of the police to enforce them.  For example, check out what happened this Rosh Chodesh (first of the new month) at the Western Wall, the so-called holiest site in Judaism, which is sounding pretty UNholy to me these days.  Four women were detained for hours by police for wearing white or black and white prayer shawls.  No, I’m not kidding. Read this blog entry by an eyewitness for the details. I’m too disgusted to repeat them in detail. For a sense of the bigger picture, check out Merav Michaeli’s excellent op-ed in Haaretz: “Be a Woman and Shut Up.”

4. I’m angry at the RETURN of lynching as a substitute for justice.  This headline that appeared today in Haaretz, the newspaper of record in Israel: “Israel Police: Hundreds watched attempt to lynch Palestinians in Jerusalem, did not interfere.” The article that follows describes something that sounds like it came out of the Jim Crow South. I am a lover of Israel, a proud Zionist, but I am covered in shame. This, from Jews? From the people whose holy Torah says, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue?”

5. I’m angry at the RETURN of yet more mass murders, in Colorado and elsewhere. Why can’t we figure out how to keep assault weapons out of the hands of dangerously deranged persons? Again, whatever your stand on the Second Amendment, the founders did NOT intend for us to have mass murder after mass murder.

I could keep on going; that’s the awful part.

I know that Elul is not about looking outside myself and seeing what makes me mad. It’s for looking inside myself and seeing what needs fixing.

So maybe the question is, if I’m so mad about the RETURN of these things, what could I be doing about them?  I can only change myself, but how can the world change if I haven’t bothered to do anything about it?

Thus begins Elul 5772.

A Reform Tisha B’Av

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Tisha B’Av (ti-SHA beh-AHV) is a commemoration of disasters that the Jewish people have experienced over the centuries, starting with the destruction of the first Temple (586 BCE) and the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE). But if we recall these two destructions purely as “look what terrible things have happened to us” we have missed the point.

The point, as underlined by the readings from the Prophets over the past three weeks, is that the Temples were not destroyed by random chance or the whim of a jealous God. They fell because the Jews of their time lost track of Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. They believed the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinom, baseless hatred among Jews.

Now you may say, “Oh, I don’t think that God causes wars or punishes people by destroying cities,” and I would agree with you.  People make wars, and people destroy cities. And it is in the way that we Jews conducted ourselves before the fall of each Temple that the seeds of destruction were sown.

The first destruction was in 586 BCE (before the common era, similar to the Christian B.C.), and the only records we have of it are the records in the books of the Bible. What we know is that for a long time before the destruction, the prophets were warning the people of Judea that the way they were living would end in disaster. They were worshiping foreign gods, distracting themselves with sexual immorality and engaging in bloodshed. The leaders put their faith in foreign alliances, and their economic policies favored the already wealthy over the poor, especially anyone poor who was not likely to ever be rich (widows and orphans.) If you don’t believe me, read the first chapter of the book of Isaiah. History has shown again and again that bad alliances, fraud, economic injustice, and lawlessness are a recipe for disaster.

We know more about the second round of destruction, in 70 CE (corresponds to the Christian A.D.).  In that time, Jews divided into political and religious parties that hated and scorned one another. They could not work together on anything; they could barely occupy the same country. While they squabbled and called each other names, they started a war with Rome, and Rome destroyed the Temple. If you read the history of the time in the record by Josephus, it’s pretty clear that we  brought the rage of the Romans upon ourselves, and we did it mostly by mistreating one another.

The rabbis who survived described the attitude of the time as sinat chinom, baseless hatred, and they established a season of mourning to remind their descendants that all these activities (idolatry, immorality, murder, economic injustice, and baseless hatred) had been the road to ruin. So for three weeks every year, we read warnings from the prophets, and we finish by observing Tisha B’Av.

Now, I’m a Reform rabbi. I am not looking for the Temple to be rebuilt. I do not want to see sacrifices on the Temple Mount, ever again. But I do observe Tisha B’Av. I observe it by taking the day to ask myself some questions — and to take action on the answers:

1. Do I engage in acts of sinat chinom? That is, do I take part in conversations that speak hatefully about other people? I can (and often do) disagree with other people, but am I willing to listen to them and to have a civil conversation with them?  Or do I let myself off the hook by saying that they won’t be civil to me, so I can be as nasty as my yetzer harah (my evil inclination) wants to be?

2. Do I profit from bloodshed? From economic injustice? Do I profit in some way from hatred? (These are big questions, far bigger than a blog post. Explore at will.)

Isaiah warns that no prayers, no observances, no fasts, no pious activities will suffice. The only way to make things right is to  “Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed.”

Today, I will engage in a fast of the heart: What needs to change? How fast can I change it?

Nothing else matters.

——

An earlier version of this blog listed the date of the destruction as “386 BCE.” My thanks to the alert reader who caught  my typing error! I try to catch all of those before I publish, but things sometimes slip through. Thank you for telling me!

God or Godzilla?

English: 1954 Japanese movie poster for 1954 J...
English: 1954 Japanese movie poster for 1954 Japanese film Godzilla. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend recently reported on facebook that her phone autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.”

A lot of people come to my classes worried that:

  • I am going to find out they don’t believe in “God.”
  • I am going to be mad that they don’t believe in “God.”
  • I am going to insist that they believe in “God.”
  • I am going to make a big deal out of any of the above.

The only thing I know for sure about That-Which-We-Call-God is that I agree with Maimonides: whatever I think God is, that is what God is not.

I don’t like to use pronouns for God. God is either beyond all gender or encompassing all genders, and I believe there are a lot more than two genders, so English pronouns are useless.

I find the word “God” increasingly useless because folks come to it with a lot of opinions ready at hand. Some people immediately think about the version of God that blasts people in the Bible. I agree, that person is scary and often immature. That limited image, taken alone, is not what I am talking about when I say, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God.” Remember, we are warned to be very careful about images.

Then there are people who refer to God as “Sky Daddy” or “Giant Sky Monster” or something similar. They’re trying to make the point that taking ancient metaphors literally is silly. I agree with them that taking an ancient metaphor literally is silly, but I don’t like to throw my metaphors out with the bathwater: some things are still useful even when I refuse to swallow them whole.

There is Something about the Universe that calls out for amazement.  That is my God: the aspect of the world that is far beyond me, that leaves me with my jaw hanging open.* I witness it in the power of a terrible storm, and in the smell of a newborn baby. I witness it in acts of selflessness, and acts of courage.

Torah is the record of human beings trying to wrap their minds around it: a dance between The Amazed People and the Object of Amazement. The best way they could come up with to relate to it was to personify it, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore it. They cooked up the idea that they had a Covenant with it, that they were given commandments (mitzvot) to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the Amazingness of the Universe.

Torah is unfinished and in process.  There is always work – human work – to be done to align the commandments with the ideal that they are intended to pursue. In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad point out to Moses that the way Torah law was set up, it created an unjust situation. Moses is not sure. He confers with God, who immediately rectifies the situation. That is a model I can follow: when traditional interpretations of the law are unjust and unkind, then it’s time to come up with something better.

And yes, lots of bad stuff has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. That’s God as an excuse, and after hearing about my friend’s phone, I am going to refer to that “God” as “Godzilla.” The “God” that people cite as their authority for bad behavior is no more than a monster. One might even argue that it is an Idol, but that’s another post entirely.

*If you want to read better writing about this idea of God, check out the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says it all much better than do I.

It’s a Mitzvah: Save a Life!

Blood donation drive
Blood donation drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.”  — “Do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds.”  Leviticus 19:16

If someone is in dire danger, this commandment in the Torah insists that we must act. The ancient rabbis took this commandment so seriously that they teach us that even if it means breaking the Sabbath, even if it means breaking almost any other law, we must not stand by while someone is in danger of death.  (The exceptions? We may not engage in murder, incest, or idolatry, even to save a life.)

 Right now, in the United States, we are in the midst of a critical blood shortage. Last week, the American Red Cross reported that the nation’s blood banks were down by 50,000 pints.  That is not a typo: FIFTY THOUSAND PINTS of blood — blood upon which people’s lives depend! — are simply not there.  Each of those pints could make the difference between life and death for someone injured in the storms in the East, for a firefighter injured in Colorado, or for a mother with a complicated childbirth. Cancer patients sometimes need many pints of blood and blood products to continue fighting the disease.

Today I stopped by my local Red Cross Blood Donation center, and when the nurse looked at my record, she said, “Oh! Your blood type is negative! We really need those!” I asked her about the shortage and she shook her head: “Yes, it’s really, really bad.  Now let’s get your blood pressure.”

Now I have a bandaid in the crook of my left elbow, and a sticker on my shirt. I don’t know where my pint of A negative will go, but I’m told it may save as many as three lives.

Some people can’t donate: my partner, a cancer survivor, is barred from ever performing this mitzvah ever again. A person with a fresh tattoo or piercing may not donate until 12 months have passed. A person who may have been exposed to any of several diseases may not donate. People who have taken certain drugs cannot. If you wonder if you are eligible, or you have other questions, you can find the answers on the Red Cross Blood Donation website.  That site can also direct you to the nearest place to donate, and in many areas, you can make your appointment online.

Rabbi Simon Glustrom writes in an article on pikuach nefesh, preservation of life:

The preservation of human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism. The Talmud emphasizes this principle by citing the verse from Leviticus [18:5]: “You shall therefore keep my statutes…which if a man do, he shall live by them.” The rabbis add: “That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks to Israel with a message from the Divine, and near the end he says:

I call heaven and earth to witness you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.

For those of us able to donate blood, we have a the opportunity to choose life in a very literal way. The choice before us is indeed a choice between life and death, blessing and curse.

Choose life and blessing, that you and others may live.

Afterwards, cookies.

 

It’s June: Thank you, LGBTQ Pioneers!

King David Street, Jerusalem, June 2003

This blog post originally appeared on Tzeh U’Limad, the Blog of Continuing Jewish Learning published by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion as part of its Continuing Alumni Education program. I follow that blog, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in “continuing Jewish learning!” 

It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.

Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mom. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome.  An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.

1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977.  I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.

Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot [shuttle] from Ben Gurion Airport and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really?  How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.

I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation, & Gender Identity, first of its kind in the Jewish world.  There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.

I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.

To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah, thank you very much. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories.  And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.