Planning Our Thanksgiving 2020

Image: A cartoon of pumpkin pie, with words of thanks on it. (John Hain / Pixabay)

Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday of the year in our household.

That may sound funny, since I’m a rabbi, but I’m also an elder in an interfaith family. Linda and I are Jews. Our sons are both secular agnostics. Other members of our extended family of choice are cultural Christians or Catholics. Thanksgiving may have a problematic history, but it is the day that we’re all on the same page: we love one another, and we love to eat together.

This year, after some anguished conversations with various family members, we decided that we would not come together for the day, not even the two households that share a bubble. The issue was that if we couldn’t ALL come together, we’d be leaving others out. Leaving someone out of Thanksgiving was unthinkable, so instead we came up with a new plan.

We’re dropping off goodies at each other’s front doors, and Linda and I are available to Zoom with anyone who wants to Zoom. We haven’t worked out all the details, but the emotion driving this decision is love. We love each other too much to risk someone getting sick.

There’s a Jewish name for this plan: it’s called shmirat haguf, guarding the body, or guarding health. It is based on a verse in Torah:

Guard your self and your soul most carefully

Deuteronomy 4:9

Maimonides, a physician, wrote a chapter on health in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish law:

Since the maintenance of the body in health and wholeness is God’s way, (for it is impossible that one should understand or know any of the divine knowledge concerning the Creator while sick) it is necessary for a person to stay away from things which destroy the body, and make habits in things which are healthful and life-imparting.

Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot, 4:1 (my translation)

We are all tired of COVID-19. We miss the people we used to hug so freely, and our routines, like a cup of coffee at a favorite cafe. Some of us are angry, and some are afraid. Some are worried that medical advice has been tainted with politics.

All I know is that it would break my heart if I thought someone in my family got sick from sitting at my table. This year, we will say, “Next year, at the same table!” And this year, we will phone each other and say, “I love you.” And that will have to be enough.

Mourning for RBG in our Pluralist Society

Image: The body of former Chief Justice Earl Warren rests on a black draped bier in the Main Hall of the Supreme Court, on July 11, 1974. (Associated Press)

The recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, z”l, has brought up some curiosity and a number of myths about Jewish funeral practices.

Jewish mourning practice and Christian morning practices are quite different, and I am interested in seeing how the two sets of expectations are balanced during the coming week. One example of the difference came up the night after she died, when the crowd that gathered spontaneously outside the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. began to sing “Amazing Grace.” Jewish observers found this jarring, because the hymn is Christian and the lyrics make explicit reference to conversion to Christianity. However, this hymn almost more than any other is associated in the American public mind with mourning (see its use in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, for example.) It was certainly intended as an expression of sorrow and respect, whatever the lyrics.

Timing of the Funeral – Sometimes you will hear that we Jews bury our dead within 24 hours of death. In real life, that may mean the next day and it may not. Funerals may be delayed by a number of factors: for instance, we allow time for family to gather, and if the local law requires an autopsy, the funeral may be delayed for as long as officials require. In summary, the body of the deceased must be laid to rest as quickly as secular and Jewish law allow, with time for family to gather if needed.

Justice Ginsberg died on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the day before Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days of the Jewish Year, and as such, we do not bury the dead that day. Most observant Jews will be in synagogue for at least one day, and many for two. Sunday is also a holy day for Jews who observe two days of Rosh Hashanah, so the earliest day on which interment could take place is Monday, Sept 21.

The New York Times outlined the plans as of Sept 19:

A ceremony inside the court is expected as early as Tuesday, according to someone familiar with the plan, followed by an outdoor viewing that would adhere to social distancing guidelines. A small funeral service is also expected to be held for Justice Ginsburg, who died on Friday at 87, as well as a burial at Arlington National Cemetery later in the week. Her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, was buried at Arlington in 2010.

New York Times, accessed 9/19/2020

“Viewing” is another practice that is differently understood by Jews and Christians. Generally speaking, Jews do not have a public viewing of the body, because we feel it violates the privacy and modesty of the deceased. Moreover, Jews absolutely do not embalm our dead unless required to do so by the state. However, Justice Ginsberg is not an ordinary citizen, and the public secular mourning in the United States almost always includes some sort of “lying in state.” I speculate that the Court and the family will make a compromise, and that her closed coffin will be present for the “outdoor viewing.”

Burial with family is a Jewish custom, indeed a Jewish value.

Mourning for Justice Ginsburg will be a process, both for her family and for the nation. Her family would normally “sit shiva” for up to seven days after interment, then observe sheloshim, a period of lighter mourning, for 30 days. Her children may choose to mourn publicly for the next eleven months by saying Kaddish. For the nation, I fear that it will not be such a calm process, because there are many political repercussions to her passing.

I hope that all who cherish her memory will do everything they can to be kind and respectful to her family. When she was alive, they shared her time and attention with the public service to which she dedicated much of her life. Now that she has died, theirs is the greatest loss.

Knowing that Justice Ginsburg was a practical woman who was well aware of the approach of her death, I imagine that she has left instructions as to her wishes.

(Which reminds me: are there things you would want family to do or not do at your passing? If you don’t leave those instructions in writing that meets the standards of your state, you are leaving things up to chance. It is always a good idea to make a written Advance Directive Form or Power of Attorney for Health Care, as well as a will and funeral instructions, and to let those close to you know your feelings and the location of those documents. Otherwise, nothing is sure. Forms for such documents are available online – but don’t stop with a form. TALK to your loved ones.)

Prayer for Opening Day: Baseball in 2020

Image: Batting practice before a spring training game at Las Vegas Ballpark, March 2020. Home of the Las Vegas Aviators. Photo by Ruth Adar.

As is my habit every year, I offer a Prayer for the Beginning of Baseball Season. Major League Baseball has chosen to go ahead with a short season this year, with changes to make play somewhat safer – beginning with the fact that there will be no fans in the stands. Still, some of us worry. Here is a version of my usual prayer for opening day, with an addendum for Covid-19.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created human beings out of the clay of the earth, breathing into them the breath of Your life. You set within each human being a love of play, a sense of fair play, and a desire for games that will satisfy both the body and the mind. From these human desires You brought forth baseball, a game of bats and balls played upon the diamond. It is an orderly game, as Your creation is orderly, and a mysterious game, as Your creation is mysterious, revealing to its devotees deep truths about Your world.

It is a game subject to times and seasons, and we give thanks for the fact that we are now at the beginning of the season of baseball. Amen.

It is a game subject to rules and statistics, and we give thanks for the Official Baseball Rules as well as their league variations, and also for the many statistics that add to the strategies of managers and the enjoyment of fans. Amen.

May our foes be unable to defeat us. Amen.

Let them be filled with dread at the sight of our bats. Amen.

And when the forces of Light and Dark join upon the diamond field, let our players play uninjured and mighty. Let the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd fill every ear and every heart, so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: Play Ball!

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

And in this very challenging year of 5780, keep players, umps, and coaches mindful of safety measures and safe from the ravages of Covid-19. May the consistent use of precautions prevent the infection of their families and friends. Let this game be the restoring balm that it has always been for so many. Bless our play, and give us respite from the wrack of pandemic. May this year’s difficulties raise us all to greater standards of honest play, and to a greater appreciation for the blessings this game brings to us. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

A rabbinical note: The opening of the new baseball season (Rosh Z’man Beisbol) is a major festival for many American Jews. Discussions on the holiday are recorded in Masekhet Miskhakim (Games) and in Hilkhot Z’man Beisbol (Laws of the Season of Baseball) as well as in HaYachalom HaHakir(The Precious Diamond), a mystical work. The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although those skeptical Wissenschaft yekkies insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

The addition “In this very challenging year” is the work of your humble servant, and any error or overreach in it is hers and hers alone.

Rachel Mankowitz on Jews of Color

I’ve got three or four half-finished attempts at an article about the situation of Jews of Color in the present time. Rachel Mankowitz says in this article what I wanted to say, and says it so much better!

Rachel Mankowitz is a writer and blogger and social worker in New York state. If you aren’t acquainted with her blog and her novel, “Yeshiva Girl” I recommend them both.

rachelmankowitz

            The world is exploding and I am angry and afraid, and maybe hopeful too. I know I can’t handle being part of the protests in person (because my health won’t allow it, because I’m still afraid of the coronavirus, and because the potential for violence scares the crap out of me, no matter who’s causing it), but I want to do something, or add something, or learn something. But…there is so much information available on racism in general, and police violence towards people of color in particular, and mass incarceration, and how racism impacts educational opportunities and the ability to accumulate wealth, and, and, and…I don’t have the bandwidth to take in all of the books and articles and podcasts and Facebook posts that are out there. So when the cantor at my synagogue took the time to offer a zoom-cast on Jews of color, and what they might…

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“There’s No Place Like Home”

Image: Ruby Slippers (XiXinXing/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

It’s a famous line from a famous movie: “There’s no place like home.” Sometimes I wish I could click my ruby slippers together three times and be magically returned to the world before the arrival of coronavirus and COVID-19.

The message of the movie The Wizard of Oz is that home is a shelter from the storms of the world. That theme is Jewish to its core; in Judaism, we talk about the home as a little sanctuary, a mikdash me’at. For Jews in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) the world outside the home runs on the calendar of the dominant culture, the holidays are the holidays of the dominant culture. Even the clocks are not Jewish: days in the United States begin at midnight, not at sundown. Outside the house, the Jew is to some extent a stranger, trading time off for Rosh Hashanah with a colleague who would like an extra day after Christmas, and rolling their eyes at the “Happy Yom Kippur” food display in the local supermarket.

Home is a holy place, a Jewish place, even if we are not religious Jews. It’s the place we don’t have to listen to Christmas carols unless we like them.

Now home is also the place we are supposed to stay unless we have important business out in the world, keeping some critical part of the society running. The nurse, the doctor, the banker and the grocery checker go to work out in the perilous outside world while the rest of us #StayAtHome, working at our laptops, trying to remember enough from the sixth grade math to help our children learn.

Under these circumstances, home can acquire a rather unholy feeling: it’s a workplace, a schoolroom, and a bit of a jail, with an angry virus buzzing outside. Days slide one into the other, forming a fog.

Jewish tradition can help us in dealing with this new situation:

  1. Shabbat – Even for the most thoroughgoing secular Jew, Shabbat can be an antidote to the foggy “What day is this?” feeling. It can be a night for a nicer-than-usual meal, or an easier-than-usual meal, followed by a day of a change in routine. Shabbat can be about permission: permission to not work, permission to abandon the algebra puzzle, permission to watch a movie together. Synagogues everywhere are streaming services online – you can visit a different synagogue in a different city every week, or reconnect with a familiar community near home. Shabbat runs on Jewish time, sundown to sundown; we begin with candles and finish by looking for three stars before Havdalah.
  2. Shabbat can be nontraditional. If traditional ideas about Shabbat have bad connotations for you, try some variations on a theme. Maybe Shabbat is the day for a long walk around the neighborhood (socially distanced, natch.) Maybe it’s the time for a No-Nagging Zone. Shabbat can be the day to look for tiny miracles.
  3. Shabbat routines – Shabbat can give shape to the days before and after, too. Since Friday night is Shabbat, have a Thursday night or Friday morning routine to get ready for Shabbat. It might be preparing to make challah – or it might be something as simple as cleaning the kitchen and setting out the Shabbat candles. Use the post-Shabbat “burst of energy” to get chores or work done.
  4. Jewish learning opportunities abound during these weeks of #StayAtHome, and many of them do not require Hebrew or any prior knowledge. I am offering free classes on Saturday mornings and Thursday nights, and HAMAQOM is offering a Spring Festival of Jewish Learning – free tastes of our offerings via Zoom. If you’ve always wanted to learn some Hebrew, there are apps for that and online programs for it as well.
  5. Jewish values and mitzvot can inform how we treat one another in the home. Kindness (chesed) is a Jewish value. Caring for the body (shomer haguf) is a Jewish value, everything from brushing our teeth to getting exercise. Here is a list of 50 mitzvot, most of which have analogs in this time of pandemic. Oh, yes. and did you know that hand-washing can be a mitzvah and there is even a blessing for it?

Most of all, Jewish history gives me hope. Our people have been through horrific difficulties over the centuries, and we have endured. This is the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, but it is only one of many plagues our people have survived, from the last terrible plague in Egypt, through the Black Death, influenza, smallpox, polio and now this. Our customs and values got us through those, as a people if not always as individuals, and they will get us through COVID-19 as well.

We do not have ruby slippers to carry us back to a happier time, alas. What we do have are the tools to survive this moment in history. Lean into your Judaism, and make your home even more a Jewish home, a little sanctuary, a safe haven in a dangerous world.

A Jew on Christmas Day

Image: My neighbor’s house is amazing. (Photo by Adar.)

My neighbor’s house is amazing, like a branch office of Disneyland.

My house has a menorah in the window. One of our poodles is mesmerized by the menorah; we don’t know why.

Many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that most of us have time off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food.

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by and see their Christmas tree.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

May be new secular year be a year in which we have the courage to see new ways of listening and talking, walking and running.

May we have courage. May we have heart. May we have strength.

May we remember this feeling of being the Other the next time we are tempted to Other another.

Amen.

(Adapted from a previous post, in a different year. Time flies, and things change.)

A Letter to Mr. Khruchchev: Remembering President Kennedy

Image: JFK and Nikita Khruchchev in 1961. Public Domain.

It’s 56 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. I remember it vividly, even though I was a very small girl then.

Writing a different blog post for this day some years ago, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination. It struck me as having a special resonance today, after a week of impeachment hearings and memories of impeachment hearings past. It strikes me that while we are not as worried about nuclear war as we were back then, that we are in a war of words here in the United States. This war of words and of versions of the truth threatens the fabric of our democracy. Mrs. Kennedy’s words still stand: It is possible to be allied in pursuit of peace even when we are on different sides.

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

In Memoriam

Image: A white rose at the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. ( Wallula / Pixabay)

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we will soon read as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that individual stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.

This is an edited repost of an earlier message on this blog.

Meet The Great Organizer

Image: Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, a slide shown at the 2019 Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Cincinnati, OH, March 2019.

In 1889, Rabbi Isaac M. Wise decided that America’s rabbis needed to organize. He founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical association of which I am a member. The year the rabbis of the CCAR are celebrating the 150th years of existence.

Sometimes people wonder why Cincinnati became the headquarters for HUC and the CCAR. Why not New York, or at least Los Angeles or Chicago? All are bigger cities. The answer is actually pretty simple: this is where Rabbi Wise was living, as rabbi for the Lodge Street Synagogue, and then later for the Plum Street Synagogue. He was truly the Great Organizer: he founded not only the first rabbinical school on the continent, but also a rabbinical association and the organization of synagogues that would support his school, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.

The entire body of American rabbis did not stay under one umbrella for long. Some rabbis had already set up the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, feeling that Rabbi Wise was teaching far too liberal a stance at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. By 1901, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) began as an alumni association of JTS, and in 1923 the modern orthodox rabbis on the continent formed the Rabbinical Council of America.

Rabbi Wise originally envisioned American Judaism as a unified expression of rabbinic Judaism. His vision was both too bold and, as it turned out, too limited: American Judaism is far too diverse to be contained under one roof, and I for one think that is a healthy thing.

For a more complete biography of Rabbi Wise, check out the article about him at the American Jewish Archives.