Chatati

Image: In ancient times we used a scapegoat to atone for our sins. Now we just have to take responsibility for ourselves. A little goat.

Chatati means “I sinned.” I intended to delete an abandoned draft (4 Rabbis) and accidentally published it. Then I deleted it. And now my regular readers are wondering where the new post went!

I am very sorry. Rabbi Adar’s Adventures in Bloggerland continue. I shall be more careful going forward!

Have You Had Your Flu Shot?

V0016569 Mr. Punch wrapped up in blankets in front of the fire, eatin

Image: 19th c cartoon by John Leech, “Mr. Punch has the Flu.”Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.”

4,605 people died of flu in the United States in 2014 but less than half of the adults in the U.S. were vaccinated against the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some will say, “It’s a personal choice.” You doctor will likely say that it’s a personal choice. Your local conspiracy buff may tell you it’s all a plot.

However, under Jewish tradition, it’s a mitzvah – a commandment – that we get a flu shot unless there are strong reasons against it, such as an egg allergy.

“Where are flu shots in the Torah?” I imagine someone asking indignantly. Well, here are some places:

You shall watch your lives very well. – Deuteronomy 4:15

Torah insists that we care for our bodies, that they are gifts of God. Flu is more likely to kill infants, old people, and people with suppressed immune systems, but has also killed people in otherwise good health. Flu is mostly preventable.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone fall from there. – Deuteronomy 22:8

We are commanded not only to preserve our own lives, but to prevent death or injury to others. While this commandment specifically has to do with a roof hazard, the rabbis interpreted it to mean that anytime we become aware of a risk associated with our home or our persons, we have to do something about it. Think about the people you contact every day: are any of them very young, very old, or immunity compromised? Are any of them caretakers or visitors to such persons? Then your case of mild flu could put someone vulnerable at risk of serious illness or death.

I once worked as a chaplain in a nursing home. Someone – we never knew who – came to visit while they contagious with a slight flu. (It had to be slight, because the nurses were ferocious about visitors who looked sick.) Over the next few days, it was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallways; resident after resident sickened and died. Likely the person who brought the bug in never knew what they had done.

I get my flu shot every year. I strongly recommend that you get yours, unless there is a very good medical reason against it. We never know whose life, whose family we might preserve.

 

 

I Think My Friend is an Antisemite!

I thImage: A cholla cactus in bloom. Photo from pixabay.com.

Someone found this blog by typing “A friend of mine turned out to be antisemitic. How do I handle that?”

Ouch. It’s never pleasant to learn about potential conflict with a friend. I am assuming that this is someone you believe to be a friend, not a boss, a casual acquaintance, or someone on Twitter. Here are some thoughts about addressing the situation with a friend:

1. Find out more. Maybe you have misunderstood. But even if you heard right, there’s more to learn. Ask, “What makes you say that?” or “Why do you feel that way?” After all, maybe they hate “pews,” not “Jews.” (Sometimes it is good for people to listen to themselves, too. Your inquiry offers them a chance for self- reflection.)

2. Listen carefully. Did you hear right? Second, if indeed their words were antisemitic, find out what’s going on. Are they speaking out of ignorance or out of malice? Do they merely need better information, or are we talking about deep-set Jew hating?

3. Respect the person. Escalating to rage won’t teach or persuade. Calling names won’t help things. If they have bad info, say you disagree with their information, and offer a source for better info. Remember, this person is also made in the image of the Divine, even if they have just said something dreadful.

4. You can be honest. Tell them how you feel. Exactly what that is will depend on your emotions. “Hearing your words, I am angry / sad / hurt / speechless / etc” Again, don’t call names. This is assuming they are a friend; if so, they care how you feel.

5. If the problem is ignorance, offer information. You don’t have to be the educator: point them to a blog like this one or a book or a rabbi. Do not say, “Google it.” Google can lead to some dreadful misinformation, up to and including neo-Nazi sites.

6. If they really hate Jews, ask yourself if you can be friends. Personally, I could not be friends with someone who thought I was sub-human or evil. This also goes for someone who insists the most Jews are unacceptable but I am “different.” I’d have to tell them I was disappointed in them and then dust myself off and move on. Your decision is up to you.

7. Talk it out. Whatever the outcome, it’s an unpleasant experience. Have a chat with a trusted friend or your rabbi. A good talk will help you shake it off.

P.S. I wrote this post assuming that the person asking is a Jew or a member of a Jewish community. If you are not Jewish, these steps may also work for you. Alternatively you could say, “Dude. Do you have any idea how antisemitic you just sounded?” and see where the conversation goes from there.

O Daughters, My Mothers!

Image: Five sisters sitting on a beach. Public domain.

Recently I received a question from  a reader asking me why I am a Reform Jew. The best answer I can give to that question appears in Parashat Pinchas:

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said,  “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons.  Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.  And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Numbers 27:1-11

Take a moment and read the passage closely. It begins with the five women, and identifies them as the daughters of Zelophehad, with a genealogy explaining precisely who they are. Then we get their individual names.

It is a moment of high theater: the five women stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the stage upon which great dramas happen in the Torah narrative. They are not summoned there; they take a stand. They take that stand before Moses, before Eleazar, before the leaders of the clans, and before the people.

Then they state their case: their father is dead. He was not a follower of Korach but died because he sinned, and he had no sons. Then they state the problem: under the inheritance laws as they stood, their father’s name would be forgotten, and they would be left without an inheritance, (therefore unmarriageable.) Then they ask directly for what they want: “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses has no answer for them; they have raised a problem he has not considered, so he takes their case before God. And God says something amazing: God says the women are right! And God sets out a revised version of the inheritance laws.

But this is not the last we hear of the daughters of Zelophehad. Indeed, all of Chapter 36 is devoted to the issue they raised:

The heads of the ancestral houses of the clans of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, of the Josephite clans, came forward and spoke in the presence of Moses and the leaders, the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelites; they said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the Israelites; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. But if they are married into another Israelite tribe, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestors and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so it will be taken away from the allotted portion of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the Israelites comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they have married; and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestral tribe.”

Then Moses commanded the Israelites according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The descendants of the tribe of Joseph are right in what they are saying. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, ‘Let them marry whom they think best; only it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married, so that no inheritance of the Israelites shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for all Israelites shall retain the inheritance of their ancestral tribes.  Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the Israelites shall marry one from the clan of her father’s tribe, so that all Israelites may continue to possess their ancestral inheritance.  No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the Israelites shall retain its own inheritance.’”

The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord had commanded Moses.  Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married sons of their father’s brothers. They were married into the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.

These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. – Numbers 36: 1-13.

Again, read closely: The uncles and cousins of the daughters of Zelophehad come forward with a new problem. God’s solution to the daughters’ problem was going to cause their tribe to lose land to other tribes. You can practically hear the men crying out, “Not fair!”

Moses again asks God what to do, and God revisits the revised decree. Now the daughters may inherit, but if they marry they must marry within the clan, to prevent the problem raised by the uncles and cousins. The daughters of Zelophehad – again listed by name, unlike their male relatives – agree to the revision.

There are several things that strike me in this narrative, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the fact that Torah law is presented as something that can change to address human needs. In fact, the text seems to be saying that God didn’t think of everything; there were some issues that the original Torah failed to address.  In this text, God isn’t troubled by imperfection in Torah. God revises and then revises again until everyone’s needs are met.

I am the first to admit that this is a radical reading of the text. An orthodox reader would point out to me that humans petition and God makes the revisions; the humans don’t make changes willy-nilly. I would counter to that that in this stage of Israel’s existence, one could do as the Daughters did and march up to the Tent of Meeting and get a meeting with God. This is a privilege unique to that generation.

Later generations would deal with issues like this in other ways: one of the most famous such questions is addressed in the story of Akhnai’s Oven:

The rabbis are disputing whether a particular design of oven is ritually clean or unclean. Rabbi Eliezer, a great scholar, says, “Clean” but the rest say “Unclean.” Each side calls upon miracles and wonders, but neither side will give in. Rabbi Eliezer is supported by a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, which argues that Rabbi Eliezer is always right. Rabbi Joshua retorts by quoting Torah, “It is not in heaven!” And a later rabbi tells us what he meant by that, that the Torah was given, and after that, the rule follows the majority (human) opinion! And then God laughs, saying, “My children have defeated me!” (a paraphrase of Bava Metzia 59a-b)

Why am I a Reform Jew? Because the Torah itself tells us that not all cases are covered in the Written Torah! And the Oral Torah tells us that not all cases are decided and final, either. Sometimes we learn better. Sometimes we get new information. Sometimes a situation comes up that needs a new answer.

Does this mean, as some critics of Reform say, that Reform Jews believe in nothing? Nonsense. I and other observant Reform Jews do our best to live Torah out to the best of our understanding, in the light of study and the whole body of Jewish tradition.

Does this mean, as some critics would say, that there are Reform Jews who use the flexibility of Reform to justify doing exactly as they please, with no reference to tradition? Sure, just as there are Orthodox and Conservative Jews who use the practice of teshuvah [repentance] as a license to do whatever they please in the moment. It’s no better to say, “I will repent on Yom Kippur” than it is to say, “I’m Reform, I can do what I want” – if anything, it’s worse, because the former is explicitly forbidden. We cannot have a reasonable discussion about these things by comparing the worst of one group with the best of another.

I am a Reform Jew. I believe that God gave us Torah along with the freedom to wrestle with its puzzles. I am not free to “do what I want.” I am free to struggle, as Jews have always struggled, to stay on a path towards holiness described by the sometimes mysterious words of Torah. I am going to be wrong sometimes; I accept that. I will do my best, informed by my study and my reflections with my Jewish community.

I believe, in fact, that the early sages – those gentlemen arguing about Ahknai’s Oven! – were doing exactly the same thing, trying to carve out a path towards holiness through the wilderness of the world. Their decisions were not always “the halakhah” [Jewish law] – as the bat kol pointed out, the halakhah always followed Rabbi Eliezer. Their decisions were what they deemed the best path at their time in history.

At our best, we do our best, whatever our understanding of Torah. Whenever I am perplexed, I return to the words of the prophet Micah:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

[God] has told you, Human, what is good, and what the Holy One requires of you: to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

Help: the Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

Image: A Reform prayer book. Photo by Linda Burnett.

A reader asked:

Please, PLEASE post about whether us disabled people who can follow along more easily via electronic devices than by hoisting heavy (for some of us) books is OK. Since reading your posts on this subject, I’ve been feeling like I have been a nasty, red carbuncle in the congregation when I’ve shown up to worship alongside my loved one who has an upcoming bat mitzvah, and I’ve actually held back from going at all. I don’t want to be a blot on my loved one’s special day when that day comes!

Congratulations on the upcoming bat mitzvah service!

There’s no problem with using a tablet or smartphone app on a weekday. It would be rude to check email or follow the stock market in services, but of course it is fine to use a prayer book app or a  Tanakh/Chumash app.

Shabbat is different. For a “Shomer shabbes” Jew, using such a thing in synagogue on Shabbat would be deeply offensive. Your options break down by movement:

Reform: There are several good apps available for a Chumash (Torah portions and readings from the prophets.) If anyone questions your use of the tablet, just explain that it’s due to a disability and that should be the end of it. (As for the siddur, I’ve been informed that there’s a problem with the app, but I’m going to research that and update asap.) There is also a small, lightweight “Traveler’s Edition” of Mishkan Tefilah available.

Some congregations project the pages of the siddur and other service materials on the front wall or a screen. If the synagogue offers that sort of arrangement, you’re in luck!

Conservative and Modern Orthodox: They are unlikely to be open to the use of electronics on Shabbat, but if you call ahead and speak with the rabbi, it may well be that they have alternative accommodations to offer. One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, reminded me that there are pocket-sized siddurim (prayer books) easily available, and perhaps getting your own lightweight copy is an answer. Certainly you can ask to use one at the synagogue, if you don’t own one.

Renewal and Reconstructionist: Call ahead and ask; the answer will differ from place to place.

When I made the original post (More Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests) I was thinking of the people who come to a bar mitzvah and pull out the phone out of habit and begin checking email. That’s very offensive, and would be so on any day of the week. Using a tablet to follow the service is in the same category with using an electric wheelchair, and is OK on a weekday anywhere, and on Shabbat in some synagogues but not others.

In synagogues where using a tablet or smartphone isn’t an option on Shabbat, and there’s no lightweight option available, I’d arrange to sit next to an able bodied person who is willing to share, to hold their book where you can see it. You will then have the added bonus of a knowledgeable page turner, which can be quite helpful. Since one cannot know who is able by looking at them,  I’d phone ahead (WELL ahead)  to the synagogue and ask if they might be able to find a volunteer.

Another option: if you are not familiar with the service, you may find the prayer book more frustration than help, anyway. Give yourself the option of simply sitting and listening. If someone presses a prayer book on you, just say, “No, thank you.” There are many ways to be in a Jewish service – for more about that, see New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners.

I hope that you are able to find arrangements that work for you, so that you can enjoy the occasion.

Meeting a Rabbi About Conversion

A reader wrote to me and asked: “Tomorrow I’m going to meet with a rabbi to ask about conversion. How should I prepare for that meeting?”

First of all, you’re on the right track! Meeting with a rabbi is the first step on a path to conversion. You may have been reading and studying, you may even have been going to services, but until you meet with a rabbi, it’s all academic.

As for “preparing” – Just go and be yourself. If you can speak the words, “I’m interested in conversion to Judaism,” that’s good enough. The rabbi can help you from there.

Some things to know:

  1. There is a very old tradition in which rabbis send a person who inquires about conversion away three times before actually having the conversation. While I don’t know of any Reform rabbis who currently follow that tradition, you may encounter a rabbi who does. On the other hand, if the rabbi says, “I don’t do conversions” then ask for a referral – or just go find another rabbi yourself.
  2. If you get what seems like a lukewarm welcome, understand that this, too, is part of the tradition. Jews don’t proselytize, and we have been on the receiving end of many efforts to convert us. Therefore we tend to hang back and not get too excited when someone says, “Hi! I want to be a Jew!” You aren’t unwanted. We just want to make sure it’s what you really want. Persist.
  3. No rabbi is going to rush to sign you up for conversion. It’s a very serious step. This first meeting is just that – a first meeting. Even if you choose to work with this rabbi, you have at least a year of studying and living Jewishly before an actual conversion.
  4. You do not have to convert with the first rabbi you meet. If you are comfortable with that rabbi, great. If you aren’t comfortable, then maybe this rabbi isn’t the right rabbi. Try another one. We’re all different.
  5. Questions are OK. Questions are encouraged.

I wish you the very best with your first meeting, and with your journey, wherever it takes you!

Progressive Judaism: A View from Tradition

Photo by Michal Patelle (Women of the Wall) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A reader asks: “How can I defend progressive Jewish views?”

I can’t tell you why you are a progressive Jew, if you are one. All I can tell you is why I am a progressive Jew. I will start out by explaining my idea of how Jewish history works.

Judaism has adapted as it has moved through history. Biblical Judaism gave way to Rabbinic Judaism, with stops along the way to argue about Greek ideas (kept some, ditched others). Rabbinic Judaism emerged out of the chaos and disaster of the revolts against Rome. Judaism was fairly unified for a while, as the Geonim ruled from Babylon, but as centers of learning came into being in Spain, in Germany, and in Egypt, rules for Jewish practice began to differentiate by region into Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi Judaism.

Occasionally a group of Jews would decide that the Messiah had arrived. Some, like the proto-Christian Jews, spun off into new religions. Others, like the followers of Shabbati Zevi, were horribly disappointed when he proved to be merely an ordinary man (he eventually converted to Islam, in fact.)

One of the interesting things about Judaism is that we keep careful records of our disagreements. The Talmud is a huge library of disagreement, carefully preserving minority opinions. Disputation is one of the ways we train our rabbis: go into any rabbinical school (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or nondenominational) and you will hear disagreements going on, sometimes very loud, passionate ones. Machlochet [debate] is a process, and it is the way we get at the deeper meanings in Torah.

I trust the process of Jewish history. I do not know what Judaism will look like 500 years from now. I trust, though, that by participating in Jewish life in my own time, I am helping to move towards Jewish life in the future. Some Reform ideas have been pretty bad. We really blew it when some of us tried to move Shabbat to Sunday. Other Reform ideas have caught on with much of the rest of the Jewish world: egalitarianism is looking to be a success. Many  Orthodox Jewish women are now studying Talmud, and some of them are serving in leadership roles in Orthodox communities.  This was unthinkable 100 years ago, and who knows how the role of women in Judaism will develop over the next century?

Progressive Judaism (in its various forms) is only one part of the larger Jewish world. We, along with the various forms of Orthodoxy, are engaged in a process of scholarship, experimentation, testing, and development, moving toward the Jewish future. It’s not that any one movement or party is “best” or “true” Judaism. We’re all part of a work in progress.

Personally, I look at the rabbis of the Mishnah: Hillel, Rabbi Akiva and Yochanan ben Zakkai, and I appreciate the great creative spirit they brought into birthing Rabbinic Judaism. I think the best of the Reform movement echoes that spirit. They, too, made mistakes (horrible ones, sometimes) and that was part of the process. However, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism (and most recently, the Renewal Movement!) bring their own emphases and values to the discussion; without them, we’d be lost.

My guess is that in the future, Jews will continue to differ on what it means to live a life of Torah. To me, that’s what keeps Torah, and Judaism, alive.

 

A question for discussion: Which modern-day movement or understanding of Judaism is home for you? If you are a progressive Jew, why? If you are Orthodox, why?