Ask the Rabbi: Gluten Free?

Image: Symbol for “Gluten Free” – a picture of wheat with a big red NO symbol across it. (Image by Kurious from Pixabay)

The exact question was as follows, from someone who is exploring Judaism but is not Jewish:

I am a celiac with MCAS, and cannot participate in the bread and wine. Who do you have that conversation with? Especially if you haven’t converted yet and are “just exploring.”

@pfanderson on Twitter

My experience of Ashkenazi Jewish communities is that in general, we love to talk about medical issues. From a hospitality point of view, that is sometimes a bit of a problem when guests (or members!) feel that others’ questions are a bit too probing.

My suggestion is that you say, “No, thank you.” The offer-er will often urge you to have some (we can’t let you go hungry!) and then you have a choice. Either you can say, “No, really, thanks” and preserve your privacy or you can say, “Do you have gluten free?” They can likely give you grape or apple juice instead of wine if you like, and some synagogues will offer a gluten-free substitute for the bread.

If you choose to disclose your dietary needs, they will assume that you have a medically-limited diet, and that’s when the chatty-about-medical-stuff thing will kick in. Feel free not to play, or to play if you enjoy it. It is perfectly OK to say, “I only discuss my medical situation with my doctor.”

Now, as to bread and wine: In some Christian churches, bread and wine/grape juice are served as a ritual for members only, called “communion.” This is not the case at synagogue: the bread is just bread and it is for everyone. The blessing before the bread acknowledges that bread is a gift of God. The blessing before the wine may be a short blessing acknowledging that God brought wine from the fruit or, if it’s long and musical, it’s a toast to Shabbat. Either way, you are welcome to participate, if you are able to have the juice option, which should always be available.

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Mourning a Non-Jewish Parent

Image: Candle flame. (Public domain)

I converted pretty late in life. My parents are long gone, and I’ve never been sure whether or not I should observe their yahrzeits. Both were gentiles. What do you think?

– A Reader

Great question! When a Jew has Jewish parents, they normally have an obligation to bury the parents, say kaddish for them, mourn them for a year, and then observe their yahrzeit in following years. Yahrzeit is the Ashkenazi word for the anniversary of a person’s death, and we observe it by lighting a candle, saying kaddish with a minyan, and giving tzedakah in their memory. The corresponding name in the Sephardic tradition is nahalah.

A Jew is not obligated to say kaddish for a non-Jewish parent. However, they may observe all Jewish mourning practices for them if they so choose. Thus the answer to your question, “Should I observe their yahrzeits?” is that you have no obligation to observe them. However, you are permitted to observe them if you wish.

In making your decision, a Jew should consider related mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:11.) Even then, there is no single answer. I have known Jews who chose to observe yahrzeits for their parents out of love and respect for the parents’ memories. I have also known Jews who did not observe yahrzeits for their parents because they believed the parents would not have wanted it, so out of respect they do not observe.

Jewish mourning practices have developed over many centuries. There is a deep wisdom in providing mourners with a fixed process through which they can mourn with support, and then emerge back into ordinary life. Some losses are profound, and for those, having periodic brief times of mourning such as yahrzeit and Yizkor can provide comfort even years after a death.

In general, I advise gerei tzedek [converts] to observe Jewish mourning practices for non-Jewish relatives unless they have strong objections to doing so. Mourning is no time to separate oneself from the community. Like every other Jew, the ger tzedek has a right to the comfort and support that Jewish mourning practice can provide.

Ask the Rabbi: Jews and Tattoos

Image: Person getting a tattoo on their forearm. (Aamir Mohd Khan /Pixabay

“Rabbi, I have heard that if a person has a tattoo, they cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Is that true?”

The textual reference for this bit of misinformation is a line in Leviticus, from the Holiness Code:

You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Eternal.

Leviticus 19:28

This was originally likely a reference to outside religious practices in the ancient Near East, although the specifics have been lost to history. Many of our ritual practices, both “do’s” and “don’ts” served to distinguish the People of the God of Israel from their neighbors. Similarly, the previous verse commands:

You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.

Leviticus 19:27

Just as there are some Jews who observe the side-growth mitzvah [sacred duty] by wearing peyot [side locks] there are Jews who would never, ever get a tattoo. However, there are many Jews with non-kosher haircuts, and a number of Jews with tattoos they got for beautification or for medical reasons.

So yes, there is a traditional Jewish aversion to body art, including tattoos. This aversion has been heightened by the experience of forcible tattooing of Jews during the Holocaust.

Jewish tradition sees the body as a holy vessel in which we are embodied in the world, and through which we carry out mitzvot. We should therefore care for our bodies and treat them with respect. In the last twenty years it has become common for people to view tattoos as a form of beautification, or as an art form, and some have even used this art form to express their devotion to Judaism or Jewish values.

It is possible that somewhere in the world there is a Jewish cemetery with a “NO TATTOOS” rule. However, I am not aware of such a cemetery, and I would be surprised to find such a place. The commandment to bury a body respectfully overrides the aversion to markings, precisely because we put such a high value on caring for the body, in death as well as in life.

So let the myth be debunked: your tattoo’ed body can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. In the meantime, concern yourself with using that body to do some mitzvot!

P.S. – If you are considering getting a tattoo in Hebrew, please proceed with caution. Unless you have an observer who knows Hebrew, it is very easy for a non-Hebrew-speaking tattoo artist to get a design backwards, upside down, or misspelled. Better yet, study Hebrew yourself, then get the tattoo.

How Does One Become a Rabbi?

Image: HUC Ordination, New York Campus (Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion)

I got a message recently asking, “I think I might like to be a rabbi. How does one become a rabbi?”

Here is what is involved in becoming a Reform rabbi. Other movements have similar processes, although I don’t know the details of those programs. (Perhaps some reader who is an Orthodox, Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi will help us out, in the comments.)

  1. Language studies. As part of the application to Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, I had to pass a written Hebrew exam demonstrating that I had the equivalent of a year of college Hebrew.
  2. Application to the school. It was a lot like a grad school application, except that there was also a psychological evaluation, and I needed to get a recommendation from my rabbi. (That included the unspoken assumption that I had a rabbi.) I traveled to the campus in Cincinnati for an interview with the admissions committee, who asked a lot of questions about my personal life and my plans for my life as a rabbi.
  3. Finances. If they said yes, then I was responsible for my expenses including tuition for a minimum of five years [according to the website, those are currently expected to be slightly over $50.000 a year, minus any financial aid]. Most of my class had a mix of financial aid and loans; many had quite a bit of student debt by ordination. There is no “part-time study” option; the assumption is that rabbinical study is a full time, 24/7 commitment.
  4. Year in Jerusalem. Upon acceptance, I was expected to make arrangements for a year of study in Jerusalem. I was single, but I was welcome to bring spouse (if I had one) and children with me. I left my cat with my best friend, kissed my college-age kids, sold my house and furniture, and got on a plane to Tel Aviv. I spent the year at HUC Jerusalem doing intensive study of Modern Hebrew, learning the fine points of Biblical Hebrew grammar, learning the services for weekdays and holidays, and getting a crash education in Israeli life, history, and culture.
  5. Four years minimum full time study at a stateside campus. I attended the Los Angeles campus; there are also HUC campuses in Cincinnati and New York. All rabbinical students take a regular course load of classes in Jewish texts and traditions, as well as professional courses in pastoral counseling, etc. They also work at internships, either serving small congregations or in other settings. I served a congregation in the Central Valley, worked for a year as a chaplain intern at a facility for Jewish elders, and served the congregation for the deaf in the San Fernando Valley. In my case, four years was not enough; for a variety of reasons, I chose to study in Los Angeles for five years instead of four.
  6. Ordination. At the end of the stateside study, if the faculty agrees, one is ordained to the rabbinate. Employment is not guaranteed: candidates enter the “placement” process and are interviewed by those congregations and institutions that are hiring. Most graduates find full time employment, but not all.

This is a process that requires a lot: sacrifices in time, finances, and much more. I had been to graduate school once already, and thought that rabbinical school would be similar. It was as demanding and much more: rabbinical school challenged me academically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. (Granted, I was 48 when I entered, and most of my classmates were in their 20’s.)

As I said before, the Conservative and Reconstructionist schools are similar. There are also nondenominational schools with programs that are more flexible. There are schools that require less of students, for instance, by not requiring time in Israel or allowing for part-time study. However, there is no reputable school that confers ordination without demanding some serious effort and long term commitment from students. For a look at some other schools and programs, this 2014 article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency may be helpful.

Ask the Rabbi: “I’m studying for conversion, and the rise in anti-Semitism scares me.”

Image: My Jewish congregational family, gathered in the shelter of a chuppah for a blessing. (Photo: Temple Sinai website.)

“Dear Rabbi Adar, I’ve been studying for conversion for the past several months, and the rise in anti-Semitism really scares me.”

The questions usually arrive without question marks. It’s not hard to see the question in there: “What am I getting myself into?” or even “Why would any sane person sign up to be part of a people who are so hated?”

When I get these notes, I try to answer honestly: Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s getting worse. No, I don’t know what will happen in the future.

The other thing I emphasize is that this is not a test. It is OK to be scared. It is OK to say, this is too scary and it’s not for me. It is also OK to say, yes, it’s scary but I choose to continue on the path to Judaism.

One of the things my rabbi said to me when I was a candidate back in the 1990’s has stuck with me ever since: “You don’t have to become a Jew for us to think you are a good person. You are already a good person, without conversion.” What pushed me forward was my own desire, my own need to become part of the Jewish family.

I have never regretted becoming a Jew. I give thanks every morning that God has made me a Jew, and the Jewish people were willing to have me. At the same time, I won’t lie: we are living through a frightening time in history. Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence are a part of American life at the moment.

The last thing I say to people who send me these notes is: Go talk to your rabbi. Tell them about your feelings and confusion. You will not flunk Judaism for saying that you are uncertain. It is in confronting those fears that we sort out who we want to be, what we want for our children, what we want for our descendants. There is no single right answer, only the answer deep in your own heart.

Go sit with the Jews, when you feel shaky. It may seem counterintuitive, but as a people, we draw strength from one another. When bad things happen, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than with my mishpakhah, with my Jewish family. Whether that’s in my synagogue, or someone else’s synagogue, or at teh Jewish Film Festival, I feel better when I am surrounded by my people – and that’s how I know for sure that they are, indeed, my people.

How Can a Non-Jew Comfort a Jew?

Image: Two people hold hands, one comforting the other. (Pixabay)

Someone reached the blog today with a great question: “How can a non-Jew comfort a Jew in a time of —?” Unfortunately, the line was cut off, but I still love the question.

The main way that Jews comfort one another is with presence. That means we spend time with the person who is suffering. If they are nearby, we might actually be physically present with them; if they are far away, we might do it with a phone call or a card.

“But what do I SAY?” I can imagine the questioner asking me.

If the trouble is grief over the death of a loved one (or for that matter, a pet) we say very little. In fact, it is a tradition is Judaism to speak to mourners only when they speak first. Instead, we spend time with them, we feed them, we do housework for them, we help keep life going for them.

Things not to say: “He’s in a better place,” “She’s with Jesus now,” “You’ll get over it.” We assume that death is a terrible blow to the bereaved, and accept that some people do not ever completely heal from some losses. We do not necessarily believe in an afterlife (we might, or might not) and theological discussions are a bad idea at such a time. Instead, just be present to the person – comfort them with the fact that you are still their friend.

If the trouble is something else, it is still good to stay away from theology. “It’s all part of God’s plan” is actually not very comforting to a lot of people, not only Jews. Instead, try, “I’m here for you.”

Be careful with offers of prayer. It is fine to offer to keep someone in your prayers but it may be misunderstood. For some Jews, there is an echo of being prosetylized at in the past. Offering to pray with a Jew is best done with silent prayer. Jews do not pray in Jesus’ name.

Be very slow to give advice. In fact, don’t give advice unless the person asks for it. If you are bursting with excellent advice, ask first: “Would you like my advice?” and if the answer is no, back off. I know, it’s hard, but one of the ways to be a really good friend is to not give advice when it isn’t wanted.

Comforting a Jew is very much like comforting a non-Jew. We’re all human. Life is sometimes hard. What is more comforting than anything is the warmth of human presence and an extended hand.

Ceremonial Handwashing for Jews?

Image: A person washing hands with soap in a white sink. (Shutterstock 2604171440)

A reader asked: “I was recently at the home of friends for Shabbat dinner, and they all trooped into the kitchen to wash their hands before the blessing for bread. They washed with a funny two-handled cup in the sink, and mumbled a blessing as they did it. What was going on?”

Reader, what you saw was netilat yadayim, the washing of hands. There are specific moments in Jewish life when we wash our hands. In Reform households that observe this mitzvah, you’ll most often see it as handwashing before the blessing for bread (motzi) with a meal.

The blessing you heard was as follows:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-Is, who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.

The procedure is to remove rings, then pour the water over each hand with the cup. A natlah, or two-handled cup may be used for this purpose. Then the person dries their hands and they may refill the cup for the next person coming. Some individuals simply use the tap for washing.

Jews practice ritual handwashing at the following times:

  1. Before breaking and blessing bread made with the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye) (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
  2. Upon rising from sleep (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
  3. When leaving a cemetery
  4. When leaving the bathroom
  5. After touching the private parts
  6. Before prayer
  7. Before the the Kohanim (priests) bless the people in synagogue

Why the ritual handwashing? The Torah verse usually cited as the source is in Leviticus:

Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15:11

It is part of a passage about the treatment of persons who have discharges from their bodies, and the verse is taken as an asmachta, a hint, that rinsing one’s hands is a mitzvah. Centuries later, with the advent of germ theory, we learned that regular handwashing is indeed a very good idea.

Taking time to wash my hands thoroughly and mindfully was required when I was a chaplain, so that I would not spread disease from one patient to another. I soon learned that it gave me an opportunity to pause and clear my mind between encounters with people.

It is another Jewish practice that can enrich my life by slowing me down a bit. Now I wash with soap and water and scrubbing (more effective than a ritual pour) but it is a spiritual discipline with measurable effects in the real world, a mitzvah because it prevents the spread of dirt and disease.

This video, from the Jewish Living Series of the Perelman Jewish Day School, demonstrates the traditional ritual of handwashing before the blessing over bread.