Passing the Torah

Rabbi Steve Chester passes the Torah to me (again) at ordination (5/18/08)
Rabbi Steve Chester passes the Torah to me (again) at ordination (5/18/08)

When I watch the passing of the Torah at a bar or bat mitzvah,

I wonder: Who passes the Torah to me?

My father was Irish Catholic,
and my mother a Catholic who was once a Presbyterian.
My name is Ruth bat Avraham v’Sarah
But Abraham and Sarah died a long time ago.
I have no family stories about Passover.
Like Ruth, I’m here only because I wanted to be.
Who passes the Torah to me?

When I approached a rabbi about conversion
He gently suggested we study together
And passed the Torah to me.

When my first Hebrew teacher patiently
guided me right to left through the aleph-bet
She passed the Torah to me.

When I shivered in the water of the mikveh
and the cantor led me through the blessings
She passed the Torah to me.

When I talked for an hour with the Beit Din
When the Torah study class showed me how Jews study Bible
When the Talmud group welcomed me for discussions and stories
When an Israeli acquaintance corrected my Hebrew
When my study partner clapped a kippah on my head
They passed the Torah to me.

When a little girl showed me how to tear the challah
When a woman offered me my first taste of a Hillel sandwich
When the guy at the bakery said, “Shabbat Shalom!”
When a committee chair said to me, “Here, you can do this.”
When friends shared recipes and stories and customs
They passed the Torah to me.

If it takes a village to raise a child
It takes a congregation to raise a convert:

We pass the Torah from hand to hand
and make sure all the Jews who want can hold it:
can write it on their hearts,
speak of it in their homes,
teach it to their children,
bind it on their hands,
hold it before their eyes,
and write it – in golden letters! –
on the doorposts of their gates.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar

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Can I Convert to Judaism Online?

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Jews pray and celebrate in community.

Often I get email from people who want to know if online conversion is an option. Here are my thoughts about that.

IT TAKES A JEWISH COMMUNITY TO MAKE A JEW.   I believe very strongly that conversion should take place within a Jewish community setting, probably a congregation. The process of conversion is not just about study, it’s about becoming part of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, and it’s very important that a candidate spend lots of time with Jews and get a feel for life in a Jewish community.  What if a person went through the rituals, became officially Jewish, then found out that he or she didn’t really much like Jews, or felt terminally out of place with Jews?

IT TAKES JEWISH EXPERIENCES TO MAKE A JEW.   Often people who feel drawn to Judaism first explore it by reading books and looking around online. Those are legitimate activities for learning about Judaism, but they will take you only so far. A person interested in Judaism should experience the whole range of sensory experiences that go into Jewish life: the crunch of matzah at Passover, the taste of traditional Jewish foods, the sounds of Jewish worship, the rhythms and unusual scales of Jewish music, the adrenaline of a good Torah study session. The candidate need not like all of it (I personally will never learn to like chopped liver, although I have grown fond of gifilte fish) but it’s important that experience be real, not theoretical.

IT TAKES TIME TO MAKE A JEW. Sometimes people want to know “how long does it take?” The answer to that is that it takes as long as it takes. Study begins with a class or with a rabbi without a fixed goal. The process of study may end with conversion, or it may be a step along some other journey that the candidate is taking. Until both the rabbi and the student are sure that Judaism is the only possible destination, options stay open. Most rabbis like for a student to experience Jewish life for at least a full year’s cycle (there’s that “experience” word again) to see what happens. Without face-to-face contact, it’s hard to sort out what’s going on with a person, and that is critical knowledge for a rabbi working with a conversion student.

Now, you may be saying, “But I don’t want to be a synagogue Jew!  I have a different vision of my Jewish life!” And my answer to that is to say, as gently as I can, that conversion to Judaism involves a massive transition of identity – you do not know where it will take you. I did not know where it would take me. But what I do know, for sure, is that community and experiences are key to the process of becoming Jewish. We are a communal people, so much so that we don’t read Torah or say Kaddish without ten Jews present. We have Jewish Film Festivals because we like to get together to watch Jewish movies.

I am aware that there are websites advertising rabbis who will study with conversion students online. And there may be circumstances in which there is a vibrant Jewish community with which to learn but no rabbi. Perhaps in those circumstances, if there’s really no better alternative, it might work.  But I worry when I hear about online conversions. I worry that students will not get what they need and will not be adequately prepared for life as a Jew.

First, check out your local options. If there really isn’t a congregation near, is becoming Jewish so important to you that you are willing to relocate, to live near more Jews?.  Why do you want to become a Jew? And if you do become Jewish, what will you do about being Jewish, if there’s no one else with whom to celebrate holidays, or lifecycle events, or pray?

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you well on your spiritual journey!

Other People’s Opinions

Today I saw the following message on twitter:

I feel like everyone is always mentally judging moms when they’re out with their kids. Like they cannot mess up, w/o being visibly judged.

TheKnottyBride‘s tweet hit a nerve for me. I was a new mother thirty years ago when I discovered that every stranger had an opinion on my parenting. Was my baby wearing the right kind of shoes? Was I dressing him properly? Was I feeding him properly? One woman looked at me sternly and said, “You don’t want to be a Bad Mom, do you?”

Later on, I heard about it when I let the boys watch TV (Bad Mom!) and when I got rid of the TV (Bad Mom! Kids need TV or they will not be able to socialize with other kids!). I was a Bad Mom when I restricted their movie watching to only G movies (other parents said, “That’s kind of ridiculously strict!”) and when I made an exception to the rule, of course, I was a Bad Permissive Mom. When I divorced, I was definitely a Bad Mom, and as a divorced woman, I received even more unsolicited opinions.

As I’ve discussed in another post, there were a lot of folks who were sure I was a Bad Mom when I came out as a lesbian.

Eventually I learned to listen only to people I had reason to trust: our pediatrician and most of their teachers.  I had a circle of friends with whom I’d consult about parenting decisions.  I paid extra attention to parents of adults who’d turned out well. I learned to tune out everyone else. The “Bad Mom” theme became a family joke.

Later, when I became a Jew, the experience fielding other people’s opinions was handy. I converted with a rabbi who is still my model of a mensch and a rabbi. He is a Reform rabbi, so mine was a Reform conversion. I went before a beit din [rabbinical court], I immersed in the mikveh [ritual bath], and I threw in my lot with the Jewish People. I continue to grow in the observance of mitzvot, and hope to grow Jewishly until the day I die.

And yes, there are people who will insist that I am not a “real” Jew, or that I’m not as Jewish as a born Jew. I give them exactly the same amount of attention as the people who thought I was a Bad Mom. When I am having a low self-esteem day, it can get to me, but for the most part, I pay them no attention at all.

There are issues of interpretation of halakhah [Jewish law]  that I understand and accept. In Orthodox settings, most of the things that a non-Jew cannot do are forbidden to me anyway because I am a woman, so  really isn’t much of a problem. I’m already married, and I don’t expect an Orthodox rabbi to bury me.  Not all Jews understand the Covenant in the same way; I accept that. What I don’t accept is the opinion that the only “real” Jew is a born Jew.

Just as with the parenting, I have teachers and friends whom I trust.  I take their tochechot [rebukes] very seriously; I do my best to listen humbly and to make teshuvah [a return to the right path]. By doing so, I learn and grow as a human being and as a Jew.

There are people for whom I will never be a Good Mom, and people for whom I will never be Jewish Enough. It was a great and liberating day when I realized that I cannot change those people. Most of them are speaking from insecurity or some pain deep in their own souls.  It’s their problem, not mine: I can’t fix it.

So I will close by giving my own Free Advice to new moms and new Jews. In Pirkei Avot, the sage Joshua ben Perachyah says, “Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.” Find people you can trust to give you good feedback. Listen to them. As for everyone else, assume that they are being rude out of pain or insecurity or a misguided desire to help, and don’t worry about them. Do your best and LET IT GO.

Mysteries of Judaism

 

Image: A Jewish man prays from a prayer book. Photo by 777jew.

Sometimes it may feel as if Judaism is full of secret codes and handshakes, and for a newcomer, it can be overwhelming. You may have seen someone gesture over Shabbat candles, or do a little bobbing thing during prayer, or hold a tallit [prayer shawl] in an unusual way, and wondered, “Why are they doing that?”

Judaism is full of small rituals, and sometimes those little rituals can make newcomers to the community feel like outsiders. If you are the one who doesn’t know why the person you are talking with suddenly breaks out with “Pooh, pooh, pooh!” it can be alienating.

The most important thing to know about most of these is that like the many mysterious rituals of the Passover table, a lot of these rituals exist to encourage questions and discussion. They get started somehow (some we know, some we don’t) and then various explanations attach to them, and we’re off and running with a tradition. Some of these are quite lovely, for instance:

If you watch me during the section of the daily service called the Shema and its Blessings, you will notice that during a certain prayer, I gather up the corners of my tallit [prayer shawl], wrap the fringes around the fingers of my left hand, and then use that hand to cover my eyes as I say “Shema Yisrael!  Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!” [Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!]

I was taught to do that by Rabbi Ben Hollander, z”l, when I was a first year student in rabbinical school, in Jerusalem. He taught me that there are words in the prayer which refer to the gathering in of all the scattered Jews of the world, so I should gather up my fringes and hold them during the Shema, as if gathering up the Jews myself. As for covering my eyes, I do that because there is a story in the Talmud (Berakhot 13b) where Rabbi Judah the Prince covers his eyes to concentrate while he says the Shema prayer. Since then, we cover our eyes at that point – either to concentrate, or to emulate a great rabbinic soul.

Are any of these things necessary in order to be a good Jew? No.

However, when you are curious about something you see someone do, ask!  If you find the practice meaningful, you may want to adopt it yourself. Learning is a mitzvah.  Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot, “The shy will not learn.” So ASK!

At the same time, “monkey see monkey do” is not a good rule of thumb for learning Jewish ritual. For instance, there are certain places in the service where tradition dictates a bow, but it is forbidden to “multiply bowing” – so choose your role-models carefully. It’s better to do too little than too much.It is a good idea to learn why you are doing a particular piece of choreography in the service, not just to copy the person sitting in front of you. (If you are a newcomer, follow them for sitting and standing and that sort of thing. But if they suddenly start doing a lot of other stuff, just watch and ask them about it afterwards.)

If there’s a ritual you’ve seen and wanted to ask about, feel free to ask here! If I don’t know, I will have a good time looking it up or … asking someone!

P.S. – There may be things you wonder about in this article. I have tried to link each of them to a good explanation. Just click on the link to learn. If you still have questions, ask!

7 Ways to Taste Shabbat

Shabbat meal
Shabbat meal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if, for one day, we were slaves to nothing and no one?  How would our lives be different?

That is the premise of Shabbat:  the seventh day, the day of rest, the day when even God rested from the work of Creation.  The problem of Shabbat, often, is that many of us are intimidated by the idea of a full-on shomer Shabbat experience.  It’s just too much change, all at once, if you are starting at or near zero.  

Instead, I’m offering you seven options for letting a little Shabbat into your own life.  These are things that have worked for me and for my family.  They may need to be modified for you and your family.  You may only want to try ONE of them, or one of them may inspire you to your own path to Shabbat. That’s OK.

[For a more traditional set of information about Shabbat at home, there are excellent articles on My Jewish Learning.]

1.  SHABBAT DINNER.  What is dinner like at your house on an ordinary day?  What would make it better? The answer to that will differ from one household to another. What if there were candles on Friday night? What if there were agreement ahead of time that there would be no criticizing or  nagging? What if there were guests? What if no one had to cook, if it were all take-out?  What if you used the good dishes? If any of these things sound like “work” to you, don’t go there, at least at first.  Do something that makes you feel that you could say, “Tonight we are slaves to no one and nothing.”

2. TURN OFF THE CELL PHONE. Have you ever ignored someone right in front of you, perhaps someone you love, because something on the cell phone was Very Important Right Now?  Not everyone can turn off their cell phone.  Some are doctors on call, after all.  But if you can, consider turning off the cell phone and try some old-fasioned conversation.  Or just look and listen.  Rabbi Micah Streiffer wrote recently about Shabbat as a remedy for Information Overload.

3. REACH OUT TO FAMILY. Shabbat can be a great time to reach out to family who are distant, maybe even as a routine. Do you have a child at college? A sister or a parent in another city? A brother with a busy life on the other side of town?  If family is in town, but you never get together any more, maybe get together for a meal.

4. REACH OUT TO FRIENDS. When did you last hang out with your best friend?  What about inviting them (and their family?) for dinner and board games?  What about a Saturday afternoon bike ride, or hike in the park? If you have friends who celebrate Shabbat, ask them if you can join them for part of it, to get a taste of it.  It really is OK to ask, as long as your are willing to take “no” for an answer.

5. GET SOME SLEEP. According to the L.A. Times, 75 million Americans do not get enough sleep. A Shabbat afternoon nap will not make up for a week of 4 hour nights, but it can go a long way to bring some shalom, some wholeness, back into life.  Or instead of staying up to watch Leno or Ferguson or any of those late-night comics, turn in early on Friday night!

6. MOVE FOR JOY. Go to a park and play!  Ride your bike!  Play tag with your kids! Roughhouse with your dog! Get outdoors, find some nature, or unroll the yoga mat for a leisurely session of pure catlike pleasure.  Get back in touch with your body.  Get back in touch with your spouse’s body.  We are created beings, physical beings, and it is not good for us to live in our heads all the time.

7. GATHER WITH OTHER JEWS. Gather with other Jews for Shabbat, at synagogue or the Jewish Community Center.  If your town doesn’t have a synagogue or JCC, find out where the Jews gather.  If services don’t speak to you, try Torah Study – many  synagogues have a Torah Study group that meets on Shabbat, and it is often a group of friendly people who enjoy a bagel and a good discussion.  Jewish life and Jewish learning is always richer in company.

These are just seven little possibilities.  Follow your heart, follow the hearts in your household.  Every family keeps Shabbat in its own way; if you begin the journey, something wonderful awaits!

5 Things to Do if You Want to Become a Jew

So, you’re thinking of conversion to Judaism? Here are five things you need to do.

1.  FIND A RABBI, and make an appointment to talk with him or her. You do not need to be “sure” to do this. The rabbi will not immediately whip out a fountain pen and suggest you sign on the dotted line. He may say something vague like “We can study together” or suggest that you take a class. She may suggest that you come to services for a while, and see how it goes. Jews do not seek out converts or proselytize, and the conversion process is long and slow. What you need to know, though, is that the process cannot move forward until you have a rabbi. Rabbis do not charge for conversion, by the way; if someone calling himself “rabbi” talks about a fee for conversion, move on. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.

2.  FIND A CONGREGATION, partly because that’s where you are likely to find a rabbi and also because that’s one place the Jews are. Judaism is not only a religion, it is a religion embedded in a people. If you think you want to become a Jew, get to know some Jews. Hang out with the Jews.  Becoming a member of the Jewish People means you will also be spending time with Jewish people:  better find out if you like them. If there is more than one congregation in your town, try different congregations, because they will be quite different. To find out service times and other good times to visit, look at the website of the congregation. To find those websites, try Googling the name of your city and the word “synagogue.” You do not need to be a member of a synagogue to attend as a visitor.

3.  DO SOME READING. Your rabbi will recommend books. If you are not ready to find the rabbi yet, here’s a good list of books recommended by actual converts to Judaism.

4.  TAKE A CLASS. Many Jewish communities offer classes with titles like “Basic Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” Your rabbi may offer a class; if you don’t have a rabbi, taking such a class is a another way to meet a rabbi. (I teach such classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For more info on my classes, check out the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.)

5.  CHECK OUT JEWISH LIFE. Visit Jewish museums. Learn about Israel. Watch Jewish films. Read Jewish fiction. Eat Jewish food. Find out if your community has a Jewish newspaper, and watch for cultural events, speakers, concerts, festivals, and other opportunities to taste Jewish culture and life in your city.

One final thing:  it’s OK, in fact it is critical, to listen to your heart. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first rabbi you meet, talk to another one. If you don’t feel welcome at the first synagogue, check out another synagogue. Find books that speak to you and your situation. Listen to your heart!

I wish you a fruitful journey!

Parashat Nitzavim: Not Beyond Reach

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 29: 11-14)

“There is so much to learn!” Every conversion candidate I’ve ever worked with has said that, at one point or another.  They don’t call it “The Sea of Talmud” for nothing. Jewish learning is vast and it can be overwhelming, with languages and laws and endless intricacies to master.

This particular passage from this week’s Torah portion comes near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, after a wide-ranging catalogue of things to do and to remember.  After all the 613 commandments, then God says, “Surely, this Instruction … is not to baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.”  Just as I reach the point of overwhelm, reading the book, it says, “Surely you can do it.”

When I became a Jew, Rabbi Steve Chester handed me a large Torah scroll in front of the  congregation.  I was delighted to hold it in my arms, despite the fact that it was very, very heavy.  He asked me, “Got it?” and I nodded.  I recited the Shema with the congregation.  Then he began to talk to the congregation about conversion.  Periodically he’d stop and ask me, “Is it too heavy?” and I would shake my head:  no, not too heavy.  Meanwhile I clutched the scroll and my arms  began to  quiver.  My back began to complain.  I shifted the scroll slightly.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I nodded.  He went on teaching.

Finally I reached my limit.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I gasped, “It’s very heavy.”  He took it from my trembling arms, and said, “Yes, it’s very heavy.  No one can hold it alone.”  And then he got to the real lesson, that it takes a Jewish community to “hold the Torah” properly.  It simply isn’t something a person can do alone, because the Torah is indeed very heavy.

When I feel overwhelmed by Jewish living, whether it is the cleaning before Passover, or the teshuvah before Rosh HaShanah, I try to remember that lesson.  I do not have to carry the Torah alone.  Surely, with the arms of a minyan, with the minds and hearts of my Jewish community, it is not beyond my reach.

L’shanah Tovah!