The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

Image: A young man putting on a tallit. Photo by 777jew at

I have been a big fan of the “Wrestling with God” blog for a long time. I discovered it when Adam left a comment on my website. I always check out other bloggers who leave comments and I’ve found some real treasures that way. (Yes – leave a comment and I’ll check out your blog. But leave a token comment, e.g. “Cool blog!” and I’ll just delete it. SAY something, please.)

What I love about Adam’s blog is the beautiful honesty of it. I always worry about conversion bloggers who abruptly stop writing after they step out of the mikveh. Maybe they got busy with their Jewish lives – or are they feeling bad about failing to be “super Jews”? Adam just keeps posting what’s on his mind – and what’s on his mind is often the sort of thing on the minds of many new Jews.

In this post, Adam talks about what it means to live Jewishly despite illness, or busy stretches at work, or family troubles. The only thing I would add is that with practice, some Jewish practices can become more routine, and can actually support us during the tough times. Other things just have to wait until we are more able. German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would reply “Not yet” when other Jews would quiz him about his performance of mitzvot. The fact that one is not YET doing thus-and-so does not say anything about what might happen tomorrow.

Wrestling With God

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning…

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Chronic Pain: One Jewish Perspective


Image: Woman walking through a cactus greenhouse. Photo by Unsplash on

Jewish tradition has a lot to say about suffering. The discussion begins with the book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses tells the people again and again that if they keep the commandments, all will be well, and if they sin, they will suffer for it.

As a person with chronic pain, my reaction to those texts ranges from annoyance to rage. If suffering is a punishment for sin, why didn’t [insert name of Bad Person here] live in agony? What did I do that was bad enough that I feel like this?

The ancient rabbis recognized the ridiculousness of a claim that all pain is deserved by the sufferer. Their answer to this puzzle came in the form of narrative:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:] “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

The rabbis have a problem. Their theology assumes an omnipotent personal God, a God who assents to every person’s suffering, since it is in the power of God to fix anything that is undeserved. The rabbis knew good, decent people who had terrible suffering – hence, a problem.

Someone among them cooked up the idea of yisurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” the idea that God loves some people so much that He (they thought of God in masculine terms) gave them suffering, perhaps as a vehicle for self-improvement. I can hear, between the lines, that many of the other rabbis thought this idea was just plain stupid: who enjoys suffering? But instead of the Talmud text saying so (thereby shaming the rabbi who came up with this plan) we get little stories that point out that not everyone welcomes this so-called gift.

In this series of stories, there is no discussion of whether there had been sin to provoke the affliction; rather, the rabbis assume that these are yisurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” a gift from God. In other words, they assume the best about the patient. The suffering rabbis reject the proffered “gift” of pain: if the affliction is a gift from God, they don’t want it or any presumed benefit from it. Then the visiting rabbi asks for the hand of the sick rabbi, and revives him.

At the end of the second story, we get the punch line: what relieves the suffering of the rabbis is not something from God but the touch of a human hand.  They are saying to us, “Maybe there are (a few) people who can grow from suffering. Maybe there are others who receive miracles from God. But for most people the only relief that will come is from other human beings.”

What do I get from this passage as a person who has chronic pain?

  • I feel understood by my forebears: they get it that I do not deserve this.
  • I feel permission to say, “If this is a gift from God, no thanks.”
  • They offer a model for something that can sometimes help: human contact.

Their model is a visitor who:

  • accepts that the pain is real
  • asks sincere questions about the sufferer’s state of body and mind
  • listens to what the sufferer says
  • does not offer advice
  • does not offer diagnoses
  • does not talk about themselves
  • touches only after asking

I have not yet been miraculously healed by a visitor, nor do I expect to be. I am fortunate to have people in my life who treat me with respect, who listen without advice-giving and who ask before they touch. This text reminds me to value those people as the sages they are.

I also know people who tell me that it is in my head, that if I went to their doctor / lost weight / took their snake oil / had more surgery / etc. it would all go away (so it is actually my own fault that I have the pain.)  This text reminds me that those people are NOT sages, they don’t talk or act like sages. In other words, feel free to ignore them.

This is only one of many Jewish perspectives on suffering. I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, who introduced me to this text. I hope to write about more texts on the subject in future posts.

May each of us find relief, temporary if not permanent, small if not large, partial if not full today and tomorrow. May each of us eventually reach a refuah shleimah, a complete healing. Amen.


Down but Not Out


This is my view at the moment. Jojo and Gabi watch over me as I work to get over another bout of sciatica. That’s the reason my posts have been sparse of late; sitting aggravates the nerve and makes things worse.

Illness is a spiritual challenge. Questions are natural: why me?

Our ancestors struggled with these questions. They played with many possible answers:

– Maybe illness is a punishment for sin?
– Maybe illness is a test from God?
– Maybe there are demons that cause illness?
– Maybe God isn’t paying attention?
– Does God care?

Today science explains the sources of some illness, but it doesn’t answer our spiritual questions.

I don’t believe that illness is a punishment or a test. Nor do I think it is a contest. My concept of God is a God who does not interfere with nature, a God who manifests in the the Unity behind Nature.

I am aging. I have old neglected injuries. Sometimes they are going to bother me. These are facts that I cannot change.

Besides these facts, I have choices. I can choose to be a mensch. I can choose to do my exercises. I can choose to use my time to study and rest.

Yesterday I learned a story. Prisoners in one of the Nazi camps asked a rabbi: “Since we are enslaved here, should we say the morning blessing thanking God that we are free?” The rabbi paused to consider. “Yes,” he replied, “Whatever they do to our bodies, our souls, our spirits are free.”

As our Festival of Freedom approaches, let us all think about the gift of freedom. What shall we do with it?

How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle?


Image: The new Torah scroll dedicated Temple Sinai of Oakland, CA on January 29, 2016. Photo by Susan Krauss, who retains all rights.

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime event: my congregation dedicated a new Torah scroll. The congregation commissioned the scroll a while back because our existing Torahs were worn with constant use.  The lightest and most manageable one was frayed and aging fast.

A Sefer Torah is like a Space Shuttle: it is full of remarkable technology, simultaneously strong and fragile. Used properly it can last for a long time, but rough handling will age it sharply and an accident can destroy it in a moment.

A proper Sefer Torah is made of the skins of kosher animals. It takes at least a year to make a scroll, since most soferim  copy at most one column (amud) of writing a day. There are 247 amudim. If you assume 1 amud per day, plus no writing on Shabbat or chagim [holy days], the total varies according to the Jewish year but will come close to a year.

(For more details about the making of a Torah scroll, plus other interesting information about the work of a sofer, check out YK’s Sofer Blog.)

After our Torah scroll was scribed by Sofer Moshe Weiss of B’nei B’rak in Israel, it was carried to the U.S. and eventually to California. Sofer Neil Yerman traveled from New York to help us assemble the Torah, attaching it to the etzim [rollers] using thread made of sinew from a kosher animal. A local artist, Sheri Tharp, designed and made a yad [pointer] for the new Torah from oak in a design that suggests both the oaks of Oakland and the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life. The tip of our pointer is carved from tagua nut, also known as “vegetable ivory.”

Photo by Linda Burnett.

On the night before the dedication, some of us gathered to help Sofer Yurman attach the etzim to the scrolls. This photo was taken as I helped to attach the etz [roller] to the the Bereshit [Genesis] end. The gid [tendon thread] is tied onto a big sewing needle, rather like a carpet needle. Sticking that needle through the klaf [parchment] is a bit of a shock.

There’s a very homely quality to this technology. There we were, threading needles with tendon-fiber, poking the needle through the scroll as if it were a quilt at a bee. Of the four rabbis in attendance, not one of us had ever seen this done, much less participated in doing it. It was awe-inspiring, thinking that this work would benefit the congregation at Temple Sinai for perhaps a century and a half, or even two centuries into the future.

A Sefer Torah is better than a Space Shuttle in that with care, it is usable for 150 years or even more. It can take you – and your entire community! – to places beyond your wildest dreams.

Senior Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin looks on as Ritual Committee member Fred Isaac assists Sofer Yerman. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar


Ritual Committee member Fred Isaac and I look over one of the older sifrei Torah. The sofer estimated that this scroll is at least 150 years old and may be older. Since the record of its acquisition has not survived, all we can do is guess. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.




What’s a Bentcher?

Oy, oy, oy! First there is the question of spelling. Is it a bencher, a bentcher, or a bentscher? Answer: I’ve seen all three.

And no, it isn’t a piece of furniture, although that’s what it sounds like.

My favorite bentcher

A bentcher is a little book or folder with the text of the blessings said after a meal, the birkat hamazon. It comes from the Yiddish word bentch, which means “to bless.” (Thanks to both Anne and Jeff, readers who corrected me on this.)

Bentch – to say or sing the birkat hamazon (blessing after meals.) Some may say, “It’s time to bentch,” meaning, the meal is over already, let’s bless and be done!

Bentch gomel – to say a blessing of thanks for delivery from danger. Always said during the Torah service.

Bentch lulav – to say the blessings that go with waving the lulav.

Bentcher is the book with the birkat hamazon in it. In a household where they bentch after every meal, it will likely be one of a half-dozen stuck in a napkin holder on the table. Some bentchers also have zmirot (zmee-ROTE) which are Shabbat songs for the table.

Some Jews carry a mini-bentcher that folds up to credit card size, to use when eating away from home.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, Hebrew for “blessing” is brakhah.


What Makes My Home Jewish?

There are many ways to interpret a front door mezuzah:

» It fulfills a commandment
» It says, “Jews live here”
» It is a sort of amulet, providing protection
» It is a Jewish folk custom
» It defines the boundary of sacred Jewish space.

All of those are valid ways to view a mezuzah on the doorpost to the entry to a Jewish house.

The last item is the way I see the mezuzah by my front door. When I cross that threshold I move from the ordinary world into sacred space. Out in the ordinary world, Saturday is a day for shopping, errands, and sports. In my home, and in the synagogue, Saturday is Shabbat, a time for love and prayer, study and joy. Out in the ordinary world, December trundles onward towards Christmas and New Year’s Eve: shopping malls are crowded, and the tension is rising. Inside my home, we are recovering from Chanukah, still cleaning bits of wax or oil from unlikely places. I’m thinking about the winter course offerings at Lehrhaus Judaica.

My Jewish home is a refuge from the world. It is not entirely separate: I watch TV, listen to the news, read newspapers on the Internet, but all of those things can be turned down or even off. Home is a place of peace for me and for family and guests. It is exclusively Jewish space: whatever goes on outside, inside we’re Jewish.

There are books and art, religious objects and food, that make it obvious this is a Jewish home. But what makes it a Jewish home is attitude, and that is the message my mezuzah sends:  this is a Jewish space.

Jewish Self-Care for December: 12 Tips

For Jews in North America, December can a challenging month. Here are some tips for maintaining your Jewish equilibrium in the midst of Jingle Bells and Silent Nights:

DO keep Shabbat. “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel,” said Ahad HaAm, one of the wisest of the early Zionists. If you don’t know what he’s talking about, try tasting Shabbat for a month and see what happens in your life.

DO celebrate Chanukah. Yes, it is a minor feast, but it is a celebration of dedication to Jewishness, exactly what we need in the Christmas season.

DO make your home a sanctuary. Home can be Jewish space where other traditions don’t intrude. Read 10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home for ideas on how to do that.

DO have clear and loving  boundaries in your interfaith home. Exactly what those boundaries are is up to you and your beloved, but clear communication about them can save a lot of pain. If you are already in a place of pain about it, get a counselor to help you sort things out.

DO reach out to and support other Jews. December is a challenge for most of us. Invite people for Shabbat, or for a little Chanukah gathering. Set up a movie date for Dec 25.

DO be proactive with your children’s school. Make sure your child’s teacher knows that he or she is Jewish, and what your boundaries are on Christmas-themed activities, ideally before these things become an issue. Combine with other Jewish parents if there are any to offer to bring a Chanukah lesson to school, etc.

DON’T feel guilty that your children “don’t get Christmas.” Use these tips (especially Shabbat!) to give them the rich and sustaining tradition that is their birthright. Christmas is once a year. A strong Jewish identity is a treasure year-round and for life.

DO keep consumption under control.  This is the season for marketing and partying. Don’t overbuy, overeat, or over-consume, no matter what the culture at large is pushing you to do. If you have children and the grandparents are going overboard with presents, share A Tale of Two Grandmothers with them. 

DO give yourself permission to enjoy. Christmas isn’t our holiday, but perhaps you enjoy the decorations, or the lights, or the music. I love my neighbors’ light displays. Enjoying them as I drive by doesn’t make me a traitor to Judaism. They can enjoy the light of my menorah, too.

DON’T spend time in retail space unless it’s required. Cocoon at home. Add a new mitzvah to your life. Watch Jewish movies. Find a new Jewish blog or two. Enjoy a hobby. Exercise. Enjoy your family. If you work in retail, you have my sympathy.

DO have a reply ready for “Merry Christmas.” My favorite reply is, “I’ll take a happy Chanukah and wish YOU a Merry Christmas.” If you have a stock reply on hand, then you can deal with it “on automatic.”

DON’T take every mention of Christmas personally. A great deal of of the “Merry Christmas” we get is highly IM-personal, which is irritating, but if I got mad every time I heard it, I would have to double my blood pressure meds. Good self care sometimes means “let it go.”