Is There One Right Way?

Image: A confused child. Photo by Sergey Nemo, via pixabay.com

There is a story about a woman who was teaching her daughter-in-law how to make brisket. She said, “Always have the butcher cut off the narrow end of the brisket. Otherwise it won’t be kosher.” Now, the daughter-in-law had taken an Introduction to Judaism class before her conversion, and she thought that sounded odd. She called her rabbi and asked about it.

“That IS interesting,” the rabbi said. “Ask your mother-in-law who taught her to do that.” And the mother-in-law said that her mother had taught her just exactly that (and what is wrong with that rabbi, anyway, that she doesn’t know the rules of kashrut?)

“Ahh,” said the rabbi, who was going to be visiting the Home for Jewish Parents the next day. “I’ll get back to you.” And the rabbi made sure to visit the grandma-in-law while she was at the Home the next day.

“I always made brisket that way because I had a short pan!” said the grandma-in-law. “We didn’t have money to buy either a whole brisket or a new pan, so I always just had the butcher cut me off a piece!”

Every Jewish family has its own way of doing things. Some cut the challah; others tear it. Some put a mezuzah only on the front door; others put one on every door but the bathroom door. Some have roasted chicken for Passover; others have roast lamb.

Be a little skeptical any time that someone tells you there’s only one correct way to do something Jewish. It is true that there are some things that are so firmly part of the tradition that you don’t want to mess with them: don’t bring bread to a Passover seder, for instance. But there are other things that may be a firm tradition for only part of the Jewish people (e.g. some Sephardic Jews eat lamb on Passover, Ashkenazi Jews regard lamb as forbidden for the seder.)

There are also some things that are only “Jewish law” for a very limited community or even a single family. We refer to those things as minhag hamakom [custom of the place.] Inside that limited community, those practices carry a great deal of weight, but outside they are not required. Often, those practices begin as something practical (as in the brisket story) or as someone’s private piety. Others copy, and then it becomes “Jewish Law” for that community.

If you are curious about a practice, you can always ask, “Where did you learn that?” You can also ask a rabbi about it. It is always good to know why you are doing something – otherwise practice devolves into superstition.

Some family customs are beautiful and worth keeping. Others may be due for a little update. A little curiosity and a little study can reveal all sorts of interesting things about that “one right way” to do something Jewish!

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Social Media Inventory, Part 2

Image: A to-do list, and a partially peeled orange. Photo by jedidja via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Part 1 of the Social Media Inventory is available here.

One who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as it says (Esther 2:22): “Esther told the king in Mordechai’s name.” – Pirkei Avot 6:6

Do I credit my sources online, including sources for images? “Cut-and-paste” functions on our computers make it very easy to lift information from one page to use it in our own writing. Crediting the words of others is a Jewish value; failing to do so is stealing. 

We use images on the Internet to convey information in much the same way we do words. Every image has a person behind it: someone took the photo, drew the picture, made the graphic. While images for worship have a different set of rules in Jewish tradition, images that we use to convey information should get the same treatment as words: credit your sources.

The ancient rabbis balanced the need to pass along good information and the need to credit sources by using the format, “So-and-so said…” We can and should do the same.

“You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people.” – Leviticus 19:16

Do I gossip online? Torah forbids tale-bearing: any talking about others, true or false, beyond that which is absolutely necessary. The principle in Jewish tradition is that all things are assumed to be secret unless those involved specifically say otherwise. So all “celebrity gossip” is out the window. The same is true for unnecessary discussion of our neighbors on Facebook or NextDoor.com. It is as wrong to listen to or read loose talk as it is to spread it around. The standard I apply for myself is: Do I need this information? Or do I simply want it?

Can online reviews be a form of improper speech? Rabbi Meir Tamari teaches that the rules of speech also apply to talking about businesses, because saying something negative about a business can endanger the livelihood of the owner and everyone who works there.

It is improper speech to post, “Ploni dry-cleaners are thieves.” However, a review about our own experience with specific details could be appropriate, for instance, “I used to take my dry-cleaning to Ploni, but after they twice lost things of mine, I switched to another cleaners.” Posting reviews to Yelp or similar services when angry is not a good practice, because it is easy to step over the line when we are angry. (Rabbi Tamari’s examples are from pre-Internet times before review services were prevalent. I cite his teaching but the examples are mine.) Saying, “I’ve heard that Ploni Cleaners is no good” is irresponsible speech forbidden by Torah.

News is a tricky area, especially since many news services have blurred the line between news and entertainment.  A good citizen should be well-informed. However, some “news” is more “gossip” than “news.” Again, did I need that information to be a good citizen? Or was I just titillated by the headline and could not resist clicking?

He who embarrasses his fellow is as if he has shed blood (killed him). – Bava Metzia 58b

Do I behave online in a way that might cause embarrassment to another? This is related to the issue of gossip. Our tradition equates embarrassing someone with murdering them. All forms of online bullying are therefore completely out of the question. Talk about others frequently has the potential to embarrass. The important thing is to stop and think before we hit send; if there is the possibility for embarrassment, it is better to be silent.

Photography and graphics have potential for embarrassment. Ask before posting a photo of another person. Posting a photo of another person without their knowledge may also carry criminal or civil penalties. When in doubt, don’t.

The month of Elul is a time to take stock of our behavior, to hold it up against our highest ideals. There are areas in these two posts where most of us has some room for improvement; the important thing is to do better in the future.

What have I failed to include in these two posts? What would you add?

 

Social Media Inventory, Part 1

Image: A checklist and tools. Photo by stevepb via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Take this inventory to do a personal review:

Nitai of Arbel says: “Distance [yourself] from a bad neighbor, do not befriend an evildoer and do not despair of punishment.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

How do I spend my time online? Do I use this resource to learn and to converse with people who are a good influence on me? Or do I waste valuable time on worthless activities? Is there anything I do online that I feel I must keep secret? Is there anything I would be embarrassed to have come to light?

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation. – Pirkei Avot 5:15

What has my goal been in arguments online? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a 13th century Catalan rabbi named Menachem Meiri taught that Hillel and Shammai argued in order to uncover the truth. They argued with great energy, but it was essentially a joint venture. The argument of Korach was based in ill-will: Korach wished to prevail over Moses, and humiliate him. Korach wanted to win the argument. So the first question: when I get into an argument with someone, am I like Hillel or like Korach?

When R. Eliezer was about to depart, his disciples paid him a visit and requested him to teach them only one more thing. And he said unto them: Go, and be careful, each of you, in honoring your neighbor; and when you are praying, remember before whom you stand and pray, and for the observation of these you will have a share in the world to come. – Minor Tractate Derech Eretz Rabbah, Chapter 3

How do I treat other people online? Am I a mensch?  Am I careful in honoring my neighbor? Do I treat other people with the respect due other human beings? Or do I count some as beneath any need for polite speech? Do I sometimes forget that every human being contains the divine spark, some element of the Holy One, perhaps very well hidden?

… continued at Social Media Inventory Part 2

The Stealth Rabbi Strikes Again

Image: Nine Jews demonstrating against Trump’s racism. Three people in this photo are rabbis – can you tell which ones? Photo courtesy of Bend the Arc, a great social justice organization.

If you say “rabbi” to most people, the image that comes up is a bearded man. I don’t look like that rabbi.

Actually, I look like my grandmother: Irish-American, round, soft, motherly, maybe grandmotherly. My haircut (a buzz cut) disrupts the effect a bit, but it doesn’t make me look more like that mental image of a rabbi. I usually wear a hat, which might be a kippah (looks like a rabbi) or an A’s baseball cap (not so much.)

As a result, I often surprise people; I’m a stealth rabbi. “What do you do?” someone will say to me, as Americans do, and I will reply, “I’m a rabbi.” If they identify as Jewish, this may produce a panicked response:

“Oh! I’m Jewish. Well, I’m a bagels and cream cheese Jew, you know, not religious. Seinfeld. …” And then they will tell me why they haven’t been to synagogue, or what’s wrong with synagogue, or who drove them from synagogue… I listen. Usually it’s a long speech.

They think I’m going to pass judgment upon them, and I’m not. Depending on the story, I’m sad that Jewish community didn’t work out for them, or appalled at what drove them away. Mostly, I’m sad that they have no idea what Judaism is for; their Jewish identity is a ball and chain they drag along through life.

What I’d like to say to them, if we had longer for a real conversation, is this:

I’m not here to judge you. As a rabbi, it’s true, I sometimes function as a judge, but only in very limited situations. Mostly I’m a teacher, because learning is at the heart of Jewish life. So relax: I’m harmless!

Would you like to take that ball and chain, and turn it into something a little easier to carry around? Maybe into a walking stick, something to support you when you are tired and afraid? Or maybe into a beautiful box of treasures, an inheritance of marvels?

All you need to do is open your mind and heart to learn. You pick the topic: what’s bugging you about life? There’s are several Jewish approaches to it, I promise you. Or, if you are really adventurous, what about Judaism bothers you? Let’s look critically at the tradition, and find new bits of it. Let’s debate! Let’s play with it, have a good time!

There’s the wide world of social justice work that Jews have been doing forever. There are great organizations just waiting for you. Whatever is your passion, you can pursue it as a Jew, with other Jews, amplified far beyond your social media or letter to the editor. You can tap into the riches of the tradition to support you in that work, too.

If food really is at the heart of Jewish identity for you, let’s look at that. There’s more than bagels out there for you to enjoy. There’s the myriad of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines, and Middle Eastern food. There are chef/scholars like Michael Twitty, who explores the places where African and Southern and Jewish foods intersect. There’s Tami Weiser, who will give you beautiful recipes and invite you to think about them.

My role as a rabbi is to be a resource. I have spent years cramming my head and heart full of Torah, and learning the sources so that I can make them available to you. Some rabbis, congregational rabbis, create and maintain environments where Jews can be Jews – where you can be Jewish. Not all those environments are like the synagogue you remember. Some rabbis are chaplains, committed to hanging in there with people who are suffering. I’m a teaching rabbi: I am here to help you learn.

And yes, we’ll have bagels.

Jewish Plans: What’s Next?

Image: Fred Isaac, my first study partner, and I look over a Torah scroll. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Tonight I had my last meeting for the year with my Wednesday night Intro class. Every class has its own personality, and I always hate to see them go.

Besides talking about Jewish American food customs (a fun topic, which is why I use it for the last night of class) we talked a bit about “What next?”

Some of them are moving on to conversion programs, or weddings, or some other preset project under the wing of a rabbi or congregation. I want to be sure that the others get the support they need to take whatever is the next step for them. Next steps could take many forms, including:

  • Another formal class (Hebrew perhaps? Maybe via an online class?)
  • A commitment to attend services weekly for several months to learn the service?
  • Develop and commit to a no-matter-what Shabbat routine?
  • Join a Torah Study group?
  • Chevruta study [study with a partner] on a course of reading or maybe films?
  • A Jewish book club?
  • Learn how to blow the shofar?
  • A bagel making class or other Jewish cooking program?
  • Search for and join a synagogue?

And you, dear reader: do you have any Jewish plans for the summer? Feel free to share them in the comments where they can inspire others, and where I can cheer for you!

 

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

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

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 pixabay.com.

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.