Fringe Element in Judaism: The Tallit

English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sar...
English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A tallit is a prayer shawl. It may be pronounced “ta-LEET” or “TA-lis” depending on the kind of Hebrew spoken.   (The plurals, respectively, are “ta-lee-TOTE” and “ta-LAY-seem.”) The shawl itself is just a shawl; the important parts of the tallit are the long knotted fringes or tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). We wear them to remind us of the 613 mitzvot [commandments].

Jews wear a tallit for morning prayers. The person who leads prayers often wears a tallit no matter what time of day.  We get the commandment to wear the tallit from two places in the Torah: Numbers 15:37-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12.  You can learn more about the meaning and history of the tallit from this article by Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

A tallit is one of those things reserved for people who were born Jewish or who have been through the process of conversion.  The purpose of the tallit is to remind us of our 613 sacred duties (mitzvot). Only a person who is bound by those duties needs to be reminded of them.

Occasionally you may see a tallit with blue cords in the fringes. Blue is a difficult dye to find in nature. In ancient times, Jews fulfilled the direction for a blue cord by using something called techelet, a product from sea snails, knowledge of which was lost in the Middle Ages.  Recently, scholars have come to believe that techelet is a dye made from the murex, a sea snail, so some Jews have begun wearing techelet fringes again.

Tallit & Tefillin 6
Photo credit: AngerBoy via Flickr

 

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Why Study Hebrew?

My first Hebrew Text

My first Hebrew text had the encouraging name Prayer Book Hebrew: The Easy Way.  My teacher had taught us the Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) using handouts and flash cards, and I was excited to get at the book.  After all, it said, “The Easy Way!” I had struggled to learn the letters, but now I was to the easy part, right?

It is a very good book, and I recommend it, but let me break it to you gently: there is no easy way to learn to read Hebrew, unless you are young enough for your brain to soak it up naturally. (If you are reading this and you are under 25 or so, you are Very Fortunate and should go find a Hebrew class pronto, before things begin to harden.)

So the question in the title is a serious one: why bother studying Hebrew, if it’s so hard?

1. Returns are high on even the smallest investment.  Every tiny bit of Hebrew you learn will enrich every aspect of your Jewish life. Let’s say you only learn the aleph bet. When you stand by an open Torah, you will recognize the letters you see. When you visit Israel, the language of your people will not be squiggles, it will be written in letters that you recognize.  Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will be in on the secret: those are LETTERS. They mean something. If you keep on paying attention, you will begin to recognize words.

2. Hebrew connects us to every other Jew on the planet. If you can learn to say “B’vakashah” (Please) and “Todah rabbah!” (Thank you very much!) you will be able to be polite to Jews everywhere. The more Hebrew you learn, the more you can communicate with Jews who speak Spanish, Russian, French, Farsi, or Hungarian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you and I both speak a little Hebrew, we can have a good argument.

3. Hebrew connects us to other Jews across space and time. When I say “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad” (Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) and I understand what I am saying, it enriches my prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, said that prayer in those words. Hannah Senesh, who wrote poetry and died fighting the Nazis, said that prayer in those words.  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Hillel, who lived when the Temple was still standing, said them too, exactly that way. When I pray in Hebrew, my voice blends with theirs.

4. Hebrew is one key to feeling like an insider in this tribe. One does not need perfect fluency to feel a part of things in a Jewish community, but if you don’t know a resh from a dalet (clue: the dalet has a tushie) it is easy to feel left out.  That last sentence was an example: the people who know that resh is  ר and dalet is ד  are smiling at the tushie thing.  Now see?  You are smiling too.

5. You will make friends studying Hebrew. Research shows that people bond when they go through a challenge together. Want to make friends at synagogue? Take Beginning Hebrew. By the time you make it through the aleph-bet, you will have some friends.

Mar Cheshvan, Indeed!

Anat Hoffman

Update is at the bottom of the page.

I just got word via the Women’s Rabbinic Network that Anat Hoffman was arrested again last night at the Kotel, the Western Wall, when she was there with a group from Women of the Wall and another group from Hadassah. Since I can’t find any more information on Ha’aretz to corroborate the details I’m not going to say more than that.  She’s been arrested, again. I wish I were surprised.

Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. She is also the chair of Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall.  She was elected to the Jerusalem City Council and sat on it for fourteen years. She has been tireless in her efforts to seek fairness and justice for all in Israel.

In the recent past, women have been arrested at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh for wearing a too-traditional tallit, for wearing a tallit in a manner too much like a man, and for similar ridiculousness. If this is a place that belongs to the whole Jewish people, why are women not allowed to pray there? Why must women be silent and meek there? Why is only one expression of Judaism acceptable there?

Some will say that this is an unimportant matter.  Who cares what the haredim do at the Kotel? What about Iran? What about security? What about the Situation with the Palestinians? What about the Arab Spring?

But you see, this is not really an issue about women praying at a wall, or women wearing shawls.  This is really a question of the humanity of women. Women’s images are disappearing from public view in Israel, because one group of Jews sees all women’s images, faces, voices, and presence as immodest.  A group of men spat upon a young Orthodox girl, walking home from school, because her (very modest) clothing did not meet their standards of modesty. As with the Civil Rights Movement in the United Statesbuses have become a battleground: do women have to sit in the back? may they ride at all?

So it is not a trivial matter  that a group of women are insisting on their right to pray at the most famous holy site in the Jewish world. This is not about the Wall. It is not about shawls. It is about women’s right to be visible without molestation or repression.

The facts are not all in regarding this latest arrest. I hope that Anat is all right. She is in my prayers tonight. But not just in my prayers: I am joining other members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network in sending a donation to the Women of the Wall in honor of her, and to help cover the legal expenses of this work.

If you would like to join me (please join me!) you can donate funds to either of these organizations.  Just click on the link, and it will take you to the donations page.

Women of the Wall

Israel Religious Action Center

The month of Cheshvan is sometimes called “Mar”Cheshvan, Bitter Cheshvan, because there are no holidays or rejoicing in it. I am sorry to say that Anat’s arrest and the continuing assaults on women’s rights in Israel make this Cheshvan bitter indeed.  Let us hope that the time is coming when women can again stand at the Wall and pray, as we have done for centuries. Let us hope that some future Cheshvan is sweet.

 

Update:  10:58 pm, PST, Oct 16:   The Women of the Wall report on their facebook page that Anat was still detained at this writing, and they show a photo of her being taken away in handcuffs.  At their regular morning prayer time, two other WoW leaders, Director Lesley Sachs and board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, were also arrested.  (Now would be a very good time to “like” their page on facebook, if you use facebook.)

The Difficulty of God-talk

We’re about to embark on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur, when we spend 24 hours with the fact of our human fallibility, with our failed efforts at reform, with all the mess of being human.  We do this in the context of a lot of God-language: God as Ruler, God as Judge, God as Parent (and those are just the gender-neutral options!)

For those for whom God-language is difficult or a barrier to good spiritual work, I’m offering a post I originally published last summer on the Women’s Rabbinic Network blog. How you fit this into your Yom Kippur reflections is up to you. Just remember that metaphors are only that – metaphors. The quest itself, the quest for holiness — that’s real.

Godzilla

Atheism is in fashion these days. About a quarter of my Intro to Judaism students worry that I will find out that they do not believe in God.  Another quarter are deeply suspicious of something they call “organized religion” because it is “the source of all the trouble in the world.” They are all serious, thoughtful people, and something has brought them to my class despite their misgivings: a need to explore Jewish roots, an important relationship, or a profound feeling of connection to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.

And yet there is this god thing: I have begun to think of it as The Godzilla Problem.

A young friend of mine recently commented on Facebook that her phone now autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.” I sat and looked at that post, and it dawned on me that THAT was a perfect distillation of the problem: the god that my students refer to so distastefully is a monster god who blasts and condemns and punishes very much like the Japanese monster with whom it shares three letters. Like Godzilla, he is scary but not real.

I don’t worship that god. There are people who do worship it. They believe that there is a Big Person who will blast and punish evildoers. They talk with relish about that god’s opinions and predict his actions at some future time. They act in the name of that god and do terrible things to other people “for their own good.” Those people espouse many different religions; they cherry-pick the Torah and other scriptures for proof-texts. Unfortunately they are noisy people and for many, they have become the voice of religion.

The God I worship, whose title I will capitalize, is more enigmatic: this God shines through every experience that leaves me with my jaw hanging open. I witness God in the smell of a newborn baby, in the power of an earthquake, in our questions at at the side of an open grave. I witness God in acts of selflessness and acts of courage. Abraham Joshua Heschel described this notion of God much better than I ever shall when he wrote about “radical amazement.”

Torah is the process of Jews reaching toward the Wonder: it is a dance between the amazed People and the Object of their amazement. I believe that the best way our ancestors could come up with to relate to Wonder was to personify God, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore holiness. They made a covenant with God, with commandments to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the amazingness of the universe. Our tradition warns again and again against falling in love with mere images. It is fierce about idolatry, in which human beings invest an object with the power or priority of the Great Mystery.

Heartbreaking evil has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. I believe firmly that such acts are acts of idolatry: that so-called “god” is indeed  “Godzilla.”

As a rabbi, as a teacher, my challenge is to wedge past the monster and lead my students through the door to amazement and questions. In our amazement with this world, with the questions of love and death, we may indeed approach the truth of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.

After Trauma, what?

Image: Arial view of the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks. Photo by TSGT CEDRIC H. RUDISILL, USAF ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Years have passed since Osama bin Laden sent 19 hijackers to murder 2,977 human beings in an act of infamy. I remember thinking that the High Holy Days would never come around for me again without those memories.

Some experiences mark us forever. Any American over the age of six on September 11, 2001 will never forget that date. Any American my age or older will never forget  November 22, 1963. I was only a little girl, but I remember exactly where I was the moment the news came through of President Kennedy’s assassination.

As with moments of national trauma, there are moments of individual trauma that mark a person forever. No one ever “gets over” a rape or the murder of a loved one. The man who discovers that the savings of a lifetime have been swindled away, leaving nothing but insecurity for the future will never forget the moment when he understood what had been done to him.  The parents who lose a child will never be the same.

In a little over a week, we will read the prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which begins, “We will ascribe holiness to this day.” It affirms that we do not know what lies before us in the year ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

Many find this prayer upsetting and troubling. It seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is foolishness. Bad things happen to good people all the time, willy nilly. When the towers fell eleven years ago, they fell without reference to the morals of the people killed inside them.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? (See below for the translation.) It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune even with teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah. I believe, instead, that those are the means with which we may  work towards a life after tragedy.  There is no “meaning” to be had from suffering except the meaning that we build out of it, if we so choose.    Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build that meaning.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

Our immediate instinct when terribly injured is often to seek revenge. When the wrong done is so great that there is no way to make it right, we want to lash out and make the agent of that wrong suffer as much or more than we. History shows, though, that revenge rarely settles anything. We may intend to “teach a lesson” but in fact all we do is set off another round of wrong. If you don’t believe me, look at the Hatfields and the McCoys, at the Treaty of Versailles, or at the action in any schoolyard in town.

If, this Elul, you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

No one who lived through September 11, 2001 will ever forget it, nor should we. It is up to us, learning what we have learned, knowing what we know, to find a way forward, towards a future of peace, of shalom. So it is for individuals who suffer individual trauma,  not to forget, but to find a way, at last, to choose life.

The Freeway Blessing

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This post originally appeared on Kol Isha, the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

As I perched on the hospital gurney, I reviewed the facts: the SUV slipped into the space ahead of me on the crowded highway and then braked abruptly. Its lights glowed red as I pressed and then stomped my own brakes. Time slowed as my car slammed into the SUV.

Air bags will save your life, but to do so they punch your chest like a champion boxer. For a 57 year old woman, chest pains demand a trip to the ER, even if they come after an encounter with an airbag.  Once I got to the hospital, they decided I wasn’t dying, but they wanted to keep me for a bit “for observation.” That’s how I wound up parked on a gurney, meditating on the seriousness of driving a car.

Until the afternoon of April 17, I prided myself on my good driving record, but it was no more than a nice report card. I seldom thought about the fact that when I’m driving I hold the lives of other human beings in my hands, and others hold mine.

The Torah regards life and health as precious gifts. Deuteronomy 22:8 commands us to put railings on the high places in our houses to prevent accidents. The rabbis of the Talmud went even further in Bava Kamma 15b, saying that one should not keep anything dangerous, neither a biting dog nor an unsafe ladder. PIkuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is such an important mitzvah that it can override almost any other mitzvah: better to violate the Sabbath than to let someone bleed to death, for instance.

And yet that afternoon, I had climbed into my little car with its 3,000 pounds of steel, and barely gave it a thought. I had been driving for 41 years, and driving had become routine. I didn’t speed or break the law. I didn’t chat on my cell phone or fix my makeup as I drove. But neither did I ever reflect that I was holding the lives of others in my hands.

Sitting on that gurney, I began to see that driving is a sacred activity, or it should be. Driving mindfully, aware of the lives flowing with me and past me on the highway, could be a form of worship of the One who created all those lives.  Conversely, driving carelessly, driving distracted, or driving sleepy is chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Name of God, because it invites the destruction of life given by God. Its very heedlessness is blasphemy.

I never found out why that car stopped so suddenly. All I know is that no one in the other  car was injured, my car was totalled, and I was lucky that I only had bruises. I am grateful that it was no worse.

Since that day, when I get in the car, I murmur what I have come to think of as the Freeway Blessing, a blessing to remind me to bring holy mindfulness to this sacred task:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hanoten l’chol chaim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.

“Choose life!” we are told in Deuteronomy. Behind the wheel of a car we each have that choice. I could have died on the freeway, but instead I was blessed: blessed with renewed awareness of the sacredness of life, and the responsibility we each have to preserve life.

Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days

Shofar (by Alphonse Lévy) Caption says: "...
Shofar (by Alphonse Lévy) Caption says: “To a good year” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 16, 2012. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:

1. HAPPY NEW YEAR. Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and are required to do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”]

2. DAYS OF AWE. Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

3. SIN AND REPENTANCE. The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

4. YOM KIPPUR. The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent future problems.)

5. ATTENDING SYNAGOGUE. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time: the services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

6. TICKETS FOR PRAYER? Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that while High Holy Day tickets are rarely discounted, synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach.  If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

7. GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT. To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5773!