Science and Religion, Another View

Image: Photo of Rosalind Ellis Franklin. I have been unable to obtain rights information for this photo; if any reader is aware of the owner, I would appreciate that information.

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment. . . . I agree that faith is essential to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e., belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining. –Rosalind Franklin in a letter to her father, 1940.

These words were written by one of the discoverers of DNA. I’ve been reading her biography, Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. It is a well-researched and highly readable account of the tragically short life of a scientist whose work in the 1950’s has changed all our lives.

If you are thinking, “Didn’t Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA?” you are partly correct. However their work would have been impossible without the data and the images produced by Franklin’s methodical experiments. Some scientists today feel that she was unfairly robbed of credit she should have been given at the time. (Read the book or follow the links for more information about Franklin and DNA.)

I was fascinated by this young woman. She was the daughter of one of the most influential Jewish families in Britain, a descendant of King David, no less. She was a brilliant scientist known not only for her work with DNA but also for work on RNA and viruses, and one of the leading experts on the structure of coal in her day – all before her death at 38!

I can see in her words above that she had done some serious thinking about an issue that troubles many of my students, who find most of their childhood notions of God completely blown up by science. If science is true, then religion is … what? Bunk?

This young Jew (she was about 20 when she wrote those words) must have felt the tension between the religious language she learned as a child and scientific truth. I find her statement above impressive.

Since the scientific revolution it became difficult to talk with a straight face using  much of the language that we traditionally used to talk about topics of ultimate meaning. There is no big man in the sky. Life evolved on earth, it did not appear neatly organized over six days. No angels. No heaven in the sky. No hell under the earth. No “book of life,” not really. So why not just throw out all that religion stuff, all the fairy tales?

Rosalind recognized that real religion is the recognition of something greater than one’s self. For her, that Greater One is “the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future.” She knew that she was not the center of the universe, no matter how brilliant she was, no matter how fancy her pedigree. She was not distracted (and in fact, she seems mildly annoyed) that others cling to impossibilities.

If you find her and her ideas interesting, I recommend the book. I felt that every moment of reading it was well-spent.

No, You Can’t Have My Earrings!

One of my favorite midrashim is rooted in the story of the Golden Calf:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”  And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. – Exodus 32: 1-6

Of course, we know how the story ends: building the calf was a huge mistake. The tablets that Moses brought down the mountain specify that the people are not to make any images of their God. Moses is angry, and God is angry, and Aaron and the people are in big, big trouble.

However, midrash offers an interesting wrinkle on the story: according to a story that appears both in Numbers Rabbah and in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. Not everyone contributed to make the calf. When the men approach their wives and daughters, they refuse to participate. Rashi tells us in a comment on Megillah 22b that their reward for this is the women’s holiday of Rosh Chodesh, the first of every month, when women are exempt from work.

Some writers, including the redactor of Numbers Rabbah, have suggested that this is evidence of women’s moral superiority. Sometimes when I tell this story, people have said that it was because the women were vain, and they just loved their jewelry and didn’t want to give it up – in other words, that women are morally inferior to men!

But this is not a story about gender superiority or inferiority. It’s yet another story about Jews disagreeing as to the best way to worship. Often our tradition has given men greater authority on such things. The ancient midrash points to the fact that gender doesn’t magically confer the right answers.

One of the things I love about studying rabbinic texts is that just when I decide that the rabbis were all patriarchal old so-and-so’s, they surprise me. These texts are greater than any of us, then or now.

 

Parashat Shemot: Names & Deeds

Julie Arnold, Congregation Ner Tamid, Las Vegas“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

Sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not a single woman’s name in the list that opens Parashat Shemot. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women. But that’s too shallow a reading: after the list of men’s names, the portion is filled with the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism today.

In Chapter 1, we learn the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: Hebrew children survived because two women looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we learn the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! When she could hide him no longer, she put the infant in a basket and set it afloat in the Nile, a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was notorious for its ravenous crocodiles.

Miriam followed along on the bank watching over the baby boy. Midrash tells us that Moses’ sister had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. Nevertheless, imagine the nerve it took to follow along in the reeds, watching over that basket! There were dangers on the bank, too: crocodiles, snakes, and Pharaoh’s soldiers, yet young Miriam never abandoned her brother.

In Chapter 4, the young wife of Moses, Zipporah, watched her husband have a near-fatal encounter with God. She deduced that it had something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she took a knife and performed the circumcision herself. The story is very mysterious, but one thing is sure: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she herself was no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of men, but it is the deeds of women that set this great saga in motion.

Women’s Hair: Why Cover It?

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader recently asked: “What is the background for women covering their heads during services? Is it optional in most US conservative and reform synagogues now?”

Head coverings for women are mentioned in the Torah in chapter 5 of Numbers, in something called the Sotah ritual. The Sotah was a woman suspected of adultery, and the ritual was a test. Part of that involved uncovering her hair, so the rabbis deduced from those verses that there was a biblical commandment for married women to cover their hair. Elsewhere in Tanach, in Song of Songs, there is the suggestion that the sight of women’s hair is erotic, from which the rabbis determined that hatless women would be distracting to a man at prayer.

The specifics of hair covering (how much cover, and when) was a matter of communal custom in ancient times, and it remains so today.

Today in Reform and Conservative synagogues women are welcome to cover their heads for prayer if they wish to do so; in some congregations, it is a requirement. Usually if there is a rule about it, it will be posted outside the sanctuary, and coverings of some sort will be available. In a Reform or Conservative shul, the kippah or yarmulke has become a common sight on men or women. These days it is not a modesty issue, but a matter of respect for the activity of prayer and the awareness of the Divine. 

Personally, putting on a head covering is part of my routine for prayer and study. It’s a way of telling my body, “OK, time to get serious now!”

There is a wider variety of practice among Orthodox congregations. There, a kippah may be seen as a men’s garment, and therefore is not worn by women. The lace hats you described in your original question are a feminized version of the kippah. Women may wear a tichel (head scarf, pictured above) or a regular hat, or in some communities they may cover their own hair with a sheitel (wig.) If you visit an Orthodox synagogue for services, wear a scarf; that will usually be sufficient for guests. 

For a wonderful article on the subject, read “Hair Coverings for Married Women” by Alieza Salzberg.

What’s Rosh Chodesh?

New Moon
New Moon

And on your joyous occasions-your fixed festivals and new moon days-you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the Eternal, am your God.” –Numbers 10:10

Rosh Chodesh (Rohsh Choh-desh – “ch” pronunced as a gutteral) literally means “Head of the Month.”

Every month in the Jewish calendar begins with a little celebration. The moon is dark (new moon) and we look forward to what the month will bring. It’s an optimistic celebration, looking forward to what is good without dwelling on the bad things that might happen.

In Biblical times, there were special sacrifices for Rosh Chodesh, and the shofar was blown to announce the new month. The Diaspora Jews found out about the new month via signal fires lit at Jerusalem, where the observation of the moon took place.  This became more and more difficult under Roman persecution, which is why Jewish astronomers worked to calculate a calendar that would allow Jews to observe the festivals without access to the site of the Temple.

Customs for Rosh Chodesh vary among the Jewish people. In Reform congregations, Rosh Chodesh is observed for one day, beginning at sundown. It is first announced on the previous Shabbat. Then on the actual day of Rosh Chodesh, we add prayers to the Amidah and the Birkat Hamazon (prayer after meals), giving thanks for the new month and asking God’s protection.  A short service of praise (Hallel) is added to the service. There is a special Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh (Numbers 28:1-15).

There is an old tradition linking women to the Rosh Chodesh holiday. Since the 1970’s, women have begun gathering for prayer and study on Rosh Chodesh, and you may hear reference to a “Rosh Chodesh group,” a group who meet regularly on the first of the month. Over the last quarter century, a group of women called The Women of the Wall have met at the Kotel in Jerusalem to pray and read Torah, and to advocate for their right as Jewish women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.

Image: Eva Mostraum Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

 

Who are You Calling Shiksa?

שיקסעWords matter. Words have power. Judaism establishes its reverence for words in Genesis 1, when God creates the world using the power of words.

I know that the word shiksa is a word many people have come to use ironically in English as a fun little word to use for gentile woman. It sounds cute. It’s crisp and appealing to the ear: shiksa!

But in Yiddish, shiksa means “filth” or “abomination.” It means the stuff you clean up out of the cat box. It means something you don’t want on your shoe, much less in your house. And yes, it came to be used to describe gentile women. It expressed disgust for women who were outsiders, women who were sources of contamination. It’s an ugly word.

The fact that it has become common via pop culture doesn’t change that history. It doesn’t change the fact that in Yiddish, that’s still what it means: filth.

But perhaps you say, no, I’m using it to take back the power of the word! I understand that idea – I am a lesbian, and I use the word “queer” to describe myself sometimes. But “queer” originally meant “odd” – the nasty connotations came later. There are words I would never use about other people, because those words were designed to convince both speaker and listener that a human being was sub-human. The word shiksa is such a word: it was coined to demean and denigrate a woman, to express nothing but disgust for her.

So when I hear a young woman describe herself as a shiksa, I cringe. Maybe her friends agree that it’s cute and sassy. But there is deep ugliness in that word, a hatred aimed at women. I  don’t want anything to do with it.

I know that my little blog post is not going to stop someone who likes the word shiksa.

I just want you to be perfectly clear what it means.

Names and Deeds

Moses in the Bulrushes
Miriam & Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.

But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!

In Chapter 1, we get the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we get the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.

In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of  men, but it is the deeds of  women that set this great saga in motion.