Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. There are still many places where coming out as L or G or B or T or Q is a very scary proposition. Being gay in Uganda can get you killed. Being any kind of queer in the wrong small town in the U.S. can still be extremely scary and unpleasant. And far too many young people are rejected by parents and other relatives for being gay or lesbian: I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that some people throw away their children, but it definitely happens.
יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות
Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.
The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old. This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.
If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens. My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be. Oy!)
So you want to find your rabbi. Here are seven bits of advice:
1. ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.
2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS. You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.
3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them. Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.) You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi. This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.
When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen. Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can. Ask her the questions on your mind.
4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES. Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them. Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!” So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.
5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK. If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.
6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME? August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”
7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG: If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.
If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net. If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.
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.
- Reform and Conservative Jews = “Haters of the Lord.” FYI. (emilylhauserinmyhead.wordpress.com)
- US Federations slam chief rabbi’s criticism of funding for non-Orthodox rabbis (timesofisrael.com)
- You Are Mom Enough. (elizabethpottsweinstein.com)
- New moms and unwanted advice (clickondetroit.com)
Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna. — Pirkei Avot 1.5
This verse from Mishnah begins with sentiments that are challenging but easy to affirm: let your house be wide open! Let the poor be members of your household! Then it serves up what looks to be the worst sort of misogyny.
When I see something troubling in a text, the first thing I do is back up and look at the Hebrew. What EXACTLY does it say? Here’s a very literal translation:
Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. But do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman. In speaking to his wife, so much the more so his friend’s wife. Therefore the sages say, excessive conversation with the woman causes evil to himself and neglect of Torah and he will eventually inherit Gehinnom.
At first reading, that’s not much better.
Short of shrieking and throwing the verse away, I see only one possible way out with this text. That’s the phrase תרבה שיחה, which I translated as “excessive conversation.” We might also read it as “too long a conversation.”
Excessive how? Too long for what? Let’s look at context. The verse begins with two statements about the household: “let your house be wide open” and “let the poor be members of your household.” In the patriarchal society of the sages, the household was women’s domain, specifically, the wife’s domain.
Given this context, is it not possible that this is a warning to the men to back off and not interfere in the domain of their wives? That also makes sense of the phrase, “so much more so his friend’s wife”: Don’t tell your wife how to run her house, and definitely don’t tell your friend’s wife how to do so!
There is also a detail in the text that most translations gloss over that supports this interpretation. The phrase “the woman,” repeated twice in this verse, includes the definite article: it is not “all women” but a particular woman about whom Yosi ben Yochanan is speaking. HaIshah, the woman, can also be translated “the wife.”
So let me try for a paraphrase:
Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. But do not micro-manage your spouse about it, much less the spouses of your colleagues. Nothing good will come of it; it will lead to neglect of Torah and a bad end.
I believe this text may be read not as a misogynist rant, but as a reminder to the men that they are not the bosses, or the experts, of everything. They should not meddle in the domain of their wives, and meddling in how other people’s homes are run is even worse.
What can this teach us today? Stay humble. Remember that everyone has his or her area of expertise. The large principles are good — don’t neglect those first two items! — but I should respect the expertise of others, no matter how much Torah I think I know.