Time Out

Image: An empty chair, by EME

Time Out.

It’s a great plan in every game, and it can be a gift in every life. A few moments to pause and get myself together can work wonders. For my 61st birthday, I’m giving myself some time out.

For the next few days, I’m taking time off from the blog. Normally I try to post at least every other day, but between now and March 20 I’ll post only if the urge is irresistible.

Don’t worry, I have no plans to make this permanent!  See you in a few.



The Yolk of Heaven

Image: a soft-boiled egg in a cup, the top removed. By TanteTati.

A good editor is worth her weight in pearls.

I regularly write divrei Torah for a quarterly newsletter.  I love working with this particular editor, because (1) she makes my writing better and (2) she keeps me from making a fool of myself.

This week, I sent in a d’var Torah in which I mentioned the concept Ohl HaShamayim. It means “the yoke of Heaven” and refers to the burden of Jewishness. According to Jewish teaching, before I was Jewish, I was only responsible for being a decent human being. In becoming a Jew, I took on additional responsibilities. Things that before had been “good deeds” were now requirements. I had a responsibility to wrestle with those requirements and (as a Reform Jew) to figure out how I was going to observe them.

For instance, there are responsibilities regarding the food I put in my mouth. Some Jews take the traditional approach and keep kosher by the standards that have been in place for hundreds of years. Others meet those requirements by keeping a vegan or vegetarian diet, or by asking a lot of questions about the sources of food, the treatment of animals and people in its production, and the ecological “footprint” of that food. Others observe food restrictions on Yom Kippur and during Passover. But all Jews have a responsibility to engage with the commandments concerning food.

In writing about the Ohl HaShamayim, I made a silly error: I wrote “yolk of Heaven” instead of “yoke of Heaven.” Fortunately, my editor caught the mistake and fixed it, so now I do not have egg on my face (or my shoulders.)

… The Yolk of Heaven?

But I can’t get that image out of my head: The Yolk of Heaven.

Did you know that an egg itself is a giant cell, and the yolk is its nucleus?  It’s the part with the potential for life.

The yolk of the egg is the soft, creamy center, the part that is rich with fat and runny with flavor. It’s sticky and decadent and downright yummy. It’s also incredibly nutritious.

Overcooked, the yolk grows rather chalky and gray, less appetizing. A properly cooked egg is a matter of art and individual taste: a runny center within a firm white nimbus.

With a little olive oil, an egg yolk may be whipped into mayonnaise (real mayo, not the bottled stuff.) With butter, lemon juice, cream and heat, it may be teased into hollandaise sauce. With cream, sugar, and vanilla, a yolk becomes créme anglaise.

Now think about Torah, the Yolk of Heaven, Chelmon HaShamayim. It is the nucleus of the Jewish cell, the center of our existence, containing the DNA of our way of life. It is sweet but complex, rich and sticky, incredibly nutritious. Overcook it, pick it to pieces, and it will lose its flavor, but treat it with respect and it will enrich all other aspects of life.

So what do you think? Mistake or metaphor?

Take a bite and see.


What is a Semite?

Image: Tee shirt with the words “Yo Semite.” Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History Museum Store.

Actually, there’s no such thing. “Semitic” is a designation for a language group that includes Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew.

The term was coined in the late 18th century by August Ludwig von Schlözer, a historian, and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, a German Protestant theologian. They derived it from Shem, the name of one of the three sons of Noah in Genesis 10, via the Greek pronunciation Σημ (“seem.”)  As critics at the time pointed out, this was problematic because in that passage, the Canaanites (who also spoke a language from this group) were descended from another brother, Ham.

Academics began to refer to Jews as “Semites” in the 19th century. Pseudoscientific theories about race abounded in the West and were used to justify hatred towards Jews and other people deemed undesirable by those in power. Targeted groups included people of African descent, Irish descent, Asian descent, and those with brown skin. So-called scientists strove to identify physical characteristics which “proved” that those groups of individuals were inferior to whites. Jews were also one of the targeted groups and were referred to as “Hebrews” or “Semites” to underline the notion of a Jewish race (a concept that completely ignores Judaism’s long history of accepting converts.)

German journalist Wilhelm Marr used the term “antisemitismus” [antisemitism] as a more scientific-sounding, more elegant alternative to “Jew hatred.” in 1880 he published a pamphlet, Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of the Germanic Spirit over the Jewish Spirit, which outlined his theory that Jews were infiltrating and damaging German culture. In the same year he founded the Antisemiten-Liga [Antisemitism League] in Germany and the term antisemitism moved into popular use.

It is probably more useful to use the term “Jew hatred” for the fear and hatred of Jews, rather than to get embroiled in arguments about whether or not Arabs are also “Semites” and therefore subject to “antisemitism.” However, courtesy of some 19th century Germans, we seem to be stuck with this misnomer.

Jewish tradition as well as Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore equal:

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. – Genesis 1:27

Islam also asserts the equality of human beings, as established in the Quran. God makes distinctions among people only according to their individual righteousness:

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). – Quran 49:13

Therefore the hatred of any group of people merely because of their designation as a member of that group is wrong according to all three Abrahamic religions. Nor does science perceive any difference among homo sapiens: despite differences in coloration or belief, we are all one humanity.

Personal Note: I’m Sad.

Image of the Kotel by Antonina Reshef – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

For 28 years, a small group of Jewish women, the Women of the Wall (WoW), have insisted on their right to pray according to their own traditions at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Every month on Rosh Chodesh they showed up at the crack of dawn and tried to hold services. The Kotel is managed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the official Orthodox arm of the government, currently controlled by Haredim.

The official rules at the Kotel, set by this office, were that it was to operate like a Haredi synagogue. Women’s voices were not to be heard, except for loud crying on Tisha B’Av. Men and women have separate areas and there must never be any mixing of the two. Strict dress codes are enforced. All prayer meets Haredi standards, which means that only men can pray aloud, and only men may handle a sefer Torah. The Women of the Wall, challenging these rules and petitioning the Israeli courts for limited exceptions to the rule, were met with 28 years of violence and abuse, yet they persisted.

This past week, the Israeli Government, along with the Reform and Conservative Movements in the United States announced a “breakthrough agreement” in which a separate portion of the Temple Mount area will be set up for egalitarian services and mixed groups for prayer. The “Robinson’s Arch” area is around the corner from the Kotel Plaza.

Talks to bring about this new agreement have been going on secretly for some time. Member of Knesset Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., was interviewed for an article in the Jerusalem Post in which he talked about his reasons for getting involved in the talks. He was deeply concerned about the escalating violence at the Kotel, and worried about the impact of the ongoing dispute on U.S.- Israel relations. As with almost anything else in Israel, nothing was simple.

So why I am not celebrating along with my fellow American Jews?

  1. Regarding the escalation of violence at the Kotel: whatever happened to the rule of law? The Supreme Court of Israel provided guidelines for the situation. Why were those who broke those guidelines and those who resorted to violence not arrested and prosecuted? I am furious that a group of people have been able to get their way (retain control of the historic Kotel) essentially by bullying. What’s the take-away lesson here? Throw enough feces, throw enough furniture, scream enough profanities, and you can have anything you want in the State of Israel?
  2. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem has condemned the agreement, since the new area, unlike the Kotel, is on ground claimed by the Waqf, the Islamic manager of the adjacent mosques. So we are going to make the Haredim less unhappy by stirring up trouble with the Waqf?
  3. Most of all, this new area does not address the intentions of the women who raised the question back in 1988 and who have pursued the issue ever since. They included a number of Orthodox women who do not want to pray in an egalitarian space. Putting them behind a mechitzah at the new spot will just underline their exile from the place they have sacrificed so much to occupy: the historic Kotel. Phyllis Chesler explains their point of view in her blog for the Times of Israel.

So I can’t celebrate this news. Perhaps the people who have negotiated it are much wiser than I and this really is the best course. What I notice, though, are the casualties and what feels to me like a rather casual attitude towards them.

I confess that my personal feelings about the Kotel are pretty cold. It seems to me that it has fostered a lot of sinat chinam [baseless hatred] among Jews since its liberation in 1967. I know that many feel it is the holiest place in Judaism because Jews have prayed there for so many centuries. But it is a wall built by a very nasty man, King Herod, who taxed the life out of Jews to remodel the Temple in a fruitless PR effort and a lot of ego. Moreover, those stones are merely a retaining wall, not a part of the Temple proper.

I supported the Women of the Wall because I thought they had a point: if we were going to claim that the Kotel belonged to all Jews, then dictating to women that they had to be quiet and that they could only pray one way there was not right. If this current arrangement is really the best we can do, it just makes me sad.


10 Ways to be a Great Potluck Guest

I give a lot of potluck parties. I have made a commitment to the mitzvah of hospitality, but due to some chronic health issues cooking a big meal for a lot of people isn’t in the cards. Also, I find that it actually adds to the warmth of the table for guests to share food with each other.

In the process, I’ve learned a lot about giving these parties, and I have also learned what makes a great potluck guest. Here goes:

  1. Bring everything you need. Maybe I have balsamic vinegar, and maybe I just ran out. I probably have enough serving spoons, but if you bring one, you won’t have to stress over getting the slotted one your dish requires. Be safe and bring what you need.
  2. Do your cooking at home. My kitchen is small. Too many people trying to use the same appliance is a problem. If you must, let me know well ahead that you will be cooking and what you will need (oven, cooktop, microwave.) Then I can plan for it.
  3. Assemble your dish at home, or if there is last minute prep, make it something you could do on the coffee table if six people are already in the kitchen.
  4. Bring what you say you will bring. If you need to make changes or substitutions, let me know.
  5. There’s no need to show off. Bring something you know how to make, or bring take out. Science experiments don’t add to the pleasure of the meal.
  6. Takeout is great. I invited you because I enjoy your company. If stopping by the deli for potato salad is easier than making it, that’s really OK. I am not a great cook myself and often go that route.
  7. Be honest about your dish. If there’s dairy, or gluten, or whatever, that’s OK, just say so if asked. If you aren’t sure, say so.
  8. If you have allergies, etc, please let me know well ahead of time, so that I can make sure there is food that you can eat. I don’t want to poison my guests or starve them. I respect those who make ethical or religious food choices and I promise I won’t see you as a problem unless you spring it on me after the food is on the table.
  9. Please take leftovers home with you! When I say that I can’t keep all the leftovers, I’m not kidding. At least take home leftovers of your own dish.
  10. Come anyway, if something happens and you can’t bring your dish. As with #5, I invited you because I enjoy your company. Just let me know, if you can, so that I can arrange for enough food.

Is there anything you’d add to this list? Tell us about it in the comments!

Giving: Not Just for Tuesday

First there was Thanksgiving, a national holiday established by FDR in 1939. (Yes, yes, there was a feast at Plimoth Plantation in 1621, but it wasn’t an annual feast, much less a national holiday until 1939.)

Then there was Black Friday, a day with complicated roots that sometime in the 1980’s came to mean the day consumers began the American frenzy of holiday shopping.

Cyber Monday came into being in 2005, when a marketing team at the National Retail Foundation decided that online retailers needed an advertising hook to kick off the shopping season.

Finally in 2012 the 92nd Street Y in New York City conceived #Giving Tuesday. They wanted to yoke the power of social media to the energy of the “charitable season,”and it seems to be catching on. (“Charitable season” appears to refer to the combination of the approach of the Dec 31 deadline for charitable donation deductions on U.S. income tax and the “spirit of the season.”)

I am not a fan of the annual consumer madness, but “Giving Tuesday” stands my rabbinical hair on end. It is good to remind people to help others, of course, but the message “Giving Tuesday” sends are the antithesis of Jewish teaching on the subject: it’s not Torah.

Jewish concepts of giving have a complex history, but they are rooted in some straightforward mitzvot. The fundamental idea is that giving is not merely charity (the root of which is the Latin caritas, or love) but tzedakah, a form of justice.

Communal Responsibility – The support of the poor is the responsibility of the community. In ancient times through the middle ages, Jews contributed to the kupah, a local fund for the needy. Maimonides wrote in Laws of Gifts to the Poor: “Any fast where the community eats [at the end after sundown], goes to sleep, and did not distribute tzedakah to the poor is like [a community] that sheds blood.”

Give First, not Last – One of the models for Jewish giving is the terumah, the consecration of a portion of the harvest to the upkeep of communal institutions (the Temple priesthood) in ancient Israel. Trumah came “off the top” – it was separated before anything was sold or consumed. Waiting to give until the shopping is done is a mistaken priority and a bad message.

Serving All Comers – Jewish law specifies that communal resources must serve Jews and non-Jews, locals and foreigners. There is no concept of the “deserving poor” – the only qualifier is poverty.

Everyone Contributes – “Communal responsibility” means that everyone contributes something.  The poor give a little bit and the wealthy are expected to give much more. Maimonides teaches: “Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.”

Giving Year Round – Giving is not restricted to a single season. Ideally a Jew makes many charitable contributions throughout the year: before the Sabbath, before holy days, in memory of the deceased, in celebration of life cycle events, and in honor of good people.

For Justice, not for Benefit – The Hebrew term for this sort of giving is tzedakah, related to the word for “Justice.” It is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, to relieve suffering. 

Here’s what I’d prefer:

  • I’d like to see tzedakah come before the feast, not after, and certainly before the orgy of gift-shopping and bargains.
  • I’d like to see more teaching about tzedakah as a spiritual discipline, a holy activity, a way of sanctifying our time and treasure.
  • I’d like to see spirited debates about the ethics of tzedakah among adults in our community. Is Maimonides’ ruling that one must give to any person who says he is hungry out of date in a modern urban environment? What do we owe, if anything, to beggars on the street who ask for pocket change?
  • I’d like to see tzedakah taught and observed not as a fundraising ploy, but as part of the structure of mitzvot that sanctify our community, and beyond it, our world.


/end rant



My Twitter Policy

I’m well and truly fed up.

I try to cultivate a broad range of contacts, especially via Twitter. I follow a lot of accounts there, including a lot of folks that have ideas I find difficult – it’s one of the ways I learn and expand my horizons.  To that end, I follow a lot of accounts there from many points of view and I try to cultivate a habit of listening more than reacting.

Lately the name-calling on Twitter has gotten worse. It’s happening from all sides of the political compass. It’s as if it’s become too much trouble to explain what is wrong with an idea, it’s just easier to call the person expressing that idea a nasty name.

So here’s the deal: post or RT something with name-calling in it, and I will unfollow that account. I don’t care if I love or hate the politics, I’m going to unfollow that account. Continuing to follow is rewarding the behavior, and I’m not doing it anymore.

Life’s too short. The world is full of important things to discuss, and we should discuss them, not waste our breath screaming epithets at one another.