Who can find a woman of valor?
– Proverbs 31:10
Image: Al Vorspan, image from ReformJudaism.org.
I don’t often use the word “tzaddik.” A tzaddik (tsah-DEEK) is a person who seems almost to embody Torah, his righteousness is so great. A true tzaddik is also a person with the humility to laugh at himself and to laugh with others. There just aren’t many of those people, so it’s always sad when we lose them.
Al Vorspan was one of those rare individuals, and I was sad to hear of his death on February 16, 2019. I only had the pleasure of meeting him once, when I worked for the Union of Reform Judaism (at that time it was called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) but I remember his broad smile and his warmth. He leaves a multifaceted legacy, the most tangible part of which is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which he helped to found.
I did not know him well enough to do him justice, but I can recommend two articles that include some great stories about the man, by people who knew him well:
Al Vorspan was a Jewish Giant of Justice by Rabbi Jeff Salkin
Remembering Al Vorspan z”l: The Prophet who Loved to Laugh by Aron Hirt-Manheimer
Zikkrono livracha: May his memory always be for a blessing.
Image: A brass hour glass sits on its side in the sand. (annca/Pixabay)
Three people dear to me died this past week. One was a friend, one was a teacher, and one was my brother.
The friend was Maureen Logan. She was the clergy assistant at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Maureen and I bonded over our shared Irish American heritage, something not all that common in Jewish communities. She reminded me of my grandmother and her friends: kind and wise, with the cheerfulness that comes from spiritual depths. I’m sad that the doctor has forbidden me alcohol, because I’d like to raise a glass of Guinness to Maureen.
The teacher was Sister Rose Marie Masserano, O.P. Sister Rose Marie was my seventh grade teacher. She was not a lot older than her students when she taught my class. My main memory of her is that she was the first person to encourage me as a writer. She called me up to her desk one day, and I saw that she had a story I’d written in her hand. “Did you write this?” she asked me, in a very serious voice. “Yes, Sister,” I said, wondering if I was in trouble. “It’s very good,” she said, “I think you might have a talent. If you work on grammar and spelling, I think you could do very well.” I lit up. I was a fat, awkward child who felt like a misfit everywhere I went, but now I had a talent. Better yet, she had given me a gift: she told me what I needed to do to improve. She rescued me from the malaise of middle school by offering hope and a plan. And unknowingly, she fostered the teacher within me, showing me that a good teacher looks with discernment on every student, seeking the spark in them. As I said back then, I say again now: “Thank you, Sister.”
And the third is a heart-breaker: my brother Albert Menefee passed away from complications of injuries he sustained in a horseback riding accident almost two years ago. I wrote about it in An Unusual New Year at the time. Since then he has suffered terribly from his injuries, as have his family, and now death has released him from that suffering. His wife and children and all of his friends already miss him very much. As for me, he was my little brother, and I have the vague feeling that I should somehow have protected him.
Life is such a roller-coaster. I have been on the east coast to celebrate the wedding of a young man who is “chosen family” to me. The call that Albert was dying came just before the wedding began. But Josh has been like one of my own sons since he was about 14; I was there not as a friend but as an adopted mom, so I put anticipated sorrow aside and put my heart into that celebration. I am overjoyed that this wonderful young man has found a life partner who is his match in goodness. That wedding was a nechemta, a strengthening comfort that I needed. Life is renewed.
The wheel turns, the generations pass. I know I’m getting older when the Scroll of Ecclesiastes begins to make sense.
One generation passes away, and another generation comes; and the earth remains for ever. The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arises. – Ecclesiastes 1: 4-5.
Image: A single narcissus blossom (Fauren/Shutterstock)
Today’s New York Times has a great opinion piece by Frank Bruni, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.” He makes the point that Americans have developed the habit of making the death of public figures an opportunity to talk about themselves. The President does it, other public figures do it, and reporters do it, and it’s a bad habit all around. I recommend you click on the link and read the piece; it’s good.
Many of us don’t fully appreciate what we’re doing, and that’s a damned good reason, among plenty of others, to pay closer attention to it. It undermines what should be our goal, which is to put someone else in the spotlight. We can’t do that if we’re crowding the stage. – Frank Bruni, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.”
Agreed, but I have a minor disagreement with his thinking. Obituaries and eulogies are not for the dead; the dead cannot hear them. Public speech after a death speaks to the public, and to the mourners.
This is one reason that speaking of the dead immediately after death, the rule “if you can’t say something good, say as little as possible” applies. The dead leave behind living people who are in pain. Jewish tradition is so firm on this subject that we are taught to say, “Blessed is the true Judge” when we first hear of a death, any death. That provides a moment to restrain any wild impulse to say something cruel or ignorant. In a Jewish eulogy, the hesped, rabbis are taught to tell the truth but to put it gently.
“But what if it is true?” I hear someone asking. “What if Dead Person was a terrible person and there are victims?” That’s another topic – one I would like to address separately soon. At this point, I will still say that it is very thin ice and I still believe the less said in public about the flaws of the dead while the grave is fresh, the better. Immediately after a death, there are mourners, and they must be treated with kindness.
Mourning is a time of terrible vulnerability. The spirit reels with loss; it is in no position to process unkindness, however truthful. Just as we know we will all die someday, it is also true that at some time in our lives, we will be mourners. Hillel’s dictum, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person” suggests that we should extend to mourners the kindness we ourselves want at such a time.
Mr Bruni is correct, up to a point. The goal of speech about the recently dead is to shed light upon their lives, but one may never forget that just outside that spotlight stands the widow and the orphan. Whatever the dead did will remain for discussion at another time; funerals are for the mourners.
Image: 9/11 Memorial, Manhattan, NYC. Photo by MonicaVolpin via pixabay.com
There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.
This is the teaching we will soon read as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”
We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.
When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that individual stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.
Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.
This is an edited repost of an earlier message on this blog.
Image: Photo of Rabbi Regina Jonas believed to have been taken after 1939. (Jewish Women’s Archive)
Tonight was the event I most looked forward to at the CCAR Convention: the Women’s Rabbinic Network gathered for our annual dinner.
One of the most moving aspects of the dinner is roll call. The president calls us by ordination years, beginning with the soon-to-be ordained rabbis: “Class of 2017!” A few of them were with us, and we clapped and cheered for them. Then the newest rabbis: “Class of 2016!” When she got to “Class of 2008!” I stood up with my classmates and enjoyed the warmth. As the years count down, we get to the pioneers, women who carved the way for the rest of us, right down to “Class of 1972!”
At that, one woman stands up. Her name is Rabbi Sally Priesand. We go crazy, standing and cheering for her, because she is the trailblazer for the rest of us, ordained on June 3, 1972. Since that day, the Reform Movement in the United States has ordained over 700 women as rabbis. We serve as congregational rabbis, as military chaplains, as academics, and as counselors. There are major scholars among our ranks, and teachers like myself. Two of us have served as presidents of the CCAR, and many women rabbis are on faculty at rabbinical schools worldwide.
For many years, we thought Rabbi Priesand was the first woman ordained as a rabbi. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did the world learn of Rabbi Regina Jonas, a German woman who was ordained in Berlin in 1935 by Rabbi Max Dienemann (1875–1939) director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis. Rabbi Jonas served the Jews of Berlin and elsewhere faithfully until 1942, when she was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. There she provided pastoral care, teaching, and services for the Jews in the camp, until she and her mother were transferred to Auschwitz on October 12, 1944. They were likely murdered that same day.
Although Rabbi Jonas worked alongside Rabbi Leo Baeck and the psychologist Viktor Frankl at Theresienstadt, neither of them ever mentioned her after the war. Were it not for the records in East Berlin, including her rabbinic thesis, we would never have known about her.
If you are interested in learning more about women in the rabbinate, there’s a wonderful new book out that explores the topic. It won a National Jewish Book Award this year: The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate. I recommend it highly.
There are now many women rabbis in America and around the world. For synagogue-going Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal Jews we are no longer a curiosity. Even in the Orthodox world, where change happens very slowly, there are now women with rabbinic educations, doing rabbinic work under various titles. When I looked around that room tonight, I felt honored to be a member of this group of women who have dedicated their lives to Torah and the care of the Jewish People. I felt honored to be part of history.
Image: Rabbi Stern. I was not able to find the owner of this photo of Rabbi Stern; if it is your work, please let me know so that I can give credit.
Rabbi Chaim Stern (1930-2001) was one of the most influential Reform Jewish scholars of the 20th century. He was first and foremost a liturgist, editing and translating prayer books for Jews in North America and in the United Kingdom. He was the editor of Gates of Prayer, the Reform siddur [prayer book] from the 1970’s through 2007 and his work is still very much present in Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform siddur. He also wrote a haggadah, Gates of Freedom, and a collection of prayers for the home, On the Doorposts of Your House.
He was a congregational rabbi as well, serving Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, in Chappaqua, N.Y. for 33 years.
There are many of Rabbi Stern’s writings that I love, but this one, from page 49 of Mishkan T’filah, is a special favorite. It reminds me that “fixed prayer” – reading and reciting prayers that others have said before me – is an important part of self-maintenance if I wish to be fully equipped to meet the challenges of a Jewish life:
Why fixed prayers? To learn what we should value, what we should pray for. To be at one with our people, the household of Israel. To ensure that the ideals painfully learned and purified, and for which many have lived and died, shall not perish from the community, and shall have a saving influence upon the individual.