You! in the Pew! I See You. I Hear You.

Image: Jews Praying on Yom Kippur (Photo by Trodel)

When I began leading services, I was astonished at some of the things people did while sitting in the pews. They appear to suffer from the delusion that they are invisible.

Sometimes this can be funny, but usually it’s just weird, and not in a good way. If you are in the pew, and people are sitting on the bimah, they can see pretty much anything that you are doing: grooming yourself, grooming your child, picking your teeth, staring at the ceiling, whatever. It is almost impossible for the people on the bimah to avoid seeing you. So, um, please don’t do that stuff. Yes, you know the stuff I mean.

I’ve been mostly a Jew in the Pew myself these past eight years; I teach instead of serving in a congregation. So often I don’t think about these things anymore, except on the occasions when people decide to have a conversation in the pew behind me. Mind you, I am hard of hearing, so if I could hear them, they are LOUD. Usually it’s men who do it, and it’s some sort of discussion about the service. Why they think I can’t hear them – well, maybe they know I’m hard of hearing? Still.

I want people to come to services. I would rather that they came to services and picked their teeth and talked too loudly than that they stayed home. I think most rabbis feel that way. Congregational prayer doesn’t work without enough people to form a proper kahal (gathering.) In fact there are prayers we cannot say unless we have a minyan, 10 adults. So I would rather people were there than not there.

But think about it for a minute: would you like to be at services, mourning someone dear to you, and have to listen to two dudes argue about the relative merits of the Reform and Conservative services while the service is going on? Do you really want the rabbi to know that you pick your… let’s say teeth? And whatever you are looking for on your baby’s head, can’t that wait until you get home?

Really.

Definitely, let the synagogue be “a house of prayer for all people,” as Isaiah says. But let’s try to bring our best selves, shall we?

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Where Will You Be for the High Holy Days?

Rosh HaShanah begins this year at sundown on September 9, 2018.

Every pulpit rabbi is busy with sermons and service plans. Every synagogue staff is busy with preparations.

For the “Jew in the pew” September may seem a long way off.

Are you interested in attending services this year? If you are not a synagogue member, now is the time to start thinking about where you would like to attend. For every person who will want a seat in an urban or suburban synagogue, there may be several people who want that seat. That’s one of the reasons that synagogues sell tickets for the big High Holy Day services. And that is why you should start looking for your service very soon.

Don’t want to “pay to pray?” There are likely free services available in your area if you live in a city in the U.S., but again, you may want to locate those services sooner rather than later. Call your local Federation or Jewish Community Center office and ask what they know about free High Holy Day services.

If you have been thinking that this is your year to join a synagogue, I strongly suggest that you visit synagogues before the High Holy Days. This has several advantages:

  1. Your dues will include your High Holy Day tickets.
  2. You will not be stuck in a strange synagogue for the High Holy Days.
  3. Summer is a good time to visit synagogues. The High Holy Days are a terrible time to visit synagogues.

If you are a synagogue member, now is the time to remind yourself that this is a stressful time of year for synagogue office staff. In addition to their regular work, they are preparing mailings, service books, and handouts. As the membership agreements come in, they have to deal with people’s questions about tickets, their complaints about last year, their worries about this year, and assorted kvetching about the weather and the parking last year. If you aspire to be a mensch (and you should aspire to be a mensch!) BE NICE TO THOSE PEOPLE!

So yes, the High Holy Days are coming sooner than you think. Be menschen, that you may be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life!

Tetzaveh: Dressed for Success?

Image: Colorful clothes hanging in a closet. (Maridav/Shutterstock All rights reserved.)

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃

Make holy vestments for your brother Aaron for dignity and adornment. – Exodus 28:2

Clothing is an important social symbol. We dress to send messages about ourselves and about our feelings regarding the place or the people we will visit.  We dress to fit in or to stand out.  We often feel anxious about our clothing. Too fancy? Not fancy enough? Wrong kind of fancy? Does it fit? Is it clean? Is it new? Is it “me” or “not me?”

Kohen gadol
A Bible card published in 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. Public domain.

And then there are uniforms: clothing that sends an impersonal, public message. Doctors wear white coats. Police wear blue uniforms. In this Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, we get the directions for the uniform of the High Priest of Israel. God instructs Moses to produce an entire wardrobe: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed “holy to the Lord,” a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen pants. Inside the breastplate are supposed to be something called ummim and thummim, which the priest will use to find answers to questions.

The outfit was colorful and some things about it are mysterious to us today (ephod, ummim and thummim, for instance.) The text doesn’t explain those words because it assumes we know what they are.

A careful reader will notice that the uniform mixes linen and wool threads, something we are forbidden to do in ordinary garments. This is a way of expressing the extraordinary nature of these clothes: they are what the high priest will wear in the presence of the Holy One.

I imagine Aaron was very nervous when he heard about this uniform. He may also have felt somewhat confused when he heard what he was going to do in that fancy outfit. The kohanim [priests] had many tasks, but the most common task was to sheckt [slaughter] the animals for the sacrifices, then cut them into pieces and stack the pieces on the altar. They tended the sacrificial fires and then carried out the ashes when the fire was finished.

In other words, Aaron was going to do some of the bloodiest, filthiest work imaginable in that fancy outfit!

The 16th century commentator Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno explained the purpose of these clothes from the verse at the top of this entry. He writes that the splendor of the uniform was to render honor to God.  Secondly:

The priest should inspire awe among the Israelites who are all considered his disciples seeing he had the names of all the tribes engraved on these garments right opposite his heart when he wore them in his official capacity. – Sforno on Ex. 28:2

The garments were to give honor to God, and an inspiration to God’s people. Their friend Aaron would disappear into this uniform and take on the role of Kohen Gadol, High Priest of Israel. From here on in the Torah, there are two Aarons: one is the Kohen Gadol, who fulfills the role of his office and provides a link to the Holy. He puts aside personal feelings just as he put aside his personal clothing. We will see this most sharply in the opening verses of Leviticus 10, when his sons die violently while offering a sacrifice, and “Aaron is silent.”

The other Aaron, the private Aaron, is the human being who wept in his tent later. He made mistakes (big mistakes – see the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 and the episode with his sister Miriam in Numbers 12.)  Being Kohen Gadol was a heavy job because he was suspended between the public role and the private self. Someone had to be in charge of the sacrifices. Someone had to be the visible link to the God of Israel. Aaron was given that task, and we do not know how he felt about it.

Do you wear a uniform in your work? Do you have a public, professional persona that sometimes has to suspend personal feelings for the public good? What do you do to “let down your hair” and relax? How do you care for the the private self that has to wear the professional role?

 

Wanted: Jewish Leadership!

Image: A red and white sign saying “Now Hiring.”

Only twice in the whole Torah does the phrase “lo tov” (not good) appear. The first is when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The second is when Jethro sees his son-in-law, Moses, leading alone and says, “What you are doing is not good.” We cannot live alone. We cannot lead alone. Leadership is teamsmanship. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership,” 2012.

The best leaders lead by encouraging others, and by working as part of a team. Torah makes that point again and again. Moses is the leader, but he must work with the chieftains and judges. No matter how wise he is, no matter how holy he is, he cannot do the job alone.

Moses put a priority on raising up the next generation of leaders. He notices when Joshua son of Nun and Caleb come back from scouting the Land of Israel in Numbers 13-14, and alone among the spies speak encouragingly of the land, not just to him but to the people. He recognizes them as potential leaders – and God agrees with him, saying that alone of their generation, those two will survive to lead the next generation into the Land.

Moses had the foresight and the humility to see these young people as budding leaders of the Israelites. Where a lesser leader might have felt threatened by them, Moses nurtured them and their considerable gifts. He mentored them, especially Joshua, so that when Moses died, there was a new leader ready to step into those very large sandals.

Jewish congregations and other institutions last longer than any one life. We are mortal, and a wise leader will keep an eye out for the next generation or two of leadership. This is true not only for clergy but for lay leaders: good lay leaders don’t grow on trees.

Most successful lay leaders don’t start as president of the congregation. They start out small, working on a committee or two, getting to know people in the congregation, learning how things are done. They are more positive than negative. They look for ways to build up, not to tear down.

I have been the beneficiary of generous mentors, both clergy and lay. After I stepped out of the mikveh, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, but I wanted to be a part of things. I joined two committees: the Caring Committee and the Outreach Committee. I learned skills that continue to serve me well. I learned things about myself that I’m still working on, too!

I strive to “pass it on” by looking for likely young leaders and nudging them to take their place in the life of the Jewish people. If they are scholarly, I mention rabbinical school. If they are warm, practical types, I point them to a committee that I think might interest them. It’s not enough to simply be Jewish – we have to DO Jewish too, and part of doing Jewish is making sure that Torah continues after we are gone.

If you are in a position of responsibility in your congregation, never forget that part of your job is looking for your replacements, encouraging future generations of leadership. Yes, it takes humility: they’re going to do things in new ways, not always the way you want things done, but without them there is no future. 

If you are young or new and hope to build the future of your congregation, join a committee and get cracking!  Get to know people. Get some work done. If you have limitations, welcome to the human race. If you can’t figure out what you can contribute, talk to your rabbi or someone in leadership, and ask for help figuring out what you can bring to the party.

The Jewish People need you!

משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים, הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, וְהַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה, וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה:

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah.

Online Basic Judaism Class Open NOW!

Image: Logo of Lehrhaus, Judaica, a school for Adult Jewish Learning.

This coming Sunday October 22 is the first class meeting for Intro to the Jewish Experience, 5778. If you want to get a basic Jewish education, here is your chance to get it in the comfort of your bunny slippers. Classes meet on Sunday afternoons at 3:30 Pacific Time, or at your leisure via class recordings.

  • In the Fall term, Oct-Dec, we cover Jewish Holidays and Lifecycle Events.
  • In the Winter term, Jan – Mar, we study Israel and Jewish Texts: Torah, Bible, Talmud, and the many connections between the land, the documents, and the history. We also will take a look at anti-Semitism, both its history and its present-day manifestations.
  • In the Spring term, Apr – June, we look at the many Traditions of Judaism: Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and American Judaism.

The class is designed for anyone who would like to feel more comfortable in a Jewish environment or deepen their knowledge of Judaism. The Fall Term is basic, but Winter and Spring will have fresh information and challenges for anyone whose Jewish education stopped after high school.

You can sign up for the entire series for $225, or for one of the three terms that interests you, for $90 per term.  Register at http://catalog.lehrhaus.org/series/2017/fall/I100-OL/

This class will be taught via the Zoom teleconferencing platform and should be accessible from most computers and tablets. The class also includes access to a private Facebook page where students can network and have ongoing discussions.

For those who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there will be an in-person class that mirrors the online class. It will meet on Wednesday evenings at 7:30pm at Temple Sinai in Oakland. You can register for the Wednesday evening class here.

I will be your instructor. For more information about me, see About the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

Oakland Pride March, 2016
Rabbi Ruth Adar (center) with friends from Temple Sinai, Oakland, including “Intro” graduates and Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin. Oakland Pride March, 2016.

What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur?

Image:  Service books are stored by the door in most synagogues. These books are at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

If you attend services for the first time on a Saturday morning, odds are that an usher will hand you two big books, and maybe a service sheet of some sort to go with them. If you are like many of us at our first service, this will be both terribly exciting and totally intimidating. What’s with these huge books which appear to be filled with (oh dear) Hebrew?

One of the books is a siddur (si-DURE or SID-der.)  It’s the book with the service in it, and you will need to listen for page numbers, because no matter which edition of which service book it is, it will not be intuitive. If you are attending an Orthodox synagogue, and the book has no English in it, go back to the usher and ask for one with translations. Most Conservative, Reform, and other synagogues will offer a siddur with translations. If there is no usher, ask for help – most synagogue bookshelves have all sorts of books and you will have trouble finding what you need without a guide.

Do not use the siddur to beat yourself up. The service is a bit mysterious if this is your first time. If you are on the right page, mazal tov! If you are not sure which is the right page, you have some choices as the service progresses:

  1. You can listen for page number announcements.
  2. You can quietly ask a neighbor for help.
  3. You can close the book and let the language of the service wash over you.
  4. You can read wherever you like in the book. No one will mind, although some kind soul may try to help you get to the right page.

You are free to say responses, or to be quiet. Either is perfectly fine on a first trip to synagogue.

The other big book is a chumash (khu-MAHSH or KHUM-mush.) It has the readings for the portion of the service with the Torah and Haftarah readings. You’ll know when you get to that part because they will get out the Torah scroll, march around with it (hakafah), and then announce pages. The chumash is a little easier to use. Begin on the announced page and read the translation as the person up front chants first the Torah portion and then the Haftarah (reading from the prophets.) It is actually against the rules for us to read from the Torah without a translation into the vernacular; the chumash is usually the way that we cover that requirement. Alternatively, there may be an oral translation.

How do you tell which is which? Look around you. Most people will set the chumash down until the Torah portion of the service. First they will use the siddur.

After the Torah service, everyone will go back to using the siddur for the final portions of the service.

Some other things to know:

  1. Do not put either book on the floor or sit on them. Jews treasure our holy books, and we treat them with great respect. If you are confused as what to do with the book, look at the people around you for clues.
  2. Siddurim vary from synagogue to synagogue. Don’t bother to bring your own; you want to use the one that they use in this particular synagogue.
  3. Chumashim are not just “Bibles.” They have specific readings, labeled week by week. Some of them also contain brief commentaries, either by a contemporary editor or by the medieval commentator Rashi.
  4. There are “apps” for both siddurim and chumashim, but in many synagogues you should not try to use them on Shabbat. Two reasons: first, electronics are not OK for Shabbat and second, someone will think you are bored and checking your email.  (Yes, the rabbi can see you and does notice.) IF it is a Reform synagogue, IF it is the custom at that synagogue, you may see people using electronics but don’t assume until you see the regulars doing it.
  5. Most people will carry the siddurim and chumashim back to the rack by the entrance when the service has ended. If you see an elderly person or someone juggling small children, it is nice to offer to put their book away for them.
  6. I should not have to say this, but I will: do not write in these holy books. Do not tear a page out. Do not dog-ear pages. Do not do anything to them but handle them reverently and enjoy using them.

For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners) 

Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.

Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.

What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry? The procession with the Torah involves people kissing and touching the Torah scroll as it passes. If you are curious about that practice, this article explores it.

Still have questions? I love questions. Please ask me questions in the comments, and I will enjoy writing articles in reply.

ChairsBooksBethElSometimes books are stored in racks in the pews or under the chairs. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

What is Minhag?

Image: A dark blue kippah on an open prayer book. (ESchwartz/pixabay)

A beginner asked me recently, “What is minhag? I know, I know, you are going to say “custom!”

She was right – I was going to say, “Custom,” and feel like I’d answered the question. After some conversation, I think I have a better idea what she was after – and I suspect she isn’t the only person out there with that question.

The proper name for it is minhag hamakom – the custom of the place. It is an element we must consider in Jewish decisionmaking, because it carries both official and unofficial weight.

In a nutshell, minhag is sum of all the things that are accepted in your Jewish community but are not necessarily required in every other Jewish community. For instance, it is the minhag in some places for adults to make Saturday morning kiddush over a liquor such as slivovitz (plum brandy.) In other congregations, if you brought out a bottle of slivovitz for kiddush, they’d look at you and say firmly, “We make kiddush over wine or grape juice only.” What they are saying is, “We don’t have that minhag here. Put that bottle away, we don’t care if it is ok according to halakhah!” [Jewish law]

Minhag can change over time. For instance, there was a time when if a man wore a head covering in a Reform synagogue, he would be assumed to be a visitor from a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. Nowadays in most Reform synagogues, many men (and women) wear kippot, but in most Reform synagogues one isn’t strictly required.

In an Orthodox congregation, if a man walks in without a kippah, he will be handed a kipa. Now, if you researched it, you would find that a head covering is actually not required by halakhah. It is, however, a nearly universal custom – minhag – in Orthodox and Conservative communities.

Our tradition recognizes that custom is an important part of communal identity. Therefore, we are taught to give weight to minhag in making decisions. If I visit a synagogue, I will make an effort to find out ahead of time what customs they have about dress and behavior. I will pray softly, so that my prayers blend in even if I do something differently. After one or two visits, I’ll have the drill down – but until then, I will try to be easy on myself about it.

How do you find out about minhag? As in the example above, if you have a specific question, by all means ask! And as for other things, don’t stress too much over it. If you notice some item of dress or behavior and begin wondering if your difference is OK, ask. If someone lets you know (I hope gently) that a behavior is expected or even required, don’t take it personally – it’s just minhag. If they were at a different shul, they’d be the ones who stuck out.

When in doubt, ask a rabbi. Every congregation has a few people who mistake their own opinions for the “Law from Sinai.” Those individuals are very sure of their answers, but they may be misinformed.

If someone seems rude or mean about the way they address it, that’s their problem. I assure you that God doesn’t mind. Let this be your mantra:

God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

You’re good: you’re doing your best. And whatever it is, you can do it differently in future. And there will be evening, and morning, and you’ll be the only one still worrying about it.