Prayer in a Time of Uncertainty

Image: A narcissus flower. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Oh Holy One, I do not know what is going to happen next.

Too much of life seems uncertain to me, and the future is unknown.

I am surrounded by foolish voices: are they foolish, or am I? I fear the worst, and I cannot even imagine what it is.

Help me to discern those things that I can control. Help me to release the rest.

Guide me to mitzvot that I can do. Show me how I can be helpful to others and increase the good in the world.

May I mirror those who do me a kindness, and may I be untroubled by those who wish to do me harm.

Sim shalom, oh Holy One, make peace among us, now and in the coming days.

Amen.

Meeting the Rabbi – My Story

Image: Rabbi Chester and I at my ordination on 5/18/08. (Photo taken by R. Sanford Akselrad.)

It is a truism among writers that when you particularly love a line or a paragraph it is often the one that most needs to be edited out.

I’m barreling towards a deadline on an article about ritual and conversion to Judaism. The article is supposed to be academic writing, which means that I have to rein in my inclination to tell homey little stories, especially first-person stories.

So here is a bit that had to go. I’m sharing it here to pacify the part of me that was determined to tell it, and partly because I think it might be useful to someone worrying about meeting a rabbi to talk about conversion:

————–

I read anything Jewish I could lay hands upon, absorbed a quantity of information and misinformation, and finally decided I was sure. I called and made an appointment to meet with the rabbi.

So when I first approached Rabbi Steve Chester in 1994, I told him very confidently that I had decided that Judaism was for me. His words to me like a non-sequitur: “There’s a tradition for turning candidates away three times – can we agree that I’ve done that? I don’t want to be unfriendly.”

Then he added, “Maybe you want to be a Jew, maybe not. I’d like to slow down, study with you for a while, and see how it goes.” He explained to me that not every Jew in the world recognizes a Reform conversion, and that it would not hurt his feelings if I decided to meet instead with a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi, just to be sure to let him know. The warning about non-acceptance of converts mostly flew over my head. He gave me a book to read, told me to sign up for an Introduction to Judaism class, told me he expected to see me at services every Shabbat, and we made an appointment to meet again the next month.

He didn’t send me away, but he wasn’t terribly encouraging, either. I could not leave that meeting shouting, “I’m going to be a Jew.” All I knew for sure was that the rabbi had given me assignments to do, and we had an appointment to talk again in a month. What I had, from that moment, was a relationship with a rabbi. And let me tell you, to this day, the relationship with Rabbi Steve Chester is one of the most important in my life.

What is Orthodox Judaism?

Image: Haredi men pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (MoneyforCoffee / Pixabay)

A comment on Twitter brought it to my attention that some people were referring to the community that suffered the anti-Semitic terror attack in Monsey, NY on Dec. 28, 2019 as “Habad.” That is incorrect.

You may be asking, “The who? What?”

This seems like a good opportunity to talk a bit about the diversity within the Orthodox Jewish world. I offer the very sketchiest of primers here – entire books could be written on this subject. First I shall point you to Orthodox Judaism and Reyna Weiss’s excellent article, Haredim (Charedim,) or Ultra-Orthodox Jews on MyJewishLearning.com. These treatments do more than skim the surface, which is what I am about to do.

Now, for Rabbi Adar’s 500-word approach to the subject:

  1. There is no such thing as “the Orthodox.” Orthodox Judaism is wildly diverse and includes both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The word Orthodox means that that the particular group of Jews seeks to be fully and strictly observant of halakhah (Jewish law.) The diversity comes in when they start getting specific about what “fully and strictly observant” means for their particular community, or when minhag (custom) of a community comes into play.
  2. Modern Orthodoxy, which made its appearance in 19th century Germany, seeks to be fully compliant with the details of halakhah (Jewish law) while engaging positively with the modern secular world. Within Modern Orthodoxy you will still find a wide spectrum of practice.
  3. There are many other traditions of Judaism that strive for strict observance. They differ about all sorts of things: the importance and legitimacy of mysticism, ethnic styles, the State of Israel, Zionism, models of leadership, attitudes towards contact with Jews outside their particular group, or with liberal Jews, etc. Most of them call themselves “Orthodox.”
  4. A sub-group within Orthodoxy that is itself quite diverse are the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox. (Some feel that “ultra-Orthodox” is a slur, and so the term Haredi or Charedi or Hasidim is preferred.) In general, Haredim wear distinctive and extremely modest clothing and separate their communities from outsiders.
  5. Hasidim are a sub-group within the Haredi world, but their roots go back to the 18th century. It arose as a spiritual revival movement and is strongly identified with its founder, Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov [Master of the Good Name.] (There are also liberal Jews with deep interest in hasidoot, the mystical teachings of Hasidic rabbis.)
  6. Chabad is a well-known Hasidic movement. It was founded in 1775 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe. The name “Chabad” is an acronym of three emanations of God: Chochmah, Binah, Da’at. They are also sometimes referred to as Lubavitch because from 1813 until 1915 their leadership resided in the town of Lyubavichi in Russia. For more about Chabad, I recommend this article from the Jewish Virtual Library.
  7. There are many, many smaller groups that identify as Orthodox, as Haredi, or as Hasidic. The congregation in Monsey, NY are members of such a group, and honestly I don’t know much about them. As I am able to learn more, I will add the information to this article.

Most important to me is to underline before I finish this that while I do not see Orthodox expressions of Judaism as “more authentic” than other expressions of Judaism, I respect Orthodox Jews as cousins with whom I have more in common than not. We differ on many things but I stand with them against the tide of the dark forces of anti-Semitism that have been particularly cruel to them in the past month.

We are all Jews.

It's Rosh Chodesh Tevet!

Image: Candles on the menorah are nearly out. (Ri Butov / Pixabay)

Welcome to Tevet!

Tevet is the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and when we light the sixth candle, the month of Tevet arrives to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest thing to happen in it is not a Jewish day at all: the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually falls in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

Rosh Chodesh is the first of every Jewish month. It means “head of the month” and it lines up (more or less) with the New Moon.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!

Feeling the need for a good Jewish calendar? You’ve got one in your smartphone or computer!

Divrei Torah on Parashat Miketz

I associate memories with certain Torah portions. I remember Shelach Lecha as the week I  became a Jew, and the week I left home for rabbinical school. I remember Yitro as the first time I first chanted Torah for the congregation. And I remember Miketz because it was the portion I was assigned for my first d’var Torah in rabbinical school.

On the one hand, the stories in Miketz have been favorites of mine ever since I was little: Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams! Joseph becomes the Prime Minister of Egypt! Joseph faces his brothers again! And on the other hand I was going to speak before the whole school, and I wanted to say something profound about the Joseph story. Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur was assigned to me as a mentor for the first sermon, and I was as intimidated by his reputation as Joseph’s brothers must have been in Pharaoh’s court.

I didn’t say anything profound that week. It was a fine learning experience: Rabbi Marmur taught me how to dig into the text for something coherent to say, and as far as I recall, I performed adequately. I remember, with blushes now, my overblown ambitions for that sermon.

However, I have some wonderful divrei Torah for you from people with more practice at it than I had back in 2002!

Rabbi Ellen M. Umansky — Forgiveness and Reconciliation with the Past

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild — Mikketz: how knowledge and understanding still requires wisdom if we are to avert environmental disaster

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat — Miketz: Letting Yourself Dream

Rabbi John Rosove — Jewish Survival is not a Given

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken z”l — Joseph and Potiphar: The Named, The Neutered, and the Neutralized

A Jew on Christmas Day

Image: My neighbor’s house is amazing. (Photo by Adar.)

My neighbor’s house is amazing, like a branch office of Disneyland.

My house has a menorah in the window. One of our poodles is mesmerized by the menorah; we don’t know why.

Many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that most of us have time off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food.

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by and see their Christmas tree.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

May be new secular year be a year in which we have the courage to see new ways of listening and talking, walking and running.

May we have courage. May we have heart. May we have strength.

May we remember this feeling of being the Other the next time we are tempted to Other another.

Amen.

(Adapted from a previous post, in a different year. Time flies, and things change.)

Vayeshev: Journey to Leadership

Image: Caterpillar, pupa, butterfly: this animal completely transforms over its lifetime. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, shows us the transformation of Joseph from a spoiled favorite-child to a leader. Seems to me that’s useful information in light of the world’s troubles right now.

Joseph was the spoiled youngest son of a rich man, doubly spoiled after his father began trying to compensate for the death of his mother Rachel. Often first-time readers feel a sharp sympathy for his brothers, who hated him so much that they debated killing him and then settled for selling him into slavery. I’ve never gone that far – I don’t think anyone deserves to be murdered or enslaved, certainly no young person – but there’s no doubt that the young Joseph was obnoxious.

The older Joseph is wiser, not just because he has suffered but because he as used his time well. Midrash tells us that he spent his years in prison learning: he learned to speak every language spoken in that prison, he learned the life stories of everyone in the prison, he became a student of human nature and indeed, all the humanities.

The boy who was interested only in his own aggrandizement became curious about others.

The boy who wanted everyone to listen to him learned how to listen to others.

The boy who said things thoughtlessly learned to hold his counsel and measure his words.

I think, from now on, this is how I’m going to judge candidates for office. Not: will they be good for me? But: will they be wise in office?

All politicians are human beings. They will have flaws, and sometimes voting seems like an exercise in choosing which flaws I’m willing to live with. But looking at the Joseph story, what I see is the qualities that make for good leadership in unpredictable times: a willingness to listen, curiosity, a need to understand others so pressing that languages became important.

At any rate, it’s a different way to see a candidate, and with all the manipulation from media and outside influences, new paradigms for seeing might be really helpful. I know that the presidents who in my opinion have failed us had the qualities I associate with young Joseph: self-involved, wanting to be important, too quick to speak, too quick to judge, and greedy. The greatest leaders, in my opinion, have been the ones who were willing to listen to everyone, who did so not for an advantage but out of curiosity.

I’m not going to say which were which. I just invite you to join me, as the next election approaches, to try asking these questions:

  1. Is this person curious?
  2. Is their education over, or ongoing?
  3. Have they ever suffered real misfortune? How did they respond?
  4. Can they be quiet when quiet is called for?
  5. Do they learn from mistakes?
  6. Do they seek fame and/or fortune, compared to the other candidates on offer?
  7. What are their relationships with others like?

No policy there at all – just a question, are they closer to Joseph the Spoiled Kid or Joseph the Tzaddik?

Shabbat shalom.

P.S. – If you use the comments to endorse a political candidate, I will delete the post. I’m not going to use this space to advocate for a particular candidate, nor am I going to provide it for that purpose.