Spiritual but not Religious

English: Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal...
Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I listened to Terry Gross interview Retired Bishop Gene Robinson (Episcopal.)  Bishop Robinson is an interesting figure for many reasons, but he said something that stopped me in my tracks.  I can’t quote him precisely, but here’s a paraphrase:

Nowadays a lot of people say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I think that what happens is that they come to synagogue or mosque or church looking for God and instead what they find is religion. We need to do something about that.

Where do you find God? Where have you not found God?

 

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Tips for Planning Your Jewish Wedding

Chuppah
Chuppah (Photo credit: afagen)

There was another one of those messages on my voicemail today:

“Rabbi, I got your name from —–, and here’s the thing, we’re getting married this March 2 and we have already reserved the hotel, we just need a rabbi and —– said you taught her Intro class and were really nice! Can you call me back so we can make arrangements? Oh, and what is your fee?”

My heart sank. I looked at the calendar and sure enough, the date in question is 8 weeks away and Shabbat. I will return the call, and I will be happy for them and friendly. And at the end of the conversation, no matter how friendly I am, they will be unhappy with me and it will just be sad. Because you see, I can’t help this couple.

Here are some tips for making your Jewish wedding plans a success:

1. CALL YOUR RABBI ASAP. Before you book the caterer, before you pick the venue, before you shop for a dress, call your rabbi. If your heart is set on a particular rabbi, the rabbi of your youth, you need to get on his or her calendar. Once something is set for a particular date, it’s hard to move. Rabbis’ calendars fill fast, faster than caterers’.

2. IF YOU DON’T HAVE A RABBI, BUT WANT A JEWISH WEDDING, START LOOKING ASAP. Even if you are not set on one particular rabbi, most rabbis will want to take time to get to know you and do some premarital counseling. This will help them give you a nicer, more personal wedding; it will also help you stay focused on what you are doing. You are not just planning an event, you are planning a major life change. The rabbi can help you prepare for it, and many rabbis won’t officiate without doing so.

3. IF YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL NEEDS OR WANTS, START LOOKING FOR A RABBI NOW.  By special needs, I mean if one of you is not Jewish, or if you expect any special family challenges, if one of you is Orthodox and the other Reform, if you have any special desires like “no mention of God” or a wedding that is close upon Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday). Not all rabbis feel that they can officiate at weddings that will create an interfaith household. Only a few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat. And you may need a rabbi with special sensitivity if you have a complicated family situation. In any of these cases, you don’t want to be looking for your rabbi six weeks before the wedding, because you are likely not to find him.

The right rabbi can help you navigate a lot of the other hurdles you will face on the way to the chuppah. She can help you deal with overwrought relatives. He can help you not lose sight of the awesome life change you are making. She can help you with the other details of a Jewish wedding, including understanding what they mean: the chuppah [wedding canopy], the ketubah [wedding contract], and so on.

Even the not-quite-the-right-rabbi can point you to other rabbis who might be a better match for your wedding. The sooner you call us, the more likely we can help you.

I’m sure you have noticed that all my “tips” are really the same one:  call the rabbi!  Sometimes people delay, especially if they think they are bringing something to the rabbi that he or she won’t like. Don’t worry about that: just call. (Trust me, we’ve heard it all.)  If it isn’t going to work out with that rabbi, then you will have time to find the one you need.

If having a rabbi officiate is important to you, call the rabbi first. With the rabbi at your side, you can begin to prepare for your perfect day, and after that, for the rest of your life.

A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names

My drivers licence
My drivers licence (Photo credit: davidciani)

This week we begin reading Shemot, which is the Hebrew name for the Book of Exodus.  It’s called shemot [“names”] because the first line of the book is “these are the NAMES.”

 

Hebrew names are an interesting subject. One’s Hebrew name is like a Jewish Driver’s License. It is what we use to call a person to read from the Torah, to witness a ketubah, and at the end, to bury them as a Jew. Having a Hebrew name says, “I am a Jew, and here are my credentials.”

 

Most born Jews are given their names about a week after birth, in a naming ceremony. The parents choose a Hebrew name that may or may not match the “regular” name: a kid named Paul might be named Sha-ool (Saul, Hebrew for Paul), or he might be named Shlomo, because that was his grandfather’s Hebrew name.

 

A new convert to Judaism chooses a Hebrew name, too. It might be a figure from the Bible she particularly wants to emulate (I chose Ruth) or a family name (Linda chose Chava which is Hebrew for Eva, her deceased mother’s name.)

 

In either case, what follows after the given name are the names through whose merit [z’chut] one is a member of the Jewish People. For born Jews, that’s their parents. For our mythical kid Paul, his name might come out:
 
Shaul ben Eliezer v’ Sarah  [Paul, son of Henry and Sarah]  He is a Jew by the merit of his parents, Henry and Sarah.

 
For a convert, the z’chut [merit] comes through the first converts to Judaism, Abraham and Sarah:

 

Root bat Avraham v’Sarah [Ruth, daughter of Abraham and Sarah] Ruth is a Jew by the merit of the  first patriarch and matriarch.  Abraham and Sarah are not her parents, and this is not a “diss” to her biological parents.  This is, in fact, her Jewish credential.

 

Occasionally, I have a student who never received a Hebrew name, even though they were born to Jewish parents. It is never too late to acquire a Hebrew name.  Just contact your rabbi, and say, I want to have a Hebrew name! Like an adult convert, you’ll get to choose your own: a family name, or a name you choose as an inspiration.

 

Whatever your Hebrew name, may it be a shem tov, a good name, a name of honor within your community!

 

Do New US Tax Laws Affect Tzedakah?

coins
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Tzedakah means “money given for charity.”  It is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give to reduce the suffering of others.

Some individuals, Ari Fleischer for instance, have come out in the press saying that the changes in the U.S. tax law (that fiscal cliff business) will cause them to reduce their charitable giving. Nonprofits are very worried about exactly this thing. If the tax advantages for giving are reduced, will people give?

Before this change in the rules, some people gave to charity as a “smart” thing to do, taxwise.  Give a little money to nonprofits, and while it is still out of your pocket, at least you decide where exactly it went.  Certainly that was true, and under a maximum, will still be true.

However, Jews are not commanded to give to the needy because it is “smart.”  We are commanded to give to the needy because it is just – hence the name, tzedakah, which comes from tzedek, justice.

There are still hungry people, still homeless people, still people who cannot afford education or healthcare or the other necessities of life. There is still suffering that can be remedied with cash.  That does not change.

So how should all of this affect my giving? I can think of two possibile answers:

— Not at all.  I am still commanded to give.  I personally will still aim for the standard the Rambam suggests,  10%.

— Another possibility:  if the need increases because fewer people donate, perhaps I should consider giving more than before.  The Rambam is firm that no one should give so much that he endangers his ability to support himself: there IS an upper limit.  But perhaps I should keep my mind open about unexpected needs, since the situation may change.

Bottom line: if you gave in the past because it is a mitzvah, then nothing has changed.  It’s still a mitzvah, and if predictions come true, there may be greater need than ever.

6 Tips for Beginning to Study Torah

If you are a beginner at Torah study, here are six tips that will help you. The most important one is #1 – if you can find an ongoing group to study with, that’s the best of all.

  1. STUDY WITH OTHERS.  Reading Torah by yourself is good, of course, but Jews typically study with partners or groups.  We do this for a number of reasons, but most of it boils down to the obvious: two heads are better than one, and ten heads offer lots of resources for looking into a text.
  2. READ ALOUD. Read a verse, or a section aloud, then discuss. Hearing the text is different than reading it, and will spur different ideas. Even if you have read the text a hundred times before, read it aloud.
  3. NO SINGLE RIGHT ANSWERS. When Jews study, we are not looking for the “right answer.” Usually there are many right answers.
  4. STAY SELF-AWARE. Notice the difference between what is IN the text and what you BRING to the text.  For example, our reading of several stories in Genesis may be colored by our own experiences as eldest or younger children. It’s not bad to have those reactions, but it’s good to be conscious about them.
  5. LISTEN AND SPEAK.  Hillel said, “The shy person will not learn” – if we don’t ask questions and speak up, we don’t learn much.  However, the converse is also true: the person who is always talking will not learn much either. Listen to what your study partners have to say, and think it over. Don’t just react.
  6. BE REGULAR IN STUDY. Don’t drop into a group occasionally: become a regular. Learning with others is good, but when we meet regularly to study we develop relationships with our partners and with the text that will deepen our access to Torah.

Happy Learning!

A Comment on Comments

English: Groucho Marx & anonymous blogging

Dear Readers,

I’m on vacation for the moment, just checking periodically to clean up spam comments.  I’ve noticed a trend on my blog of people leaving comments that have nothing to do with the topic of the blog entry. They’re basically using the comment section as a little soapbox. Some opinions I agree with, some I don’t. Some are expressed rudely. Some have such poor spelling and grammar it takes a major effort to figure out what they are saying and even then, it’s a puzzle.  Thank goodness, wordpress does a nice job of weeding out the commercial comments before they even hit the board.

Today I went through and un-approved the rude comments, the totally off-topic comments, and the unreadable comments, and it occurs to me that perhaps I should articulate a policy about comments, since now I’m deleting some things.

Here’s the deal:

1.  I love a good discussion.  Feel free to disagree in the comments, or to question what I’ve written.  That is the best possible use for comments.

2. I don’t love off topic rants.  If you want to reach a wide number of people with your soapbox, go build your own blog and build your readership the hard way. Comment on the topic at hand. If there’s a topic you wish I’d address, put that request in the comments – that’s fine. But don’t just post an essay out of the clear blue sky, because it’s wasted effort – I’ll delete it. I do this not because I disagree (or agree) with you, but because I want to be respectful of my readers’ time and interest.

3. If you are rude, talk about “idiots,” or attack another person or group of persons with your words, I will delete the comment the moment I see it. Do that stuff somewhere else, please. Doesn’t matter if we agree or not, it’s gone.

4. Not everyone is a ba’al hadikduk [master of grammar] but please do try to make your message intelligible. If English is not your first language, just do your best and that’s OK – I do understand. However, if I can’t make it out at all, I’ll delete the message whether English is your mother tongue or not.

5. Finally, if you’ve made it this far, don’t let this fussy post of mine prevent you from commenting and questioning my posts.  I really do love a good discussion, and we can only get there with a comment.  Disagree, question my assumptions, ask questions, whatever – mazal tov!  I love that stuff.

As 2012 comes to an end, thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate the readers who follow me regularly, and the people who follow tweets and other breadcrumbs to come check me out. In the coming year, I will try to post more essays and “tips for beginners” of interest, and make the time you spend reading my blog worthwhile.

Blessings to you in the secular New Year!

— Rabbi Ruth Adar

Speechless, and a Modest Proposal

Cover of "The Shootist"
Cover of The Shootist

I’ve been trying to think what to write in the face of events in Newtown, CT.  Words fail me. I remember being the age of those children; I remember having children that age. First graders are among the most innocent creatures on earth – in many ways they are humanity at its sweetest. I just have no words for their murders.

What I do have is some thoughts about the pattern of murder/suicide that repeats and repeats across America. When it’s “just” a man murdering his girlfriend or wife and then shooting himself, it barely rates a mention on the news, so accustomed have we become to this pattern.

Here’s my proposal: let’s quit referring to these guys as “shooters” or “gunmen.” Both of those words call up images of the Old West and of John Wayne.  One almost gets the feeling, from those words, that it’s just the manly thing to do.  News flash: there is nothing “manly” about killing the people you love or other helpless souls and then sidestepping consequences by shooting yourself, too. It’s an act of either supreme insanity or cowardice, or both.

So let’s call them what they are: cowards.  No more news reports about “the shooter” please: refer to him as the coward who shot himself when he heard the cops coming. Refer to them as “criminals.”

I believe we need to take a hard look at gun laws, and a hard look at the resources available to the mentally ill, but in the meantime, let’s call this what it is: a criminal act, a cowardly act. Such an act is not romantic and it does not “send a message.” Yes, we will remember – because we refuse to forget the victims, but let’s assure future perpetrators that we will remember them only with disgust.

May the souls of all those injured in this and every other act of gun violence this week be comforted in the arms of God, and in the love of friends and family.