New Program? Or Old Mitzvah?

Many of the established Jewish institutions are in a panic right now:  “Where are the young people? We must find the young people! In fact, where are the people? Why is enrollment so low?”  Synagogues want “programs” that will attract people and will engage them in Jewish life.  Membership in many organizations is dropping, and there is a constant drumbeat for new programs, for new ways of doing religious school, for a new Something to Keep Judaism Alive.

Grumpy old Kohelet tells us in Ecclesiastes that “There is nothing new under the sun.” I tend to think he’s mostly right about that. The Internet is a new tool, yes, but most of what we do with it is not really new. We use it to buy and sell, to tell stories (true and false), and to connect with other people.

That leads me to think that the “new program” so many of us are seeking is probably right under our noses: something already in the Jewish tradition.  We just need to update it, or tweak it — or maybe dust it off and start doing it again. You see, I think that the “program” we seek might be a mitzvah we are neglecting.

Recently I invited my Intro students over for a Shabbat dinner at my apartment. I am not a great cook, or even a particularly good cook, so I made a dependable main dish and the rest was potluck. I specified a dairy meal, but told them not to worry about kashrut beyond “no meat or shellfish please.” I cleared my books and computer off the table, spread a nice tablecloth, got out the candlesticks, bought a challah, opened some wine, and voilá: Shabbat dinner! We had fun, they stayed later than I expected, and afterwards I noticed that things had shifted in the group.  Our relationships had changed: we, all of us, were closer.  And all we did was have dinner together, in my home!

These nice students, some of them Jews, some not, were blown away that I invited them into my home.  Then it hit me: the mitzvah we are neglecting is hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of hospitality.

Right then, I resolved that the doors of my tent needed to be a lot wider.  It was true: when had I last invited guests for Shabbat, or for dinner any other time? When had I opened my home?

Like a lot of other people, I’m not a fancy cook.  I’m not a very good housekeeper, either, and my dinner table doubles as my desk. I have a nice little apartment but it is indeed little. And so I have gotten into the habit of meeting folks elsewhere, because I’m ashamed of my housekeeping and my cooking and all that, and often in my off hours I’m just tired.  And reviewing all that, all I can think to say to myself is “What kind of Jew am I?”  Abraham and Sarah had a tent open on all four sides! Hachnasat orchim is an important mitzvah!

So: here’s my  resolution, my teshuvah for neglecting this important mitzvah: I’m going to start inviting folks over. The place isn’t fancy, but I can keep it tidy. (Really.) The food won’t be fancy (it may be takeout).  The welcome is the thing. I will invite them into my Jewish life, and that of my family, and we’ll have fun. Our relationships will become closer.  It will be good for the Jews.

And that, my friends, is nothing new under the sun. But it’s one heck of a “program.”

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Memorial Day

Memorial Day Commemoration 2008

Today is Memorial Day.  For many Americans, it’s “the official beginning of summer,” with backyard barbeques and   sports on TV.  For other Americans, it’s a much heavier day:  it’s a day for visiting cemeteries, for laying wreaths, for remembering fallen brothers and sisters in arms. Public America straddles the gap between those two, ostentatiously paying lip service in front of the cameras: bits for the evening news, to prove that we “support our troops.”

It is high time we stopped accepting the lip-service of politicians about “support for the troops” when actual men and women who have served this country in war are hungry or homeless.

I am no lover of war.  I wish that no American ever again had to go to war.  But once we accept an oath from a person volunteering to serve in our military, to give up their freedom in order to defend ours, we as a nation have responsibilities to them. And should they serve in a theater of war, and suffer the emotional and physical damage that war inflicts on everyone in combat, our debt to them and to their families soars.  These are debts that nothing can cancel out.

This Memorial Day, I am conscious that I have two sons, both of whom are alive and near to me. I am also conscious that there are parents all over America who sent children off to war who never returned, or who returned broken and hurt.  I am grateful for what I have, and I want to be properly appreciative of the staggering contributions others have made to our national life.

Their contributions — their lives, the lives of their loved ones — are a continual reminder that while we may see ourselves as a nation of “rugged individualists” we are in fact a society interconnected to the core. The freedom of my life is possible because others have given theirs.  Their sacrifices must not be forgotten, and must not simply be an excuse for a politician — or anyone else! —  to make a cheap sentimental point: we must remember them in the way we treat their families, and in the way we treat their fellows who are still living, and in the way we choose to exercise the precious freedoms we have been given.

Ready to Receive the Torah?

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Heb...

“Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days of the Omer.”

Almost there!  Shavuot will be here in just a few days – am I ready?  What does it mean, to be ready to receive the Torah?

Memory: my first Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, when I finally felt a part of the Torah Study group at my synagogue.  I think it had something to do with studying so late and so long around the table that we all got giggly.  At any rate, I finally relaxed and felt like “one of the gang,” which was good, since momentous things were to follow.  Soon after, it was time for me to go to the beit din and the mikveh to complete my conversion to Judaism.  And then, on the same day many years later, I got on the plane to go to Jerusalem to begin rabbinical school.  Lots of memories, indeed!

The question remains: what does it mean to be ready to receive the Torah?  That magical night when I felt I truly belonged to the group, that was part of it.  The Torah is given to Am Yisrael, not to any individual on his or her own.

A little later, when the beit din questioned me, they were looking to see: was I there for the right reasons? Was I truly free to make this decision?  Was I holding back some piece of my old life?  And all of that, too, is part of being ready to receive the Torah.  Sinai wasn’t possible until Passover was done: only a free People could make a covenant with the Divine.  They didn’t quiz me on the fine points, because after all at the original deal, at Sinai, the People said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” [We will do and we will hear]. Both the Jews and this individual Jew had to make the leap without knowing every detail:  this covenant requires risk.  It takes heart. One must have heart to be ready to receive the Torah.

Then, the mikveh:  I had heard about warm and lovely mikveh experiences, but mine was more like, well, a dash of cold water.  A whole mikveh full of cold water, actually, because they’d forgotten to turn on the heat.  I took a deep breath, and walked down into what felt like the Arctic Ocean until all but my head was submerged in the water.  I called to my mikveh attendant, our cantor, and when she came in, she saw me cringing  and said, “Are you OK?” “I’m freezing!” I said.  “Let’s get this over with!”  So we said the blessings in between dunks, she made sure it was all kosher, and I came flying back out of that icewater as soon as modesty permitted.

And that, too, was appropriate, even if it wasn’t the usual way.  We motored through those blessings, but nothing was skipped.  Sometimes, in Jewish prayer, you just do what you have to do.   I dressed hurriedly and went out to the mazal tovs of family and friends with my hair still wet.  Na’aseh v’nishma: we will do and we will hear.  And sometimes we will “do” in a hurry.  The sages tell us to run to do a mitzvah: and so sometimes run we must!

And then, in a later June, but still in that same week of Shelach L’cha, my friend Fred drove me to the airport with three enormous bags for my flight to Jerusalem.  I had no inkling of what lay ahead.  Na’aseh v’nishma:  Doing before understanding.  Had I any idea how hard the next six years would be, I’d never have gotten on that plane, and I’m so glad now that I was ignorant, because being a rabbi has filled my heart and my life beyond all my dreams.   I suspect that had the Hebrews at Sinai been shown all that lay ahead, they’d have said, “No thanks:”  no thanks to the years of wilderness, no thanks to the lawless age of the Judges, no thanks to Babylon, no thanks to Rome, no thanks to the Inquisition, no thanks to the Nazis.  But they didn’t know.  I am so glad we didn’t know.

And now we are about to stand at Sinai yet again.  And yet again we will say, “Na’aseh v’nishma,”  And now, unlike the first time, when we trembled at the fire and the thunder, we know to tremble at the wild abandon of this promise: We will do it, whatever it is!  We will understand it later.

And then we will be ready to receive the Torah.

Lag B’Omer and Marriage Equality

Rainbow flag flapping in the wind with blue sk...
Rainbow flag flapping in the wind with blue skies and the sun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Lag B’Omer, a brief moment of lightness during the intense count of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot.  Tonight there are bonfires, tomorrow tykes will get their first haircuts.

After the vote for the hideous Amendment One in North Carolina this week, I was braced for a glum Lag B’Omer.  I hate feeling like a second-class citizen, and it’s pretty clear that’s exactly what I and other LGBTQ folk are in the Tar Heel State.

Then the news came over the car radio that President Obama had finally spoken in favor of marriage equality.  I honestly never thought I’d see the day when a sitting American President would speak up for us, much less one in the midst of a campaign.  The news made me feel light-headed: I actually pulled off the road and sat for a bit, until I settled down a bit.  I’m happy, and surprised, and grateful.

As for the folks in NC:  I wish I could talk to them.  I wish I could say to the Christians of North Carolina who fought so hard to pass Amendment One, do you remember your forebears?  Many of your spiritual ancestors fled Europe because the lived in places where Baptists, or Methodists, or Catholics were not free to worship as they wished. They came to this country, and eventually set up a government where they carefully separated religion and state.  They understood that that meant that this country would never enshrine their religious beliefs in law, and they wanted it that way.  They did not want to risk ever again being a persecuted minority, nor did they want anyone else in that position for their religious beliefs.

I am a Reform Jew.  Reform Judaism affirms the sacredness of marriage between two individuals regardless of gender.  My sweetheart and I have a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) on our wall.  We are married in the eyes of God and our congregation and the Reform Movement.  Unfortunately our state and our federal government has chosen not to honor our marriage, because the religious majority in our country holds that homosexuality is a sin.  Reform Judaism is not the only religion that recognizes as sacred the union between two men or two women who vow to be responsible for one another for life:  the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists, and the Alliance of Baptists also recognize same-sex marriage.

I am beginning to hope that I may see the day when this unfairness is no longer with us, when the intention of the founders of our government is honored.  I hope I will see the day when religion and state are truly separate.  In the meantime, I am glad that President Obama spoke up.

In the meantime, I will celebrate this moment of lightness in a long journey, this Lag B’Omer.

Taking the Queer Road

Two memoirs are out just recently from people I admire: Jeanne Córdova’s When We were Outlaws and Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger. I’ve had a chance to read Córdova’s book, but my e-copy of Bornstein’s book is still on its way through cyberspace to me. Both are stories about dangerous journeys, and it occurred to me that they are totally appropriate reading for Omer-time, since we are in that period of travel from Passover to Shavuot, from freedom to Torah. Just as Am Yisrael had to deal with Amalekites and their own demons, these two women have been through their own wildernesses, external and internal.

When We were Outlaws is about a short period in the 1970’s when lesbians began to see themselves as Lesbian Nation, but the Establishment, especially J.Edgar Hoover, saw them as another bunch of Commies, enemies of the state.    (I say “them” because I didn’t come out until ’87.) Those were scary, heady times, when the radical Left in America was feeling its oats about the exit from Vietnam, but painfully aware of what had happened to the Black Panthers.  Córdova was a leader in the lesbian community in Southern California during that time, and she talks about not only the external battles but the internal ones as well.  She was (and is) both a lover and a fighter, and breathtakingly honest about it, to boot.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger is about another sort of journey. I met Kate Bornstein after she had stopped being Al and had become Kate, but before I became a Jew named  Ruth.  She was the first person to explain gender in a way that made sense to me.  The binary division of the world into “us” and “them” had always seemed like a gross oversimplification of something much more interesting, but I never had words for it. Kate embodies it: she occupies her own township on the landscape of gender, and has spent much of the last twenty years as a kind and outrageous tour guide and den mother, writing and performing her art to communicate the truth of that landscape to the rest of us. I look forward to reading her memoir, as I have enjoyed her other books; I know I will learn something not only about her, but about myself, before I put it down.

I admire these two writers because they have followed the truth where it took them, and they have the guts to talk honestly about the sometimes messy adventures and mistakes along the way.  It’s one of the qualities I love about Jewish holy books, that they include some of the unholiest episodes imaginable, letting us know that all of life can become  holy.  It’s only when we are willing to really tell the truth that we can learn something worthwhile.  It’s only when we can embrace the mess of being human, that we can allow ourselves to be embraced by God.

7 Ways to Taste Shabbat

Shabbat meal
Shabbat meal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What if, for one day, we were slaves to nothing and no one?  How would our lives be different?

That is the premise of Shabbat:  the seventh day, the day of rest, the day when even God rested from the work of Creation.  The problem of Shabbat, often, is that many of us are intimidated by the idea of a full-on shomer Shabbat experience.  It’s just too much change, all at once, if you are starting at or near zero.  

Instead, I’m offering you seven options for letting a little Shabbat into your own life.  These are things that have worked for me and for my family.  They may need to be modified for you and your family.  You may only want to try ONE of them, or one of them may inspire you to your own path to Shabbat. That’s OK.

[For a more traditional set of information about Shabbat at home, there are excellent articles on My Jewish Learning.]

1.  SHABBAT DINNER.  What is dinner like at your house on an ordinary day?  What would make it better? The answer to that will differ from one household to another. What if there were candles on Friday night? What if there were agreement ahead of time that there would be no criticizing or  nagging? What if there were guests? What if no one had to cook, if it were all take-out?  What if you used the good dishes? If any of these things sound like “work” to you, don’t go there, at least at first.  Do something that makes you feel that you could say, “Tonight we are slaves to no one and nothing.”

2. TURN OFF THE CELL PHONE. Have you ever ignored someone right in front of you, perhaps someone you love, because something on the cell phone was Very Important Right Now?  Not everyone can turn off their cell phone.  Some are doctors on call, after all.  But if you can, consider turning off the cell phone and try some old-fasioned conversation.  Or just look and listen.  Rabbi Micah Streiffer wrote recently about Shabbat as a remedy for Information Overload.

3. REACH OUT TO FAMILY. Shabbat can be a great time to reach out to family who are distant, maybe even as a routine. Do you have a child at college? A sister or a parent in another city? A brother with a busy life on the other side of town?  If family is in town, but you never get together any more, maybe get together for a meal.

4. REACH OUT TO FRIENDS. When did you last hang out with your best friend?  What about inviting them (and their family?) for dinner and board games?  What about a Saturday afternoon bike ride, or hike in the park? If you have friends who celebrate Shabbat, ask them if you can join them for part of it, to get a taste of it.  It really is OK to ask, as long as your are willing to take “no” for an answer.

5. GET SOME SLEEP. According to the L.A. Times, 75 million Americans do not get enough sleep. A Shabbat afternoon nap will not make up for a week of 4 hour nights, but it can go a long way to bring some shalom, some wholeness, back into life.  Or instead of staying up to watch Leno or Ferguson or any of those late-night comics, turn in early on Friday night!

6. MOVE FOR JOY. Go to a park and play!  Ride your bike!  Play tag with your kids! Roughhouse with your dog! Get outdoors, find some nature, or unroll the yoga mat for a leisurely session of pure catlike pleasure.  Get back in touch with your body.  Get back in touch with your spouse’s body.  We are created beings, physical beings, and it is not good for us to live in our heads all the time.

7. GATHER WITH OTHER JEWS. Gather with other Jews for Shabbat, at synagogue or the Jewish Community Center.  If your town doesn’t have a synagogue or JCC, find out where the Jews gather.  If services don’t speak to you, try Torah Study – many  synagogues have a Torah Study group that meets on Shabbat, and it is often a group of friendly people who enjoy a bagel and a good discussion.  Jewish life and Jewish learning is always richer in company.

These are just seven little possibilities.  Follow your heart, follow the hearts in your household.  Every family keeps Shabbat in its own way; if you begin the journey, something wonderful awaits!

Still counting!

Cash register "National".
Cash register "National". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s the 20th day of the Omer and I am still counting.  Back at the beginning, I asked Why Count the Omer and listed some reasons I gleaned from reading.  I hunted around on WordPress and other blogging sites, and found more wisdom about the Omer (also some great bloggers):

Don’t Forget to Count the Omer with Homer   (link to a fun Omer counter)

Count of the Omer (lots of detail on the traditional / proper way to count)

Counting the Omer as a Form of Global Prayer (powerful reason to count!)

Counting the Omer, Dancing in the limbs of the Sefirot (a different way of counting, from a community and rabbi in the Rockies)

and then there’s also Rabbi Denise Eger’s blog Walking Justly. Seeking Justice. Living with Hope. in which she’s counting day by day using the traditional sefirot as a framework.

These are far from the only sources online with counting or thoughts on counting, but they offer a taste of the variety available.  Jewish learning really IS bigger than the sea.

But back to counting: I’ve been meditating on the word “Count.”  In Hebrew, “to count” is לספור, “lispor,” and the root is ס.פ.ר, samech, pey, resh.  Hebrew roots connect entire families of words, in this case:

  • sippur, story
  • l’saper, to tell
  • sefer, book
  • sifriyah, library
  • sofer, scribe
  • mispar, number
  • sefirot, emanations (the ten attributes or emanations of God, according to Kabbalah)

There’s plenty to think about there.  There are also the uses in English of “count”:

  • Counting the days.
  • Called to account. (That one doesn’t work in Hebrew, but it sure is evocative in English.)
  • Making the day count.
  • Can people count on me?
  • Does his opinion count?
  • Count up your points!
  • Let me recount the tale…

So….

  • What am I counting this month, besides the days to the barley harvest?  (I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen it growing.)
  • Am I making these days count?
  • What am I writing in the scroll of my life during these days between freedom and covenant?
  • If I was written in the Book of Life last High Holy Days, what am I doing about it now?
  • What am I doing to make the days count?
  • Whom I am not taking into account?
  • Can people count on me?
  • Upon whom or what can I count?

All excellent questions!  What does “count” or “ס.פ.ר” bring up for you?