What is Hateful

Intro1009-10
An Intro class photo. I’m wearing the red jacket, in the middle.

What is hateful to you do not do to any person.  All the rest is commentary. Go and study. – Hillel (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a)

Let me ask you, my intelligent reader, one simple question: do you like it when random people tell you what they perceive to be the error of your ways? Do you in fact hate it when people do that? How about when people make fun of you, or people like you? How do you feel about that?

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

I am a fat woman.  I’ve spent an amazing amount of my life and money trying to be a thin woman, and folks, it is not going to happen. And no, I’m not open to arguments: if a diet was going to change my body permanently, if exercise were going to change it permanently, I would be thin.  And I’m not. (Nor am I alone. Did you know that the most extensive study of weight loss diets ever done revealed that 5 years out, 95% of dieters regain whatever they lost? That over 41% wound up heavier than they began?)

In my personal life, I am blessed with friends and family who love me as I am. I think they are mostly relieved that I finally let the dieting go and have settled into a routine of regular exercise and healthy meals.

But let me turn on a TV, or the computer, or for that matter, go out in public, and I and other fat people face a world that never heard the words of Hillel and certainly never heard of kindness. They think it is perfectly fine to moo at a woman exercising outdoors. They write hateful things to us and about us. They think it is perfectly fine to make TV shows about the humiliation of fat people.  You know. You’ve seen it, too.

So here’s all I have to say: What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. If you see a fat person, you don’t need to be extra nice. You just need to be as polite as you’d be to anyone else. Making jokes or giving advice, under the guise of “humor” or “for their own good” is just cruelty in a clown suit or a fake white coat.

If you are tempted, just remember the last time someone said something useless, ignorant or cruel to you.  Re-live the feeling. Then find something else to talk about. Your words will not help any more than the latest fad diet will – in fact, they might do a great deal more harm.

Just for today, try saying nothing hateful about your own body or anyone else’s.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study. 

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Why Learn Torah?

Image: Torah Scroll.

I learn Torah because I think it offers a framework for living my life.

If I am busy observing 613 mitzvot [commandments] there is not much time or energy left for getting into mischief.

If I am busy blessing the food that I eat, the mitzvot I perform, and the ordinary pleasures of life there’s very little time left for being unhappy.

If I fill my days with chesed [lovingkindness] there will be no room for kveching.

If I fill my mouth with blessings there will be no room in it for lashon hara.

I learn Torah because it offers me a framework in which I can explore my options and make choices to live a better life. When I have a tough decision, I look to the tradition for the many discussions on that subject: what did the early rabbis have to say about it? What did Maimonides teach? What have more recent scholars had to say to people in my situation? What do my rabbis think? And then I use my brain, and I decide for myself.

But without the study, without the Torah, I have to make it up all on my own. There are things I won’t think of until it is too late. There are things I might never have considered. But when I have the Torah at my back, I know that while I may still make a mistake, I will know how I got there, and the tradition will still be with me to show me how to take responsibility and repair any damage.

With mitzvot [commandments] to shape my life, and the Torah to inform my choices, I believe I have a chance at making a real difference in the world.

I learn Torah because people much wiser than I found wisdom there.

Giving Justly

Food Bank Donations
Food Bank Donations (Photo credit: NJLA: New Jersey Library Association)

After the last long weekend (almost a week, really) of consumption (Thanksgiving aka Turkey Day, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday) two clever nonprofit executives have come up with the idea of “Giving Tuesday.” So let’s see:  first give thanks, then consume, then give?

Jewish tradition suggests that giving be part of our budget from the beginning, not an afterthought at the end.  However this new holiday (?) offers is a reminder near the end of the secular year that our lives are not just about us. One measure of a person is the good that he or she manages to do in the world.

How much should we give for tzedakah? That’s the Jewish word for charitable giving. Let me ask you that question another way:  guesstimate the following figures:

  • the cable bill per month
  • amount spent on coffee drinks per month
  • or some other not-necessary-for-survival budget item

Now compare that to “given in tzedakah a month.” Tzedakah includes:

  • money to charities
  • to your temple
  • to Cousin Fred to pay his rent last month
  • in-kind gifts to charities (canned goods to the Food Bank)
  • the dollar to the homeless woman

The idea is that this giving relieves suffering and makes life more livable for people who need help. The question is, how much was it? And how does that compare to your cable bill? Your coffee bill? How does it compare to any other nice-but-not-necessary-for-life item in your budget?

If the numbers appear to be out of balance in favor of tzedakah, good for you! If they are out of balance the other direction, I encourage you to think about writing a check  on Giving Tuesday. It’s another way of keeping life in balance.

(If you’d rather do this by a more traditional method, you can use Maimonides‘ rule of thumb: 5% of income if you have a low income, 10% if you are well-off. I know, those are challenging percentages, but it is the ideal, and there are people who manage to do it, most of them on the lower, not the upper end of the income scale.)

Consider giving for justice’s sake, not just on Tuesday, but on a regular basis.  As Hillel says, “Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has.” (Avot 4.1) The more we give, the richer we feel.  That’s the miracle.

A Reform Rabbi in Israel

Rabbi Stacy Blank is a friend and colleague who writes movingly and sensibly about life in Israel.

RabbiStaceyBlank's Blog

I love living in Israel (have I ever mentioned that before?).

Even now, as terrorists send missiles over half the country, I love living here.

I live in Jerusalem. We’ve had two missiles launched in our direction this week. On two occasions I heard the air raid siren. The first, we were at home preparing for Shabbat – we took our children and went to the basement of our apartment building. My native Israeli husband knew what to do – find the most protected spot and wait ten minutes. The second, I was at work at Hebrew Union College and was near the bomb shelter, joining my son and his kindergarten class there. One teacher asked the kids to explain why we are here. Tears came to my eyes as five-year-olds said matter-of-factly, “There was a missile sent over by people who want to hurt us. But we are in…

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Can We Talk?

Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza
Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

I walked out of a movie this afternoon (Lincoln, it’s good), flipped my phone back on, and was greeted with a personal message on Twitter:

“All nations regret that they cannot exterminate 15m jews 40 times for killing 600m their nationals in all wars and revolts”

I had to read it a couple of times before I could understand what it said. I run across anti-Semitism all the time on the web, but it is not often addressed personally to me. When I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t personal, not really: the person sending it had sent the same message to dozens of Jews or Jewish-sounding people on Twitter. I reported him and blocked the account. Yuck.

It’s been a rough week. I lived in Israel for a year, ten years ago, and I formed an attachment to the country and its people that will never leave me. I was there at a hard time – the 2nd Intifada – and that cemented my respect for Israelis. They live through times that most of us cannot imagine, and the vast majority of them carry on their lives with grace. I listen to Israeli radio, and was aware of the rockets raining down on Sderot and other communities in the south, and noticed that no one in the media outside of Israel seemed to give a hoot. The BBC never mentioned it, CNN never mentioned it, and it was not mentioned on Al Jazeera, either. Were I not “tuned in” to Israeli sources, I wouldn’t have known about it, because no one else cared to report it.

Then, ten days ago, the Israelis finally retaliated. Had France been shelling Britain for months, we’d have seen some fireworks from the Brits before now. Had Mexico been shelling Texas — well, it’s Texas. Of course they’d shoot back. But when the Israelis finally shoot back they’re the bad guys?

For more about Pillar of Defense, better thought out and with great links, take a look at Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s A Few Thoughts About Operation Pillar of Defense.

For ten days now, I’ve been watching Jews argue over this and my heart is breaking. I listen to Jews call one another names, fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and read things into each others words. If one says he’s praying for peace, there are half a dozen folks ready to have his head because he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about war. If she speaks up for Israel’s right to defend herself, a different half dozen are ready and waiting to descend with words of flame.  And all I want to do is scream, “STOP IT!”

My fellow Jews: we do not need to be enemies against one another. There are plenty of people in the world that hate us, like the creep who sent me that tweet. He has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other lies, and he’s ready to exterminate us all. He doesn’t care whether we belong to AIPAC or J Street. He doesn’t care if we love Israel or deplore its existence. He just hates Jews.

If you want to talk about your position, I will listen. I may not agree, but that is not a condition of my listening. If you want to talk about your position, will you listen to me as well? Can we talk about our fears? Can we talk about our hopes?

I love the Jewish People. I really, really, really like Jews. And this is breaking my heart.

Five Tips for Shivah Visits

Image: Couple receiving visitors bringing food. (Iakov Filimonov /Shutterstock)

Shivah (shee-VAH or SHIV-uh) is the Jewish period of deep mourning after the death of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child. It begins immediately after the burial and continues for no more than seven days. It may pause for Shabbat (we do not officially mourn on Shabbat) or for certain holidays. When a person is “sitting shivah,” it is Jewish custom to visit them at the designated home as a way of providing comfort and support.

It is a mitzvah (sacred duty) to visit a person during shivah. However, it is not like a regular social visit. The rules of shivah are set to provide the best support for the bereaved, and to help us in what is for some a challenging mitzvah.

1. Visit only at times when you are welcome. If the bereaved is part of your synagogue community, hours of shivah may be available from the temple office. Alternatively they may be put on a sign on the door of the house. They will certainly be announced at the end of the funeral.

2. Be helpful.  Bring prepared food to the shivah house, if you are able, but do not bring dishes that will have to be returned to you. If you visit the shivah house and see something that needs to be done (welcoming guests, simple cleaning, work in the kitchen) it is very helpful to do so. A mourner is not a host, and should not be expected to entertain in any way.

3. Comfort with your presence. The general rule in speaking to mourners is: don’t speak unless they indicate a desire that you talk with them. It is perfectly fine to sit next to a mourner and say nothing at all.

4. Listen. If the mourner wants to talk, listen. Let them talk, acknowledge what you hear from them. Let them express whatever emotion they are feeling: do not try to make them feel “better” or judge what they say. Do not, DO NOT tell them how they “should” feel.

5. Don’t overstay your welcome. Unless you are extremely close to the family, make it a short visit. Do not use the shivah gathering as a social event to visit with others. The mourners are likely exhausted.

WAYS TO HELP THE BEREAVED

During Shivah:

  • Be there. Listen.
  • Offer to run errands, cook, deal with practical matters.
  • Give tzedakah in honor of the dead, arrange for a card to be sent to the mourner.

After Shivah:

  • Make sure the bereaved are included in social invitations.
  • Make sure that a mourner does not sit alone at services. Invite them to join you.
  • Call just to say “Hello.”
  • Drop a note to say hello, or to share a memory of the deceased.
  • Listen to their memories.

Too often, because we don’t know what to do, we withdraw from mourners, leaving them to grieve alone. This is an act of cruelty, even if it is done out of confusion. Do not abandon a mourner.

 

Synagogue Hebrew 102

For the first in this series, take a look at Jewish Greetings 101.

Kiddush cup for marriage, Breslau
Kiddush cup for marriage, Breslau (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

First of all, there is no need to stress: no one is going to try to tell you that the building is on fire in Hebrew, unless you are in Israel. In an American synagogue, anything someone says to you in Hebrew is almost certainly (1) friendly and (2) not mission-critical. So take a deep breath, shake the tension from your shoulders, and try on a few new phrases of Synagogue Hebrew.

These are phrases you might hear in connection with a service:

CHOOmash – a book containing the Five Books of Moses.

sid-DOOR or SIDdur – prayer book

YARTZ-eit – the anniversary of a death (or on the first year, anniverary of a burial.)

KADdish or KADdish yaTOM – Mourner’s Kaddish, prayer said by those in mourning or on a Yartzeit.

KIDdush or KIDdish – the blessing made on Shabbat or holidays over wine, a kind of toast to the day. It may also refer to refreshments after the Saturday morning service.

Oneg or Oneg shaBAT – refreshments after the service, usually on Friday night.

YAsher KOach (with a gutteral ch, as in “Bach”) means, “Good job!” (Literally, “may you have strength”)  If someone says it to you, you can smile, you can say the traditional reply baRUKH ti-hi-YEH (to a man) or bruCHAH teh-HEE (to a woman.) Either way, the reply means “May you be blessed.”  You can also say that in English, or simply say toe-DAH (Thank you.)

yaSHAR koCHECH means “Good job” as said to a woman. However, in many places you will hear “Yashar koach” said to people of both genders.

BEEmah is the elevated area in the synagogue where the Torah is read, and where the service leader may stand. Depending on the architecture, it might be in the front of the room, or the middle of it.

HAGbah is the lifting up of the Torah scroll after reading. Someone may call for a SHTARker (Yiddish for strong person) to lift it, although that is a little undignified – they should have found him or her before the service began.

aleeYAH or aLEEyah means literally “to go up.” It has two main uses: (1) “An aliyah” is a Torah reading, or the honor of saying the blessings for a Torah reading. (2) “Make aliyah” means “move to Israel.”

Are there phrases you’ve heard and wondered about? You can look them up at the Jewish English Lexicon, or leave me a comment below.