Passing the Torah

Rabbi Steve Chester passes the Torah to me (again) at ordination (5/18/08)
Rabbi Steve Chester passes the Torah to me (again) at ordination (5/18/08)

When I watch the passing of the Torah at a bar or bat mitzvah,

I wonder: Who passes the Torah to me?

My father was Irish Catholic,
and my mother a Catholic who was once a Presbyterian.
My name is Ruth bat Avraham v’Sarah
But Abraham and Sarah died a long time ago.
I have no family stories about Passover.
Like Ruth, I’m here only because I wanted to be.
Who passes the Torah to me?

When I approached a rabbi about conversion
He gently suggested we study together
And passed the Torah to me.

When my first Hebrew teacher patiently
guided me right to left through the aleph-bet
She passed the Torah to me.

When I shivered in the water of the mikveh
and the cantor led me through the blessings
She passed the Torah to me.

When I talked for an hour with the Beit Din
When the Torah study class showed me how Jews study Bible
When the Talmud group welcomed me for discussions and stories
When an Israeli acquaintance corrected my Hebrew
When my study partner clapped a kippah on my head
They passed the Torah to me.

When a little girl showed me how to tear the challah
When a woman offered me my first taste of a Hillel sandwich
When the guy at the bakery said, “Shabbat Shalom!”
When a committee chair said to me, “Here, you can do this.”
When friends shared recipes and stories and customs
They passed the Torah to me.

If it takes a village to raise a child
It takes a congregation to raise a convert:

We pass the Torah from hand to hand
and make sure all the Jews who want can hold it:
can write it on their hearts,
speak of it in their homes,
teach it to their children,
bind it on their hands,
hold it before their eyes,
and write it – in golden letters! –
on the doorposts of their gates.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar

Why I Love Shavuot

English: Sunrise on Mt. Sinai in Egypt
English: Sunrise on Mt. Sinai in Egypt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m so excited:  my favorite Jewish holiday is coming!

I love Shavuot. I’ve loved it ever since the first time someone suggested I go to Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the Study for the Night of Shavuot, which might better be called the Jewish All Nighter.

I was a new convert, fresh from the mikveh. I’d been going to Torah Study at my synagogue for a while, but I found it very intimidating. Everyone was so sure of themselves! And loud! I was a bit timid, and while I loved study, Torah study was overwhelming. Still, when someone turned to me and asked if I was going to attend the all night study session to celebrate the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai, I nodded.

I learned a lot of Torah that night, but I learned more about Jews, and about myself. I got a feel for the joy of study, for the adrenaline charge in a good machlochet [difference of opinion]. I learned that even the most scholarly people get silly after 2 am. Most of all, by the end of the night I was one of the gang. I never again felt timid in that room.

It’s been a long time since that first Tikkun. Now I’m a rabbi, and I’m teaching one of the 11:30pm sessions at the community gathering at the JCC. The rest of the night I’ll go from session to session, learning and getting silly and yawning and learning some more. But there will still be that giddy feeling of sitting up all night with the Torah, loving it and loving the people of Torah. What could be more wonderful?

“Miracles” in the News

Image: B&W image of words relating to social media and the news. (geralt/pixabay)

My atheist friends give me a lot to ponder.  One wrote passionately on facebook:

Media: Stop using the word miracle. It has a whole host of implications, and some of the ones from the last 24 hours of the news cycle are horrifying, and deeply offensive. Don’t use it. Just don’t.

I knew immediately what he meant: there was a story in the news about three young women who were kidnapped ten years ago and finally managed to escape their captors.  I agree, using “miracle” in this context is a minefield.  We’re talking about three young women who appear to have suffered imprisonment and abuse for a decade – he’s right, the word “miracle” is just gross.

That thought led me to another: is the obsessive reportage of stories like this a problem when we look at it at through the lens of Torah?

The story is all over the news at the time, and because it is upsetting, people want to talk about it. The fact that it is upsetting and sensational is the reason it’s all over the news, too – Big News is in the business of selling advertising time, after all: sensational stories are much more mezmerizing than Afghanistan or an economic matter. It will sell more soap flakes, and more diet aids, and after all, that is the bottom line.

Torah demands of us that we ask questions: instead of nattering about miracles or obsessing over salacious details, let’s stop and think, what speech is necessary? And is there any way we can learn something or be helpful?

OK, it was necessary to report the story; we do need to know what the cops do, and what goes on in our community. I’m less clear that I need to know about something like this in Cleveland when I live in California, but OK, I’ll go that far. But do I need breathless prose about miracles and gory details from well-coiffed anchors? I don’t think so. Do those poor women need microphones poked in their faces? Do their families? No and no.

Jewish tradition forbids talking about other people unless it is necessary. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a wonderful book on the subject, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. MyJewishLearning.com has an article that gives you the short form of his teaching about lashon hara, [evil speech.]  Especially if the words we use could spoil someone’s reputation, or even cause envy, they are not proper speech for a Jew  even if they are true. Jewish law is stricter than American civil law on this subject: the truth of the words is immaterial, if they have any potential to cause injury, we shouldn’t say them.

There are words that ARE necessary, sometimes, even unpleasant words. We are commanded not to be passive when someone is being hurt (Lev. 19:16) so by all means, if you know of a crime or a possible crime, report it.

What speech is truly  necessary, in the case of the news story? Certainly, if you’ve heard the story and it upsets you, find someone with whom to discuss your feelings. The details of those women’s suffering are not our business; they are the business of law enforcement and the courts.  My fears, and my upset are my business. If I find I can’t leave this story alone, then I should talk it out with a rabbi, a therapist, or maybe a trusted friend.

It may be too, that with the story everywhere, it is necessary to talk to children about it. We need to reassure children that (1) this is very unusual and that (2)it is important not to go anywhere with strangers, etc. We also need to tell our children that we will value them no matter what, that they are infinitely precious, and that nothing will change that.

What can we learn? Perhaps we could learn to ask more questions when a situation in our neighborhood seems “a bit off.”  I’m afraid that’s all I can think of, though: this isn’t a news story that will inform my vote, or cause me to write my congressman, or make me a wiser person.

Speculating about it or treating this event as if it is some kind of entertainment is a low form of gossip.  Making theology out of it (miracles! redemption!) verges on blasphemy.  I am not in charge of Corporate News, but I am in charge of my keyboard and my remote. Jewish tradition suggests that if there is something that needs to be said, I should say it; if there is something that needs to be done, I should do it, but that beyond that, it’s seriously time to turn off the news.

Shavuot for Beginners

Ruth in Boaz's Field
Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shavuot (“Weeks”) is just around the corner, and although it is a major Jewish holiday, it’s one of the least known.

HISTORY Shavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating the covenant at Sinai.

THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on May 14.

OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:

  • Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day.
  • Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot (this year, May 14).
  • Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
  • In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service.  For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
  • The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.

 

Can I Convert to Judaism Online?

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Jews pray and celebrate in community.

Often I get email from people who want to know if online conversion is an option. Here are my thoughts about that.

IT TAKES A JEWISH COMMUNITY TO MAKE A JEW.   I believe very strongly that conversion should take place within a Jewish community setting, probably a congregation. The process of conversion is not just about study, it’s about becoming part of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, and it’s very important that a candidate spend lots of time with Jews and get a feel for life in a Jewish community.  What if a person went through the rituals, became officially Jewish, then found out that he or she didn’t really much like Jews, or felt terminally out of place with Jews?

IT TAKES JEWISH EXPERIENCES TO MAKE A JEW.   Often people who feel drawn to Judaism first explore it by reading books and looking around online. Those are legitimate activities for learning about Judaism, but they will take you only so far. A person interested in Judaism should experience the whole range of sensory experiences that go into Jewish life: the crunch of matzah at Passover, the taste of traditional Jewish foods, the sounds of Jewish worship, the rhythms and unusual scales of Jewish music, the adrenaline of a good Torah study session. The candidate need not like all of it (I personally will never learn to like chopped liver, although I have grown fond of gifilte fish) but it’s important that experience be real, not theoretical.

IT TAKES TIME TO MAKE A JEW. Sometimes people want to know “how long does it take?” The answer to that is that it takes as long as it takes. Study begins with a class or with a rabbi without a fixed goal. The process of study may end with conversion, or it may be a step along some other journey that the candidate is taking. Until both the rabbi and the student are sure that Judaism is the only possible destination, options stay open. Most rabbis like for a student to experience Jewish life for at least a full year’s cycle (there’s that “experience” word again) to see what happens. Without face-to-face contact, it’s hard to sort out what’s going on with a person, and that is critical knowledge for a rabbi working with a conversion student.

Now, you may be saying, “But I don’t want to be a synagogue Jew!  I have a different vision of my Jewish life!” And my answer to that is to say, as gently as I can, that conversion to Judaism involves a massive transition of identity – you do not know where it will take you. I did not know where it would take me. But what I do know, for sure, is that community and experiences are key to the process of becoming Jewish. We are a communal people, so much so that we don’t read Torah or say Kaddish without ten Jews present. We have Jewish Film Festivals because we like to get together to watch Jewish movies.

I am aware that there are websites advertising rabbis who will study with conversion students online. And there may be circumstances in which there is a vibrant Jewish community with which to learn but no rabbi. Perhaps in those circumstances, if there’s really no better alternative, it might work.  But I worry when I hear about online conversions. I worry that students will not get what they need and will not be adequately prepared for life as a Jew.

First, check out your local options. If there really isn’t a congregation near, is becoming Jewish so important to you that you are willing to relocate, to live near more Jews?.  Why do you want to become a Jew? And if you do become Jewish, what will you do about being Jewish, if there’s no one else with whom to celebrate holidays, or lifecycle events, or pray?

Whatever you decide to do, I wish you well on your spiritual journey!

Tweet #Torah to the Top With Us!

For the past couple of years, a group of us have celebrated Shavuot by “Tweeting #Torah to the Top.”  We’re on Twitter (you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi) and in the hours before Shavuot, we tweet  divrei Torah [words of Torah] to try to get to the top of the “trending” [most Tweeted] list.  Every year, I’ve had fun, I’ve met some terrific Jews, and enjoyed a symbolic celebration of this least-celebrated festival.

If you are wondering how to do it, see what my esteemed colleague Rabbi Mark Hurwitz has to say:

——————–
HurwitzI have been exploring how to use Twitter and Facebook as tools for Jewish community organizing. We know that these social media were central to the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime in Egypt. How might we use them to raise consciousness among the Jewish people around the world?

Beginning in 2009 Reconstructionist rabbi Shai Gluskin organized an attempt to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot, using Twitter. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):

Are you in? A 49th day of omer prep for Shavuot #Torah fest. Goal: get many tweeting Torah and see #Torah trend in top 10 the whole day.

Each year, those who participated enjoyed a great day of learning, sharing, and meeting. Jews (and others) all over the world, from various walks of life and “flavors” of Jewish life, tweeted what they thought were valuable and important thoughts of Torah. Nonetheless, we have never been able to get “#Torah” to “trend”. Is it because, however broadly defined, “#Torah” is simply not of interest to the vast majority of Jewish tweeters?

What can we do to make #Torah go viral? Are there tools that those of us committed to this effort are missing? I open the question up to this forum for discussion and invite you all to join our project.

This year (2013:5773) our event is scheduled to begin May 14. You can learn more and indicate your interest on our Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tweet-Torah-to-the-Top/440987195986359

If you’d like to participate, please indicate so on the event’s Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/events/354726977977663/

———–

You don’t have to be a rabbi.

You don’t have to belong to anything (other than have a Twitter account.)

If you’ve never tweeted, well, here’s a chance to try it.

C’mon! We’ll have fun!

Interfaith / End of Life

English: A combination of four religious symbo...

 

Funerals can be complex and challenging for interfaith families.  Here are some things to consider, if you are in a family with both Jews and Gentiles:

 

PLAN AHEAD. This applies to ALL families, of whatever religious persuasion.  Ask yourself these questions (the exact terminology and documents will depend on your state or country of residence.)

 

  • Do I have a current will or revocable trust? Is it up to date?
  • Have I designated (and documented!) the person who will make medical decisions for me if I cannot?
  • Have I communicated with that person about my wishes? Have we talked enough about it that they know what I really want? Are the legal papers for that in order?
  • Have I made my wishes clear – in writing! – about organ donation? Does my family know about my decisions?
  • If I have particular wishes about my funeral, have I communicated those to family in writing?

 

Making decisions and communicating them to family is an act of love and care, even if they don’t want to hear about it. There are few things more terrible than standing by the hospital bed of someone you love and not knowing their wishes about end-of-life care. Spare the ones you love the agony of guessing and guilt.

 

For interfaith families, you can save the ones you love a lot of grief if you specify your wishes about funerals:

 

WHAT KIND OF FUNERAL? If you are Jewish and most of your family is not, do you want a Jewish funeral? Do you have  a rabbi or other Jewish professional you would like them to call for guidance at that time?  If you are not Jewish, does your family know what you want, and whom to call for direction?

 

REGULAR JEWISH FUNERALS generally are led by a rabbi or cantor, although ordination is not necessary for someone who knows the ritual. The body is not embalmed, and the plain wooden casket is closed. Burial takes place as soon as reasonably possible after death, not on Shabbat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) , allowing time for family to gather. Bodies are not put on view. Funerals are simple and fairly short (20-30 minutes at graveside is not unusual – a chapel service followed by graveside will run a bit longer.)

 

BURIAL OR…?  Normally Jews are buried in the ground with their bodies as undisturbed as possible. Cremation is practiced by some liberal and secular Jews.  Remains are usually buried in a cemetery (or columbarium, in the case of ashes) where there can later be a marker (matsevah, in Hebrew.) Scattering ashes is not a normative Jewish practice, nor is it usual to keep ashes in the home.

 

These customs go back centuries, but at this point in history, the main things to know are that we have a tradition of visiting graves, and if there is no grave to visit, that’s hard to do. Secondly, after the Holocaust, cremation and scattering ashes have a very painful connection for many Jews.

 

In a city with a sizeable Jewish population, there is likely a Jewish funeral home, or a secular funeral home that many Jews use.  They can help you with these arrangements. If there is financial hardship, tell them. Burial of the dead is a mitzvah (sacred duty) and there may be programs to assist with the expense of a Jewish funeral. In a small town, Jewish resources may be more limited, but talk with the funeral home.

 

Since this is a Jewish website and I am a rabbi, I’m not going to presume to teach about Christian or Islamic funeral practice.

 

JEWISH CEMETERIES will have specific rules about who may be buried in them, what ceremonies can take place, and what sorts of markers can be put up. These will differ from place to place and may differ among zones in a cemetery.   If the family wishes to bury both Jews and Gentiles in a family plot, it is critical that you communicate that before you buy the plot.  For some families, a secular cemetery may be an easier choice.  The best way to determine what will work for your family is to talk with funeral professionals and clergy about your family’s needs.

 

COMFORTING THE MOURNERS. At a Jewish funeral there are two tasks: levayat hamet, burying the dead, and nichum avelim, comforting the mourners. Every mourner has a right to be comforted in a way that is meaningful to them. Exactly how that works will differ from family to family and from mourner to mourner. In a family with several Jews, shiva may be appropriate. (For more info about Jewish mourning customs, click this link.)

 

WORKING WITH CLERGY. Never assume that clergy will be comfortable co-officiating at an interfaith service unless you have a rabbi, priest, imam or minister who have worked together with your family in the recent past. Better to choose one clergy person to officiate and then talk with him or her about inviting participation by other clergy or planning additional services. There may be individual clergy who are comfortable with co-officiation, but it is never safe to assume about their boundaries.

 

All families are different. Any single statement above may or may not be useful in your situation. My best advice to you, if you are a Jew with mostly Gentile relatives, is that you should have a chat sometime with your rabbi about caring for your body and your family when you die.  If you are a Gentile with mostly Jewish relatives, let them know what you want, and if it’s going to require help outside the Jewish sphere, make those contacts for them: give them the name of sympathetic clergy you trust.

 

If you are a member of one of those fortunate families who are comfortable in one house of worship and who have clergy who know you, then disregard all the above: call your rabbi, priest, imam, or minister and put your family  in their hands.

 

For anyone reading this who has recently suffered a loss, I wish you comfort in the arms of loving family and friends, and I pray that you are able to find the professionals you need at this time.