My Evening At the Iftar

Image: Medjool dates in a dish   Copyright: forden / 123RF Stock Photo

Last week, my friend Muyesser sent me a text message: “Would you and Linda like to come to Iftar on Monday night?” Linda had plans, but I was free and very excited; I’d never been to an iftar.

We are in the middle of the month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from food, water, and intimacy from sunrise to sunset. Just after sunset, they break the fast with a meal called iftar. Usually it is a meal just for the family at home, but it can also be a community occasion, a big party. This iftar would be a gathering of Muslims from many different parts of the Bay Area, meeting at a high school over on the peninsula, south of San Francisco.

As the sky turned various shades of red, men and women carried in huge platters of food and put them on a buffet table that ran down the center of the room. Children ran around excitedly, and adults who were done with their tasks gathered at tables, talking. Then the organizer stood up with a microphone and welcomed us. He then passed the mic to me for a short blessing. I prayed for all the children of Abraham and Sarah to be blessed with insight, courage, and open hearts to see us through challenging times. After that an imam taught for a few minutes about the spirituality of Ramadan. Then a young man came forward to chant from the Quran.

Suddenly the sun slid below the hills and it was time to eat. My neighbor, a very sweet woman, offered me a medjool date from a little plate on the table. People were moving towards the buffet table, nibbling dates. Others were still standing by their tables, drinking from bottles of water.

The potluck was delicious and it reminded me of many Jewish potlucks I’ve attended. There was a huge platter of quartered pita, followed by salads, hummus, roast vegetables, dolmas, roast chicken pieces, and many different concoctions of rice and legumes, some with nuts. Dessert was on a separate table.

Where before the atmosphere had had a nervous energy (everyone was hungry!) I could feel the room relax as we ate. I sat with a group of women who became more and more playful, stopping every few minutes to make sure that I’d gotten some of a delicacy, or that I had enough to eat, or did I need water? One mother sent her daughter to the dessert table (“Bring back a plate of them!”) They were very sweet, and we laughed and talked.

Iftar1
These were my dinner companions for the evening. I’m so glad we took a photo!

Then, as the children got up to play, people began to visit. Several people came by the table to thank me for the blessing. The terrible murders in Orlando came up, and the women around me were emphatic in their disapproval. They and I were on much the same page: how was it that a man was able to buy a military type rifle with a large magazine, when he had been under investigation for terrorism and was a known wife beater?

It was a peaceful evening, a friendly evening. Eventually it was time to say my goodbyes. The organizer and my friend were both very kind, and we agreed that we needed to bring our communities together in the near future.

I made my way to the car. The Strawberry Moon, the full moon of the Summer Solstice, hung in the eastern sky above my home.

StrawberryMoon

A Prayer for Love

There is no place for hate in American society, if we are truly a nation “of liberty and justice for all.”  We are a nation committed to the concepts:

  • that every person has a right to the free exercise of their religion
  • that every person has a right to speak their mind
  • that every individual is innocent until proven guilty
  • and many other rights secured by our Constitution and its amendments.

There is no place for hate among the Jewish people, because we are commanded to love those who are most different from us. (Leviticus 19:34)

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:34

 

This Shabbat, we are in shock from the events of the week just behind us. We have seen hateful carnage. We have heard hateful words.

Some of us, in our shock, in our fearful response to fearful events, have said hateful words.

We have had strong reactions, spoken strong words, spoken up for dearly held beliefs.

In the quiet of Shabbat, let us release our fears and open our hearts.

Let us choose to see the face of the Other with compassion and a recognition of the divine spark within.

Let us repent of all speech that failed to meet the test of love, and resolve to do better in the week ahead.

May the peace of Shabbat bring us to wholeness, to wisdom, to a fearless commitment to the principles we hold as citizens and to the mitzvot, the commandments, we observe as Jews.

And then, as the holy day passes, may we face the future with renewed strength and calm.

May we comfort the mourners and heal the wounded. May we resolve to speak words of love to the face of hatred, because love will always be stronger than hate.

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. – Song of Songs 8:6

 

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Naso

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes the curious vow of the Nazirites, a solemn promise to eschew haircuts, wine, and contamination by a corpse. It also explains the procedure for release from that vow. It deals with the trial of the Sotah, the woman suspected of adultery. The portion concludes with one of the most famous texts in Numbers, the Priestly Blessing.

Here are some divrei Torah on Parashat Naso:

With Gratitude for Converts by Rabbi Janet Marder

Community Camping by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Strange Ordeal of Bitter Water by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Rituals, Spiritual Fidelity, and Turning Towards God by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Judaism and the Blessing of Love by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Nazirite Puzzle by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Naso Sermon by Rabbi Steven Moskovitz

 

Better than the Wall – Take Action!

Image: Women praying at the Kotel, early 20th century. Public Domain.

Longtime readers may remember that I was not thrilled about the plan announced last January for an egalitarian prayer space near the Kotel [Western Wall] in Jerusalem. It was hailed as a solution to the issue raised by the Women of the Wall: that because the Kotel was effectively run as a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) synagogue, women were not allowed to pray aloud, lead prayers, wear the religious garb they would normally wear, or read from the Torah.

Now it seems that the plan is falling apart. Many key players among the haredim who are influential in the current government regard Reform and Conservative Jews as heretics.

I just learned from my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, that one of the original Women of the Wall, Shulamit Magnus, wrote an opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post. In it, she outlines an alternative plan that is much more savvy to Israeli politics, that will make a much more lasting change for the better for women in Israel, and that seems to me to be totally workable.

Dr. Magnus also shared the piece on her Facebook wall, with directions on how to advocate for this plan, if readers choose to do so. I share her Facebook post here with permission. The bolded font and the links in it are mine.

I have already followed Dr. Magnes’s suggestion and written to all those leaders. If this issue speaks to you, I encourage you to do so as well.


From Shulamit S. Magnes:

Dear Friends, Below, please see my Op Ed in today’s Jerusalem Post. In it I call on the Reform and Conservative movements to let go of this terrible deal to make the Kotel an official haredi shul and do something significant that would build the grounds for real progressive religious influence here– not flash-in-the-pan but largely meaningless symbolism, but real impact in Israeli society (I know this deal, given how it’s been peddled, has great resonance in North America but I assure you, that is not how it plays here. Other, smarter priorities, and real financial backing of them, could meet the aspirations of North American Jews AND do real good here).

Please send the Op Ed on to the heads of the movements and of Federation. This should not be a moment of perceived win (the haredim)-lose (these movements), but of real smarts about how to make a real difference going forward– one that would unite broad segments of disadvantaged and largely religiously and politically right-wing Israeli society and largely middle-class and religiously and politically progressive Jews in North America. Win-win!

This needs thousands of letters. Please send it yourself– and encourage others to do the same via your facebook pages and other media.

Please send to:

Rabbi Steven Wernick – wernick@uscj.org
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld – jschonfeld@rabbinicalassembly.org
Rabbi Rick Jacobs – rabbijacobs1@gmail.com
Rabbi Deborah Waxman – officeofthepresident@rrc.edu
jerry.silverman@jewishfederations.org

In Israel
Yizhar Hess – yhess@masorti.org.il
Rabbi Gilad Kariv – kariv@reform.org.il

Jerusalem Post
Opinion

An appeal from an Original Woman of the Wall

By SHULAMIT S. MAGNUS

06/12/2016

(in case the link does not work, here’s the piece):

Shulamit S. Magnus

To the Reform and Conservative Movements from An Original Woman of the Wall: An Appeal

We have just marked yom yerushalayim, the anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. Much in this city is fraught. Among the unresolved issues is the deal for State recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism at Robinson’s Arch in exchange for changing the status of the Kotel.

Under the deal, the Kotel, the national holy site of the Jewish people, not now a synagogue, would be made officially a haredi synagogue. This is the tradeoff for making Robinson’s Arch, already a site of egalitarian prayer, a Reform and Conservative site. The haredi authorities would ban women’s group prayer at the Kotel, every aspect of which has Supreme Court recognition as legal, and which a District Court pronounced also in accord with local custom there. Women who will not move to Robinson’s Arch would be arrested. This aspect of the deal is deliberately obscured by its backers, who trumpet the deal as enlightened and progressive, without mentioning the coercive, misogynistic aspect at its core.

The empowerment of the haredi establishment in this deal is the reason that establishment agreed to it, until the fury of their street about recognition of movements they systematically demonize drew them back. The haredi establishment is now making demands for fundamental revision of the deal, which the Reform and Conservative movements say they will reject, threatening to take the matter to the Supreme Court, where they will demand accommodation at the Kotel itself. We seem poised for bitter, quite possibly violent, confrontation.

There is another way, and I ask the movements to take a step back and consider.

It is easy to understand the appeal of recognition at Robinson’s Arch. But there are tangible, powerful, facts-on-the-ground changes that the movements could set in motion if they go another way with the clout, and the money, the deal they negotiated would give them.

Take the money, take the political payoff the State “owes” you for being unwilling to implement the deal against haredi demands, and invest it in schools that teach your version of Torah. This has none of the blaze of glory that accompanied your announcement of the deal a few months ago. But the long-term payoff will be far greater and will move you far closer to what you really want here: real impact on Israeli society. Take that money and invest it in schools—not in the comfortable middle class locations in which you currently have them, serving your current constituents, but in “the periphery,” among the have-nots of Israel, who have never heard of your movements or have only negative associations with them. Build schools—in Yeruham, Dimona, Sderot, Afula. Give hard-pressed Israelis a robust alternative to 40-student classrooms in schools that do not offer afternoon clubs, enrichment which wealthy schools, or well-established parents give their children and which afford parents full work days and children inestimable advantages that play out generationally. Intervene in this dynamic, is which privilege begets privilege and disadvantage, likewise, is passed on, perpetuating the social divide that plagues Israeli society and feeds right-wing politics and religion. In fifteen years you will begin to see cohorts who repay you and all of society with better education, broader horizons, and deeply embedded commitment to pluralism and respect for others. Not a symbolic site, but real social change. And votes.

Get your constituents in North America charged up about partnering with Israelis to open minds and hearts from the “bottom” up and changing Israeli society for the better, based on shared values and language. They can have egalitarian events right now at Robinson’s.

Let this deal, any version of it, pass away. It was a mistake. This is a Ben Gurion moment, no less than the one in which that Prime Minister shrugged off the consequences of granting haredi exemption from national service. Empowering the fundamentalist haredi establishment; supporting banishment of the one non-haredi custom—women’s group tefilla– which has been established at the Kotel– is the last thing you should be doing. Duking it out in the Kotel plaza between vastly more retrograde custom at the Kotel and progressive practice at Robinson’s, for which proponents of the deal have thrown down the gauntlet, is puerile. Defer gratification. Think Yavneh—go for deep cultural change, and the time and hard work to bring that about. Send your young people and rabbis on hachshara to these schools. Forge deep ties; build broad, societal loyalty to your movements. Forego the show.

I recall in this connection the remark which the previous Lubavitcher rebbe made in the 1920s, while on a visit to the US from Europe. Taking in the US Jewish scene, he noted, “They will build Temples, and they will be empty. We will build schools, and they will be full.”

Take a page from Habad, Shas: invest in school systems.

Go to the Supreme Court, by all means. But as a veteran of time in the latter, where a case to enforce Jewish women’s already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel languishes while the State wins delay after delay, any notion that you will get swift justice there is sadly mistaken. In the meantime, sow real change.

Having just celebrated Shavuot, commemorating the bringing of First Fruits to the Temple and the giving of Torah, please think about those fruits your labors can ripen, and about the transformative power of Torah. Invest in those.

 

Summer Reading 2016

So, what are you reading this summer?

My reading is pretty eclectic at the moment.  Here are some of the books at my bedside and in my e-reader:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – I’m about half way through it, and while I doubt I’ll ever see the Broadway show, I am riveted by this book. I have always had a soft spot for the business-minded Founding Father, but there’s detail here that’s new to me.

The Invention of God by Thomas Römer – I read an article in Haaretz about this book, and now I want to read the book. It’s waiting for me on the e-reader

Felicity: Poems by Mary Oliver – Some of Mary Oliver’s poems are the best sermons around.

Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice by Michael Satlow – I read an article about this book and decided it should be on my reading list. I suspect it will inform my teaching next fall.

Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition by David Sears – More and more, I think compassion is a key concept if we want to live in this planet much longer. I understand that Sears’ is a good book for looking at Torah sources on the subject (Oral and Written) so it’s on my list.

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong – I think this one is actually a re-read for me, but I find that the junk in the media about Islam confuses my mind, and I need a refresher.

Starting in July, I’m also going to be reading some technical material from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL.) I’m a ham radio operator, but I have let my skills atrophy. My plan is to join a local group of hams who do emergency work, and to do that I need to get my knowledge and skills back in order. I’ll spare you the details.😉

Are there writers you find unreadable? I just gave up on Hemingway for the umpteenth time. His choppy sentences and puerile attitudes give me headaches. I have very fond memories of his cats on Key West, but otherwise I am not charmed.

What’s on your list? Anything fun? Is there anything you’d like to recommend to others?

 

After Orlando: 10 Options for Action

Image: Graffiti on a brick wall: “Seek Justice.”

Here are ten ways we can take action, if we choose:

  1. We can mourn the dead and comfort the mourners.
  2. If there is a memorial or demonstration in our area, we can attend.
  3. We’ve already begun to see places to donate to assist the victims and their families. Pulse Victims Fund by Equality Florida is a GoFundMe site with responsible connections.
  4. We can contact our elected officials about the loopholes and gaps in gun safety legislation. The murderer has already been described as a mentally unstable domestic abuser who had already been investigated twice by the FBI for terrorist connections, but he was able to purchase a military-style assault weapon with a high capacity magazine. What’s wrong with that picture?
  5. Register and VOTE. Before you vote, do your homework and vote accordingly: which candidates have voting records that match with your values? Which indulge in hate speech when they are campaigning? Which elected officials are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association? Which elected officials have sponsored or supported the over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills pending in the states? (Thanks to my colleague, Rabbi David Novak, for reminding me of this one!)
  6. We can speak up whenever we hear hateful speech from anyone about any group of people. Every time we say, “Not cool” to someone spouting it we remind them that it is wrong. Every time we fail to say something, we suggest by our silence that those words and attitudes are acceptable to us.
  7. We can donate to institutions that track hate crimes, like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti Defamation League.
  8. We can educate ourselves about anti-LGBTQ violence. Did you know that 20% of the hate crimes in the U.S. are directed against this small minority? Or that 70% of ant-LGBTQ murder victims are people of color?
  9. We can donate to local organizations that provide mental health support to LGBTQ clients. Here in my local area one choice is JFCS-East Bay but it should be easy to find organizations in your own area. Many of us are freaked out pretty badly after a day when on one coast, 50 LGBTQ people were murdered in cold blood and on the other coast, a man was arrested on his way to the Pride parade with a car full of weapons and ammunition.
  10. Donate blood, if you are able. Even if you live thousands of miles from Orlando, this and other gun violence puts pressure on the supply of blood. According to the American Red Cross, every pint donated may save up to three lives.

Notice what isn’t on this list: “thoughts and prayers.” Author John Scalzi wrote an eloquent post yesterday about “thoughts and prayers” and the emptiness of those words. I am reminded of the prophet Isaiah, who spent most of Chapter 1 of the book carrying his name decrying the futility of ritual when real live people are suffering.

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Holy One.

I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts;
and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

Why are all those sacrifices offered to me? asks the Holy One.
I am fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals!
I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats!

Yes, you come to appear in my presence; 
but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards?

Stop bringing worthless grain offerings.
They are offerings of abomination to me!
Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations —
I cannot stomach the sin within your assemblies!

My soul hates your Rosh-Hodesh and your festivals.
They are a burden to me; I am tired of putting up with them!

When you spread out your hands I will hide my eyes from you;
no matter how much you pray I won’t be listening,
because your hands are covered with blood.

Wash yourselves clean. Get your evil deeds out of my sight.

Stop doing evil! Learn to do good!

Seek justice, relieve the oppressed,
defend orphans, advocate for the bereaved! – Isaiah 1:11-17

If you have other ideas of action to take in the face of this terrible event, I welcome your suggestions in the comments.

Some Queer Thoughts after Orlando

Image: Rainbow flag, tattered, from Pixabay.com.

I wrote a post about the Orlando massacre (Stop the Hateful Cycle.)But I have to say that when I first heard the news about the shooting I wasn’t thinking about Torah. I heard the news as a person who’s been out as a lesbian since 1987, and it kicked me in my LBGTQ kishkes [Yiddish for “gut.”]

I heard the the news just as I went to bed. I deliberately switched off the radio and went to bed because I could not bear to hear about another shooting in a gay club. I knew that if I listened for even one moment I’d be up all night at the television, identifying with the people in the club and the people who love them. It was Shavuot; I had no business at the TV. It was Shavuot, and anyway I could not bear it.

I came out as a lesbian after I had children, so I was never much of a partier at clubs. But I knew the power of those places in the gay rights movement, how none of us were taken seriously until a riot at the Stonewall club in NYC, how many of the lesbian leaders in San Francisco met at Maud’s back in the day. I knew that the clubs had bulletin boards long before the Internet. They had a long history as places where lesbians, gay men, and everyone under the umbrella of “queer” could come to organize or just try to figure things out.

Bars and clubs have always been a hunting ground for the people who hate us. Watch the film Before Stonewall for more about that, or read Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend. My reaction last night came from a sick feeling that I’d seen this movie so many times, so many times that it would break my heart to hear it again. Usually the victims were “just” one or two individuals leaving a club, murdered by some coward in the bushes who’d decided he go get some of us because he thought the Bible said we deserved to die. Usually those murders didn’t make the broadcast news, and I heard about them much later from the LGBTQ press.

I could not bear to hear about one once again, and I couldn’t do anything about it anyway, so I went to bed.

The first good thing I heard the next day was in President Obama’s speech from the White House:

“This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends — our fellow Americans — who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub — it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.” – From President Obama’s speech, 6/12/16

I love that the President gets it that a “gay nightclub” is not just a place to drink and dance. I love that he or someone in his Administration knows our community and its history that well, and that he’s willing to talk about it on a day when the news media seems obsessed with ISIS.

Most of all, I love that with his speech the President reminded me that this is not the same old horrible movie once again. The FBI is investigating. The news organizations are reporting. No one is publicly crowing that the victims deserved it. (Well, nobody except Daesh/ISIS, who are busy trying to take credit, they who are in the business of hate.)

My rabbi and mentor once told me that the real test of whether to worry about local acts of antisemitism was to watch for the response from local law enforcement: did they show up? Did they take it seriously? Did any local politicians dogwhistle about the Jews bringing it on themselves? He said that if the cops responded, if they took it seriously, if the politicians talked solidarity and walked their talk, then it was upsetting but not to panic.

Now there has been an awful event – a mass murder at a gay nightclub – and I see the responders. CNN and all the news services are covering it. I see local law enforcement showing up promptly and taking risks to save gay lives. The FBI is on it. Political leaders (yes, even Senator Ted Cruz!) are taking it seriously. The President gives a speech in which he clearly cares, clearly understands the context that makes this especially horrifying and triggering to the victims’ community.

We have come a long way. We have a long road ahead.

This week, we mourn our dead.