O Daughters, My Mothers!

Image: Five sisters sitting on a beach. Public domain.

Recently I received a question from  a reader asking me why I am a Reform Jew. The best answer I can give to that question appears in Parashat Pinchas:

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said,  “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons.  Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.  And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Numbers 27:1-11

Take a moment and read the passage closely. It begins with the five women, and identifies them as the daughters of Zelophehad, with a genealogy explaining precisely who they are. Then we get their individual names.

It is a moment of high theater: the five women stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the stage upon which great dramas happen in the Torah narrative. They are not summoned there; they take a stand. They take that stand before Moses, before Eleazar, before the leaders of the clans, and before the people.

Then they state their case: their father is dead. He was not a follower of Korach but died because he sinned, and he had no sons. Then they state the problem: under the inheritance laws as they stood, their father’s name would be forgotten, and they would be left without an inheritance, (therefore unmarriageable.) Then they ask directly for what they want: “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses has no answer for them; they have raised a problem he has not considered, so he takes their case before God. And God says something amazing: God says the women are right! And God sets out a revised version of the inheritance laws.

But this is not the last we hear of the daughters of Zelophehad. Indeed, all of Chapter 36 is devoted to the issue they raised:

The heads of the ancestral houses of the clans of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, of the Josephite clans, came forward and spoke in the presence of Moses and the leaders, the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelites; they said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the Israelites; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. But if they are married into another Israelite tribe, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestors and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so it will be taken away from the allotted portion of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the Israelites comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they have married; and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestral tribe.”

Then Moses commanded the Israelites according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The descendants of the tribe of Joseph are right in what they are saying. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, ‘Let them marry whom they think best; only it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married, so that no inheritance of the Israelites shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for all Israelites shall retain the inheritance of their ancestral tribes.  Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the Israelites shall marry one from the clan of her father’s tribe, so that all Israelites may continue to possess their ancestral inheritance.  No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the Israelites shall retain its own inheritance.’”

The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord had commanded Moses.  Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married sons of their father’s brothers. They were married into the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.

These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. – Numbers 36: 1-13.

Again, read closely: The uncles and cousins of the daughters of Zelophehad come forward with a new problem. God’s solution to the daughters’ problem was going to cause their tribe to lose land to other tribes. You can practically hear the men crying out, “Not fair!”

Moses again asks God what to do, and God revisits the revised decree. Now the daughters may inherit, but if they marry they must marry within the clan, to prevent the problem raised by the uncles and cousins. The daughters of Zelophehad – again listed by name, unlike their male relatives – agree to the revision.

There are several things that strike me in this narrative, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the fact that Torah law is presented as something that can change to address human needs. In fact, the text seems to be saying that God didn’t think of everything; there were some issues that the original Torah failed to address.  In this text, God isn’t troubled by imperfection in Torah. God revises and then revises again until everyone’s needs are met.

I am the first to admit that this is a radical reading of the text. An orthodox reader would point out to me that humans petition and God makes the revisions; the humans don’t make changes willy-nilly. I would counter to that that in this stage of Israel’s existence, one could do as the Daughters did and march up to the Tent of Meeting and get a meeting with God. This is a privilege unique to that generation.

Later generations would deal with issues like this in other ways: one of the most famous such questions is addressed in the story of Akhnai’s Oven:

The rabbis are disputing whether a particular design of oven is ritually clean or unclean. Rabbi Eliezer, a great scholar, says, “Clean” but the rest say “Unclean.” Each side calls upon miracles and wonders, but neither side will give in. Rabbi Eliezer is supported by a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, which argues that Rabbi Eliezer is always right. Rabbi Joshua retorts by quoting Torah, “It is not in heaven!” And a later rabbi tells us what he meant by that, that the Torah was given, and after that, the rule follows the majority (human) opinion! And then God laughs, saying, “My children have defeated me!” (a paraphrase of Bava Metzia 59a-b)

Why am I a Reform Jew? Because the Torah itself tells us that not all cases are covered in the Written Torah! And the Oral Torah tells us that not all cases are decided and final, either. Sometimes we learn better. Sometimes we get new information. Sometimes a situation comes up that needs a new answer.

Does this mean, as some critics of Reform say, that Reform Jews believe in nothing? Nonsense. I and other observant Reform Jews do our best to live Torah out to the best of our understanding, in the light of study and the whole body of Jewish tradition.

Does this mean, as some critics would say, that there are Reform Jews who use the flexibility of Reform to justify doing exactly as they please, with no reference to tradition? Sure, just as there are Orthodox and Conservative Jews who use the practice of teshuvah [repentance] as a license to do whatever they please in the moment. It’s no better to say, “I will repent on Yom Kippur” than it is to say, “I’m Reform, I can do what I want” – if anything, it’s worse, because the former is explicitly forbidden. We cannot have a reasonable discussion about these things by comparing the worst of one group with the best of another.

I am a Reform Jew. I believe that God gave us Torah along with the freedom to wrestle with its puzzles. I am not free to “do what I want.” I am free to struggle, as Jews have always struggled, to stay on a path towards holiness described by the sometimes mysterious words of Torah. I am going to be wrong sometimes; I accept that. I will do my best, informed by my study and my reflections with my Jewish community.

I believe, in fact, that the early sages – those gentlemen arguing about Ahknai’s Oven! – were doing exactly the same thing, trying to carve out a path towards holiness through the wilderness of the world. Their decisions were not always “the halakhah” [Jewish law] – as the bat kol pointed out, the halakhah always followed Rabbi Eliezer. Their decisions were what they deemed the best path at their time in history.

At our best, we do our best, whatever our understanding of Torah. Whenever I am perplexed, I return to the words of the prophet Micah:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

[God] has told you, Human, what is good, and what the Holy One requires of you: to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

A Few Preliminary Thoughts

Photo: “PARRCzar” Rabbi Larry Goldmark introduces Israel Consul General David Siegel before he speaks to the assembly of Reform rabbis in Palm Springs, January 2016. Photo by R. Ruth Adar.

There are some long, thoughtful posts brewing in my head right now, but they need more time to cook. Here are some impressions I have from the various presentations and conversations at the  PARR conference so far:

  1. History flows like a river. Learn to swim, or you will drown.
  2. There is nothing new under the sun, but things rarely happen in exactly the same way twice. When something “comes back around,” that’s interesting, but it is also important to notice what’s new about it. In the same way, when something looks new, I should ask myself, “When have I seen this before?”
  3. We live in the age of Outrage du Jour. It is tempting in so many different aspects of life to get all excited about that which is immediate: the tweet, the facebook post, the latest thing, the newest news. Jewish wisdom, however, urges us to look beyond the immediate to the Big Picture.
  4. Fear is a poor compass. It’s always worth asking what is truly likely to happen, instead of obsessing over the worst case scenario.
  5. Power vs Powerlessness is one heck of an interesting lens through which to view the world, especially if I can manage to look through it calmly.
  6. If you want to learn interesting stuff, seek out people who make everybody uncomfortable.

If any of these snippets stirs up thoughts for you, I hope that you’ll share them with us in the Comments.

 

 

 

CCAR Statement on the Situation in Israel

This is an official statement from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) on the situation in Israel.

The CCAR is the professional association of Reform rabbis in North America.

CCAR Deplores Terrorism, Denounces Abbas

Wednesday, October 7, 2015
The Central Conference of American Rabbis grieves the deaths of Naama and Eitam Henkin, brutally murdered in the sight of their four children; and of Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Banita, savagely stabbed to death in Jerusalem. All four were victims of Palestinian terrorists, with the Henkins’ murderers identified by Israel as members of Hamas and with Islamic Jihad claiming responsibility for its terrorist’s work in Jerusalem.

Terrorism will not bring the Palestinian people closer to the realization of their legitimate national aspirations.

Making matters worse, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has renounced existing agreements with Israel, leaving even West Bank security arrangements in question. In an Orwellian turn, Abbas then denounced Israeli security forces for killing the Islamic Jihad terrorist, even though he was killed by the force necessary to stop his rampage.

While responsibility for these deaths lies in the hands of terrorists, we are also appalled by some of the response coming from Israel’s Jewish community. We condemn right wing extremists who are inciting a violent response against Palestinians, terrorists and otherwise. Also, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a plan to accelerate demolitions of terrorists’ families’ homes and to increase extra-judicial detentions of terrorism suspects. These plans are cause for concern. As a democracy and civilized society, respectful of the rule of law, Israel must vigorously protect its citizens from terrorism while ensuring due process and civil rights for all who live under its rule.

Now is the time for terrorism to end. Now is the time for responsible Palestinian leadership. Now is the time for a strong, responsible Israeli response to terror, one that respects human rights and due process. Now is the time for renewed negotiations, leading to a two-state solution, with a Palestinian State and Israel living side by side at peace.

As rabbis, we continue to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem;” and we refuse to abandon hope, even at this dark hour.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger           Rabbi Steven A. Fox
President                            Chief Executive

Central Conference of American Rabbis

Fantasy and the Jewish Future

A reader asked me recently, “Which mitzvot do Reform Jews observe?”

My answer (this was on Twitter, so I had to be brief), “Like all Jews, some observe many mitzvot and some do not.”

I’ve noticed that we have interesting fantasies about our fellow Jews. Reform Jews fantasize that all Orthodox Jews (“the Orthodox”) observe all 613 mitzvot meticulously. Some do, to the best of their ability, which is to say that they do so imperfectly but with the intention of keeping them all: kosher home, kosher lifestyle, kosher family, a seamless way of life. Others identify as Orthodox, but in practice they live a much less observant life. I have met Jews who identified as Orthodox but who were not observant at all: they eat pepperoni pizza except when they think a rabbi is looking.

Correspondingly, there are Orthodox Jews who have fantasies about Reform Jews: we eat cheeseburgers with abandon, intermarry like crazy, and spend Shabbat shopping till we drop. The reality, again, is messier: sure, there are Reform Jews who do those things, but there are also Reform Jews who keep kosher, keep Shabbat, and study Gemara regularly. There are also Reform Jews who interpret kashrut differently, and who have rules for Shabbat but not the traditional rules. There are Reform Jews who care deeply about Israel and about the Jewish future and who work to preserve both.

In other words, it is dangerous to gauge any Jew’s level of observance or love of Am Yisrael merely by asking, “Are you Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform?” It is destructive and divisive to indulge in fantasy about our fellow Jews. Such fantasies get in the way of having genuine relationships with them.

So what, then, is the real difference between Orthodox and Reform? The difference has to do with our respective understandings of halakhah, “the way,” also known as “Jewish Law.” For Orthodoxy, halakhah is given by God and is immutable. For Reform, halakhah is the product of human beings, with inspiration by God, and human beings can reinterpret it if we choose, after study and consideration.

In practice, the vast majority of Jews do things the way their parents did them, whatever their affiliation. If their parents went to synagogue, they go to synagogue. If their parents didn’t, they probably won’t. The same goes for home observance.

None of this is set in stone. Those who want, can learn. Those who are willing can do things differently than their parents. Indeed, I know many intermarried Reform Jews who keep observant homes and raise Jewish children who have every expectation of raising Jewish children themselves someday. I know many converts to Judaism (both Reform and Orthodox) who are pillars of their congregations. I know Jews who did not get a Jewish education, who knew nothing when they knocked on the door of the community, who now are active, participating members. It is possible, but only with nurturing and encouraging support from the Jews already in those congregations.

My dream for the Jewish future is that someday instead of indulging in fantasies about other Jews, we’ll get to know them one-on-one. And that someday, instead of wailing about the Jewish future, we’ll see it in every human being who walks in the door of the synagogue.

My Adventures with Kashrut

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to submit humbly to someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans, and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: my nearest classmate-neighbor was David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont. David had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! He was very helpful. After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I no longer keep a kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities. When and if the day comes that I can keep the kitchen kosher without the martyrdom shtick, I’ll go back to keeping a kosher kitchen. Right now I lack sufficient holiness for it.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

Nowadays I am more concerned with the sources of my food than with kashrut per se. Where did this food come from? Who grew it? How were the growers and harvesters treated and paid? Were animals mistreated? Is it sustainable agriculture? What kind of carbon footprint is involved? Unlike kashrut, which is very clear and straightforward, these ethical and moral questions are complex and require balancing. And – I should add this, lest I set up a false dichotomy – there are many Jews who keep kosher and worry about the complicated questions, too.

Bottom line: These days, my kitchen is easier to keep, but the shopping is complicated. I’m OK with that. Check back with me in 10 years and I will have learned more.

Register to Vote in the World Zionist Congress Elections and Vote ARZA Slate

Rabbi John Rosove has said this all so well that I’m just going to repost. Please read!

Rabbi John Rosove's Blog

One of the most important steps that Diaspora Jews can take to support Israel’s democracy, pluralism and bond with world Jewry and the state of Israel is to vote in this year’s World Zionist Congress election that is now open for registration and voting through April 15, 2015.

The only requirements for voting are that you must be Jewish and at least 18 years of age.

I ask you to click now onto the link below, register and vote for the ARZA Slate (i.e. the Association of Reform Zionists of America). Please do not delay.

I ask for your vote as a delegate on the ARZA Slate (I am #25) that includes many distinguished America rabbis and leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism representing 1.3 million American Jews.

All the information you need to know about ARZA’s platform can be found on this website. You can also register to…

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Reform Jews Outside the USA?

World Union for Progressive Judaism logo

  • Maybe you’re planning a trip to Europe or Latin America.
  • Maybe your company is moving you to Australia for a year.
  • Maybe you’re a student looking at a year of study abroad.
  • Maybe you live outside North America and want to find a progressive Jewish congregation.
  • Or maybe you’re interested in supporting the growth of progressive Judaism worldwide.

Any of these are good reasons to get acquainted with a wonderful resource, the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The WUPJ has member congregations in more than 45 countries, congregations from Progressive, Liberal, Reform and Reconstructionist traditions. It also has a congregational directory on its website with contact information and website addresses for many progressive synagogues around the world. In other words, you can use the WUPJ website to find a congregational “home away from home” if you are a Reform or Reconstructionist Jew from North America.

Why get in touch with a congregation when you are overseas? It is a wonderful way to transcend the boundaries of being a foreigner or a tourist. Years ago, I visited London for about a week. Knowing I would be there over Shabbat, I looked on the WUPJ website and read up on the congregations in London. I called the Liberal Jewish Synagogue to inquire about Shabbat services. Long story short, Shabbat morning I joined them for a wonderful service and kiddush. I met some lovely people and the Jewish world expanded for me that day. For the morning, I was less of a foreigner, because I was with fellow Jews.

It’s important to contact congregations ahead of time, because they may have security requirements for visitors. Unfortunately anti-Semitism is on the rise in many parts of the world, so congregations may need advance warning, to be sure that prospective visitors are friendly.

If you are going to visit Israel, you should know about the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. The IMPJ has over 30 member congregations around Israel as well as a growing network of schools, educational and community centers. Israeli Reform congregations welcome visitors – again, it helps to give some advance notice. As with the WUPJ, there is a directory of congregations on the website.

For North Americans, visiting progressive congregations away from home can offer both a sense of familiarity and some surprises. For instance, we are accustomed to at least some of the service being in the vernacular. In the US and much of Canada that means English. However, in the Netherlands, the vernacular is Dutch. In Russia, it’s Russian. And in Israel, the entire service is in Hebrew, because the language of everyday life is Hebrew!

Lastly, perhaps you are not planning to travel, but you are looking for a way to support liberal egalitarian Judaism in the world as part of your tzedakah budget. The WUPJ and IMPJ websites are a great place to begin your research for a good match.