Monthly Archives: November 2011

Engaging our Teens

At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.

Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference.  I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated.  Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought.  And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.

This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work.  The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone.  Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.

I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger.  We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:

While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come.  The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.

I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful.  We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.

On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp.  While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience.  But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.

My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers.  This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience.  This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too.  Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience.  She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming.  “Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.

Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions.  But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’.  Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there!).  

They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?

So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life.  There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go.  I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement.  As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.

Posted on November 30, 2011

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My New, New Testament

The seminary: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, affiliated with the Reform movement. The class: “The New Testament,” taught by Rabbi Michael Cook. A classmate’s copy of the Oxford Study Bible falls to the floor. The student asks, “Do I kiss it?” To which another quips, without missing a beat: “Depends…what side did it land on?”

I thought about that moment on Friday when I read the New York Times “Beliefs” column, which included a nice review of a new commentary on the Christian Bible (or “New Testament,” in Christian parlance). What makes this commentary very interesting is that is was written entirely by Jews — chiefly, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. I’ve gotten my copy, and I’ve spent some time leafing through it. It appears to be an invaluable resource for rabbis and scholars, which is no surprise, given the lineup of writers who contributed (a lineup which includes my teacher, Michael Cook). But I’ll go further and say that the New Testament — this New Testament, in particular — is a book that belongs in every Jewish home.

The Jewish Annotated New TestamentI’m joking, right? Just how “without borders,” are these rabbis, recommending that Jews buy copies of “that” book? So let me clarify by saying that I don’t believe Jews ought to read this book for devotional purposes. To give it “a place in the canon,” to treat it as “Torah,” would be to step over a border that I’m not the least bit interested in questioning or crossing. No, I recommend the Jewish Annotated New Testament because I believe that an appreciation of this book can enhance the Jewishness — the authentic Jewishness — of Jewish homes.

I believe this is so, in the first instance, because so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the very idea of the Christian Bible. We come by those feelings honestly (two millennia of Church-sponsored antisemitism leaves a mark), but fear of a book is unbecoming “the people of the book.” Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, and willful ignorance even less so. Thus, the simple act of bringing this book into our homes may be a step away from a fear-driven relationship to Christianity.

Furthermore, the vast majority of American Jews (at least outside of the most traditionally observant circles) have friends and even extended family who are Christians. I believe it to be a sign of respect when we show some interest in the book that inspires them. Jews are respected by our neighbors for (among other things) our intellectual acumen, and our curiosity. How strange it must seem to them when we demonstrate no knowledge or curiosity at all about their sacred book. I know how strange it sounds to put it this way, but I believe it is a kiddush hashem — a positive and public Jewish act — for Jews to have this book on their shelves where their Christian neighbors, friends, and family can see it.

Finally, let it not be said that the Jewish Annotated New Testament is only about the optics. Were that the case, we could just put those words on the spine of a book, and conceal some other book inside (the Torah perhaps, or maybe Mad Magazine). No, this is a book whose spine is very much worth cracking. Though I’ve only begun to do so myself, I feel confident in saying that to delve into the essays, and the textual notes, and yes, even the stories themselves, is to gain a deeper understanding not only of Christianity (which is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor) but also of Judaism (which ought to be a worthwhile spiritual endeavor). Co-editor Amy-Jill Levine, in the previously linked-up NYT piece, says that her deepened understanding of Christianity has made her a better Jew. I believe her, and I look forward to engaging more deeply with her work in this field.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament may not be “Torah” for us Jews, and it might not get a kiss after an inadvertent fall. But it ought to take its place in our libraries as an indispensable window into the sacred texts of our neighbors, and its presence on our personal bookshelves may also tell us something important about ourselves.

Posted on November 29, 2011

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Fighting Poverty with Faith

It’s four days after Thanksgiving and I am feeling guilty. My family enjoyed a weekend of delicious leftovers from our Thanksgiving feast and there’s plenty more for the rest of this week, plus the stuffing we froze for another day and the pile of leftover homemade cakes and breads that went back to school with my children who are in college. A family of cooks and nutrition fanatics, we spent the weekend talking about the pleasure of the colorful spread of vegetable dishes we prepared.

So why am I feeling guilty about all this joyous abundance? {In my view, guilt is a healthy emotion if it leads one to righteous action.} My unease comes from the realization that many Americans did not enjoy this type of lush eating, even on Thanksgiving – and could not access – the quantity and quality of food that my family is privileged to have.  Today I am thinking about the hundreds of thousands of residents of my state alone, NJ, who struggle to buy food. Many can only afford to eat low cost, processed and nutritionally empty foods. Some are going to bed hungry, including far too many children. All suffer the indignity of being poor.

This is just one state. A recent article posted on WNYC website elaborates: “The number of New Jersey residents receiving food stamps has doubled in the last four years despite the state’s standing as No. 2 wealthiest in the nation. One in every 10 people in the state now receive aid – totaling 400,000 households, according to New Jersey Department of Human Resources.”

We know the reasons: unemployment and underemployment top the list. But these are people’s lives. “The Community Food Bank of New Jersey said it has doubled the amount of free food it provides to needy residents. ‘They’re becoming more desperate,’ said Diane Riley, director of advocacy, who noted people tend to be more embarrassed to go on food stamps than to come to a food pantry.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation reported that the average cost of this year’s Thanksgiving meal for 10 people was $49.20, a $5.73 price increase from the average in 2010.  In my kosher home, the turkey alone cost that much. Add in lots of fresh vegetables and fruits and, well, it’s embarrassing to notice the gaping discrepancy between what we typically spend on a holiday feast and this much smaller sum that is “average.”  I couldn’t help but notice that this is symbolic of the wealth and class divide that has become a scourge in America.  And we are not even wealthy!

The inequality in our country is a travesty. The poverty rate in New Jersey is also rising, according to government reports. 
The Census Bureau recently documented that 13.6 million American households reported receiving food stamps, a 16 percent increase.  “One in three Americans — 100 million people — is either poor or perilously close to it.” (NY Times editorial, 11/23/11) As wealth is concentrated at the top of the income scale, poverty spreads and suffering grows.

So I feel guilty. But I can’t stay there for long—I know that I have a job to do: to take even more responsibility to help correct these huge problems; to help share my bounty with those who are not as lucky. I am no more worthy than anyone else, and my neighbors who are hungry deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.  The Torah commands us to care for the needy, leaving the corners of our fields that those who are hungry may come and eat.  The Torah commands us: “…Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11). The responsibility to care for the needy and to help them to rise up out of poverty is a central spiritual value of the Jewish people.

The toxic political environment in this country right now is discouraging. But the idea that those who are hungry may not be given basic assistance to obtain food, and the dignity to find their way out of poverty, is a moral outrage. The challenge to government Food Stamp budgets is absolutely not acceptable. So my responsibility does not stop with providing food – real help for those who are struggling with poverty requires activism.

It is very encouraging that there is an interfaith effort to address these challenges. The organization Fighting Poverty with Faith is building a nationwide, interfaith movement to cut domestic poverty in half by 2020. “Working together to end hunger” is a theme of this year’s mobilization. Many are taking the “Food Stamp Challenge,” living on the budget of food stamps for a week.

It would be so easy to shrug our shoulders, quietly eat our bountiful leftovers, and hope someone else would solve these problems. But our ancestors knew that it takes much more. It takes a goal, a vision, that “there shall be no needy among you,” even as we know that poverty is a constant challenge in every society. With this as our vision, we are empowered to work together — to help each other.

After all, at any moment, any one of us could lose our good fortune. Wouldn’t we want our neighbors to be there for us too?

Posted on November 29, 2011

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The Urgency of Civility

Seinfeld's Frank Constanza, demonstrating anger

It seems to me that we do not do a lot of talking to each other anymore. There is lots of talking about each other or past each other but not a lot of talking to each other. Furthermore, the tone of our supposed dialogues have become increasingly fractious and divisive. One does not need to look very far to find examples of this phenomenon both from within the Jewish community and in the larger American situation.

Anything we do within our own small communities is now readily available for review by anyone with an Internet connection around the globe. We do not live in a world anymore where I can do what I want or say what I please without facing the potential criticism of a global audience. Yet, is critique always the right approach? The urge to condemn or critique can be strong. One can feel justified in their offering of condemnation, perhaps even righteous, but still is this the preferred approach?

The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 31a, relates the oft-quoted story of the potential convert who came before the first-century sage Shammai, asking to convert on condition that all of Judaism be taught to him while standing on one foot. The Talmud records that Shammai angrily chased him away while whereupon approaching Hillel with the same request, he was immediately converted. Several other stories of a similar nature are offered with the same result: Shammai scolding while Hillel embraced them. It is the end of this particular passage though that most provocatively puts forth a different tactic from the one of critique and condemnation. The Talmud asserts that “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us [converts] from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”

On a similar note, the Babylonian Talmud in several places (Eruvin 72b; Hullin 58a; Niddah 59b) demonstrates that the ability to permit something (in Hebrew “koah de’heteira“) is preferable over the opposite ability to prohibit. It takes a careful approach to matters, a nuanced view of a situation and knowledge of all the dimensions to a problem to genuinely permit. Any knee-jerk reactionary can scream from rooftops condemnations but a true mensch and scholar can be expansive and open.

The 16th-century Greek rabbinical judge of the northwestern city of Arta, Rabbi Benjamin Mattathias, in his work of legal rulings teaches that the power to permit is greater than the power to prohibit just as the sayings of scholars is greater than the sayings of prophets (She’alot U’Teshuvot Binyamin Ze’ev, sec. 7). Perhaps we can understand this comparison as telling us that while a scholar can modulate and adjust his or her perspective over time, can take in extenuating circumstances into his or her calculations, this is not possible for a prophet, who simply conveys a Divine message to the people. So too it is all too often easier to prohibit, less taxing and time consuming to just simply say no, but it is the person who weighs all the evidence, considers all the points and perspectives, that can authentically permit. (The same is also true, of course, if the conclusion one arrives at after careful study is a prohibitive one.)

In our world of condemnations, chastisements and ridicule I would like to suggest that the power of praise, while sometimes more difficult and not as natural, is preferable over the power of criticism. There has been lots said in rabbinic thought throughout the ages about the superiority of the koah de’heteira, the power of permitting things, but nowadays I think our time urges us to discuss publicly and openly the koah de’shevah, the power and preference for praise over critique, compliment over ridicule and thoughtfulness over cynicism.

In a society with more praise and less critique, more considerate reflection and less knee-jerk negativity, we might come that much closer to healing the rifts that are tearing us apart and dividing our communities.

Posted on November 25, 2011

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A Tale of Two Havdalot

So there we were this past Saturday evening, some 500 people strong, many arm in arm, singing the la, la lahs, and doing Havdalah together. It was at the 10th anniversary celebration of the local Jewish High School, which at first branded itself as a “Conservative” school, but curiously downplayed that part of its history and no denominational reference was made at the dinner except by an honoree who referred to the school as being non- Orthodox.

It is an excellent high school, with students from across the Jewish religious spectrum, many superb teachers, lots of innovative quality programming, and most significantly, draws a third of its students from public schools. My middle daughter was part of its initial cadre of 25 students, and except for being threatened with expulsion for dyeing her hair green during her freshman year, had a fine educational experience there.

To the school’s great credit, they honored seven teachers and administrators who were there from the beginning, including the maintenance man.  A former student spoke about each of them and this was a clear statement of the mentchlichkeit (decency) that pervades the institution.

But back to Havdalah. I was bothered by the fact Havdalah came after Hamotzi and after we had started eating.  Jewish law is clear that Havdalah should precede eating on Saturday evening. While it should still be recited if this was not done, I thought a day school should model Jewish practice as the tradition clearly understands it and take the opportunity as a teaching moment to explain why it was preceding dinner.  However, in this case, and in many cases outside of Orthodoxy, aesthetics seemed to dominate over the integrity of practice, the genuine and powerful good feelings of the moment having more importance than the rules of the game, the very ceremony marking distinctions discarding the very distinction the ceremony makes and collapsing into feel good mushiness.

So I am left with questions? Should a ceremony about borders have any borders?  Is there integrity to how the tradition understands a ritual that should play a role in how it is practiced?  Am I too Orthodox that it clouds my vision of the beauty of the moment?  Am I being too judgmental?

Sunday morning I was at the Great Lakes Naval Base where I am one of a group of rabbis and educators who teach a class “Jews in Blues” to naval recruits.  This is the only naval boot camp in the country. The local JCCs (to their great credit) organize rabbis and educators to staff Friday Shabbat services and they have partnered with the Chicago Board of Rabbis on this project.  Attendance at class on Sunday can vary from 1-10 recruits and people are always arriving to or graduating from their seven week boot camp course.

We begin each class with Havdalah. Although it is Sunday morning, it is a good ritual with which to begin the class and the recruits certainly could not do it on Saturday night.  This Sunday I only had one student.  Like many Jews in the Navy (though not all and everyone we meet has a fascinating story), he had a very limited Jewish background, but was beginning a journey to rediscover and explore his Judaism.  He was thrilled to follow along the Hebrew, recognized some words, but this was probably his first experience of Havdalah.  And for what it is worth, I was honored to be there to open a door for that one Jewish recruit I will probably never see again.  This time I left with no questions.

Posted on November 23, 2011

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The Study of Torah Encompasses Them All

Babylonian Talmud

The front page of the Brachot section of the Babylonian Talmud.

A young man adorned with a black hat, a prayer shawl and phylacteries offers up his morning prayers in the same library where I study with my erudite Talmud teacher.

On Mondays, I infuse my mind and spirit with the insights of the Babylonian Talmud. Three Modern Orthodox male lawyers and I (a post-denominational female rabbi) find delight in analyzing the legal codes associated with voluminous pages of the detailed conversations and arguments of the rabbis.

Today I am the teacher’s only pupil. I concentrate on reading the Rashi script.

The man with the black hat paces back and forth in front of the room as he choreographs his prayer dance before God. He moves with quiet determination while he places his black and white tallis over his shoulders. He wraps the tefillin around his arm and on his forehead. He adjusts his black hat often and deliberately. I see him focusing on his paperback prayer book, but I cannot detect any sound.

My teacher, oblivious to the young man’s presence, continues to expound on the first sugya (passage). The man with the black hat is my distraction. Is he offended that a woman and a man are studying holy texts together? If so, why doesn’t he take his prayers to another place? Is he eavesdropping on our learning while concentrating on his blessings? Does he find it interesting? Or amusing? Is he surprised at my agility with the Hebrew text, or has he succumbed to the beauty of my teacher’s Talmudic treatises?

yentl

Barbra Streisand in the 1983 movie "Yentl."

I longed to tell him my “Yentl” story.

My father, an Orthodox rabbi, had no sons to transmit his passion for Torah learning. Instead, when I entered rabbinical school at the age of forty and took my first Talmud class, I realized a dream. Every night after class, my father and I studied Talmud. The intimacy of our reflections opened up more than the secrets revealed on the written page. I immersed myself in the wisdom of my father, the greatest gift of my life.

The thrill of those intimate discussions flashed like lightning into my heart space as I held the Talmud in my hands and ingested the instruction of my tutor.

We have many teachers in life. Some remind us of other teachers, not by what they know,
but how they transmit what they know.

The attendance of the man with the black hat solidified the devotion and the dedication
the three of us sustained in the room filled with the books of our people. How could he not have stayed? He soaked up the deliberations of the Talmud just as I had done decades before with my father at my parents’ kitchen table in the Bronx.

Is it permissible to begin your morning prayers while the study of Talmud between a man and a woman is already in motion? According to the man with the black hat, it is permissible and precious.

Posted on November 23, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

“Wocka Wocka!”


I’m excited about the new Muppet Movie, and who wouldn’t be given great lines like the following from the trailer:

Kermit, the straight man, pleads, “The Muppets have always been about artistic integrity, not cheap tricks.”

Fozzie walks in and says, “Check it out, fart shoes!!” The adorable, Borscht Belt Bear has whoopee cushions strapped to his loafers.

It’s a sight gag with perfect timing folks, and Judaism has been celebrating that particular shtick for a long, long time. Consider the Talmudic template for the above Muppet scene:
Pelemo, a rabbi who, if I were casting Muppets, would be played by Gonzo the Weirdo, sets up the bit, “On which head does a two-headed man put on his tefillin?”

Rabbi Yehuda, plays the straight man (Kermit the Frog) who has had it up to his eyeballs with Pelemo’s outlandish remarks, “Either geli (get out of here) or be subject to a formal ban!”

Then, the best set-up term in the Talmud, addehakhi, “At that very moment,” a man walks in and says, “an infant with two heads has been born to me. How many shekalim am I obliged to give for the pidyon haben?” (B. Talmud, Menahot 37a).

How about this one? A poor beggar asks Rava for food. The great rabbi, knowing the law regarding sustaining a poor person, asks the beggar what he is accustomed to eating.

“Fattened chicken and aged wine,” the beggar says.

The rabbi protests that the beggar ought to have less extravagant taste, that such luxury is a strain on the community.

Addehahki, “just then,” Rava’s sister, whom he hasn’t seen in 13 years shows up, carrying, wait for it… “Fattened chicken and aged wine!” (Wocka Wocka!).

The Simpsons,Krusty the Clown and his father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, from the episode, "Today I am a Clown."

[For the academic types, take a look at Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud, by Louis Jacobs.  He has a whole chapter on "the device of addehakhi."]

Was the Tigeris and Euphrates, the location for the early Babylonian Academies that produced the Talmud, the precursor to the Catskills where borscht belt humor was perfected?

(click to view)

One of the kings of that vaudevillian, take-my-wife-please, Henny-Youngman-styled humor, Milton Berle (Milton Berlinger) actually was a guest for one of my favorite Muppet Show episodes. He goes at it with Statler & Waldorf, the heckling old-timers in the balcony:
Waldorf say to Uncle Milty during his opening bit, “You know what, I just figured out your style. You work like Gregory Peck.”

Berle responds, “Gregory Peck is not a comedian.”

“Well…,” Statler lets the punchline just hang there.

“Now just a minute, please,” the agitated Milt says, “I have been a successful comedian half my life.”

And to that my Muppet heroes say, “How come we got this half?”

Statler and Waldorf are my heroes because they represent  that “old Jews telling jokes” humor that I hope to embody someday.  These are punchlines that you see coming from a mile away and you laugh anyway.  (Just about every joke on the oldjewstellingjokes.com website is a classic,  but the commercials are annoying. The book version made a very special gift).

Is there a unique Jewish humor? Remember the Seinfeld episode where the dentist is suspected of converting to Judaism for the jokes? A great deal has been written about the topic (take for example, Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Humor). Every movie has it’s challenges, but the one I’ll be looking out for with the Muppets was laid down by Saul Bellow, who said, “Oppressed people tend to be witty.”

The truth is that Jewish anti-Semitism in America is at a historic low. Is Mel Brooks ( Melvin Kaminsky) correct, that our humor is our form of revenge – think, Spring Time for Hitler (The Producers) ? Is Woody Allen (Allen Stewart Konigsberg) right, that “Comedy is just tragedy plus time?” If they’re right, does that mean our kids’ kids won’t think we’re funny?  I say that there must be more than misery that instills a sense of comedy.

Groucho Marx: My brother thinks he's a chicken - we don't talk him out of it because we need the eggs.

"Now that's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard!"

Keep the jokes coming. Feel free to share a classic “Jewish” joke…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted on November 22, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Power of Blessing Someone

What is in the power of a name? Why is naming someone in prayer so sacred and moving? I will never forget my experience when I was working as a hospital chaplain at memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. One morning, early in my career as a chaplain, I asked a Jewish patient whom I was visiting if she would like me to say the Jewish prayer for healing for her called the Mishuberach, literally meaning, “May the one who blesses.” She said yes, and I chanted the ancient words, inserting her name at the appropriate place in the blessing asking for a complete recovery of body and soul. When, I concluded the prayer, I looked up to see tears streaming down her face. I sat with her as she composed herself. She then said, “Thank you. I have never heard anyone pray for me before. It was so powerful to hear you say my name in prayer.”

How many of us ever hear our names lifted up in prayer? How many of us ever feel the power of a prayer or blessing intended for us alone?

As soon as I stood up to leave the patient’s bedside, her roommate on the other side of the curtain called out, “Rabbi, could you come say that blessing for healing for me too? It was so beautiful.” I walked around the curtain and introduced myself to the woman in the bed. She told me that her name was Mary, and I then asked her if she was Jewish. She said, “No, and I did not understand the Hebrew part of the prayer you just recited. But it touched my heart and I would like you to recite it for me.” In that moment, I realized that a blessing has no borders. It did not matter that I was a rabbi and she was not Jewish, what mattered was that my tradition had a prayer for healing that could help her. I recited the prayer for her using her name in Hebrew and English. When I was done, we both had tears in our eyes. The emotions I experienced are hard to describe without sounding corny. There was a deep connection between us that transcended religion, age, the well and the sick.

Some people question reciting a prayer for healing saying that in many cases God does not bring healing to the one who is ill. But in my mind there is a difference between healing and curing. God may not be able to cure an individual’s illness, but I do believe that God can bring healing even to those who are very sick and facing death. Healing certainly happened in that hospital room in Sloan Kettering that day. Both of the women were released from their suffering if only for a minute. One felt a profound joy in hearing her name recited in a blessing. The other felt a strong connection to me as another human who cared about her and who brought Gods presence to her in her hospital room.

If you want to bring healing to someone who is suffering physical or mental anguish, I offer these words from the traditional liturgy:

May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless (insert name here). May God grant mercy upon him/her, strengthen him/her , and bring healing. May God send him/her a complete healing of body and soul together with all who suffer illness. And let us say Amen.

The great singer and songwriter, Debbie Freidman wrote a song based on this prayer which often sung in place of the traditional words above. You can hear her song here:

Debbie Friedman Mi Shebeirach

Posted on November 21, 2011

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Holiness on a Tablet

The happy couple on their wedding dayThis past Sunday, I had the honor of officiating at a beautiful wedding.  Rachel and Nathan met last year here in Austin, and very quickly knew that they wanted to spend their lives together.  Rather than traveling back to New Jersey to get married, they held their wedding here, in their new hometown.  They were thrilled to welcome their family and friends to Austin, introducing them to the vibrant Jewish community, the live music scene, and the fabulous energy that makes this city the largest destination point for young folks between the ages of 22 and 35.

Days before the wedding, Rachel’s beloved grandfather became sick and was not able to travel to Austin.  This was heartbreaking for Rachel – she couldn’t imagine not having her grandfather there on her wedding day.  Although there was no feasible way to delay the wedding or move it to New Jersey, the family did have a plan to bring Rachel’s grandfather as close to the chuppah as possible.  A videographer created a live stream of the ceremony so Rachel’s grandfather could watch and listen from the comfort of his bed, and following yichud, the couple was able to speak with their grandfather on an iPad.

The dancing began with an enthusiastic horah.  Multiple circles of joyful guests held hands, moving around the dance floor with great excitement.  Rachel and Nathan’s friends and family had learned about the tradition of preparing schtick for the bride and groom – a custom that emphasizes the importance of bringing laughter to the newlyweds on their wedding day.  Young and old alike performed silly dances and songs, generating both surprise and delight.

As the music subsided and guests found their way to their seats, the iPad was brought to the front of the dance floor, the microphone was held up to the screen, and Rachel’s grandfather began to speak.  He may have been giving a toast from his home in New Jersey, but the love that he felt for Rachel and Nathan and his immense gratitude for being included in their wedding festivities was palpable right here in Austin.  He was then able to join together with the rest of the grandparents as they raised their voices to say HaMotzi — the blessing over the bread that officially begins the meal.  Our hearts were opened a little wider in that moment.

I’m by no means a “techie,” which may be all the more reason why I was so moved by how this technological innovation enhanced our spiritual celebration.  As a community builder, I truly believe in the power of being present.  And, in this case, under these circumstances, Rachel’s grandfather was present.  He was right there with us in Austin, TX.

As I walked to my car on Sunday evening, I said to my husband, “I think it’s time to get an iPad.”

Posted on November 18, 2011

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Who Owns Our Words?

For artists and writers, their creativity is their livelihood. The ideas that sprout from their heads are what put bread on the table and rent checks and mortgage payments in the mail. But even more crucially, artists and writers bring themselves into their creation, so when someone is plagiarized, it’s not just stealing money – it’s almost like stealing a very part of who they are.

And yet once someone’s words are now out in the world, how much do those words become public domain for anyone to use? In a world where we are not only consumers, but producers, where does borrowing end and plagiarism begin?

That’s a question that Malcolm Gladwell raises in an essay called “Something Borrowed.” The 2004 Broadway play “Frozen” is, in large part, about a psychiatrist who studies serial killers. And nearly 675 words were taken almost directly from a 1997 New Yorker article entitled “Damaged” that Gladwell himself had written. And he asks – is plagiarism the same thing as stealing?

As he says:

“Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one…[and] plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. When, two years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have lifted passages from other historians, she was asked to resign from the board of the Pulitzer Prize Committee. And why not? If she had robbed a bank, she would have been fired the next day.” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 225-226)

But that idea–that plagiarism is simply stealing–assumes that we own the words we speak. Yet once we have written something down, or created a piece of music, or painted a picture, it now becomes open for anyone to enjoy, to learn from, and to be inspired by. Ideas are not like physical objects–they naturally get expanded upon, interpreted, and used in other forms. So how much do we “own” the words we speak?

The Importance of Proper Attribution

If we do “own” the words we speak, then we need to make sure that the right people get the credit they deserve. And the Rabbis of the Talmud were close to obsessed with giving proper attribution to ideas and quotes. That’s why so many Jewish texts start by saying, “Rabbi So-and-So said in the name of Rabbi Such-and-Such…” But why are the Rabbis so concerned with giving proper attribution?

There are a few reasons. Pirkei Avot (6:6) tells us that “if you say something in the name of the person who originally said it, you are bringing redemption to the world.” The Mishnah and the Talmud were originally transmitted orally (that’s why it’s sometimes called the “Oral Torah”), and so there was no physical written record of who had said what. By ensuring a level of respect to those who came before, the Rabbis were also making sure that quotes, ideas and laws were handed down faithfully, and that some renegade Rabbi wasn’t making things up as he went along.

But I think there is another reasons, as well. The way God created the world was through speech – “‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” Our words are physical objects, because words create worlds. So if it was important not to steal people’s property, it was equally important not to steal their ideas, either.

Into the Public Domain

And yet the Rabbis also realized that there is a public domain, where our ideas might take on a life of their own. There is a classic story in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b), where the Rabbis were arguing over whether a certain type of oven was kosher.One of them, Rabbi Eliezer, tried to prove that he was right by having God perform miracles: “If I’m right, let this carob tree prove it!”, he said, and the carob tree uprooted its branches and moved. “If I’m right, let this river prove it!”, and the river started to flow backwards. But none of the other Rabbis were convinced by the miracles.Eventually, Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I’m right, let God Himself prove it!” At that moment, a heavenly voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!”

You would think this would have ended the matter. You would think that within the Rabbinic mindset, they would have said, “God gave the Torah, so God must know who has the right interpretation of it. And clearly, Rabbi Eliezer does. End of story.”

Instead, Rabbi Joshua stood up and said, “‘The Torah is not in heaven’ (Deuteronomy 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice.”

“We don’t listen to God any more, since the Torah is now ours,” Rabbi Joshua is saying. Notice that here the Rabbis weren’t arguing over whether Rabbi Eliezer was right or not. What they seem to be saying was that once God gave the Torah, it was now in the Rabbis’ hands to interpret it. Once the Torah was given to the people of Israel, it became theirs to own, and no longer simply God’s.

Who Owns Our Words?

So we face a tension about how ideas live in the world. On the one hand, people deserve credit if they come up with new thoughts. On the other hand, once the ideas are out there, no one truly “owns” them any more – anyone can access or use them.

As Gladwell reminds us, words do not “have a virgin birth and an eternal life” – there is a “chain of influence.” (243) So we have two-fold responsibility when it comes to attribution. First, as much as we can, we need to give credit where credit is due. Since there is nothing physical in the words we speak, it is that much more important to honor those who have created their works. On the other hand, we also have to remember that our own words quickly become public and owned by all.

The Rabbis are a perfect example of how to live out both sides of this obligation. Rabbi Joshua’s statement that “The Torah is not in heaven” implies that the greatest honor we can give the Torah is to help it become a living document. We build on what has come before, and we hope that others will build on afterwards.

So for our own ideas, we need first to remember that we build on the past. But if we think about our ideas as alive, then what greater honor can there be than having our words inspire someone else to expand on what we have created?

Posted on November 17, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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