Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Ultimate Jewish Staycation

For the first time in years, my husband and I have chosen to take a staycation.  Our parents and siblings live on the East Coast, so we generally spend our vacation time shuttling back and forth between cities in the Northeast, lugging over-packed suitcases on an off planes and in and out of rental cars, toting around tired children, strollers, and car-seats.  You get the picture.  Although I love the opportunity to see family and friends and feel deeply grateful that I have loved ones to visit, this winter we decided we just couldn’t take another big trip.  We needed to stay back and regroup in our own space, in our own home here in Austin, TX.

There’s no school, so the kids can stay up late and sleep in. (And, thankfully, I have two young children who love to sleep in, so that means mom gets to sleep in too.)  Although my husband and I are trying to get some things done around the house, nobody is “on the clock,” so to speak.  We are enjoying being together and sharing time and space with one another — playing and singing together as a family, socializing with friends, and lingering in each other’s presence.  We are not focused on homework, after school activities, work obligations, and what “has to get done,” but instead embracing our essential selves.  This week is about appreciating “who we are” and not “what we are doing.” This evening I realized that this staycation feels a lot like Shabbat.

Shabbat happens every week.  It isn’t a vacation, because the goal isn’t to escape to another destination. Quite the opposite.  It’s a staycation — an opportunity to be present, right here, right now.  On Shabbat we have the opportunity to set aside our alarm clocks and our tight schedules, connecting instead with the people in our lives whom we cherish most.  It is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “an island in time” — an opening to reacquaint ourselves with who we truly are, to nourish our minds and our souls.

In just a few hours, the sun will set and Shabbat will be upon us.  The term “staycation” is rather new, but the staycation of the Jewish people — aka Shabbat — is over 3,000 years old.  There is a reason we’ve kept this tradition around.  It works.  Our souls need this seventh day of rejuvenation.  As January approaches and my family returns to our regular, beloved activities, I am grateful to know that another staycation is always less than a week away.

Posted on December 30, 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

Getting Our B’nei Mitzvah to Understand (and Love) Torah Study

Helping 13-year-olds understand a 3,000-year-old text is challenging, to say the least.

After all, trying to glean lessons from the Torah for 21st-century America is hard enough, even if you have some background in text study. So when you have only 13 years of life experience, go to religious school for only two hours twice per week, and are still learning the skills you need to write and speak effectively, it’s even harder.

Yet as our kids become b’nei mitzvah and create their d’var torah – the teaching they deliver about the weekly Torah portion on that Shabbat morning — we often miss a great opportunity. Not only can we help them understand the content of that particular Torah portion, we can also help them appreciate the process by which we can engage with serious Torah study.

In other words, we have a golden opportunity to use the “what” as a vehicle to develop excitement around the “how.”

Formulating Good Questions

At Temple Beth El, we wanted to help our students truly embrace the process of Torah study. So to prepare our b’nei mitzvah, we decided to experiment with the “Question Formulation Technique” (QFT), designed by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana and outlined in their outstanding book Make Just One Change.

The purpose of the QFT is to shift how learning occurs: rather than having students respond to questions proposed by the teacher, the students themselves develop the questions that most effectively direct their own learning. After all, if the students are the ones posing the questions, then they will naturally develop a deeper level of ownership over their own learning.

The rules are simple — the teacher begins with a prompt that can lead to multiple lines of inquiry. For example, the teacher might write on the board something like, “Religion does more good than harm,” or “A synagogue should be a sacred and spiritual community.”

Then, in small groups, learners need to come up with as many questions about that prompt as they can. Their instructions are:

• Ask as many questions as you can.
• Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions.
• Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
• Change any statement into a question.

After creating their long list of questions, the learners then focus on the handful that speak to them the most — and so that’s the direction where the research, the discussion or the conversation goes. And so since the learners create their questions, and the learners then choose the ones that excite them the most, the paradigm shifts radically: instead of the teacher imparting information from the top down, the students are creating their learning from the bottom up.

Sacred Questions about Sacred Texts

In Judaism, questioning has always been a sacred activity. Throughout Jewish history, when we study Torah, we are asking questions like, “What might this verse mean? How can we read it in a new way? What other allusions does it have?” So applying the QFT was a natural way to help our b’nei mitzvah develop their d’var torah.

As part of our family education program, eight families came together about four months before their children become b’nei mitzvah. And we began by having them write a collective d’var torah, in order to help them understand the process. We focused on a passage from Deuteronomy 8: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember Adonai your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (v. 17-18).

First, we unpacked what this meant — that we are not the sole producers of our success, but that we need to have a level of humility and gratitude if we have been blessed with wealth. The text doesn’t say, “wealth is bad,” but rather, “if you are wealthy, make sure you remember the true source of that wealth.”

I then wrote up four words on the board: “Gratitude for material things.” And then I told them to write down as many questions as they could about that idea, that they weren’t allowed to answer or discuss the questions, to write down every question exactly as it was stated, and to change any statement into a question. And then I simply walked around eavesdropping on the conversations.

Almost instantly, the families created a flood of questions. In less than five minutes, they had come up with over twenty different questions: “What’s the difference between what we want and what we need?” “How do we show gratitude?” “If we show gratitude, does it have to be towards God?” “What’s the difference between material and non-material things?” “What happens if you don’t show gratitude?” “If you lost all your material things, would you still show gratitude?”

The energy was palpable, as everyone was considering what it really meant to “show gratitude for material things.” After a short discussion, we decided to go in depth about how gratitude acts as a check on entitlement — an issue that is as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago. We studied commentary, explored interpretations and shared our own opinions. And most crucially, the students now had a process to apply to the study of Torah, discovering ways to find meaning from the text.

So now, it was time to have them use this process on their own Torah portion.

They began by focusing on their specific verses that they would be reading, and came up with an eight-word description of the verses’ gist — “the special clothes Aaron wore,” “the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle,” “the laws of keeping kosher.” As two to three families joined together as a small group, each student’s summary acted as a prompt for creating a list of questions. After hearing and creating many, many possible questions, the bar or bat mitzvah student then chose the one question they would be most excited to research.

We then placed copies of Torah commentaries (The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) for all the families and said, “Take a look — see if you can find responses to your questions. What have other scholars had to say about what you’re wondering about?” For the next thirty minutes, families were poring over texts, excitedly yelling, “Oh! I found something!”, and began crafting their own thoughts. They proudly shared with me their ideas, and were so excited about what they themselves had created.

It was simply remarkable. Afterwards, the parents and the students shared how much they loved learning as a family, how much they enjoyed researching commentary on the Torah portion, and how smart and successful they felt as they drew lessons from the Torah. Not only did the quality of the divrei torah improve dramatically, but the students had clearly gained a new set of skills they could apply to study a whole range of texts, and perhaps most importantly, truly owned their learning process.

Building Skills for Life-Long Learning

Too often, preparing students to become bar or bat mitzvah feels like “studying for the test.” And as anyone who has ever “studied for the test” knows, the day after the test, all the information goes in one ear and out the other.

Instead, becoming bar or bat mitzvah should truly be about making a transition — namely, from being a child in the Jewish community to becoming an adult. And so as our 13-year-olds grow and develop, and as we celebrate their entrance into the Jewish community, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to teach them skills for life-long learning.

What are those skills? To be able to connect the present to the past and to the future. To be able to add their voice to a Jewish conversation that is 3,000 years old. And most of all, to be able to formulate good questions, since after all, what we learn is simply defined by the questions we ask.

So let’s help our students learn how to ask good ones.

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses.)

Posted on December 29, 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

What ‘All-American Muslim’ can teach our Jewish teens

Working with Jewish teenagers, I’ve seen it demonstrated that one very effective way to get them thinking deeply about their identity and the role that their religious values, beliefs and practices play in their daily lives, is to engage them in a comparative religion class.  Whenever we begin such a course together, we always start by looking at the various reasons that are often heard for studying other religions.  For example:

  • To learn about another religion and come to better understand it.
  • To explore the similarities and differences between our faith and the faith of others.
  • To find common ground and, through understanding, build stronger relationships with people of other faiths.

All of these reasons are true, but the one that I find to be most true in terms of actual impact over a relatively short period of time is that we come to better understand and know ourselves.

And so, during this year’s course that I teach in our local Hebrew high school program one night a week, we recently came to end of our 4 week introduction to Islam.  During this same period of time, the incredibly well-crafted TLC TV show, ‘All-American Muslim’ has been airing.  A number of the students have been watching it, and it has provided not only a wonderful window into the lives of a diverse group of Muslims living in Dearborn, Michigan but, as we reflect on how questions of practice, observance, gender roles, interfaith relations, conversion, childbirth, and more, are part of the discourse of the families portrayed in the show, so the Jewish teens that I work with have found many of these topics to offer a powerful lens to look at their own lives and the diversity to be found in the Jewish community.

Our mini-unit culminated with a visit from a mother and daughter who live locally, to engage in a conversation about their own journey of faith.  Mom is from Puerto Rico, and converted from Catholicism to Islam in 2000.  Her daughter, raised as a Muslim, shared her own interfaith experiences with members of her family, the multiple identities of being both Muslim and Puerto Rican, exchanges she has had with students at school who understand or do not understand the co-existence of these identities, and the personal spiritual path she walks as she navigates life as an American teenager and a practicing Muslim.

While my students had many questions for our guests, our guests in turn had questions for our students.  Why don’t your names sound Jewish?  What is a Hebrew name and how is it used? Why is it that we say our culture is Puerto Rican and our religion is Islam, but being Jewish is both culture and religion? How do you deal with explaining Jewish holidays and taking holy days off school?

I sat back and listened to my own students provide incredibly articulate answers to these questions, even as they were thinking out loud and learning about the kinds of questions that those who see us as ‘other’ might ask; things that we might take for granted but yet cause us to reflect deeply on who we are and how we live our faith when we are asked the questions.  In a brief 45 minutes, I saw my students articulate aspects of the meaning of their faith and identity in a way that two years of preparation for a bar or bat mitzvah could not achieve in the same way. At the end of our class, our guests joined us for the mid-evening break, to enjoy latkes and apple sauce with our students.

I am well aware that there has been a vicious campaign attacking ‘All-American Muslim’ in recent weeks.  I wish those who attack from a place of ignorance and fear could have been present in my classroom last week.  Our exposure to and interactions with each other strengthen the bonds between us, and strengthen our own individual sense of identity and faith.

 

Posted on December 28, 2011

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Will the Real Chanukah Hero Please Stand Up?

As the eight days of Chanukah wind down, I am thinking of a question I posed as the festival began – who is the real hero of the story?  When I asked this question of a class at the synagogue, I was not surprised at the first response: the oil.  We then had a spirited discussion about the other possible heroes and realized we didn’t have a clear-cut conclusion.

Now, a week later, I realize why.

First, let’s talk about the oil. How could the oil be a hero?  I admit to frustration for the way this story is told and passed from one generation to the next. With such a powerful story of Jewish survival, resting on guts and smarts and passionate commitment to the Jewish people, the watered-down version of the story that leaves out the essential message is more than a disappointment. It is a huge missed opportunity to reinvigorate pride and commitment to covenantal Judaism and the Jewish people.

Then there is the obvious second choice for the hero: Judah Maccabee and his band of warriors who fought valiantly to defeat an oppressive tyrant who threatened Jewish sovereignty in the land of our ancestors, and crushed Jewish learning and devotion during a time of confusion and change. “The Maccabees”, as they came to be known, saved Torah and the Jewish people.   While this heroism inspires our generation, it still does not define us.  Jews outside of Israel do not take up arms to defend the right to be Jews. And we pray for a time when Jews in Israel no longer need to do so as well.

There are the mythic heroes, not as often recalled. Hannah and her seven sons, a story of a mother who witnesses the martyrdom of her sons one after the other until her own death, has been an inspiring story for generations of Jews who were disempowered and persecuted, sometimes facing martyrdom themselves. Given the choice between eating pork/worshipping idols or death, Hannah’s family gives their lives rather than giving in. Visiting a typical “Jewish deli/kosher style” restaurant (as is common in Northern New Jersey) that boasts matzah ball soup alongside bacon and eggs, it seems clear that few Jews are motivated by Hannah’s sons’ passion for keeping the commandments as such. Nor are American Jews afraid that we must be prepared to give our lives to save Judaism itself.

Then there is the mythic Judith of the extra-biblical Apocrypha, who single-handedly saves the Jewish community by seducing and then beheading the general Holefernes, whose army is threatening the Jewish community.  Judith’s story is great fodder for feminists at this time of year, the counterpoint to Judah Maccabee, and indeed an inspiring heroine. But with the memory of physical threat to Jewish survival fading for younger Jews, Judith’s courageous story (though a bit barbaric) is relegated to an interesting past with little connection to the present.

For American Jews, a new model is needed.  Who is our hero?

In North American today, the hero of Chanukah is the person who raises Jewish children in a secular world and teaches them to love and cherish the blessing of being a member of the Jewish people.  This hero uses the American blessing of individual empowerment to better the Jewish experience for their family and for all Jews. Embracing both the American and the Jewish civilizations in which they live, this hero teaches their children to recognize and honor the integrity of Jewish distinctiveness.  This hero appreciates and honors the value of other religious traditions and people of faith, but cherishes the primacy of their Jewish identity. This hero demonstrates love for Jewish wisdom and ideals, culture and customs, by creatively, lovingly, energetically, and thoughtfully infusing contemporary Judaism into their home.

This is our new Chanukah hero, fighting against the forces of assimilation by embracing and shaping Judaism for themselves and the next generation.   As I look around at my community, I see many Chanukah heroes.   And that is the miracle of Chanukah.

Posted on December 27, 2011

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Bringing the Light

The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree (surprise!) about the way Chanukah candles are to be lit. Are we to light one candle the first night and then add one each day, or are we to begin with eight candles, and subtract one each day?

The Shammaite approach is understood by later interpreters (BT Shabbat 21b) this way: Chanukah is a reflection of Sukkot, and by starting with eight candles on the first night, and then subtracting one candle each night, we mirror way in which the bulls were sacrificed during the fall harvest festival. The approach also has the advantage of more accurately reminding us of the legend of that little cruse of oil whose light lingered far longer than expected.

And yet, the approach of the Hillelites was accepted. We began lighting our chanukiyot last Tuesday night with one light, and will conclude this evening with eight. The rationale: “in matters of holiness, we ascend rather than descending.” Our eight nights of celebration have seen the light grow brighter and brighter, and tonight all of the candles will be lit.

Tevet, Sixth Night

Tevet over El Paso, December 26, 2011

There’s an optimism inherent in the light that grows stronger each day, and on the last few nights of the holiday it is as if the very heavens rise to meet our efforts at adding light to the world. The darkest, longest nights of the year are the mostly moonless nights near the end of the month of Kislev, always near the Winter Solstice. These are the first days of Chanukah. As Chanukah ends, a new moon appears in the western sky at sunset, a little brighter and for a little bit longer on each of the last nights of the holiday. With solstice behind us (at least in those years when Chanukah “comes late”), the nights grow shorter; the waxing moon means they grow brighter, too.

Jews in the northeastern states (where the preponderance of US chanukiyot will be lit) may have to take it on faith this year. But those of us in the rest of the country stand a good chance to see the moon of Kislev in the western sky at lighting time. Let’s take a moment — perhaps just after the candles have guttered — to stand in the light of that waxing moon. As this year’s lighting comes to an end, let’s recommit ourselves to the ascent. May we bring light.

Posted on December 27, 2011

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The Message of Chanukah

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Hanukkah has been for as long as I can remember one of my favorite Jewish holidays. Throughout my life different aspects of the holiday celebration stood out to me. When I was a child I loved playing dreidel and getting Chanukah gelt (tin foil wrapped chocolate coins) and singing Chanukah songs with my family. As time went on I was mesmerized by the miraculous story of the oil that lasted eight nights instead of only one and as a teenager I thought it was so cool that there was a holiday that celebrated Jewish military might and victory as a bright light on a rather depressing and tragic timeline of Jewish history. During the past few years I have begun to appreciate Chanukah for yet another element that I believe plays a crucial role in today’s society.

Oxford University Press published earlier this year a remarkable book authored by Dr. Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame entitled Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. The book is the result of an in-depth study done of 230 emerging adults (ages 18-23) from a broad array of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The research gives us a glimpse into the contemporary value system that young adults are embracing and calling their own. It is one marked by incredible display of moral individualism and an equally serious inclination towards moral relativism. One quote from an interview recorded in the book succinctly demonstrates this phenomenon. The interviewee is discussing the morality of slavery and comments:

“Who am I judge? I mean back then, if that’s what you believed [that slavery is acceptable] and that’s what happened, you know that’s your right, if you thought it was right at the time. I wasn’t alive then, so I can’t really pas judgment on it, though in today’s world I would think it’d be utterly ridiculous, like I wouldn’t agree with it. But, like I said, it’s society, it changes.”

- Lost in Transition, pp. 27-28

It is within this cultural milieu that Chanukah enters and makes a remarkable statement: There are things in life that are so important that you have to be willing to stake your life on them. The first step is to discover what are those things in your life that are inviolable. Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil and it is a time for family gathering and dreidel games and chocolate gelt but even more than all that it is an annual reminder to first discover and then fortify the things we hold so truly dear and precious, that define us as who we are down to the very deepest level of our being.

Dr. Jon D. Levenson of Harvard Divinity School recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal which poignantly made this point. He wrote the following:

“But as the story of the martyrs shows, the victory was also associated with the heroic dedication of the Jewish traditionalists of the time to their God and his Torah. If Hanukkah celebrates freedom, it is a freedom to be bound to something higher than freedom itself.”

We can and must celebrate our generation’s openness to new ideas and genuine respect for the different viewpoints and perspectives that our society, in the words of Professor Diana L. Eck, acting like an exquisite jazz composition brings forward and yet we also must affirm our core identities and be able to civilly assert our unique perspectives into the public square. We can draw on the narrative of Chanukah to strengthen us in this endeavor and by so doing be able to be both compassionate listeners and appreciators of the perspectives of others and articulate and passionate advocates for our own unique values, viewpoints and perspectives.

Posted on December 23, 2011

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A Maccabeats Miracle

Actress Mayim Bialik appears in this year's Maccabeats Chanukah video, "Miracles."

Last Chanukah the world was introduced to the Maccabeats with their runaway hit “Candlelight.” This year another song, “Miracles,” has entered the YouTube universe.

But it wasn’t the song or their new video that drew me in, but their fundraising efforts on behalf of the Gift of Life Foundation through the website www.MakeSomeMiracles.com.

The Maccabeats are inviting donations of ten thousand dollars a day for each day of Chanukah in the hope of securing much needed funds for Gift of Life, a bone marrow registry organization.

With a personal video narrated by Mayim Bialik and each of the members of the Maccabeats, their call is honest and sincere. As of this writing they have already raised $22,000!

I clicked on the donation button. Suddenly, I was involved in making a miracle for Chanukah — not just receiving an ancient one. The miracle that the Maccabeats are giving light to is a miracle that keeps on giving life and hope to people with cancer beyond this holiday season.

So can we make some miracles?

Many interpretations suggest that the miracle of Chanukah was that we didn’t give up even when we had no chance of winning against the Greek/Syrians. In spite of the powerful forces that encourage our continued assimilation or disappearance we have survived and adapted to the modern world in which we live in as Jews. We live precariously on the edge while we persevere through a revolving door of constant change. The miracle of the Maccabeats is the miracle of our people.

We have come a long way from the Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song from “Saturday Night Live” in 1994 which centered on the theme of Jewish children feeling alienated during the Christmas season, and Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities as a way of sympathizing with their situation.

With the Maccabeats, the traditional and the contemporary merge to create a blend of Judaism and Jewish music that continues to define our communal confidence with viral velocity.

We revel in religious freedom in America. A Yeshiva University a cappella group has reached beyond their ivory tower borders to educate and entertain. We all received the instant messaging. Again, history has shown us, that we are the miracle of Chanukah!

Yes, we can make modern miracles. Click and contribute to a new miracle this Chanukah 5772!

Posted on December 21, 2011

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The Nuts and Bolts of Peace with Iran

“Even if the messiah tarries, nonetheless, I believe and wait for him, but peace with Iran? Impossible.” When I asked a group of twenty well educated religious Jewish adults the question, “Can you imagine Iran and Israel making peace,” their unanimous answer was, “No.” Can you imagine peace in the Middle East in your lifetime? Call me crazy, but I can. What can I say, I’m a rabbi, I’m all about faith. I asked the group about Iran because they are largely seen as the most power negative actor in the region (by no means the only one, just the most troublesome). What to do about Iran? Like our congress, I have no idea, still, I believe we will eventually find peace.

Recently, the US Congress considered an increased oil embargo of Iranian oil, to teach them a lesson, to isolate them even further. Even as the Senate voted 100 to 0 to freeze the assets of Iranian Central Bank, they decided against an oil embargo against them. Why? Because even if the intension was to hurt Tehran, the result could very well be a rise in oil prices which actually helps Iranians instead. How to navigate around such a dangerous, crazy, and powerful foe? Again, I have no idea.

So why be hopeful? Again, I am a rabbi, I have a strong proclivity toward faith in a better future. But beyond that, there is a little known secret that keeps me going – pistachios. Israel and Iran have a long history together. I live in Los Angeles, with a large and proud Farsi community. The Tehrangelinos that I know, both Jewish and non-Jewish, religiously observant and not, all take great pride in the the Purim story. The story of Esther and Mordechai draws parallels, if not direct connection to, King Cyrus allowing the Jews back to Israel, and to rebuild the Temple. There is a connection. In fact, there is a tradition that there is a tunnel from Hamedan, Iran, the site of the Persian claimed
tomb of Esther and Mordechai, all the way to Israel (some claim their burial site to be in a forrest near Safed, Israel). Before the Revolution, and into the early 1980’s most of Iran’s weapons were American sold via the Israelis. See, we can play nice together (see Iran-Contra). Have the Israelis broken ties with Iran? They’d have to be nuts, and they are, for pistachios (In fact, there is really fun rumor that the payment for some of the arms were transfered via cheap pistachios).  According to an LA Times article, Israel has the largest per-capita pistachio consumption rate in the world. And their greatest supplier? Via third parties, Iran.

Do I really think that Middle Eastern Peace can be settled over nuts? Not really. But here is what I take from the lesson: Be it oil, or pistachios, or major arms deals, or even the even more potent concept so desperately sought by Iran’s majority of young people, freedom – no amount of Government intervention can shut down the back doors to what what people really want. It can take time, it can be difficult, but if it’s not impossible, well, that makes it possible. My concern is that we suffer from a lack of hope. Hope in a human future which is greater than today is perhaps the greatest by-product of a religious outlook on life.

The inability for religiously minded people to believe that there can be peace in the Middle East is to fly in the face of the great Prophets of Israel, and even for the non-religious, it is a stance so defeatist that it is no wonder there is such apathy around the cause of peace. Religious or not, faithful or pragmatic, there can be no progress without the idea of hope. That idea does not reside only with the Iranians, or the Israelis, or the Senate, or any single person. Hope is of the mind and of the soul. I am not so foolish as to imagine that just believing will make peace come (I’ve clicked the heels of my ruby slippers and nothing, so, It’s not like that route hasn’t been tried). I understand it takes work. My contention is with a mindset that says “we have to accept things the way they are.” A lack of hope is a poison.

To my mind, it helps accounts for the epidemic of depression and loneliness that we have become accustomed to in the fast paced age of the 21st century. Regardless of one’s religion, regardless or one’s religious observance of his or her religion, regardless if one even has a religion or not, I believe that hope, a move from darkness to light, is always possible. Ultimately speaking, faith and hope are the enduring purposes of Hanukkah, without a little bit of light, on future that we can only just imagine, we will sink into darkness. 

Posted on December 20, 2011

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What is Hanukah?

“What is Hanukah?”  the Talmud asks and typically each year at this time we are reminded by a variety of writers what the “true” meaning of Hanukah is.  From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to numerous websites, scholars, rabbis, educators, and the “man (sic) on the street” offer their take on the nature of Hanukah.  To be clear, many of these pieces are quite engaging and informative and this year I have certainly profited from their insights.

It is in this vein, I want to share an approach of Rabbi Isaac Hutner obm. In one of his teachings R. Hutner suggests that the lasting impact of Greece on Israel was the development of machloket-differences of opinion as to the practice of Torah. The Greeks, through their decrees, caused Torah to be forgotten and it was this forgetting that created differences of opinions as to what the correct practice was and should be. It was the war with the Greeks and their defeat at the time of Hanukah that created the “war over Torah”, the sometimes acrimonious debates in which rabbis and sages engage in order to recover what was lost during the persecutions by the Greeks .  The legacy of Greece is the legacy of the darkness caused by the accurate tradition of Torah being lost. However, this legacy of darkness and forgetting is compensated by the recovery project of the sages, the “war over Torah” which increased the knowledge of Torah itself. Debate led to new understandings and insights. Even the rejected positions had to be justified and explained. The legacy of Hanukah is the increased light of knowledge of Torah overcoming the darkness of the forgotten Torah. It was the forgetting caused by the Greeks that allowed Torah to expand exponentially  in its scope and knowledge.

This rather inadequate summary of my reading of R. Hutner’s teaching I hope will lead the reader to explore it in depth in the original.  To be sure not all agree with R Hutner’s understanding of the origin of machloket- differences of opinion. In the context of his teaching I do want to reflect on “war over Torah”. While the tradition itself hopes and expects that the “enemies” in this battle, who are after all sages, will become “lovers” in the end, there is a danger in intellectual/religious battle that one  go overboard and flex one’s muscles in a way that ventures far beyond a search for truth to a destruction of civility. There are examples of this in the Talmud. We certainly see this problem pervading our own political and religious discourse. Perhaps even in this pursuit of truth we may have to stop sometimes and not use it as a license for slamming those with whom we may have even profound disagreement.

However R. Hutner asserts something that may appear at first as counterintuitive. True love he says only can emerge from those with whom you have disagreement.  Becoming “lovers” is only possible because you had profound differences and were able to engage them in a way that brought you closer in the end. Becoming closer does not mean reaching full agreement, but it does mean having a deep attachment to your ideological opponent.  What might our discourse look like if we retained this as a goal even while maintaining our deep convictions and commitment to pursuing the truth as we conceive it?

Is this true of our most intimate relationships as well? Might it be that learning how to truly argue without achieving full agreement  is what can bring lovers the closest? The answer to that I leave to you, in the meantime Happy Hanukah.

Posted on December 19, 2011

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Closing the Gender Gap

People often ask me why I decided to become a rabbi. Some would say in a condescending tone, “You want to be a rabbi? What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish girl?” In response, I would smile and say, “A very good job, thank you.” But it would not be lost on me that those who expressed this question did not think that women should be rabbis. Though I entered rabbinical school almost a decade after the Conservative Movement started ordaining women, and almost two decades after the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements had done the same, a woman becoming a rabbi was still an oddity.

My path seemed strange to almost everyone I encountered. There were no rabbis in my family, so I was not building on a family tradition, and I did not grow up going to Jewish camps or day schools. I did however have a rich Jewish home life, and discovered Jewish feminism in college. Jewish feminism hooked me. Yes, I know, this sounds strange to many. But I voraciously read about the Jewish women’s movement and emerging feminist theologies in writings by Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg, Rachel Adler, and Paula Hyman. Their way of looking at the traditionally patriarchal Jewish tradition through a feminist lens captivated me. My mind whirled with images of a female God, of women’s seders, and stories based on female biblical characters. This was my way into Judaism. I saw that Judaism was not a closed tradition ruled by men is long beards, but rather was something living and growing before my eyes. The idea that I could add my voice to creating new rituals, writing new stories, and opening up Jewish wisdom to others excited me. And so, I found myself applying to rabbinical school much to everyone’s surprise.

What I encountered when I entered the professional Jewish world was not quite what I expected. I naively thought that the major battles had been won. Women could be rabbis right? That meant that the Jewish world was open to women in leadership roles, that women would get jobs, be paid equal salaries, and not suffer sexual harassment and stereotyping right? Right?

Take a look at the survey published last week by the Jewish Daily Forward. The article’s title says it all, “Gender Equality Elusive in Salary Survey.” In the Jewish professional world, Jewish non-profits, women earn 62.5 cents to every dollar a man earns, and women make up just 12% of the top leadership positions. An article in The New York Jewish Week last spring chronicled the difficulty women rabbis are having finding jobs. Surveys of women rabbis also find that they are paid less then male rabbis in the same positions and that a stained glass ceiling exists. Only one woman in the Conservative Movement is serving a congregation with more than 500 families. (The larger the congregation, the larger the salary of the rabbi, generally speaking.)

Contrast this to an article in the New York Times this week with the tile, “ They Call it the Reverse Gender Gap” which states that: “For starters, young women today — and not just in the United States — are moving quickly to close the pay gap, or in some cases have closed it already. ….Women are ahead of men in education (last year, 55 percent of U.S. college graduates were female). And a study shows that in most U.S. cities, single, childless women under 30 are making an average of 8 percent more money than their male counterparts, with Atlanta and Miami in the lead at 20 percent.”

There is more work to be done in the Jewish community. I am still inspired by the first wave of Jewish women who fought for women to be counted equally in a minyan, who argued that women could be synagogue presidents, read from the Torah, and be rabbis. This week, as one of the women who inspired me down my path, Dr. Paula Hyman, who was the was one of the founders of Ezrat Nahim a Jewish consciousness-raising group that advocated for women’s equality in American Jewish life, and who went on to be the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, died from cancer. her death is a wake up call. Though women have accomplished a great amount in the past thirty years, there is more work to be done!

Many borders still exist in the Jewish community. In the next thirty years I hope to see them come down. Women who choose to enter the rabbinate, or become leaders in Jewish non profits should have the same opportunities as men, and should be paid the same salaries. According to The New York Times, the rest of America is already there. The Jewish community should be too. I want other women to be excited about what they see happening in both secular and religious Jewish life and want to join it, just as I did. They should not encounter low salaries, organizations run mainly by men while women make up 90% of the other positions, and lack of parental leave.

My path into Judaism and the rabbinate may have been strange. But I fully believe that there are many paths someone can take. We need to keep those paths open and welcoming. We are all created in the image of God. It is time we treated each other that way.

Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Paula Hyman

Posted on December 19, 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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