Monthly Archives: April 2012

The blessings of a mixed multitude

A few weeks before I began rabbinical school, I took a vacation and went to visit my in-laws where they were volunteering in the Peace Corps in the Ukraine. Although it was far from the first time I had traveled overseas – I had done quite a bit of traveling actually- visiting the Ukraine was quite different to any other experience I had had.

To travel to Ukraine, one had to apply for a visa, which was not always granted; Ukraine was still a relatively closed country, and did not welcome outsiders. It is a beautiful and interesting place, and we stayed for about a week, visiting different cities, meeting with people, talking to the people my mechutonim (in-laws) had been working with – all lovely. But after a day  or two, something struck me as odd. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but as the week progressed, I finally realized what it was: there was an extreme regularity about people’s appearance. The relatively closed borders had resulted in a population where there were only a few facial types, skin shades only within a very narrow range (and  of the rosy-cheeked variety that one reads about in fairy tales, but I had rarely seen in actual people), and so on.

Growing up in an urban area of the South Atlantic seaboard,  I was used to seeing people of all sorts of colors, shapes, ethnicities; people who had immigrated in their own lifetimes or their parents’ or grandparents’. But in Ukraine, I saw none of that. Except, occasionally, I might see someone who looked different: they were easy to point out as “not Ukrainian.”

Until that trip, I had never really understood antisemitism. Not that I hadn’t experienced it – even in urban areas, we were still a location where one might encounter the sort of person who upon getting to know me might mourn, “you’re so nice, it’s such a shame that you’re going to hell,” or ask to examine my horns. But I never really understood what it meant for a person to live in a society where physically, they stood out as “other,” to the extent where they could be pointed out in the street. And when I suddenly grasped this in Ukraine, it was a bit of a revelation.

When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah tells us that there were 600,000 men, plus children, and also an erev rav, a mixed multitude, went with them. This term, erev rav, later came to have a variety of connotations, not necessarily good ones: some commentators blamed this group for the Israelites straying after the golden calf. But the Torah makes no claims about who these people are at all.

I like to imagine that among them were the now-elderly Shifrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew women who refused to slaughter Israelite sons, and whom,  the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:21), God rewarded. I expect that among this group were also other, non-Hebrew, slaves. Perhaps there were also Egyptians, neighbors and friends of the Israelites, or those who simply could not endure the oppression of the Pharaoh towards the Hebrews, and were glad to leave.

Whoever these people were, the Torah, after announcing their presence, goes on to remind us  that while foreigners and hired servants who are not circumcised and part of the Israelite family do not eat the Passover sacrifice, if a person joins the community and the males of that family are circumcised, they become fully part of the community and partake of it. Moreover,  whether they do or not, “there shall be one Torah for the citizen and for the stranger that lives among the Israelites (Exodus 12:49), that is one law, one justice, the same for everyone.

Until recent times, and in some places to this day, nationality is, indeed, a racial or ethnic category. In some places, it’s easy to point out who belongs, and who looks different, who isn’t “one of us.” But for Jews, this isn’t – or at least, ought not to be- the case. Jewish law insists that one who takes on our practices, who goes through conversion and lives by Jewish law is a full member of the family, regardless of color or origin. Jews who make a distinction between converts and natal Jews, or because someone doesn’t “look Jewish” are, in fact, in violation of Jewish law.

But, I don’t think it’s enough to stop there. In some parts of the Jewish community great care is taken to physically separate themselves from non-Jews, or from Jews who practice in different ways. It is true, that  this has some effect in preventing exogamy, and thus increases the number of Jewish grandchildren. But it also misses the point.  If Judaism has a mission, then surely that mission involves engaging with the world, and offering to it some of our gifts. But before those of us in liberal communities get too comfy, let me add that that separation doesn’t always take a physical turn. It is also a form of separation to use fear of the other as a fundraising tool, or to refuse to engage with others whom we fear.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, we ceased to offer sacrifices, and so there is no sacrifice partaken at the Passover seder. When we eat a seder meal, we invite in to eat “all who are hungry” in remembrance of a rabbi who opened his house to the hungry every night at the time of the Talmud.  We invite all who wish to partake of a Passover meal. In earlier times, that was surely only and always other Jews, but today, it’s likely to be quite the erev rav. Many, if not most, of us have non-Jewish relatives. We invite non-Jewish friends who are curious about the seder, or moved by the story of  the exodus. While the rabbis of past generations often saw non-Jews as a threat, or a seduction, today, in America at least, they are family, neighbors, and friends.

The Jewish community spends a great amount of time and money worrying about assimilating ourselves out of existence, but we often forget that that threat is there only because we are part of the fabric of every day life. More than tolerated, we are part of the American family.

In a place where everyone looks alike, and you can point to the person who looks different and say, “she’s the outsider,”  there could once again be pogroms. And we are not done with that in the US either; as we have seen from recent events, being black in America is still “different,” and still dangerous. And of course, not everywhere is equally heterogeneous. But we are also not the Ukraine. If nothing else, America is a great erev rav, where everyone looks different, and whatever risks there are in that, we live in  great blessing, where the Jewish community itself comes in a rainbow of colors, through marriage, conversion and adoption, and no less so are we part of a country where people from everywhere, of all colors, with a thousand different accents, live more or less in harmony.

Are we done with learning to get along? Not quite. Not completely. But it would be a mistake to think that  we haven’t gained a great deal by mixing with our neighbors. I love the fact that at my seder table always has non-Jewish friends, people who look differently, think differently. I don’t fear my neighbors, no matter what they look like. We forget what an incredible blessing that is. In running the risk of getting mixed up, we also gain perspectives we never could have gotten from staying separate. There is holiness in separation, and we should continue to recognize our distinctions, but  those distinctions are only relevant when we are among others with whom we can compare and discuss them.

This Passover, I’m feeling blessed not only in having been redeemed from Egypt to serve God, but I am thankful that I live in a place that when I walk down the street, I can see so many different kinds of faces, and God in all of them.

 

Posted on April 11, 2012

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Sacred Snacking

It is very hard after the seder to get excited about the last days of Passover. Seven/eight days of eating matzoh! Once we have focused so much on the drama of redemption of the seder, there is little left to focus on other than food. For some the seder was a time to reflect on personal moments of redemption, for others a vision of social justice was discussed, for others the historical background was of interest and for many perhaps multiple themes were explored. However, how much reflection really happens during the rest of Passover? There is no ritual that sets such a dramatic stage as the seder. The story has already been told. All we are really left with is more matzoh to eat.

The Sefat Emet suggests that this very well might be the point. He reminds us that the Garden of Eden was all about food, the first sin was one of eating, and with our banishment from Eden we were told in Genesis 3: 17-19

“And to man He said, “Because you listened to your wife, and you ate from the tree from which I commanded you saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life. And it will cause thorns and thistles to grow for you, and you shall eat the herbs of the field. With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

For the Sefat Emet, Passover is the holiday that transforms this eating from one of toil to one of blessing. Passover is about eating because it makes eating sacred. Redemption from Egypt undoes the curse of Eden and transforms it into blessing. He quotes Deuteronomy 16:3

“You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzoth, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.”

In Genesis we are told “cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it (bread) all the days of your life“. Eating each day is a reminder of our exile from Paradise and our fundamental conflict and struggle with nature. However after the Exodus, our consuming of matzoh is now to be remembered “all the days of your life.”

Our eating is transformed from a tragic repercussion of sin into a sacred memory of hope and possibility. Our eating becomes not a sign of alienation but one of relationship to God and command/mitzvah. We will still toil and the production of food will still be complex. What has changed is our perception of the work. What was once a story of rejection by God is now the story of freedom and meaning. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”

Posted on April 11, 2012

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Teaching the Four Sons in the 21st Century

We had reached one of those loaded moments in our family Passover seder where all my acumen as a parent, an educator, and as a rabbi are tested simultaneously.  See, I have four sons, and hence a problem.  We had already sung the Ballad of the Four Sons to the tune of My Darling Clementine, and it was now time to assign passages in the hagaddah to each of my boys, each of which, on any given day shows streaks of wisdom, wickedness, simpleness, and a lack of being able to ask a question much beyond “is dinner ready? (While technically a question, I refuse to count it).  The danger in assigning parts is that I could unwittingly play into a fraternal competition of  ”See, Abba likes me best!”  This is how I played it this year:  I assigned the readings randomly, and before they could read into which part they were assigned (“Hey, why did I get the wicked one?”) I said the following:

Let’s read these straight through and as we read them pay attention to clues, I am going to ask you which child do you think I like best, and why (for a wonderful contemporary/traditional take on the Four Sons, check out this G-Dcast video).

Image from: haggadahsrus.com

The Wise Child asks, “What is the meaning of the laws, statues  and customs which the Lord our God has commanded us?”

Answer him with all the laws, to the very last detail of the afikoman.

The Wicked Child asks, “What is the meaning of this to you?”

Answer him, “You have denied a principle of our faith.  This was done for me, and not you!”

The Simple Child asks, “What is this about?”

Answer him, “God took us out of Egypt with a mighty and outstretched arm.”

To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, say, “This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.”

To my delight, they gave me the answers I wanted.

“The wise child because he is wise.”

“The wicked child because he asks tough questions.”

“The simple son because he is open to anything you say.  You said that last year.”

“I did?”

“Yes, you did,” two others guests at the table corroborated.

“I think it’s the One Who Doesn’t Know What to Ask, because he is polite and let’s you start the conversation.”

I know that each of us carries each of these traits within ourselves, and I pointed that out, with the use of a helpful and provocative paper-cut image in one of our haggadot (plural for haggadah)

This year I said that I preferred the wicked one – “He asks the best question,” I answered.  And, I believe he does.  I was also struck, more so than other years, that the Wicked son gets a bad rap, not only for asking a fair and pointed question – which we otherwise applaud (It is said that a Jewish parent does not ask a child, “what did you learn at school today,” but rather, “did you ask a good question today?”)  The problem with the wicked child is that he has a crappy teacher, who slams him for showing up to the seder and being himself, for wanting some integrity in the system?  “Do you believe this stuff?”  “Is this still relevant?”  “Why are you so Jewish all of a sudden?”  The response to the Wicked child got me thinking about what I would say as a high school teacher, if I could say anything I wanted to these four archetypal students:

To the Wise son, “What are the statues, laws, and customs?  Why are you asking me?  Go read the Tenth Chapter of the Talmudic Tractate on Passover, and then we can discuss it, then you can explain about the Afikoman to your brothers.”

To the Wicked son, “What does this mean to me?  Good question.  I think it is an individual challenge to understand the duality of confinement and freedom.  Ask yourself, what constraints on your life would you want to be free from?  What obligations do you have to yourself and others as you exercise your freedom?”

To the Simple son, “Dig a little deeper.  Yes we are commemorating an event that has long past, and whose memory still inspires us today, but go a little further – Why?  Why should we bother with this?  What lessons are we trying to hold on to?  What implications does it have for the world we live in today?”

To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I want to answer along the lines of Sterns Professor Scott Galloway, in his “Get your S–t Together” email to a student a few years ago – here is an excerpt:

…Let me be more serious for a moment.  I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:

xxxx, get your shit together.

Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades.

So To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I find myself wanting to say, “Hey, Judaism, like being part of this family around this table is not a pass/fail course in which you can just hide out in the back.  We need your voice in the mix too.  You can ask picayune questions about tiny details, you can ask pointed questions in an antagonistic tone, you can even ask a basic question that you think everyone but you must know the answer to, but passivity is never a substitute for actual learning – doing nothing, saying nothing doesn’t just hurt you.  You don’t have to be the smartest.  You don’t have to be witty, you don’t have to leave your skepticism at the door, or anything like that, but keeping your personal Torah, your deep inner wisdom to yourself, deprives us all of sparks of the divine that only you hold.  We are not at the movies, silence is not golden.

The Four Sons by Eli Valley.Click to see the full-size image.

 

Posted on April 10, 2012

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A multicultural view of Passover eating

Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”

This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.

Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.

But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.

As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”

But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.

In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.

So will I eat peanuts this Passover?

I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”

 

 

Posted on April 5, 2012

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Springtime as Freedom-Time

Is it mere coincidence that the Jewish festival of Passover, beginning this Friday eve, April 6th, falls in the early weeks of Springtime? The answer is ‘no’, both from a historical perspective but also from a symbolic perspective.  Historically, several scholars suggest that there was a pre-existing Springtime celebration before the Jewish people assigned Passover and the re-telling of the exodus from Egypt to this time in the calendar.  In fact, we see hints of this earlier celebration embedded in the Exodus story itself.  Exodus, chapter five begins: ‘And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh: ‘Thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast for Me in the wilderness.’  Spring is the season of new flowers and buds appearing in nature, and it is the lambing season. The centrality of the sacrifice of a lamb just before the tenth and final plague that led to the Hebrew slaves being allowed to go free may well have been related to an earlier celebration where a first-born of the new flock was offered up in thanksgiving.

Today we do not sacrifice animals as part of the Passover celebration; instead a shankbone is placed as one of the symbols on a Seder plate that takes center stage in the home-based ceremony held in Jewish homes all over the world to mark the beginning of the holiday.  Another symbol of fertility and new life is also found on this plate – an egg (a Spring time symbol shared by our Christian neighbors at Easter).

But Spring time remains deeply symbolic as a time not only of new birth, but struggles for freedom from oppression over the centuries, new hope and new possibilities.  We may be most familiar with the recent waves of unrest and uprisings against dictatorial leaders in the Middle East, dubbed ‘the Arab Spring’. These movements did not literally begin during Springtime, but commentators quickly adopted the phrase that can be traced back to the 1800s.  Ben Zimmer, author of www.visualthesaurus.com, finds the earliest usage with a German philosopher, Ludwig Borne, in 1818. Referring to several European revolutions in the mid-1800s, in French the phrase used was printemps des peuples (springtime of the peoples) and, in English, ‘The People’s Springtime’.

What is common to both the current socio-political changes, the European revolutions, and the Biblical Exodus is that the journey from slavery to freedom is never straightforward.  We are much more certain about what we are seeking freedom from but it usually takes a lot longer to know what we will do with our freedom.  For the Hebrews it took forty years of wandering in the wilderness but, along the journey they created a covenant with God that provided them with laws and structures for creating a new society in a new land, where time and again they were reminded not to oppress others, because they had once been slaves in Egypt.  This is a message that we all need to hear, year after year, precisely because it is so easy to forget the greater purpose of freedom once we have the power to choose our own path.
Chag Pesach Sameach – A Happy Passover to all!
A version of this article appears in the Editorial pages of The Bridgeport News and other publications of  the Hersam-Acorn Consortium

Posted on April 4, 2012

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Freedom: Ours, God’s, and Everyone’s

At Kiddush time at our seders, we will proclaim the days of Passover z’man cheruteinu, the “season of our freedom.” And the question is, who belongs to that collective “our?” Who is becoming free?

At the most obvious level — the p’shat – the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies not only the collective “we” of the Jewish people, but the presence of  two distinct entities. They turn out to be the Jewish people and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom: ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”

But why stop there? Perhaps the p’shat and the mystical reading together are not enough. I would suggest that another member of the group included within “our” is, quite simply everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story.

The New American Haggadah, so much in the news lately, includes this passage from the children’s author turned Jewish commentator, Lemony Snicket. It is a comment on the phrase, “In every generation each person must look upon himself as if he left Egypt”:

…the story of liberation is one that is still going on, as people all over the world are still in bondage, and we wait and wait, as the Jews in Egypt waited and waited, for the day when freedom will be spread all over the world like frosting on a well-made cake, rather than dabbed on here and there as if the baker were selfishly eating most of the frosting directly from the bowl.

Ultimately, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is from a place of physical security that we can develop the habits of heart that connect us to God within, and everyone else around.

Posted on April 3, 2012

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Into the Conversation

I was recently in an awkward social situation.   My husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of friends along with third couple whom we didn’t know. As introductions began, I asked the new acquaintances where they live. I mentioned that I know their town pretty well. “How?” they wondered. I explained that many members of our synagogue live in that town. They asked which synagogue we were from and that launched them into a long discussion of their experience in synagogue life. I assumed from this conversation that they knew that I am a rabbi, but soon learned that I was wrong.

The couple shared lots of reactions to things their rabbi and cantor (but mostly the rabbi) had recently done, and their critique was expansive.  It wasn’t an angry conversation, but more like banter about their disagreements with their clergy. I mostly listened, but when the reflections circled back to one particular grievance regarding a change in the synagogue worship, I said that surely that change had been vetted with the leadership and the board (meaning –it is not only the rabbi’s responsibility.)  Our dinner companion then turned to me and said, “What…. are you a synagogue president or something?”  I said, “No, I’m a rabbi.”

This created some confused and embarrassed sputtering and apologies for gossiping about rabbis. I diffused it quickly by telling them I was amused by the conversation, even as I wondered to myself what my congregants would be saying about what I had done that day as they sat at dinner parties. I laughed it off and the subject was quickly changed (for a while at least, until the “Well, you’re a rabbi, can I ask you….? started up.)

I could have been critical. I could have told them about about the challenge of leadership of the American synagogue, especially during changing times. I could have chided their criticisms as selfish. I could have cited Jewish texts that command us to refrain from speaking ill of others and gossiping. But none of those responses would have been constructive.  Instead, I chose to support them for taking sufficient interest in their  congregation as to want to talk about it.

While gossip can indeed be breed negativity and divisiveness, I chose to see this exchange not so much as about gossip as being like a Talmudic exchange.  In the Talmud, the rabbis who shaped the Judaism that we inherited speak in a discourse of disagreement, often quoting their colleagues to support their own positions.  It is in the dialogue that Jewish ideas, values, beliefs and practices take shape. The Talmud sets the stage for a long tradition of questioning and critical thinking.

One of the greatest gifts left us by Talmudic sages was the Passover Seder. They managed to create a very structured ritual that is designed to be an open educational experience. They understood that the best way to learn is to ask questions and vigorously discuss ideas and lessons from every angle.  They wanted us to enter the world that they modeled for us, where dialogue, debate and personal opinions open worlds of possibilities for growth.

There is an enigmatic story in the Haggadah, the book we use for the Seder. It tells of a group of rabbis sitting up all night learning — discussing meanings and ideas. Historical analyses aside, this story is so cryptic that we have no choice but to wonder out loud, “What were they doing?”  “What were they thinking?” “What does this have to do with me?”

If we skip this opportunity for open discussion, we have missed the point of the seder. Just as our dinner acquaintance wanted a forum for discussing the “what was he thinking?” question relating to their rabbi, and no doubt these conversations happen in many a synagogue parking lot, our sages gave us a nod of encouragement to engage.

I hope we use the dinner table of the Seder to banter, to discuss, to question, and to think.   “What were they thinking?” becomes “What are we thinking?”  It’s more than entertaining; it’s about meaning.  I wish you an engaging, enlightening, meaningful Pesach/Passover.

Posted on April 2, 2012

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