Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Message our “Stuff” Sends

Hair Dye as History

While I have never used hair dye myself, I certainly watch my share of TV, and so I know the ad slogans for two of the most famous hair coloring systems — Miss Clairol and L’Oreal. What I didn’t know — and what author Malcolm Gladwell explains in his essay “True Colors” — was how those two slogans reflected the radical changes in the way women viewed themselves in post-war America.

“Does She or Doesn’t She?”

Gladwell’s essay starts by introducing us to Shirley Polykoff, a copy-writer who was charged with finding a way to advertise Miss Clairol’s brand-new, one-step, twenty-minute hair coloring system. Polykoff had personally experienced the potential humiliation of people whispering about whether she dyed her hair or not — the first time she went to meet her potential mother-in-law, she could imagine her wondering, “Does she color her hair, or doesn’t she?”

So as Polykoff set about writing a slogan for Miss Clairol, she realized that along with the choice to dye their hair, women were also looking for ways to minimize people wondering about whether they dyed their hair or not.

Polykoff knew immediately what she wanted to say, because if she believed that a woman had a right to be a blonde, she also believed that a woman ought to be able to exercise that right with discretion. ‘Does she or doesn’t she?’ she wrote, translating from the Yiddish to the English. ‘Only her hairdresser knows for sure.’ For Nice ‘n Easy, Clairol’s breakthrough shampoo-in hair color, she wrote, ‘The closer he gets, the better you look’… (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 79)

“Does she or doesn’t she?” is really a slogan that is focuses on what all those “other people” might think. While women certainly were starting to get more choice in their lives in the 1950′s — as evidenced by the fact that they could now color their hair quickly and easily — there was still significant societal pressure to keep that fact hidden. They still cared about what other people thought — and talked about.

“Because I’m Worth It”

Nearly twenty years later, second-wave feminism had taken hold. And when it came to hair dye, the focus was now not on what other people might think, but instead, on what women wanted for themselves.

Look at how copy-writer Ilon Specht created the slogan for L’Oreal’s Nice ‘n Easy:

[M]y feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for [others...so] in five minutes I wrote [the ad copy]:…’I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference by L’Oreal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oreal. Because I’m worth it.’ (Gladwell, 87)

“Because I’m worth it” has a radically different feel to it than “Does she or doesn’t she?” It’s a much more assertive statement, and it’s much more self-focused. It’s about what the woman herself wants, rather than what other people might think.

Gladwell sums up the difference between the slogans like this: “[Ultimately, Clairol's] commercials were “other-directed” — they were about what the group was saying or what a husband might think. [Whereas L'Oreal's] line was what a woman says to herself”(Gladwell, 88).

Why We Buy Things

There is a very real tension between buying things for ourselves versus buying things for others to see. I’ll share an example from my own life. I consider myself an environmentalist — I try to recycle, turn off the water when I don’t use it, and have installed compact fluorescent bulbs in my home. But what I’m most proud of is my Honda Civic Hybrid. And it says on big letters on the bumper “HYBRID.” Yes, I’m happy to be helping the environment, but it’s also a public statement I want to make — people now know I drive a hybrid.

It’s the same with most of the other things we buy — yes, we want function. But there is always a small part of us that wants to send a message to others. Whether it’s the books on the coffee table, the furniture in our homes, or the cars we drive, our “stuff” isn’t just for us to enjoy — consciously or not, it’s also designed for others to see and to cause them to think about us in a certain way.

Jacob’s “Message” to Esau

There’s a short passage in Genesis where Jacob uses his “stuff” to send a message to his brother Esau. Let’s take a look at what he says.

Of all the characters in Genesis, Jacob was once of the richest. How did he get so rich? It really started when he stole two things from Esau — his birthright and his father’s blessing. Esau was the older brother, and in Biblical times, the “birthright” entitled the oldest sibling to get twice as much of the inheritance as the younger siblings. Jacob was able to convince Esau to sell that to him, so Jacob then was then the sibling who received a double portion. Then, as their father Isaac was dying, he wanted to bless Esau. But a”blessing” in the Bible wasn’t just something along the lines of, “May you have strength.” No, a “blessing” in the Bible meant that God would bless you with material riches. And Jacob was able to manipulate his father so that he would also get that blessing instead of Esau, as well.

Esau, understandably, wasn’t so happy about that. In fact, he was so enraged that he wanted to kill Jacob. Their mother, Rebecca, sent Jacob to his uncle Laban’s house, where Jacob was able to work for twenty years, and perhaps because God had indeed blessed him, gained an enormous amount of wealth.

In Genesis 32, Jacob is about to meet Esau for the first time in twenty years. He’s a little nervous about what Esau might do — will he forgive him? Or will he kill him? So he sends some messengers to Esau to find out what Esau is thinking, and also to give Esau a message.

But what is the message Jacob sends? It appears in Genesis 32:5-6: “I have stayed with [our uncle] Laban until now. And I have oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I send this message to you [literally, 'my lord'], that I may find favor in your sight.”

The message is not, “I’m sorry for having stolen your birthright.” It’s not, “What have you been up to in these last twenty years, Esau?” The message Jacob seems to send to Esau is simply, “Look at me! I’m rich!”

The messengers come back and tell Jacob that Esau is coming with four hundred men. That terrifies Jacob, so he asks God for help, and in his prayer, he says, “I am unworthy of all the kindnesses, and of all the truth, which You have shown to me [literally, 'Your servant'].” (Genesis 32:11) He does almost a complete 180 here, and feels like he is not “worthy” of all the blessings God has shown him. Yes, he has his wealth. But he starts to wonder — is he worth it?

Are We “Worth” Our Possessions?

The message Jacob sends to Esau is a totally “other-directed” message — like the Miss Clairol ads, it’s designed to get someone else (here, it’s Esau) talking about him. You can just imagine Jacob hoping that Esau would see his riches and think, “Ooh, how did Jacob get all this stuff?”

But when Esau responds in a way that makes Jacob nervous, Jacob has to pray to God for help. And because Jacob’s message was so “other-directed” he couldn’t even be proud of himself for all he was able to acquire in Laban’s house. By starting off trying to prove to Esau just how rich he was, Jacob ends up saying, “I am unworthy.” It is very hard for us to imagine Jacob at this moment confidently looking at all his wealth and proclaiming, “I’m worth it!”

For us today, we buy things for many reasons. Sometimes it’s because we want others to talk. Sometimes it’s because we think we’re “worth” it. But in fact, neither outlook is the most helpful way to look at why we buy things. Since our money is one of our most precious resources, we need to explore: are we spending in ways that are consonant with our values? Not because “we’re worth it” or to get people to ask “does she or doesn’t she?” or to be able to say, “Look at all that I have acquired!” but rather, to be able to spend money in ways so that when we look back on our bank statements we can say, “I am proud of how I spent my money.”

Posted on August 9, 2012

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

A new face of interfaith marriage

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had some very interesting enquiries from couples seeking to be married by a rabbi.  A couple of them are especially interesting because they have two things in common – they found me through a website resource that specializes in reaching out to interfaith couples and families… and in both cases both parties to the marriage were Jewish.  I think its worth sharing and reflecting on these interactions, because they have something to teach us about the changing face of religious engagement, and the landscape that some of us are working in today.

I recently moved to a new congregation in central Massachusetts – Congregation B’nai Shalom – and when I made the move, one of the places where I updated my information was Interfaithfamily.com.  This wonderful site is a depository for hundreds of articles; some written by clergy or for clergy, but the vast majority written by and for people in interfaith families.  They provide introductions to the holidays and Jewish ritual for a non-Jewish family member wanting to understand more.  They provide thought-pieces on the choices people make around raising their children.  They provide a resource for Jewish grandparents figuring out their role in their children’s interfaith family.  And much, much more.  One of the things they also do is provide a referral service to help couples find a rabbi who will say ‘yes’ to the question of officiating at their marriage.  This referral service was designed to bypass the historical experience of many Jews marrying non-Jews who, in the past, would often have to hear many ‘no’ answers before they found a ‘yes’… if they persevered that long.

Now, I know that rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages is a tough topic for many of my colleagues.  And I do respect the path each takes in determining what role they feel they can have, if any.  But today I’m not writing about that choice.  I am a rabbi who says ‘yes’ most of the time.

But I am fascinated by my recent experiences.  One might expect that most of the people who think to use the referral service are Jews marrying a non-Jew.  One probably would less expect to find enquiries coming from two Jews.

In one of my recent exchanges, the bride-to-be was quite clear about how she had taken this route.  She is the child of an interfaith couple.  She was raised Jewish and is fully Jewish according to Jewish law.  But she wanted to find a rabbi to marry her who would have said ‘yes’ to her parents.

In a second instance, an older couple getting married, one for the second time, sought out the website referral service because of a more complex concern involving the first marriage only having been dissolved with a civil divorce and not a ‘get’ – a Jewish divorce.  The details are not important here (although I will say that this was not a case where there was any possibility of children being an issue).  What is interesting is that there was a desire to consecrate a marriage in a traditional, Jewish manner, and a website initially conceived of to primarily serve interfaith families is being seen as a resource for a much wider range of individuals whose particular paths don’t entirely conform with some of the strictures found in some areas of organized Jewish life.  This couple came to interfaithfamily.com because they perceived it to be a place where one could more easily find Rabbis who do Jewish things beyond some of the traditional borders of Jewish life.

In the first instance, we see a case where a young woman practices and identifies with her Jewish heritage.  She chooses to do so, and actively embraces and desires the Jewish religious sanctification of her marriage, even while knowing that there are parts of the Jewish community that would not have warmly welcomed her parents.  The search for a Rabbi who would not only say ‘yes’ to her, but would have said ‘yes’ to her parents is a search for a personal Judaism that offers up the rich wisdom tradition that is ours, with all its beauty, yet also demands a contemporary and inclusive response to the plurality of Jewish identity that exists in America today.

As a rabbi, I’m quite adept at the ‘on on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ argument.  There is no question that one could put forth an argument regarding the rabbi’s role in preserving traditional communal boundaries and practices.  There are many rabbis who do so passionately.  I certainly do not seek to judge that path.  At the same time, as I observe the pathways that many Jews, like the ones above, are navigating to maintain their ties to our faith and traditions, yet on different terms, I believe that it is important for some of us to be there to meet them when they come knocking.  And I believe, based on what we observe as the changing face of the religious and spiritual landscape in America, that these pathways are likely to become more diverse and multi-faceted with time.

In the meantime, to the couples above, and others, I start by saying ‘Mazel tov!’

Posted on August 8, 2012

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

“Wow! I Didn’t Know I Live in Such a Progressive Country!”

Having traveled frequently to Israel for the last decade, I have many amusing stories of security interviews before boarding flights to or from Israel.  I know all of the questions by heart: “What was the purpose of your visit?” “Where did you learn Hebrew? “Do you belong to a congregation?” I recall being flustered during one interview before a New York El Al check-in, when I was really preoccupied wondering whether I had finished all my urgent work, packed everything I needed and if my suitcase was overweight. Following my reply that I do attend synagogue regularly, the agent asked me to tell him the name of this week’s Torah portion, and I was momentarily tongue-tied. Oh, how embarrassing when his next question was, “What kind of work do you do?”  “Um, I’m a rabbi.”

At Ben Gurion Airport I have come to anticipate the exchange that invariably causes a reaction – when they ask me about my profession. Several years ago, coming home from a summer trip in intense August heat, I was wearing shorts. Not only was the agent surprised to hear that I am a rabbi, but she was suspicious. How could a rabbi wear shorts?  (I admit that after that I no longer wear shorts on these flights.)  For most Israelis, the word “rabbi” evokes an image of a bearded man in a black coat and hat, whose wife wears a long skirt, long sleeves and covered hair.  The appearance of a woman in shorts claiming to be a rabbi defied credulity in that moment.

Without fail, the reaction is, “Really? Women can be rabbis? I never heard of this!”  One time a female agent teared-up with emotion to learn that women can be rabbis. I wanted to hug her.

Such is the case in Israel – where the official Rabbinate has a monopoly on Jewish religious authority, ruling that only male Orthodox rabbis can be hired and paid by the state as community rabbis. That is, until this spring when Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi won a nearly decade-long fight to be paid as the rabbi of her community. The court decision was in some ways inconclusive – the official Rabbinate won’t be endorsing or paying Rabbi Gold. Rather, her salary will come from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the ruling applies only to rabbis who are employed by regional councils. Rabbi Gold shared joy and relief at this victory, but added, “I can’t say that I feel unmitigated joy.  Israel is still not the bastion of religious freedom nor the stalwart promoter of religious pluralism.  We still have many hurdles ahead, but I believe that we’ll all have renewed energy and determination to push forward…”

This summer I had the privilege to meet and spend time with Rabbi Gold at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I add her to my growing list of friends in Israel — female colleagues who are rabbis of communities. They are courageous, tenacious and crucial leaders for the future of Jewish communities in Israel.  I stand in awe of the work they do in spite of the hardships they face: lack of funding and negative perceptions about Jewish religious life among non-Orthodox Israelis. They are breaking down the barriers and building vibrant, exciting communities for a new Israeli Jewish future. Check out the website of Rabbi Tamar Kolberg of Ra’anana, for example.

So this time when I was at Ben Gurion Airport on my way home, the interviewer reacted as expected when I told what I do. He said, “We don’t have women rabbis here.” I smiled and told him about Rabbi Gold’s victory.  He was clearly affected, exclaiming, “Wow! I didn’t know I live in such a progressive country!”

Welcome to a new Israeli Jewish reality!

Posted on August 7, 2012

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

Justice in the City – A how-to?

I am not really the kind of person who recommends books. I periodically review them, but that’s different. They get on the queue, I read them, I eventually get around to writing them up (Sorry, Aryeh, it did take a while this time), but I don’t usually go around suggesting books to friends. But this book is different.

So, let me begin by saying that I have recommended this book to just about anyone who might have the slightest reason at all to read it. First, I recommended it to all my colleagues at Occupy Faith DC, because, while few of them are Jewish, this book is an incredible map to creating justice in the kinds of urban settings that Occupy has dwelt in. Then, I recommended it to several people who work in specific social justice fields – not necessarily economic justice, although that too, but across the spectrum.

This book is different than any of the -now an entire genre- books of Jewish social justice. I have to admit – I’ve pretty much stopped reading them. I read a few at the beginning. I read one for review purposes not too long ago. I can get through most of them, and for people who like reading that sort of thing, that’s just the sort of thing they’ll like, and I recommend it. There are lots of good reasons for Jews to read these books, sometimes because it will pull them in to understand their Judaism better. More rarely, because I think it will make Jews who are already well-embedded in Judaism be better at thinking about justice. But few books in this genre are worth reading by people because they lay out a game plan for genuine social change that Jews can be part of, and even fewer would I suggest that non-Jews read.

But this book is different.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen’s book, Justice in the City, (you can also read his blog, by the same name, here) is a beautifully (i.e. clearly) written (and since I assume it will someday be available on ebook, do get it hard copy, the book has a nice feel and layout, too), compelling, easy-to-read discussion of how rabbinic texts, primarily the Babylonian Talmud, lay out a vision of justice. Rabbi Cohen himself states his aim as slightly lower – what a just city should be- but in reading the book, there is merit in thinking of it as a broader picture than that. In fact my only minor quibble with the book is that it uses endnotes rather than footnotes (although they’re located after each chapter, but I still think endnotes are an abomination).

When I first picked up the book, I was a little concerned because Cohen lays out his project as as a dialogue between the Talmud and the modern, French (in my opinion pseudo-) philosopher Levinas. But I needn’t have worried; in fact, he uses Levinas almost as a foil, to craft questions shaped by Levinas’ methods to be more pointed, and the answers clearer.

Without giving anything away, the first half of the book (roughly) is dedicated to overall themes laid out by the rabbis ( he characterizes them as “Be like God and not like Pharaoh;” “the obligation of dissent;” and “the boundaries of responsibility”). The second half of the book lays out specific cases: homelessness, labor, restorative versus punitive justice. It is very clear how these can be applied to contemporary life, and this is what makes the book so valuable, not just to Jews, but to any people of faith seeking to create a better world. Continue reading

Posted on August 1, 2012

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

Does Prayer Work?

By | Tagged

This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses’s request to enter the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy 3

23. And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying,

24. O Lord God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness, and your mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to your works, and according to your might?

25. I beg you, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and Lebanon.

26. But the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and the Lord said to me, Let it suffice you; speak no more to me of this matter.

The response by God to Moses is to essentially tell him to stop bothering Him about this. Enough already! Stop bugging Me about this.

Whatever the reason for this lack of response by God or better yet, this dismissive response, I leave to you. What is striking for me is how Rabbi Simlai from the Talmud (Brachot 32a) uses this passage:

R. Simlai expounded: A person should always first recount the praise of the Holy One, blessed be He, and then pray. Whence do we know this? From Moses; for it is written, And I besought the Lord at that time, and it goes on, O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven and earth who can do according to Your works and according to Your mighty acts, and afterwards is written, Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land etc.

For Rabbi Simlai, you want to learn how to pray correctly, follow the example of Moses. Begin with praise and only then you can ask God for something.  This structure is an integral part of out liturgy. Praising God is required before you can plead your case. Rabbi Simlai does not explain why this should be the case. One can speculate that one has to first recognize Someone greater than yourself before one can focus on one’s own request. The almost absolute Otherness of God may remind you that what you are seeking better be really significant.

Whatever the case may be, Rabbi Simlai chooses the example where the prayer of Moses failed!  He had succeeded other times, the Golden Calf, the spies when God almost destroyed the Jewish People. Yet the example to learn how to pray is when prayer is not successful, when the request is not only denied, but dismissed out of hand.

For Rabbi Simlai and adopted by our tradition, there is a necessary structure to prayer. This is the way it must be done. First praise, then request. I assume Rabbi Simlai followed this practice thrice daily, as do I and many. Our prayers are usually genuine and sincere, even if sometimes done without much conscious thought.

But do our prayers work? What do you think Rabbi Simlai might be teaching us about prayer? About Moses whose prayer is rejected? What do we think we are doing when we call out to God?

Posted on August 1, 2012

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

Privacy Policy