A few days ago, I stumbled across a terrific quote, which I eventually tracked down to a New York Times article in which Rabbi Marc Gellman asserts, “‘I’m saying that techniques can make a difference,’ Gellman said. ‘Like wrapping yourself in a prayer shawl if you want to shut out the world. But really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow! … Wow! are prayers of praise and wonder at the creation. Oops! is asking for forgiveness. Gimme! is a request or a petition. Thanks! is expressing gratitude.” The quote reminded me (and perhaps was inspired by, who knows?) of the Christian writer Anne Lamott, who is among my favorite writers. Last year she came out with a new book called, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, in which she asserts the same idea.
I happened to be struck by this quote, perhaps it was one of those moments when things come together – maybe Lamott would call it a miracle- because I had that morning had a peculiar conversation with my partner in which I was feeling a little sorry for myself (Not Attractive, I know). We had been talking about the need for people to share personal things in their lives with their friends, in particular, struggles and problems, and when he asked me who besides himself that would be (on the idea that one’s spouse should not be one’s only support -especially since they’re sometimes the problem that requires unloading) I had to admit that I had no idea who that would be.
It’s funny, but I’ve always felt terribly awkward about burdening other people with my problems. Perhaps I would have made an excellent Englishwoman, since I’m quite good at keeping the “stiff upper lip” and “carrying on” most of the time. But I just feel as though it would be wrong for me to bother people with my petty little bullshit. Is it arrogance? I have no dislike of people coming to me with their problems. To the contrary, like most people, I regard a confidence as a positive thing – part of relationship-building. So maybe it is arrogance – as if somehow I’m different and can get along without.
But I don’t think that I am the only person struggling with this. Indeed, I think it’s why so many people have trouble with prayer – and even with religion (as opposed to a nebulous and unstructured “spirituality,” which demands little of us in terms of self-revelation or discipline). Prayer is indeed “help, thanks, wow,” and there is nothing more difficult than to ask for help.
In an interview with NPR about her book, Lamott says, “Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.
“And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”
There are two levels to not asking for help: there is fear of rejection. What if someone did feel burdened by one’s TMI. On the human level, of course, this is obvious. Who doesn’t occasionally fear being rejected? And being told that you are making yourself too intimate in passing along the more than usual information is pretty scary. Being told that the other person does not want your intimacy.
But people can fear rejection on the divine level as well. The talmudic story of Elisha Ben Abuya, also known as “Acher,” – “the Other,” – is a classic example of this. Although there are several tales of how he became alienated from the community of the sages, it is what happens after that is full of pathos. It is, indeed, terrible. In several places, Elisha is described as being excluded from the possibility of repentance. His student, Meir, begs him to return (to repent and be re-accepted by God for –whatever it was he did), but Elisha tells him that he has heard a heavenly voice which told him, “All may return – except Acher”
And yet this idea is one in every other place foreign to Judaism. No one is truly ever eternally excluded from the possibility of returning to God. Repentance might be very difficult, it might even require one’s death to complete atonement, but it is not impossible. Perhaps what was really so pathetic here is that one can, reading carefully, interpret the passages as meaning either that Elisha wasn’t forbidden to return, but Acher was – in other words, he had to abandon his identity as someone different from everyone else, and allow his community to help him mend, or perhaps even that the only thing standing in his way was himself – that that voice that he thought of as God’s voice was only in his own head, and God would have accepted him back at any time.
“This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it…you can just keep eating it forever.” -The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, by Michael Moss (NY Times Magazine).
Is it a surprise to hear that food companies painstakingly, scientifically manufacture the taste and textures of our foods and drinks to make them addictive? No. Moss quotes Bob Drane, the brains behind Kraft’s Lunchables, who explains how the food industry got to where it is today: “Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt… So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more…And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users’.”
“When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” – Lev. 25:14.
From the Torah verse above our sages learn the prohibition of Ona’ah, overreaching – “the act of wronging another by selling him an article for more than its real worth.”
Are food companies withholding what they know about our tastes and therefore making a profit from our lack of knowledge about food science? We like to think that America was built on Judeo-Christian morals, but that is not the case. The reason that there are no warning labels on bags of chips or cans of soda is because our moral code, when it comes to business anyway, is the moral code of Rome not of Jerusalem (an analogy often made by one of my mentors, Dr. Bruce Powell):
Rome teaches: Caveat Emptor – “Let the buyer beware.”
From the perspective of the food company it is the business of the consumer to find out about a product and make her own decision.
Is such a business plan criminal? No. Is it moral? Again, no.
Jerusalem teaches: “It is forbidden to cheat people in buying or selling or to deceive them.” – Mishnah Torah, Laws of Sales. Judaism teaches that buyer has the obligation of full disclosure to seller.
“So,the food and drink around me, that is cheaper and tastier than healthy food and water, is killing me?” Buyer beware, indeed!
I will admit that some will say that ona’ah, overreaching, on the part of Big Food is a stretch. Nonetheless, I stand my ground, but that ona’ah is taking place in hospitable bills is paramount to anyone who has bothered to ask for an itemized bill from their last hospital visit.
This week’s Time Magazine cover article by Steven Brill is a must read for every American. Hospitals, even non-profit hospitals, have such complex guides for deciding payment, which can seem so arbitrary. How do they decide? Hospitals have different pay rates for cash, insurance, and Medicare. Brill give the example of a chest x-ray. A patient might be charged $333, but if it’s billed through Medicare, that same x-ray would pay the hospital $23.83.
Of course, the hospital should be allowed to make a profit, make up for non-payment, or low payment, but it seems that the mark-up something controlled by the secretive “chargemaster- the mysterious internal price list for products and services that every hospital in the U.S. keeps.”
Why are Americans paying so much more for healthcare than other well-off nations without the results? We value the right of hospitals to make money without us fully knowing what we are being charged for. Alas, such is life in Rome. Healthcare costs would not be so bloated if true Judeo-Christian values ruled. Consider this teaching:
“One who has medications, and another person is sick and needs them, it is forbidden to raise their prices beyond what is appropriate.” - SHULCHAN ARUCH, YOREH DE’AH 336:3.
In choosing Rome as our ethical compass, we have led ourselves to a crisis point. Protecting the right of companies to profit at the knowing expense, in dollars and in health, of our citizens is a sure sign that America no longer lives by Judeo-Christian values.
This past weekend was Purim, a holiday full of laughter, parody and dress up. Fittingly, many Jewish groups release Purim videos and plays to tell the story of Purim in different fanciful ways.
One video stood out from the crowd this year, a video called “We Doin’ Purim” by a group called Bubala Please. The video, a parody, features Latino and African American Gangbangers from the LA ghetto rapping about Purim complete with four letter words, Yiddish sayings, and the objectification of women. On one level, the video is highly offensive. The F-bomb and the N-bomb are dropped several times, and there are very crude sexual references including a shot of “Esther” holding a large triangle shaped hummantashen over her (clothed) vagina.
But the discomfort the video elicits is not just because of these racial and sexual stereotypes which most liberal Americans will have a knee jerk negative reaction too. The video is discomforting because in some ways it gets at the dark underbelly of the Purim story. In most communities today, Purim is a “fun” holiday aimed mostly at children. They dress up, and for once get to misbehave in synagogue yelling out during services and dancing around. But if you look closely at the Purim story, it is not for children’s ears. This is a story about sex, violence, and the abuse of power. It opens with the King throwing a drunken orgy, moves on to his picking a girl out of his haram of virgins, and ends with the Jews rampaging and killing thousands of people. Telling the story through gangsta rap which embraces sex and violence is appropriate.
Then there are the power dynamics on display in both the Purim Story and this parody video. The story itself is the triumph of the lowly over the powerful. A commoner, Mordechi, and his niece, Esther, manage to over throw a powerful advisor to the King, and gain the king’s ear and political power. The underdog becomes powerful. Gangsta Rap, whether we like it or not, is a vehicle for the African American and Latino gang communities to show how the underdog has gained power though violence and domination of others. To have these rappers mixing in yidishisms and telling a Jewish story conveys this power to the Jewish community which historically is also seen as the underdog. Again the method of using Gangsta Rap to tell the Purim story of triumph of power makes sense.
I think the video is offensive, and smart, and funny all at the same time. For me the essence of Purim comes through. This video throws off our equilibrium – Gangbangers are rapping “Hommies Nashing Hummantashen – We Doin’ Purim!” What? Really?
Having been warned about its offensive content, watch the video if you choose, and make up your own mind, offensive or good fun?
Members of my Canadian synagogue are deeply engaged with Israel. Almost all, teens included, have visited the land at least once. They keep up with Israeli news. Some follow the liberal Ha’aretz; others the conservative Jerusalem Post. Most support local political organizations – ranging from the citizen diplomacy projects of Peace It Together to the staunch Israel advocacy of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. But when they get together, they don’t like to talk about Israeli politics.
Their Jewish learning is deep. Kids attend Jewish summer camp; adults graduate from the Melton Adult Jewish Studies Program; newcomers perfect their Hebrew; all love to discuss ideas and texts key to Jewish life. But when they get together, they don’t like to talk about Israeli politics.
The Shabbat before Purim is traditionally designated Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembering. With special Torah and Haftorah readings, we remember the evil of Amalek, who attack the weakened Israelites just after the Exodus. After the Israelites settle in the land and develop a strong army, Amalek continues to engage them. In one battle King Saul spares the life of the Amalekite king; the prophet Samuel disapproves. In Samuel’s view, a ruler’s first priority is national security. A king must guard this with absolute ruthless vigilance. In Saul’s view, a ruler can act with compassion towards those he sees as peers.
When we discuss this at our synagogue, someone invariably says, “Wow, that’s relevant to contemporary Israeli politics! These are two opposing Israeli views of how to manage relations with Palestine.” Everyone nods meaningfully, and then someone quickly changes the subject.
On Purim itself, we read Megillat Esther, story of the rise of a Jewish queen and her courtier cousin in the Persian Empire. The satirical story describes excesses of drunkenness, cosmetic use, sexual slavery, harmful legislation, long memos, ostentatious clothing, formal speech and — yes — killing. Many readers laugh their way through the excesses, until they read about the Jews killing outrageous numbers of potential enemies. Then their laughter pauses and they wonder why they find the Megillah funny.
When we discuss the Megillah at our synagogue, invariably someone says, “Wow, that’s relevant to contemporary Israeli politics! When Jews have political power within a corrupt international system, how should we wield it?” Everyone nods meaningfully, and then someone changes the subject.
A decade ago, our synagogue did discuss Israeli politics. Discussions were painful, conducted without manners, and in ways that compromised the safe, quiet space of Shabbat gatherings. Gradually, a consensus emerged: let’s acknowledge our differences, but not dwell on them.
As an American, I tried to respect this quiet Canadian solution, but found it odd. Much of our traditional liturgy expresses yearning for a homeland built on peace and justice. Thus synagogue should be the perfect venue for discussing Israel’s efforts. If we improve our skills in respectful dialogue, I thought, we will talk in a polite Canadian way. So I brought in facilitators from the Children of Abraham Compassionate Listening Project; offered training in public issues dialogue skills; hired speakers to teach about the history of Zionism. Everyone found the events meaningful, but did not use their skills to discuss Israeli politics.
Eight years of frustration finally yielded a breakthrough understanding. I’m not simply slow at adapting to Canadian politeness; I’ve been slow at understanding contemporary Jewish life. From my perspective as a rabbi, spiritual community sits at the centre of Jewish experience. Thus, if Israel is important to us, we should explore it during synagogue practice. But for many Jews, synagogue is not the centre of Jewish life. It is only one expression of their Jewish identity, and not the one they associate with Israel. As rabbi, I should listen carefully to their understanding of Jewish identity, learn from it, and celebrate its richness.
Photo by Dave Kauffman. Cross-posted to OnSophiaStreet.com
As a child, I looked forward to Purim each year. I spent weeks planning my costume and savored the excitement of the annual carnival and the entertaining Megillah reading at my synagogue. Purim represented pure, unobstructed joy.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to experience the deeper meaning of Purim. Our rabbis teach that Purim (a day of exuberant, drunken celebration) and Yom Kippur (our holiest day of atonement) have much in common. In fact, the Tikunei Zohar, a section of Jewish mystical literature, makes a delightful pun using the names of these two holidays. Yom Kippur is often referred to in our liturgy as Yom HaKippurim (the Day of Atonements). Our rabbis adjust the phrase slightly to read Yom K’Purim, meaning “A day like Purim.”
On Yom Kippur, we strive to come to terms with the apparent chaos of our lives. When faced with the reality and complexity of the human condition, we turn to tefilah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteous acts of giving) as vehicles for making ourselves whole. We wear all white (a costume of sorts) and bang on our chests, fasting and engaging in deep personal reflection that will ideally leave us in an ecstatic place of restoration.
On Purim, we also strive to confront the chaos and complexities of human existence, and likewise we ecstatically celebrate our ability to transform these obstacles into entryways to a better tomorrow. We chant the scroll of Esther — the story of how our people came frighteningly close to being annihilated at the hands of Haman and his followers, but miraculously survived due to the brave conviction of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. We remember how, through human courage and connection, our people were able to claim control over their destiny. And so, on Purim we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people with all of our kishkes — drinking, eating and acting silly.
On Yom Kippur, we do the internal work that is necessary to improve ourselves and our communities. Five months later, on Purim, we do the external work. On Purim, we are commanded to eat a festive meal. Each of us is obligated to take part in this celebratory gathering, rich and poor alike. We are also commanded to give matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor. During the remainder of the year, we give tzedakah, righteous charity. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and legal scholar, teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is teaching a person a trade so she can help herself in the future. The second highest form of tzedakah is mutually anonymous giving.
Matanot la’evyonim — gifts to the poor — are neither proactive trade classes nor anonymous donations. Matanot la’evyonim come in the form of food or money that are meant to be used on Purim day for a feast. And matanot la’evyonim are given directly — into the palm of the hand. On Purim, we are forbidden from passing a poor person on the street without stopping, truly seeing him and sharing food. On Purim, we must see everybody in our midst, even those we may be in the habit of ignoring, and we must unite as a community.
Purim forces us to experience the wonder of a world, for one day, in which there is no 99 percent and no 1 percent, a world in which both the billionaires and the working class eat a celebratory meal. We remember that through our people’s ability to unite in the story of Esther, we were able to change the course of history. And so we imagine a time in the future when everybody will truly see each other without shame, and everybody will enjoy a beautiful meal, like we do on Purim, each and every day.
Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, conceals her Jewish identity when she marries the king. Her name includes the root letters of the word “hidden.” However, in order for Esther to do the transformative work of saving her people, she must reveal her Jewish identity. Our rabbis teach that when we dress up on Purim, we should pick a costume that not only disguises our immediate appearance, but also reveals an inner piece of us that we keep hidden during much of the year. With this intention, we use the act of covering to uncover, the act of disguising to reveal an inner essence.
And so we say that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim, and Purim is a day like Yom Kippur. Some Jews repent hard on Yom Kippur, and some Jews party hard on Purim. In truth, both holidays are essential. Our internal reflection on Yom Kippur and our external celebration on Purim both propel us past life’s moments of chaos and pain, and help us embrace our potential to reveal goodness and light.
While there were quite a few excellent movies in 2012, my favorite, far and away was “Argo.” I saw it with my wife and another couple, and the film was so well-crafted that my friend was quite literally curled in his seat, covering his eyes and holding his breath during a scene where the only thing happening was the printing of plane tickets. The whole ending was tense, taut and exciting.
It was also completely fabricated.
Yet when I learned about that, I actually wasn’t all that upset. It was a great movie that prompted me to read Tony Mendez’ personal account how he got six Americans out of Iran, so that I could learn what had been true, what had been adapted, and what had been made up whole cloth.
We know that no movie that is “based on a true story” is ever the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The editors decide what stays in, what gets cut, and what order the story should be told in. What we forget is that our lives are “based on a true story,” as well.
Jonathan Gottschall is the author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, and he reminds us that we all edit our life story. As he describes it:
A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down — where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means….[I]t is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings. (161)
It’s important to remember the real purpose of a story — and it is not simply to relay facts. It’s to put those facts into a meaningful context. A good story doesn’t simply tell us “what happened,” it tells us how and why it happened. In other words, a story — whether that’s a movie like “Argo” or our own personal narrative — is not designed to be a perfectly accurate record of history. Instead, our stories are much more like “memory.”
While history is an attempt to correctly portray past events, memory is a reconstruction of past events, some of which are going to be inherently distorted, overlooked, or even completely rewritten. And for our day-to-day lives, memory is much more important than history — and that’s an idea that resonates with a Jewish perspective.
Avraham Infeld, who served as President of Hillel International, once said that there’s no such things as Jewish history; there is only Jewish memory. What’s the difference? “History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today. It is for that reason that we do not teach our young that our ancestors left Egypt. We teach them that ‘every human being must see him or herself as having left Egypt.'” Memory, in other words, is the driver for the story we tell about ourselves here and now.
So yes, we do need history. We do need accuracy. We do need to make sure that we trying to act with intellectual integrity. But we also shouldn’t conflate history with story. After all, our personal and communal myths are rarely historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value.
Indeed, there’s a line that my friend and colleague Cantor Ellen Dreskin often says that is equally true about “Argo,” our collective Jewish memory, and our own life story: “Something doesn’t have to be factual for it to be true.”
How very true that is.
A number of years ago, I was at a Purim party and a male friend attended wearing a dress, make up, and jewelry. Knowing how thoughtful he always was with regard to everything he did, I commented on how spectacular he looked, and what a great combination the look was on him… I knew that there was a story to hear. Why a story? Surely it was just Purim – the one day of the Jewish year that cross-dressing is permitted; perhaps even encouraged? All in good fun, right?
He looked me in the eye and said, ‘this holiday is a very important day in the year for me. It is the one day of the year when it is officially ok to wear clothes that make me feel most like me. Who I really am. Without it being a big deal. Without being ridiculed, or worrying about whether I’d be fired for wearing these clothes.’
I understood what he was saying. For some people, part of the fun of Purim is dressing up, and sometimes in the clothes most commonly associated with the opposite gender. And, in that context, we usually call that ‘cross dressing’, although ‘drag’ is probably the more accurate terminology for someone who is intentionally wearing the clothing associated with the opposite gender, but doing so in an over-the-top, performative kind of way. But that’s not how my friend was dressed. His clothing was not a covering over of identity for the entertainment of others, but a deeper and truer expression of inner identity – cross dressing as an expression of self.
Through my own experience, I’ve come to believe that some of our deepest spiritual insights come from within – from getting in touch with our deepest sense of self. Perhaps this is the only thing that we can legitimately label ‘true’ in this life. So what do we do when we find something within Jewish tradition that appears to be a God-given statement that is counter to our inner truth?
In Deuteronomy 22:5 it states: ‘A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment’. The rabbis of past generations made an exception for Purim as a festival when reality is intentionally turned on its head. Rashi, (c. 1040-1105 C.E.), explains the verse to apply to a specific context: “Kli gever, a man’s item should not be on a woman: That she should not appear as a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purpose of adultery.” Perhaps it was simply a lack of imagination that led to the conclusion that the only possible reason for a woman to try and infiltrate a group of men was to be able to conduct an affair with another man! We need only think of the story of Yentl to know that the desire to study as an equal with men is just one of so many more explanations we could consider.
But, more to the point, what both the Torah and later commentaries fail to recognize is the way that genuine gender expression, which can be independent of sexuality, may lead a person to truly desire to wear garments that are not traditionally associated with their gender in their particular cultural context. We may have socially constructed gender in binary terms, but we are learning from those who are living a different truth that it is more complex than that. And why would that be so wrong?
We cannot truly do justice to the question without pausing to reflect more deeply on cultural understandings of male and female. From the moment a child is born, one of our first questions is ‘boy or girl?’ In cases where the answer is not immediately evident, anxiety often follows and physicians have often made decisions based on outer physical signs to designate a child in one category or another. As we have come to slowly understand transgendered identities, we are learning that gender cannot be so easily defined in this way.
But the picture is more complex than that. We immediately color-code and dress-code children to conform to the gendered labels they have been given. A baby girl dressed in blue may cause confusion. What is also clear from the evolution of gendered codes of dress over time, at least in our Western culture, is that there is much more social acceptability and comfort with women wearing garments also worn by men than the other way around. So it is that women wearing pants are a common occurrence in this day and age, but a man choosing to wear a dress or a skirt is not regarded as normative in day-to-day activity. For many this causes anxiety and uncertainty. We don’t know how to ‘read’ them.
In this instance, I find the Biblical instruction wanting. If my friend finds his religious tradition to inhibit the deepest expression of his true identity, then I find it failing to do the job that religion, in its highest moments, can do by giving expression to our deepest sense of self as we uncover the image of God in which we were uniquely made.
And so, a proposal for a radical re-reading of the Purim tradition. Let us consider what it takes to truly have the courage of Esther and reveal our true selves. Let us express that essence of self in how we dress and present on this festival day. When we speak to our children, let them not feel pressure to conform and dress like all the other children – the girls in their princess outfits and the boys in their superhero costumes. If those are true expressions of who they wish to be at this moment in time, of course! But if we see signs that there is another expression that they yearn for, how powerful it could be to nurture and support that.
What costume would you wear to reveal a deep truth of your innermost essence, sense of self, and identity?
Last week, my colleagues Rabbis Rebecca Sirbu and Ben Greenberg shared their opinions here about whether rabbis should talk about Israel, and each presented cogent and well-articulated reasons. I was inspired to respond, in part, by the use of “should” and “shouldn’t” in the headline. I cannot assert that other rabbis should or shouldn’t talk about Israel, but I would like to speak personally about why I don’t talk about Israel.
Israel is a topic that gets people’s blood pumping and, when emotions run high, impulsivity tends to override thoughtful and rational conversation. We sometimes allow ourselves to say things we later regret. As a rabbi who works primarily with adolescents, I strive to nurture the open-minded exploration of questions about Judaism and identity, which requires working against the competing desire to shut-down discussion of gray areas with a single, decisive “right answer.” In my experience, few deep and complicated questions have right answers. However, when teens and young adults talk about Israel, they believe there is only one right answer.
Because I’m not a full-time pulpit rabbi, on Shabbat I often sit as a “Jew in the pew” in synagogue. There I have found many adults who struggle with maintaining a balanced stance when discussing Israel. Occasionally, my colleagues seize the opportunity to express their views stridently in sermons, exhorting the congregation from their bully pulpits to see the “truth.” Later, at the Kiddush lunch, discussions quickly devolve into heated arguments in which otherwise rational and intelligent people present strongly-held opinions as facts. Having witnessed this type of polarization within a synagogue community, I can attest to the pain and alienation that a rabbi’s words can inadvertently cause. For this reason, I am especially careful when I speak about Israel and other issues that isolate listeners so that they metaphorically stop up their ears.
In addition to serving as a visiting rabbi or scholar-in-residence in congregations, I spend my summers working at a Jewish camp that employs many Israelis as counselors. Many of these staff members arrive at camp having just completed their military service in the Israeli army. Although I have acquired wisdom about numerous topics and although I am old enough to be their mother, there is nothing in my life experience that imbues me with authority to teach these young adults about Israel. I believe that it would be presumptuous of me to do so without establishing a relationship of trust and mutual respect, which would allow us to exchange stories of our diverse experiences and appreciate one another’s perspectives.
When I ascend the bima or stand at the head of a classroom to teach, I am keenly aware that I have precious little time to convey the richness of Jewish tradition and the potency of Jewish ritual to a group of strangers. Thus, I must reach deep into my heart to extract the essential teachings from my core and then reach across the vast chasm that separates speaker and listener. I look honestly for what is “my Torah” and attempt to share it. Since I cannot see what is in another human’s heart, since I cannot know what anyone else finds at their core, how can I say whether another rabbi should or shouldn’t speak about Israel? I can merely say, at any given moment, whether I should speak.
Purim is coming and the inhabitants of my house are giddy with anticipation. It has long been a favorite holiday in our family. We talk about costumes for weeks ahead of time. We take annual Purim pictures of the kids in their costumes. Marathon baking sessions ensure adequate supplies of hamantaschen for eating and sharing. And the kids take special pleasure in sending packages of hamantaschen and other goodies to friends and family, near and far. That’s before the actual holiday even arrives, bringing with it feasting, megillah reading, and shpielling.
Amid all the frivolity and hoopla that accompanies Purim, however, is a serious obligation; feeding the hungry.
The commandment to provide food for the poor finds its basis in the Purim story itself (Esther 9:22). The Gemara (Megillah 7a) offers the necessary guidelines; it states that one must distribute gifts to the poor. And not just to one person but to no fewer than two needy individuals. Such gifts can be in the form of money or actual foodstuffs. So important is this oft-overlooked obligation that the Rambam places a higher value on the act of caring for the poor than on any other aspect of the holiday.
It is better for a person to increase gifts to the poor than to increase his feast or the mishloach manot (gifts of food) to his neighbours. There is no joy greater or more rewarding than to gladden the heart of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. For by gladdening the hearts of the downtrodden, we are following the example of the Divine.
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:17)
Once upon a time, the organization formerly known as the Jewish Fund for Justice established a special fund to help women successfully overcome barriers to becoming economically self-sufficient. The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty distributed funds to agencies that worked with ow-income women, providing them with skills and assistance in order to help them improve their economic situations.
Because women are disproportionately at risk for falling below the poverty line. Across all racial lines.
- In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.
- 13 percent of women over 75 years old are poor compared to 6 percent of men.
- The poverty gap between women and men widens significantly between ages 18 and 24—20.6 percent of women are poor at that age, compared to 14.0 percent of men.
The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty no longer exists. But there are many worthy organizations in every community that are working tirelessly to gladden the hearts of the most vulnerable in our society. Won’t you consider increasing the joy of Purim by assisting those in need as our Tradition demands of us?
Affiliation rates are down in suburban Jewish communities across the country. Synagogue structures sit half-empty much of the year. Conservative and Orthodox synagogues struggle to find enough interested people to support their daily minyanim. We all know about these and other symptoms of the decline in Jewish communal life, but what are the causes?
As we cycle through several weeks of Torah readings about the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites’ center of worship, I wonder whether one of the causes of today’s Jewish communal decline is that we have over-built our own mishkans, our own loci of worship. As post-World War II suburban synagogues expanded in both size and scope from their pre-war predecessors, as North American Jewry experienced a degree of success and acceptance unprecedented in Jewish Diaspora experience, did we create more demand than supply warranted? Have we grown too big to succeed?
Though it is tempting to attribute today’s affiliation problems to the hubris of prior generations, I think that lets our current generation off the hook too easily. Instead, I think the real problem is not the size of our institutions but the misguided priorities that our “edifice complexes” have engendered. We have built magnificent, resplendent houses of worship, buildings that are evocative of the majestic mishkan of biblical times. When we need funds for aesthetic needs—the ark curtains, the nameplates behind the seats, the stained glass windows—the money often can be raised. But how much time, effort, or resources do we invest in the quality of the religious experience inside these beautiful walls? People today are craving spiritual engagement. As recent studies of religious life in America suggest, a growing number of Americans—including Jews—have opted out of affiliating but continue to believe in God and seek spiritual fulfillment.
The initial command to build the mikdash, in Exodus 25:8, is peculiar. As many commentators note, the commandment should read, “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it,” meaning that if the Israelites build the sanctuary, then God will have a place to live. Instead, the command actually says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” God is not coming to live in the mikdash, but among the Israelites themselves. The act of coming together, in which each Israelite contributed what he or she could, built the holy infrastructure that made it possible for God to dwell among them. God told the Israelites what our sociological data confirms today: religious space is a means to the end of spiritual nourishment and social fulfillment; religious space, no matter how magnificent, can never be an end in itself.
Those who are disaffiliating are not necessarily rejecting religion—they are rejecting what we have to offer. They are rejecting stale, spiritually-barren services, hierarchical and unwelcoming lay leadership structures, and a general approach that treats members as commodities or “units.” By contrast, robust religious communities such as Temple Sinai in LA, Bnai Jeshurun in New York, or independent minyanim such as Ikar or Hadar have focused on creating enthusiastic prayer experiences and cultivating grassroots lay participation.
Focusing on religious spaces themselves, whether it is the next building campaign of a local shul or the explosive religious politics of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, mistakes the peripheral for the core. If we want to go about making the type of religious structures in which God would want to dwell, if we want to construct a 21st century mishkan, let’s start focusing less on aesthetics and more on content.