Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Middle School Prayer

Middle school Middle school is hard. Bodies betray young people as they lurch uncertainly towards adulthood. Emotions rear up and overtake sensibility and perspective. Desire for the other surprises, delights and overwhelms.

The result: drama, drama and more drama.

On the sports field or in the locker rooms, by text or by chat, during class or at camp, intentionally and more often without intention little actions, and sometimes big ones, are hurtful, or perceived hurtfully, or are downright idiotic. Seriously–insert eye roll.

And to make it worse everyone is talking about you. You are not just imaging it. They are. Everyone is looking to the left and the right, watching to see what exactly is the right move, the wrong move, the way forward.

The thing about middle schoolers is that they are just working to figure it out. Adults know, there are no simple answers. But middle schoolers are just emerging from that precious time of life when they held on the notions of perfect solutions, the right and wrong way to do things, heroes and happy endings. Middle schoolers are lost in a sea of unclear possibilities without the tools or power to contend with the complexity of the increasing challenging world that they are discovering. Wisdom will likely come but it has not yet arrived.

These were some of the thoughts that were swishing about in my brain as I recently came to the end of the central silent prayer at an evening service. It is one of my favorites. I don’t remember when it became so beloved but as I read it, it dawned on me that it may have been during middle school. It ought to be renamed The Middle School Prayer.

It pleads with a personal God, after all being in middle school is all about “me, me, me.” Ultimately it is when everything is about me that things inevitably start to go wrong. It asks for help with stopping all those things that are on the tip of our tongue from actually tumbling out. It asks for help figuring out how to do the right thing and to foil the plans of those who scheme against us. But ultimately it moves beyond the personal, to remind God, that this help is needed for the sake of the whole community. Every little bit less crazy talk and nastiness make it all better. It ends with a fervent plea to “Save with Your power, and answer me,” because ultimately that is what we are hoping for, to find the answers, to be saved from ourselves and the people around us.

I think that it is still one of my favorite prayers because for me, as for many of us, the bewilderment of middle school never entirely disappears. As adults we are blessed with frontal cortexes that are more fully developed and often the patience, perspective and wisdom that goes with aging. But still. We still say the wrong thing. We still have people talking behind our backs. We confront situations that put us at a loss. So what to do? For me The Middle School Prayer (officially know as Elohai N’tzor) continues to resonate. I think of it as my moral compass, reminding me what I am continually striving for.

Read it in a translation of the original. If it feels too Jewy, feel free to substitute “Your Wisdom” for “Your Torah” “Your vision” for “Your mitzvot” –it still works.

Let me know what you think and whether it resonates for you.

My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.

Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.

Open my heart to Your Torah, that I may pursue Your mitzvot.

As for all who think evil of me, cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes.

Act for Your own sake, for the sake of Your Power,

for the sake of Your Holiness, for the sake of Your Torah,

so that Your loved ones may be rescued.

Save with Your power, and answer me.

Posted on May 30, 2013

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The price of real estate is rising… in heaven

Catching the attention of many readers of breaking news in the Jewish world today is the story of Ari Mandel and his attempt (in jest) to sell his place in heaven to the highest bidder on ebay.  As reported in The Forward and Haaretz, Mandel started the bidding at 99c but, within a few hours, the bidding was up to $100,000, upon which ebay pulled the listing citing its rules that one cannot sell non-tangible goods.

As reported by The Forward, in conversation with Mandel, ebay was alerted to the attempted sale after news spread on ultra-orthodox online community sites, where great offence was taken.  Mandel left the ultra-orthodox community several years ago and self identifies as a cultural, atheist Jew.  His background, however, enabled him to create a posting that was peppered with yiddish and theological reference points.  Even the false name under which he posted – Rachmuna Litzlon, was playful, meaning “God save us” in Aramaic.

While in many ways a trivial story, the attention it is getting today is quite fascinating. Perhaps its simply because of the chutzpah involved in coming up with the idea and posting, even as a joke. Perhaps its the fact that there was real bidding going on. I’d like to presume that the bidding, likewise, was in jest.  And then, according to the above reports, there was some response from ultra-orthodox communities that demonstrated they were not amused.  Apparently they are not familiar with ‘The Book of Mormon’ on Broadway and the rather good PR that the Mormon church has received from being a rather good sport about it all.

I’m also struck by the timing of this story, coming on the heels of a report this week that the Pope, in one of his daily homilies, made mention that all can be redeemed, not just Catholics.  The Vatican has put out a statement since declaring that the Pope’s words should not be taken to mean that non-Catholics have a place in heaven.  Rather, he was talking about a meeting ground where Catholics and non-Catholics can work together in doing good in the world.

A search for ‘afterlife’ or ‘the world to come’ here at myjewishlearning.com will give you plenty to contemplate when it comes to the plurality of thinking on what this might look like and how we might get there. Personally, I’m drawn to the wisdom of Maimonides on this topic, as he writes in his introduction to Perek Helek – a commentary on the Mishnah. He reviews a variety of beliefs held by different kinds of people about the nature of the afterlife. In summary, he suggests that all of these ideas teach us little except for the limitations of the human imagination and he proposes that the variety of ideas tell us more about what people value in this life than anything about the reality of what may lie beyond the world that we know.

Whether via ebay, or homilies from the Pope, we humans continue to have a fascination with what may come next, and who deserves to get there. I tend to be a pragmatist (and maybe a realist) on matters of life after death.  I take great comfort in the thought of an ongoing existence in the form of energy or soul, although I recognize that I’m living in the realm of ‘I don’t know’ on this one – how could I truly claim otherwise?  I don’t need to know the details, as I don’t believe I have a great deal of control over the outcome.  My desire to try to do good and contribute positively to this world is not related to any concept of reward in the next one.  Perhaps that’s what the Pope was trying to convey – doing good in the here and now is what matters, however you get there. And perhaps that’s why, while it was a cute joke, I have little interest in taking someone else’s place in whatever the hereafter looks like, or in the idea that such a place can be acquired at all, whether through bidding or through some other quantifiable set of parameters.

Posted on May 29, 2013

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Deprogramming our Children as a Means to Jewish Continuity?

no-phonesI just got back from a weekend “family camp” retreat. One of the most remarkable aspects of the experience was that not one of my three children, over the course of 72 plus hours, asked to watch tv or play on my iphone. It wasn’t because the camp’s programming was so stellar; in fact, rain and frigid weather reduced the planned programming substantially. What occupied my children’s attention was far simpler: the sheer joy of being around a bunch of other children their age. It didn’t seem to matter whether the context was meals, playing sports, or just hanging out. They simply reveled in being together all the time.

Jewish children, like many American children today, lead lives that are highly programmed.  From sports to academics to religious school, our children often have extra-curricular commitments every day of the week. The medical academy has made it clear by now that we are harming our children’s development by reducing free play in favor of all this extra-curricular programming. But I wonder, as I look out at dwindling religious school attendance and vastly reduced affiliation rates, if we are missing the boat in our outreach efforts as Jewish institutions by not providing enough contexts for some type of Jewish social free play. The Conservative synagogues (including my own) that I know about tend to prioritize teaching our students Hebrew and some basic Jewish literacy in the limited time we have with our students. But maybe, instead of having religious school become one of several week-long extra-curricular activities, what we need to do is figure out how to bring the Jewish camp ethos into our religious schools and other institutions of outreach. Or, to put it somewhat more controversially, what if USY, Bnai Brith, NIFTY, and other Jewish youth organizations are more important than our religious schools altogether? Maybe, instead of focusing on getting our children into synagogue, we should concentrate on getting them together with other local Jewish youths and just letting them hang out within the context of some general Jewish program or context?

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am curious to hear your thoughts about how we might be able to develop a camp-like culture within our Jewish institutions the other 10 months of the year. Family camp and summer camp are great, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of what we might be able to accomplish when it comes to developing positive Jewish identity. The glee on my children’s faces this past weekend is something I hope and pray we can replicate on a community-wide level, transforming Jewish education from a (bi)weekly chore into a true opportunity for engagement and excitement.

Posted on May 27, 2013

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The Danger of Communal Exclusion

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Two moments of communal life have come to my attention recently that speak to the dangers of exclusion in the building of successful community that are worth discussing. Without disclosing the organizations themselves because these problems can occur nationwide and in any organization, it is important to examine the situations and what they teach us about working to build inclusive community representation because ultimately only when everyone is at the table can true civil discourse happen and true decisions on behalf of the community at large really take place.

The first incident involves an umbrella organization that is comprised of representation from diverse segments of the broader community. This umbrella organization meets periodically to discuss issues relevant to the community at large and to take stands on legislative and communal points of interest. This organization was presented with an application for membership from an entity whose ideology does not resonate with every member at the table. They are undoubtedly an organization that fits criteria for membership in this umbrella group according to the bylaws but because enough voting members find discomfort with some of  the stances this organization takes, their application was rejected.

The second incident involves a new entity that also wishes to be an umbrella organization. This entity wishes to exert influence and leadership over important resources within the community and to be a critical player in shaping the religio-cultural discourse within the community at large. The first major act of this nascent organization was an act of exclusion by denying membership to entities that, by all reasonable measures, would and should be members of this new umbrella organization but deviate too far from the personal mold of religious character of the majority of the membership. In other words, the common uniting characteristics between those “in” and those “out” are enormous but they diverge on some specific sub-denominational identity markers that make the majority who is “in” feel uncomfortable to the extent that those on the “out” were rejected even before a formal application process transpired.

Board-RoomThe intention for the actions of exclusion by both groups is the same. They believe that by casting to the margins those they do not personally agree with on every issue they will help build a community of more consensus and a community more in line with their vision of what it should look like. The reality is that this is far from what happens. In fact, the opposite is true. By creating a climate of “in” and “out” in communal umbrella organizations you are not at all shaping a single community or building consensus but rather contributing towards the very breakdown of community. The consensus is false and instead of one unified community, multiple oppositional communities take shape and begin to emerge. The fault lines begin to become developed to the point wherein people separate from other people, organizations from other organizations and finally the divisiveness becomes so destructive nothing positive can be done.

While, on the other hand, if each of these organizations had accepted as members those entities that fit the criteria for membership but who contain some specific stances that make members in the umbrella organization feel uncomfortable then a true moderating balance would have developed. It is in the absence of those who think differently or who can challenge basic assumptions that extremist positions develop. The power of an umbrella organization that contains disparate views is that moderation occurs in a bi-directional fashion. Furthermore, if part of the mission of an umbrella organization is to exert influence over policy and legislative decisions that impact community that very mission becomes severely compromised when a portion of the community, which by organizational bylaws should be at the table but is not.

The aim of communal exclusion is usually done in order to try and shape an ideal version of community according to whatever vision those enabling the exclusion seek. Yet, community is comprised of those who are in the community, including those with whom one does not agree on every iota, and writing them out of organizational boardrooms does not make them disappear.

Posted on May 24, 2013

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How can one make moral decisions?

200221760-001A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine gleefully forwarded a link to a study that asserted that atheists and agnostics are more motivated by empathy to help others than the religious are. Although this isn’t precisely news (similar reports were made nearly a year before based on three other studies), I wondered why my friend (and others who passed this around) were so pleased by the findings.

I suspect it is in part because our culture valorizes emotion, and in part because this cultural elevating of emotion leads people like my friend to think that less empathy is somehow not as good, that religion, if it is to do any good, must encourage people to be more empathetic.
But I disagree. I cannot speak for other faiths of course, but the sages of Judaism knew their business when they maintained that “a person who is commanded and does receives a greater reward than one who is not commanded and does” (B. Talmud, Bava Kama 87a).

We live in a society that considers personal choice to be the highest value. However, while choice can lead us to making good decisions, and is necessary for us to make moral choices in our interactions with others, more empathy isn’t necessarily better, and indeed it may well be that in terms of moral decision-making, especially moral decision making that involves long-term planning (such as environmental choices that involve personal discomfort over long periods) or large numbers of people – especially people we’ve never met, rule-bound and rational decision-making will lead us to far better decisions.

This week’s New Yorker has a wonderful article that reminds us that empathy works best when we are in one-to-one situations – humans tend to be motivated to feel for babies who fall down wells, children shot in schoolhouses or three women with compelling stories who survived years of torture by a sociopath. Yet our reactions, though well-meaning- to such tragedies may not be useful. We want to do something, and so we send food,clothing, toys – and the towns which don’t need these things are overwhelmed. We organize to send thousands of t-shirts to Africans – thus making a situation worse rather than better by undermining local textile economies with cheap junk, or pass laws that do the opposite of what we would wish to see. The New Yorker article offers these examples:

In 1987, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had been released on furlough from the Northeastern Correctional Center, in Massachusetts, raped a woman after beating and tying up her fiancé. The furlough program came to be seen as a humiliating mistake on the part of Governor Michael Dukakis, and was used against him by his opponents during his run for President, the following year. Yet the program may have reduced the likelihood of such incidents. In fact, a 1987 report found that the recidivism rate in Massachusetts dropped in the eleven years after the program was introduced, and that convicts who were furloughed before being released were less likely to go on to commit a crime than those who were not. The trouble is that you can’t point to individuals who weren’t raped, assaulted, or killed as a result of the program, just as you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.

or this

Newtown, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden. More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community. We felt their pain; we wanted to help. Meanwhile—just to begin a very long list—almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, and the federal food-stamp program is facing budget cuts of almost twenty per cent. Many of the same kindly strangers who paid for Baby Jessica’s medical needs support cuts to state Medicaid programs—cuts that will affect millions. Perhaps fifty million Americans will be stricken next year by food-borne illness, yet budget reductions mean that the F.D.A. will be conducting two thousand fewer safety inspections

One of the reasons I find this tension compelling is that as a Conservative, female, rabbi, I spend a lot of my time negotiating the tension between halacha, Jewish law, and the need for Jewish societal change.

Halacha by its nature requires us to follow rules, but to be who I am, it’s also necessary to find empathy for people who traditionally have been excluded by tradition, to interpret laws in ways that makes the people more equal but also to interpret law without destroying it. Those laws are the framework by which we measure moral judgements, they should be the framework through which we, as Jews, see the world. Empathy, while important, is not, cannot, and should not be, the only driving force behind a moral decision. I am thankful that the rabbis also valued svara- logical reasoning- as a means of interpretation. But even reason alone is not pure – all of us are living like fish in the water, unable to see the rules and assumptions that go to making up our world, and making decisions based upon those assumptions without even recognizing them as social constructs. Reason thinks it is unaffected by these structures, but the reality is that reason itself is affected by emotion.
There is ultimately no escaping our frameworks – the best we can do is to try to balance them. And what that means is that being human, and being a good Jew, will always mean vastly divergent views on what God demands of us, and how we are to fulfill those demands. But while we are not require to finish the task, neither will we ever be free from struggling with it. And juggling all the parts of our human selves that make it difficult – and make it worthwhile.

Posted on May 22, 2013

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Rescuing Grace

I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”

Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).

Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).

We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia.reptilianbrain The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).

To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.

It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.

Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti

Degas_BallerinaWe are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.

GraceUnmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).

Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:

Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.

It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.

Posted on May 21, 2013

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The Torah of Space Exploration

NASA_Mars_RoverWill humans ever land on Mars? Quite a number of people are trying to make it happen.

Buzz Aldrin has just published a book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. About half a million people are expected to apply for a one-way trip to Mars through the Dutch company “Mars One.” And even though it was a robot doing the landing, over 3 million people watched Curiosity land on the red planet.

Over 50 years ago, the nation (and the world) were riveted by NASA’s attempts to land a person on the moon, and bring him back safely to the earth. And when NASA succeeded, the whole world felt a sense of pride and awe when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the LEM and onto the Sea of Tranquility.

In its way, space travel is its own reward. Yes, the space program has provided us with concrete benefits: GPS navigation, meteorological forecasts, and even treatments for osteoporosis. But what it truly offers us is inspiration and a drive to expand our knowledge.

Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, reminds us that the real value of space travel is how it captures our imagination, and how it motivates us to continue learning:

My favorite quote, I think it was Antoine Saint-Exupery who said, “If you want to teach someone to sail, you don’t train them how to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas.” That longing drives our urge to innovate, and space exploration has the power to do that, especially when it’s a moving frontier because all traditional sciences are there.

We humans are naturally curious creatures — we are born to explore. A mission to Mars excites us because we simply don’t know what we’ll discover, or how exactly it will add to our knowledge, or what new technologies will arise as a result. Even if we don’t immediately sense its benefits, it still has value, because the journey of learning is its own reward.

That’s the same message we get on Shavuot, our celebration of Torah, because the study of Torah, too, doesn’t always provide an immediate return on its investment. Instead, we study Torah lishmah, for its own sake.

Why? Because Torah is not designed to train us how to build a boat. It is designed to make us long for the open seas.

Jewish learning is never supposed to give us a final and definitive answer. Instead, it is supposed to inspire us, and to push us to explore beyond what we already know. Rabbis Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz even titled a book Swimming in the Sea of Talmud because Jewish study leads us into the vast, challenging, and compelling unknown, which we do for the pure joy of learning something new. As they teach us, when we learn one text,

…there are a dozen new questions arising from [it]: Can this lesson be applied to other, similar situations? Is this lesson still applicable today? What would the Rabbis of the Talmud say to our particular situation, which differs slightly from the case they presented? Is the conclusion reached and the lesson derived from the text the most relevant and meaningful message? (Katz and Schwartz, 6-7)

True learning never stops; it pushes us out ever-farther into uncharted territory. As both space exploration and Torah study show us, each new discovery spurs new lines of inquiry; each new challenge forces us to create innovative solutions; each new venture helps us push the boundaries of knowledge.

Now, it is true that as vast as the open sea may be, it is not infinite. And neither, most likely, is space.

But human curiosity — our drive to explore and learn and grow — just might be.

Posted on May 16, 2013

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Dairy Queen

Sometimes the most challenging part of being a committed Reform Jew is seeking ways to incorporate Judaism into our home life in ways that are meaningful. Complicating matters for our family is that our oldest child, Ben, is on the autism spectrum. And so incorporating anything into our regular routine can prove to be challenging for one who thrives on consistency.
Shavuot, which begins at sundown this evening, has always gotten the short end of the stick in our household. Although it is one of the three major festivals on the Jewish calendar, it has been the hardest to observe with our kids. Reform communities tend to have the main celebration during the evening service at the beginning of the holiday. But for families with young children, and those with family members who go to bed very early, evening observances are often out of the realm of reason. Not because the family is not committed to observing the holiday, but because it is simply not possible given the current circumstances. And that is certainly the case in our home.

So while I, as an adult, crave the spiritual and intellectual experiences that Shavuot has the potential to give me, my children need something different. And I, as the parent, am charged with creating a Shavuot observance that will inspire them and become part of our family’s story.
shavuot

It takes a different shape each year as the needs and developmental stages of our kids shift. There is, however, one constant; ice cream.

The tradition to serve dairy foods on Shavuot is long-standing and has several explanations for its origin. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that a great way to connect my kids to this tradition was to serve ice cream. One year it was an ice cream cake in the shape (sort-of) of a Torah. That happened once and only once. Over time, it has become our tradition to have a sundae bar for dinner. With crudités, cheese, and crackers as a forshpeis. Sparkling limeade and a fancy table set with flowers and crystal send the message that it is a night unlike other nights. By candlelight, God-willing, our conversation will include discussions of Torah, ancient and modern. Suggestions of how we might still hear God speaking to and through us will be shared. And in the morning, a breakfast of milk (still with the dairy theme) and Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts. Because I ate them for the first time at my very first all-night Shavuot study session as a kid. Because they were a favourite of my grandmother, z”l, and it keeps her memory alive for my children. Because the study of Torah is never-ending.

Traditional? Not in the normative sense. But it is our family’s tradition. While they are young. And when they are ready for a more conventional observance, that is what we will do. Though I suspect ice cream will still be involved.

Posted on May 14, 2013

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Should Women Thank God For Not Making Them Men?

Worms_festival_prayerbook

A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.

Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.

Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.

But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.

Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.

Posted on May 13, 2013

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Generosity of Spirit

In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”

Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.

Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.

Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.

People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.

Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.

When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.

Posted on May 10, 2013

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