Author Archives: Alana Suskin

Alana Suskin

About Alana Suskin

Rabbi Alana Suskin is an educator, activist, and writer published in dozens of anthologies and journals, including the Daily Beast, Lilith, Sh’ma and "The New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future," a finalist in the 2010 National Jewish Book Award. She is a senior managing editor of Jewschool.com, the Secretary of T'ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America) and sits on the board of American Rights at Work. Rabbi Suskin is Director of Strategic Communications for Americans for Peace Now.

What is a Community?

community-prayerA few days ago, I ran across an article asking a rabbi what a person could do instead of going to shul to say kaddish. The person in question wasn’t bed-bound—he just didn’t like going to shul.

It’s a difficult question for a rabbi to deal with—although the author of this article did pretty well- because it’s difficult to know what the real underlying question is: Why doesn’t this person like going to shul—is it because he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he is saying? Is it because he draws no comfort from attending a service with people he doesn’t know? Is it because he is unfamiliar with the service?

Similarly, there are many people who are beginning to ask themselves if a minyan could be made online? These don’t seem like related questions, but they are, in that they come from a place where we are unfamiliar with our communities—we no longer need to fear friendship with non-Jews, but in doing so, many of us have failed to develop relationships with our own family, our own tradition – and then, when we seek comfort from it, we find it alien.

I wonder what the boundaries are for our ability to Jewish when we are not face-to-face. Going to shul is such an important part of being in the Jewish community—even for those who don’t love prayer, or don’t understand it well. And what, also, do we say to the person who doesn’t like shul: of course we hope they’ll connect in other ways, but it seems wrong to simply let the person give up on one of the ways we have to directly connect with one another—people we may have nothing in common with, other than being there for each other at a difficult time. And what of the idea that perhaps it isn’t only about you—that it is for others—God, our people, the deceased—that we do these things?

The internet sometimes gets proposed as a solution to this (and related) problems. But even if we set aside the problem of using electronic networks on Shabbat and other restrictive days, how much benefit to us as individuals or as a people could there be in a connection which never demands anything of us (because, for example, how can you bring food to the mourning community member who lives more than a day’s drive away?), and what happens to the idea of a people, even?

And yet, I do think that there is something to be gained from an internet community. I do see how it has enabled me to reconnect with people far from me and stay connected to people I might not otherwise stay connected with, even if it is not the same as the relationships I have with the people who are right here, next door.

What do you think those limitations are? Can we build true Jewish communities online?

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Posted on May 21, 2014

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On Mother’s Day

no_flowersYet another holiday about which I am ambivalent, Mother’s Day seems this year to have engendered rather more commentary than I can remember in past years. I have read several moving essays from women whose infertility has made Mother’s Day painful, as they are forced to watch the omnipresent cute pictures of babies and advertisements directed at heteronormative families seemingly composed of clumps of gooey gazes of young, pretty, thin (and mostly white) women at their offspring, neatly clad, and freshly scrubbed.

Aside from the commercialism of it all,  aside from the very real pain of women who want children and have not  been able to bear them, I wonder if this is the best we can do for women. While honoring one’s parents is a Jewish value, I’m not sure that Mother’s Day offers any real honor.

Of course I wouldn’t dare not show up at my own mother’s house, but as for me, I’d rather see our society make genuine changes to the way we treat women. I would consider it a far greater honor to make sure that no girl need fear rape in her high school or college than to get some paid-for gift every year. It would be a lot more clear to me that our society cares about mothers and motherhood if it made more effort to feed the children of all the mothers in it, and pay women the worth of our work—equal to what a man would make.

Of course, that’s sort of the point. It takes a lot less work to show pretty once a year, and make a few grand pronouncements about how motherhood is the most important job than it does to actually honor women. That would require some big changes in the way we do business, in how we live our lives, and would require more than one day’s consideration.

And I will say this, too. You can’t truly honor mothers if you don’t have genuine respect for all women: before, during, and after the years of her fertility, whether or not she chooses to bear children, whether or not she is able.

So if you really want to honor your mother this weekend, get off your duff and go make the world better for every girl, for every old woman, for any child born of woman, boy or girl. Go on: then you can be the hero your mother always told you you were. And that would be the best Mother’s Day present you could give her.

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Posted on May 7, 2014

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Packing for the Journey

clutterMy parents still live in the house I grew up in. Since leaving it, I have moved 14 times. Each time I move, I have to get rid of the clutter that has accumulated -sometimes more, sometimes less – usually books, but since my child was born, also toys, clothes outgrown, keepsakes from each stage of his life…

I know that I should acquire less. Even though we buy little, it creeps up on me, until I feel weighed down by it all, and yet, many of those things feel precious and irreplaceable. And some of them are.

Each year at Passover, I wonder at all the stuff that seems to be required to leave Egypt -and I think of the Israelites, who left too fast even for bread to rise, but managed to remember their tambourines. No wonder it was so hard for them, no wonder they complained so much: I can imagine them saying to themselves, I can’t leave behind little Dvorah’s first clay bird sculpture, Aharon’s project, that straw-woven hat… even though the straw and the clay were both reminders of the slavery they were escaping.

Sometimes I wish for the purity of having nothing. Sometimes, I long to hold my history in my hands and I am ready for Passover to end, not so I can eat bread, but so I can, for a little while, pretend that the things around me will last into the future.

Posted on April 23, 2014

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Asking the Wrong Questions

four-sons-szykEarlier this week, my excellent colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz asked the important question of whether, “there can be a new type of “masculinism” that is not about stereotypical manliness, but about confidently embracing what it means to be a man today while also honoring the narrative, journeys, and rights associated with feminism?”

Rabbi Yanklowitz didn’t initially frame the question in terms of Jewish practice, although he did post it on ejewishphilanthropy, and very properly pointed out his perspective as an Orthodox rabbi certainly must color his views in terms of the spiritual meaning of gender.

In those terms, it is interesting that many traditional Jewish cultures valued masculinity in quite different ways than modern western culture does (Daniel Boyarin writes extensively about this in many of his books, most notably, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, and of course, others have as well).

In the rabbinic imagination, as well as some Ashkenazic cultures that sprang from them, the feminine is judgement to the masculine mercy (for example in kabalistic imagery); women are suited to labor, while men study; and women are physically tough while men are valued for their delicacy and yeshiva pallor. Of course, we all know that the expression of these values most likely differed more by individual case than by actual gender – as is true regardless of what society one lives in- but the fact that these ideas about how gender is performed varies so dramatically from that of our current western society, demonstrates how entirely socially constructed those values are, and how little they have to do with the people inhabiting them. In fact, these values were so different from the cultures surrounding them, that the non-Jews made note of them, often stereotyping Jews negatively based on them, viewing male Jews as effeminate and weak and female Jews as lusty and strong – stereotypes that we have sadly spent a great deal of effort on disproving by assimilating the contrary gender attitudes of the culture around us.

The irony doesn’t quite end there: even though Rabbi Yanklowitz  has essentially brought us full circle, by wondering how we could re-imagine gender roles (to which one might at first consider answering by saying, “bring back the traditional values!”), to solve the problem, it is the question itself which must be examined. As long as society defines each gender in opposition to the other, the problems of sexism cannot be avoided. As soon as you ask, “how can I be not like a woman,” the implication must be that being like a woman is bad (“you throw like a girl,” or the like) and in a society where women are still significantly less powerful than men, it is impossible to avoid this.

Is there a genuinely good reason to differentiate genders in  this way, by defining some behaviors as female-appropriate, and some as male- appropriate? My mother-in-law, bless her, likes to say that there are only two jobs that require a person to be sexed a particular way: sperm donor and surrogate mother.

There is no way to equitably explore separate gender roles until equality has been fully achieved. Even then. On the other hand, there is no downside to trying to achieve full gender equality. It will not in any way rob either men or women of being male and female (anything which is biologically determined won’t change, presumably, so what are you afraid of? And if it isn’t biologically determined, then reinforcing it benefits whom, may I ask?) – but it will benefit people by encouraging them to pursue spirituality that fits them, rather than insisting that they should fit themselves to someone else’s notion of what their spirituality ought to be.

Of course, Judaism does require us to undertake obligations, sometimes even responsibilities that we have no desire for, but nevertheless, we are called upon to fulfill them. But is performing gender roles, and separating what women and men do religiously, part of this set of obligations? Or would it be more appropriate to be strict, and say that all are obligated, unless their specific case renders that obligation impossible, or temporarily difficult. For example, perhaps the exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot should be based on who is taking care of the children, rather than assuming that it is the female person that is doing so. Sometimes it will be, but sometimes it won’t – requiring the exemption along gender lines prevents people from choosing which role suits them – and of course some people might never have children- why should they be exempt?

It’s not the way our sages would have thought about it. Perhaps, though, we can draw wisdom from how we today think about the four sons of the haggadah. Most of us are disinclined to assume that our children are permanently the wicked child, or the simple one (and certainly those of us with children know that they aren’t always the wise child): rather, we understand that all four of those children is within each of us, and at different times, we will ask (or not ask) those questions based on where we are then, at that moment.

And finally, we should remember that while the four children are examples of different kinds of people looking for answers, and provides a script for each of those defined roles, the haggadah also requires us to each ask our own question: that is why one can fulfill the obligation of the four questions by asking any question at all.

Perhaps that is a better example for us today: instead of insisting that we must stick to a preordained script, let us encourage everyone to remember that we are not the same people at all times, and that we will play different roles throughout our lives – thus, we must ask different questions for each of them. Instead of asking, how can men can express their supposed differences from women, maybe the right question is, “How can each person be themself?”

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Posted on April 9, 2014

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“Is the Lord Present Among Us or Not?”

moses2The state of public discourse, both within the Jewish community and within our society at large, has taken rather a beating. Even when people across the political aisles can be brought to the same room for debate, the exchanges seem to be more a pro forma opportunity to restate one side’s positions or insult the other.

Religious communities aren’t any better. Each one declares itself fully in possession of the knowledge of God’s opinions. And yet, Judaism suggests that perhaps we would be better off having some humility. The Talmud (Berachot 4a) says, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ lest you be led to lying.”

The mystics called this world alma d’sfeka—“a world of doubtfulness,” and yet we find that so often we are convinced of our rightness. Convinced enough to end friendships or to go to war. The talmud is speaking of deliberate falsehood, but it might just as well be speaking of words we speak of things that we consider certain, which may turn out not to be. This doubtful world is one in which conflicting perspectives—which may be equally true to the respective speakers—make the possibility of discerning “the whole story” of anything very difficult, if not impossible.

The midrash compares Moses to the other prophets, saying, “What is the difference between Moses and all the prophets? Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Rabbi Il’ai and the Rabbis (differed). Rabbi Yehudah said: All the prophets saw through nine lenses, but Moses saw through only one. The rabbis said: All the other prophets saw through a dirty lens, but Moses saw through a clear lens.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:14)

Moses saw the most clearly, but he, the greatest of all prophets, still saw truth through a lens. The clearest sighted among us still was divided from direct knowledge; his vision, too, was limited.

We like to think that religion’s business is to give us answers because it is frightening to have to make decisions without knowing the outcome, and yet we must. It is also disturbing to wonder: Can you have trust if you have doubt? Can you have religion, if you don’t have certainty?

The Talmud, that great argument of the rabbis, in which they strove to discern the will of God, is not really a work of answers—it is a work of questions. Some questions can be answered, but many are left for Elijah the prophet to answer in the future. Some truths cannot be known by us, now.

And so while we have to make decisions—to take risks with not enough information, and to hope that we will know enough, even knowing most of the time we won’t—when we try to persuade others to take a course of action, it might be worthwhile to speak with humility, and ask ourselves, when we feel certain of our rightness, whether it is really the other person whom we are trying to convince.

Posted on March 26, 2014

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We Don’t Really Talk About Purim

Before we crash headlong into the various celebratory, lighthearted posts about Purim, I want to draw your attention to something: the holiday we’re celebrating this weekend, is not actually a particularly happy one.

It is a parody of course, but like many parodies, it is rather dark. Starting with what appears to be the murder of the Queen for the crime of refusing to be displayed like a piece of meat, followed by a forced surrender of all “pretty” girls in the kingdoms from their homes, to the end, where the Jews defended themselves to the tune of the death of over 80,000 people, I find it somewhat difficult to find much that I like about the actual thing that we are supposed to be celebrating (I’m fine with the theme of survival, and of giving money to the poor and gifts of food to friends, though).

It seems to me that even though the rabbis still advocated celebration, there was this hint of darkness for them as well. In the Talmud, Megillah 7b, the following story is related:

Raba said: It is the duty of a man to mellow himself [with wine] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai’. Rabbah and R`Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R`Zera’s throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.

This is the same sort of dark parody related by the megillah itself. Clearly, the punchline is that  Rav Zera won’t come back for another round of “mellowing.” The drunkenness of Rabbah results in violence and death, which itself then leads to a miracle – but Rav Zera would prefer not to engage with that kind of miracle, thanks. The megillah, too, offers a miracle – but the miracle seems to be that we defended ourselves with a bloodbath. Perhaps because it is a parody, it’s okay to have zombie heads shooting off in every direction during the joyous finale, but I can’t help but ask whether we were, even as a parody, supposed to enjoin celebration in an abattoir. Were we, then, incapable of imagining an ending where we survived without harming others?

 

Posted on March 12, 2014

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Number the Days

MPW-6738When we are small, we wait for everything. Every day takes forever until you get to the time when you get to go out and play. Each year, we count the days until our birthday. At the end of the year, we finish one grade, and then we look forward to summer vacation, and then begin a new grade, with fresh notebooks, clean and untouched. Eventually, we get to high school, and graduate, and then, perhaps, college, and even, maybe, graduate school. And then most of us get jobs, perhaps get married and maybe have children. Then one day we wake up and wonder: when do we get a “next thing?”

Most of our lives, we are trained to look for the next thing, the next grade, the next age, the graduation, the “real world.” And then we finally get there, and all of a sudden, it seems that one day is much like the next and one year, too.

The recent passing of Harold Ramis reminded me of the wonderful film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a self-centered news reporter, who is forced to relive the same day, over and over again until he changes.

In the film, one might think that under the sway of some providential guardian, the world is forced to hold still while he is forced to learn a lesson. But in some ways, the world does not stay the same. Even though each morning Phil (the character’s name) is “sent back,” in reality, each day is different due to the choices Phil makes. At first, he takes advantage, then he despairs, and finally, he tries to improve himself and to help others – even though he knows that the next day everything will be undone.

Groundhog Day is a fantasy, but in some ways, not a very far-fetched one. In most ways, unless we are either particularly selfish, or extremely flighty, our lives are a sort of Groundhog Day. We spend each day doing much the same things as we did the day before, and as we will do the day after.

Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” It is a kind of strangeness that  when we count something, each successive number is different, and yet, the act of counting confers a kind of sameness on the thing we are counting. So it is with our lives. We can take a sort of Buddhist approach and deny the counting, focusing on the moment. But Judaism suggests that there is a wisdom in the counting itself, in the not focusing on the moment. Is it because  when we count, we are able to gaze at a larger picture? Does it remind us that someday, eventually, there will be an end to counting – the great graduation, let us say.

Or, is there a certain courage in noticing that even when we think that everything is the same, there are differences, and those small differences come from us, acting, even when it can’t seem to make any difference.

Even if tomorrow, the cat needs to be rescued from the tree once more, perhaps it is a kind of God’s-eye view to be able to know that that is the case, and, once again, to rescue it.

 

Posted on February 26, 2014

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Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

wiltingIn this week’s Torah portion, God explains that God has called not only Betzalel and Oholiav to execute their craft on all the holy items that need to be built, but that “in the heart of all who are wise-hearted, I put wisdom so that they will make all that I have commanded.” (Shemot 31:6)

Many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes humans from animals: some have postulated it is our “higher emotions,” but it turns out animals have those (and people have recognized that for a long time); some have suggested it is our intellect – but if that is so, then it is intellect of degree, not kind, for animals are able to solve problems in all kinds of ways. Some have suggested it is language – but it turns out that many animals are able to use not only vocabulary, but syntax, and some even have names for one another. Some say it is morals – but clearly anyone who has ever had a dog knows that an animal knows when it has done wrong.

What I have never heard of an animal doing is expressing the drive to create – to create beauty through art, or to have a craft and make the utilitarian things we need beautiful.

The Torah calls certain individuals chochmat-halev “wise-hearted.” But all human beings have a certain measure of this drive. We all yearn for beauty, and many yearn to create things of beauty. What makes some individuals “wise-hearted?” Instead of simply enjoying the beauty, or perhaps relegated their yearnings to small gestures, they turn their lives into their craft, dedicating time to learning the skills it takes to create not just the occasional beautiful object – and then they send it out into the world, to be regarded by others, to be judged, and to be used.

And when we do this, when we choose a skill and hone it, turning it towards creation, we are  b’tzelem elohim, acting in God’s image. For what was God’s creation if not a gesture of art? For a human, art is limited. If we are especially skilled, and work hard, and lucky, too, then perhaps our works will live on after us, at least for a time.

For God, creation is both temporary and permanent – in medieval times some in Arab lands there was a Muslim philosophy that the world was created and destroyed and created anew at every moment. And in the God’s-eye sense, that is true: the sunset that we saw tonight will never be seen again, the child grows to adulthood, species come into being and go extinct. And yet, the universe endures. In its beauty, for a time, God has our regard, and when we are wise-hearted, perhaps for a flicker of God’s eye, we have God’s.

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Posted on February 12, 2014

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Why I Won’t Marry Two Non-Jews

For another perspective on this debate, read Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s post here.

Aside from the bigamy laws, I mean. (JK)

Recently, a rabbi was appointed to lead a Unitarian congregation. In a discussion about this appointment, I had mentioned that I could not lead a Unitarian congregation, or any other non-Jewish group, any more than I could officiate at the marriage of two non-Jews. I was surprised by the (small) flurry of questions about why, if there was no intermarriage, I would refrain from officiating at such a wedding.

I have many friends who are not Jews. I have attended – and even participated- and rejoiced at their weddings, as well as occasionally been asked for (and given) counsel, or attended other life events, as a friend. When I celebrate at a non-Jewish friend’s wedding, I am a guest experiencing their tradition (or lack thereof). Even if I offer a private blessing, it is the blessing of a friend, but from outside.

A rabbi, even by the broadest definition, is one who is a rav, a master, of Jewish tradition, whose role is to teach Jewish tradition, and model a Jewish life. I am expected to be a kli kodesh  – a holy vessel, at least to the best of my ability, and to do so means to have a particular way of being in the world.  My permission to teach and to lead comes from being invested in that tradition, it comes from the people of Israel, and from the Torah of Israel. Even though I share some, and often many, values with people in other traditions, we each have different ways of expressing those values, and of understanding them – and they are not interchangeable.

When I officiate at a wedding, I do so as one who has a particular view of what it means to get married, what the marriage means in terms of future Jewish life and aspirations, of particular spiritual valences as part of a whole Jewish life, joined to a Jewish community that is both horizontal – with other currently living Jews, vertical – with Jews who have passed on and have yet to be born, and of course, in a particular relationship with God.

When I officiate at the wedding of two Jews, I am seeing that they are joining themselves to one another according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Since the laws of Moses and Israel do not apply to non-Jews, I am unqualified to officiate.

In the Polish schools of Hassidut, several of the rebbes teach that to reach God, each individual has a personal spiritual task that they must complete. This is true for religions as well as individuals.  There are many values in the world, and  in different traditions, we are called to serve and fulfill a mission. And it is not the same mission. That mission is not for ourselves, but for God and for the world. If we don’t immerse ourselves deeply in our own tradition – and each of these traditions  are deep  in their own way- then we are not really going to be able to understand them, their goals, their values, their expressions. And we will not be able to carry out our purpose.

I can’t marry Christians (or Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims, etc) to one another, because to do so would be to assert that marriage means the same thing in all of our traditions – and it does not, and should not. 

Posted on January 29, 2014

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The Fourth New Year

oliveTu Bishvat, which begins tonight, is the fourth new year of the Jewish calendar. Beginning as  a tax holiday for counting the age of trees in order to know when one could begin to use their fruit, the holiday has come to be a sort of Jewish version of earth day, as well as a celebration of the shivat haminim – the seven famous products of Israel and our connection to the land of Israel.

Although Jews lost many of our agricultural leanings after going into exile, trees are something that anyone can relate to, and many commentators have noted a connection between trees and human beings, and supported this connection with a verse from Deuteronomy.

The original verse is one which is part of Jewish rules of war, asking rhetorically, “When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, you shalt not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged?” (Dvarim 20:19)

Our rabbis took the verse not as a question, though, but as a statement: Humans are a tree of the field.

At this time of year, most trees (at least those in temperate climates) are bare. No one can tell if that tree will bear anything valuable or not – it is only the beginning of the year, and we will have to wait and see – will the sap rise in this tree?  Will it flower? Will most of the branches live? Will the flower fruit, or will the blossoms fall unfertilized? Even if there is fruit, will it ripen, will animals eat it, will they rot on the tree?

There is no way to know yet. Similarly, with humans: we may be wise or foolish, righteous or wicked – until the sap rises, there’s no way to know. It is even true to a certain extent that how we grow is strongly influenced by our surroundings – is there a drought for learning, that leaves us ignorant of our own traditions? Are we forced to drink water which is muddy, or do we grow by a clear stream? Is there enough sun for us, or do we grow in the shade – and very importantly, is there someone to care for us, to make sure we grow straight?

But unlike trees, we also have some say over how we turn out. We may be trees of the field, but ultimately, we can choose to go where there is sun and water, to grow straight or be bent, to produce fruit, or to be a dry stick

.

Posted on January 15, 2014

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