A couple of weeks ago, Michal Kohane caused a few ripples in the blogosphere by getting fired over the column “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement.” Her premise is that the Jewish community has put most of its efforts into engaging 20-and-30-somethings – with trips, and “service opportunities,” grants, fellowships, and essentially begging young Jews to come and be Jewish by offering all kinds of swag and calling them “leaders” (whether or not they are) and basically offering any kind of enticement that can be imagined as attractive to the young. And that this effort is excessive, misguided – and really, not quite Jewish in its exclusion from consideration the talents and wisdom of those over this age demographic:
…one can be “old,” and much freer, able and available, professionally and spiritually, with lots of energy, insight, wisdom and knowledge about life, but guess what. If that’s who you are, the Jewish people don’t need you anymore. Oh, wait, I’m exaggerating. They do need you. You’re welcome to pay dues. And memberships. And support the never-ending campaigns. And we will call on our various phonathons, because young people need to party. And travel. And explore their identity. And you? you’re already 50, maybe even 60. Seriously? You haven’t been to Israel?? and you still date?? But that’s one leg in the World to Come! So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys. And your check book? Thanks. Because that is the only role we left you. You are “40 plus and – therefore – screwed.”
Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much. At a recent meeting about the millennia generation, someone – over 45 – dared ask, what can any of us, “alter kakers” ”do. Alter Kakers by the way is not a nice thing to say, but no one corrected the derogatory term. One “millennia child” answered quickly: “You can listen,” he said. Another joked: “there is really nothing you can do.” The audience nodded with pride.
I don’t disagree. I would also add, although she doesn’t that this particular form of ageism is gendered (take a look around the room of any powerful Jewish organization and see how many of them are older men, as opposed to older women).
But I’d ask some additional questions here – not because she’s wrong, but because I think she actually misses the point. While there is certainly ageism, and gender bias, and an insane focus on getting young Jews to breed by any means possible, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the young people whose narcissism she complains about. These programs aren’t developed by those twenty and thirty somethings, and don’t, for the most part take into account their needs – which is why many of them fail to develop long-term affiliations.
But here’s the real question:
Not just for the “screwed 40somethings,” but also the 20 and 30 somethings. Why are we offering any bribes at all?
Because, ultimately that’s what a great deal of this boils down to. “Please be Jewish, so we don’t die out.”
But Judaism doesn’t need that.
Judaism is not going to die out. And I think perhaps it’s time that we stopped treating Judaism as though it needed to be bolstered by various metaphorical swag bags.
The attitude comes from a view of Judaism which thinks that Judaism is simply a sort of super-ethnicity, with some nice cultural baggage that we want to live on. But Judaism is a rich, powerful relationship with the universe and the divine, and it is a mission. And not everyone is going to accept that mission.
The mission requires some dedication – it means that priorities have to be set because -as Moses said to Reuven and Gad in the Torah portion this week – your cattle? really? You’re going to put your flocks ahead of this great mission that we’re on? They are not the most important thing. God drives our lives, and our goals; God is our mission, and bringing the holy into this world is our mission- you need to get your priorities straight, and sometimes that means setting aside the bigger paycheck, the soccer game, the Saturday shopping trip.
Instead of asking why 40-somethings aren’t being offered tidbits along with 20-somethings, I’d ask, “what are you offering Judaism?” All of us, whatever age we are.
I have to say, I’m also tired of the endless programs, the baby-marriage-hookup-drives for the young, the demographic desperation.
And in perfect honesty, I suspect that few of those 20 and 30 somethings are that impressed by them either.
Judaism is a rich, deep tradition – it is a difficult one, because it is not one that is accessed superficially and easily. It is demanding of time and effort. It is not just about once a week – Judaism is a 24/7 activity, that requires immersion, study, patience, persistence and connection to other Jews.
It can’t be done well in isolation. And frankly, maybe it’s not for everyone.
Which is not to say “My way or the highway.” Our communities have gotten lazy abut very basic things: friendliness (but NOT customer service. Judaism is not a business, and the faster we drop that foolish trope, the better), acceptance, and yes, thinking about what a community is.
Both edgy indie minyans and shuls have forgotten that communities are not about finding your age or personality niche and working it. If you have an age range of only twenty years, you have failed, because a community must be composed of children, teens, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings, Also eighty-somethings. People who are sweet, people who are annoying as heck; people with money, and those who are middle class (the few of those left) and people who are poor. People with green hair or adopted children, or no children, or single people, or gay and lesbian couples or people who like to camp in the great outdoors and those who think that Holiday inn is roughing it.
That is a community.
There are definitely things that we could all do better, no question. Lots of things could be done better.
The fact that some people will start at a more basic level of learning is fine, but we shouldn’t be offering only basic learning. Study can be done at all kinds of levels for all kinds of different abilities – but it should be challenging and difficult and rich for anyone at whatever level – and all of us should take ourselves to the table -Every Single Person should make a commitment to study and Jewish living, and spending time with people who are not like you.
And no one should be satisfied with the same basics over and over again – or, more realistically, unsatisfied with them. Because I think that’s really what’s missing. The superficial is terribly unsatisfying. Have we gone too far in some ways, emphasizing flashy programs over deep study and demographic concerns over genuine commitment to an important mission from God?
And that’s why Kohane is right, and wrong: it isn’t that people over forty have been excluded – it’s that all of us have been. And it’s long past time to do something about it. But there’s no “someone else” to do it. It’s us. So get up, and open a book, and go to shul, and do something Jewish with someone else. If you don’t have the skills to do it yourself, well, that’s what shul is for – to create a community where we can all lean on each other.
I recently read an essay published earlier this year on xoJane that a woman wrote as a paean to her (still living) mother. The essay outlined how her mother saved women from abusive partners, helping with money, or helping them, literally, escape.
The crux of the story, though, isn’t just her mother’s heroism, but how her mother came to it. To the daughter, it was the following anecdote that was at the center:
You know, it’s funny — Cindy was the one who tried to sponsor me for that women’s sorority. I didn’t have many friends here, being from away, and I’d helped her with all these fundraising projects. I thought it would be so much fun to have women friends. And she put my name in at her sorority, but of course I’d been married before and divorced, and that was a black mark against me. Those women turned their noses up and said they didn’t want a woman like me. Cindy cried when she told me, she even resigned over it. Over me.” “So, after that I sort of kept my head down, you know? That had killed what little self-esteem I had; I didn’t have much to begin with. That’s when I decided I couldn’t win. Been born on the wrong side of the tracks and that was just that. Of course, looking back on it today, I wouldn’t have fit in with any of those women anyway. That’s when I quit trying to be social. And not long after that, I guess, women just started coming to me.”
According, at least, to this telling it is the mother’s otherness, her inability to fit into the mold of the good housewife type of the time, which freed her to do the things that other women simply wouldn’t do – like take in women being abused by their husbands to protect them.
The story reminded me a little of my own mother. I had no idea, growing up, that it was at all unusual for a family to have people who weren’t related to you living at your house, just because they needed a place to stay. When a high school friend of mine’s family decided to move back to Texas in the middle of the year and he didn’t want to go, it was our house where he lived until he graduated. When a friend of my sister’s was kicked out of her own house, she lived with my family. I don’t remember thinking anything of it, off at college. That was just what my mother did, along with making jewelry, and hopping on board with the latest appalling health food fad (please, just don’t mention wheat germ or lecithin oil).
The writer of the essay explained that, “As her daughter, it took me nearly 20 years not to pity my mother’s ‘otherness.’ She stopped pitying it herself a long time ago.”
It is a natural human tendency to try to “fit in,” and failing at it, or deliberately turning away from what is “normal,” can make one an object of pity, or disgust. Perhaps it’s for that reason that there are so few Jews. Judaism does not only set us apart, it demands our separateness, in our speech, our habits, and in our families. To sanctify is to separate. And it is hard.
But it is also a blessing. To be separate can allow us to see and to do what others are unable to see and do. One who is other can be dangerous, beyond the boundaries of “normal” behavior. On that path can be sociopathy, but it can also be heroism.
Being “outside” is painful. Humans thrive as part of a group, and we need one another. We crave acceptance. But the story from xoJane reminds us that being separate, other, outside - sometimes makes us the ones closest of all to others. When we make that choice to accept and use it.
Recently there has been a rash of articles declaring how stupid American parents have overcoddled their children in all sorts of way, resulting in college students who call to ask their parents for advice daily, college graduates who move back into the parental home – sometimes for years, parents who call their offsprings’ college professors to demand that they should receive higher grades.
The resounding opinion seems to have become that parents are investing too heavily in their children, protecting them from too much, and refusing to let them grow up. Is this true? Are we producing a nation of wimps?
Except for the last of these, which strikes me as Snopes-bait (the over-the-topness combined with the lack of specificity smells strongly of urban legend), I’m going to offer a suggestion: it’s a crock.
It’s not that there aren’t individuals who hop on to ridiculous trends, or that children have less freedom to play on their own and roam around relatively unsupervised, or even a tendency to emphasize “specialness” over achievement. By and large, human beings are resilient enough, even as children, that this makes not that great an impact. What I doubt is the underlying thinking of the idea that caring deeply abut one’s children is divorced from the circumstances in which we live – in which success is more and more difficult to come by, and as we have fewer children, the success of each one counts more, as there are fewer of us to help one another.
But the true underlying thought is a peculiarly American idea – that respect and love for one’s parents is a flaw; that true adult hood means cutting oneself off from one’s family; that advice from one’s elders is a bad thing; that individuals should stand alone. These ideas have become dominant in American society – but they are lies.
Many cultures expect children to live with their families, to ask their parents for advice, to remain in a network of relationships in which to protect one’s circle is of paramount value – including Judaism. Rather than criticize the cell phones for “making” adult children depend upon their parents, we should be examining the society in which we live, where it has become a necessity for us to rebuild natural familial ties with one another. Many people speak of the contract of our society being broken: our businesses take no care for their employees, preferring to work them hard without sufficient compensation, our government and communities fail in caring for the power and powerless; laws favor the wealthy. But if anything, the dependance of children on their parents is a sign of healing, not of harm. Perhaps it is from here that we will once again begin to build communities and a society in which instead of valorizing the self over all others, we will once again begin to value our relationships with others.
A 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.
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.
There has been what feels like a rash – an epidemic even- certainly a disease, of recent news about women whose treatment has been so horrific it defies imagination. Not only just has it been this year, but really only over the past month, that these stories have come out.
In some ways, these cases seem to have little in common. The rescue of three women kidnapped a decade ago, held captive and repeatedly raped by three lunatics, who were, we like to think, not like “us.” Three teenage girls who were raped and publicly humiliated for the serious crime of going to parties where they thought wrongly that they could trust their friends, or who were simply acting like teenagers, or for no reason at all. Three girls who were violated, two of whom were so humiliated by the public support of their violators that they committed suicide. Those boys must have been psychopaths, the girls who tormented them mean girls, spoiled. Or maybe we should mourn for the future of these boys, ruined by a single act. Hard to know, opinion seems to be split.
But these are aberrations, are they not? Committed by bad people, people not like us. Continue reading
A couple of years ago, after several years of trying to get all the way through the counting of the Omer, I built an Omer-counter with a foolproof reminder system – my son. It’s based on the Christian advent calendar in that it’s a series of forty-nine boxes (seven rows of seven) which has randomly placed toys inside the boxes. NO more forgetting to count in the evening! Every night, I have an excellent reminder, and so I do not lose my chance to say the blessing when I count, or worse yet, forget altogether and have to quit counting for the year.
It’s a yearly frustration for lots of people who try to keep up with the Omer – it’s easy to screw it up and lose track, and according to the tradition, if you mess up, well, hey tough. You’re out of luck.
That’s why it’s odd that about a month into the Omer (today, in fact) there’s a little known holiday that’s about …second chances. Pesach sheni ( or “second passover”) is a biblically based holiday that happens because, as is related in Numbers chapter 9, when God commands the Israelites, a year after the exodus, to bring the passover offering, there were certain people who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and so, could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.
They approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7). After these people approached Moses and Aaron, God tells them that from then on, if anyone is ritually impure on passover, or is unable to keep passover for some other reason beyond their control, “he shall keep the passover unto God in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:11)
Pesach sheni is a strange holiday. We don’t really observe it – mostly because there isn’t really anything to observe – there’s no requirements, since we no longer bring sacrifices. And yet, it’s sort of a shame. Here we are, in the midst of a period where every day counts, where there are no second chances, where you have to get it exactly right, or you lose your chance (at least until next year), and there’s this holiday that interrupts it for the purpose of giving a second chance for a holiday that occurred a month prior – and not only that, but it’s the only holiday we have the sole purpose of which is to make up for a holiday that someone missed out on.
What is that all about?
Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn is cited by his son-in-law as saying that, “Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘Nothing is ever lost: it’s never too late!” and then the latter Schneersohn goes on to say, “Our conduct can always be rectified. Even someone who is impure, who was far away and even desired to be so, can still correct himself.” He continues, “Given the significance of Pesach Sheni, one might ask: Why was it instituted a full month after Pesach, in the month of Iyar? Wouldn’t it have been better to atone for our deficiencies at the earliest opportunity, in Nissan?”
“We can answer this question by comparing the spiritual characteristics of Nissan and Iyar. Nissan is the month of revelation, the month during which God revealed His greatness and redeemed the Jewish people despite their inadequacies. Iyar, by contrast, is the month of individual endeavor, a quality that is exemplified by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. The theme of Iyar, self-refinement initiated by the individual himself, is in keeping with the nature of Pesach Sheni, the festival in which an individual who was not motivated by Pesach is given an additional opportunity to elevate himself.”
So, two things:
First, the key to pesach sheni is precisely that it does occur a month later, during the Omer. Unlike the first Pesach, which is a national holiday, Pesach sheni is an individual’s holiday. The second thing is the way in which Pesach sheni came about – unlike well, pretty much everything else in the Torah, it isn’t initiated by God, given to Moses and Aaron and then passed on to the people. Instead, Pesach sheni is initiated by the people themselves, by a group of individuals. In fact, I know of really only one other case like this one: the daughters of Tzelophechad (which also appears in the book of Numbers, farther along, in Numbers 27), who challenged a law of inheritance whereby only sons could inherit, even if there weren’t any. They brought their challenge and God told Moses that they were right and amended the law.
I think that that parallel to the daughters of Tzelophechad is the key to why this is the only holiday that is a “make-up” for another holiday. It’s not just that it’s a group of individuals who want a make-up. It’s that these individuals saw a specific wrong that they wanted addressed, and they wanted it addressed for the sake of justice to individuals who have no control over being excluded from the nation. In the case of Tzelophechad’s daughters, the case is their sex; in the case of pesach sheni, it’s because they were doing another mitzvah ( caring for the dead). But the important thing is that these two cases are things which exclude them from the body of the nation in some crucial way. It is because of this that they take their complaint to God, and God answers them, “Of course, you are right.”
IN recent days, when we have seen so much change so quickly both in the Jewish community and out of it in regards to gay marriage and inclusion, this is a message that we should all take to heart. Pesach sheni isn’t merely a second chance for the individuals who were excluded, but is a second chance for the nation to include in its inheritance and in its moment of revelation everyone who throws their lot in with the Jewish people. Because even God can make a mistake, and even God can admit it and rectify it.
Passover has always been my favorite holiday. I love the foods, seeing my family and my friends who are normally far away, and I love the incredible power of the holiday itself - a message that speaks to people of many faiths, throughout the world, inspiring them with an idea that after thousands of years, remains a powerful and inspirational idea: liberation is possible.
And yet this year, I have to admit: I’m tired. I don’t just mean that the cooking and cleaning balanced with a daily job and family life have worn me out, although there’s some of that. It’s that all my life I have been farbrent (on fire, in yiddish, as my father always says) for the very things that I believe Pesach represents: speaking truth to power, that the status quo is neither natural nor inevitable, that God and community working together can change the course of history and dig a new course for the imagination, leading to new ways of doing, and to new ways of thinking, that freedom is not simply an absence of fetters, but a responsibility and an obligation towards the Good.
But last year, although I still put an orange on my seder plate, I called a moratorium on other items: no tomatoes, no olive oil, no olives, no coffee beans or chocolate. This year: no seder inserts. Any extras came exclusively from the talmud or from a more-or-less traditional commentary (we happen to like the meandering stories of the Ben Ish Chai). I felt just completely worn out by the vast number of projects, problems, issues, wars, oppressions to which I’ve devoted time and energy – and which somehow this year, feel as though they’re never going to go away. And no amount of scrubbing has rid me of that chametz – the chametz of – is it despair? Perhaps not so grand as that: let’s just call it – a fading of energy.
And so yesterday, after we returned to chol hamoed – the intermediate days of the holiday, when we’re permitted to use electronics and the like, thus drawing me back to the sucking hole of the internet – one might think that Facebook would only make it worse. And it kind of did, until I saw a post of the marriage equality image with matzah as the symbol. Well, to be truthful, the first time I saw it, I thought it clever, and then ignored it a dozen or fifty times. Until I saw a response to a snarky post pointing out that the SCOTUS was unlikely to take the many facebook posts into consideration in their decision on marriage equality.
The poster said that he was annoyed by the snark. Of course he knew that one’s Facebook icon wouldn’t change a Supreme Court ruling. But simply seeing all those avatars changed into equality symbols of a dozen different kinds, seeing people whom he had never expected to be supporting marriage equality, seeing the sheer numbers of people – reminded him that he was not alone. That that was the value of those images. And more importantly that even though it’s true that SCOTUS doesn’t vote based on facebook images, society changes when the individuals that make it up change, and that that happens one person at a time, but also in waves, as each one sees another, and realizes that the status quo isn’t right, and that even if I myself, can’t change it all, I can be one drop in the sea, and eventually every tear that falls can make an ocean, when they are counted together.
I know that. I do. And, so, okay, I’m still tired. But the message of Pesach isn’t that I’m supposed to be farbrent about everything. It is that I have my part to play in creating that ocean. I don’t have to be even an entire wave – I can have faith that there are others out there, working hard on these problems along with me, and that together, with God’s help, they will be overcome. Maybe not today, or even this week. Maybe it will be 430 years, although I hope it will be someday, soon, speedily in our day.
Earlier this week, Rabbi Shira Stutman wrote a short essay in Slate about her realization that when she was in middle school, she had been a “mean girl.” After seeing it posted several times in my Facebook feed, I went and read it. I don’t know Rabbi Stutman personally (although we move in the same circles, and people I know and respect like and respect her, and I’m pretty sure we’ve met once or twice), and frankly, my initial reaction to the post was …subdued, compared to – well, certainly compared to a great many of the comments posted.
It was the level of vituperation in the comments that led me to spend some time thinking about whether I had missed something. Certainly, her point that we all struggle to be our best selves and don’t always succeed is not novel. Her opportunity to reflect on whether or not there are still parts of her which bully others, is reasonably laudable. So, what was it that so incensed so many of her readers?
Then this paragraph caught my eye:
The Lavender Ladies, by the way, remain my lifelong friends. They are the ones who I would trust with anyone or anything, the ones who danced at my wedding, who flew cross-country when my father died, who hold my deepest secrets. They now are mothers of daughters, too, deeply involved in the work of justice and of building community. They are Good People. We want our bullies to be Bad People, but, like Whitman says, we contain multitudes.
Certainly all the Lavender Ladies were children, and they grew up. But it is enough to say that they are good people because she trusts them, because she has remained friends with them, because they are deeply involved in work she respects?
They were children who -together- were on the cusp of adulthood, and they acted as a group. She asks herself about whether she is still, somewhere within, a mean girl (an appellation I hate, by the way, for its genderedness – my experience is that boys engage in just the same kind of behavior)? But what now bothers me is that there was no examination of the group dynamic – are they good people, if they act well towards one another? Is that enough? I would say no, it’s not. We know that people act differently in groups, that we are susceptible the actions and attitudes of those around us. The rabbis recognized this – it is why we have Jewish law – halacha is intended to build a community where the group dynamic is influenced from the start. That’s why there is such picayune attentiveness to the minutia of daily life as well as broad sweeping principles in halacha. It’s not sufficient of course, but it may well be necessary.
We know from studies that people are inclined to act well towards people who are in their group. We know that groups can be easily led to be not just competitive, but downright ugly towards those “outside.” We also know how those “in” and “out” groups get formed – often by picking an out group and defining ourselves in relation to it. Groups made this way form easily, and are difficult to break down.
It’s actually pretty likely that all the Lavender Ladies did grow up to be decent people. In fact, they were probably all decent people even in middle school – except when they were together, and happened to come upon the wrong person.
What I would like to see is us questioning ourselves not about whether any of them – by which I mean “us” – are good or bad people, but whether we are good or bad groups. Americans have very little sense of ourselves as being defined by group identities – especially those of us who are or can pass as white. And yet in many ways it is our groups which define us most deeply. There is even a social theory that posits that our personalities are actually only a collection of social ties. It is how we act in our social networks that most shows who we are – and perhaps is most truly who we are. It is easy to be a lion when you’re the only cat in the room.
As adults, we engage in this same kind of behavior more subtly – and more powerfully. How does this kind of group think inform the way we talk about what’s going on in Israel? Between different aspects of the Jewish community? The way we talk about poverty? As children, we can hurt one another badly enough, but as adults, the very same dynamic can play into politics on even a global scale. Rabbi Stutman opened a very important conversation, but if we leave it at one individual examining her actions as an individual, it is simply not enough. Because even if we are not each guilty, we are certainly all, together, responsible.
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.
I’ve never, I have to admit, been a big fan of mikvah. Nearly every month for many years now, I trudge down to our local mikvah for a ritual immersion at the end of my menstrual cycle, not because I find it “spiritually fulfilling” – I don’t. I immerse because I am obligated to, and so I do. In perfect frankness, I find it to be a big pain in the neck and a complete inconvenience. I know that there has recently been a big vogue for turning mikvah into some kind of healing center or spa-like experience, and I’m glad for people who immerse themselves in the waters and find that it is uplifting or spiritual, but I am afraid that I am basically a mitnaged (on one foot, that’s the opposite of a chasid, favoring study over feeling) by temperament, and am suspicious of spirituality not deeply embedded in either discipline or study. Yes, that’s right, I am a cranky grump.
Which is why it didn’t particularly bother me that even though I needed to go to the mikvah today, I was in a pretty foul mood. I was very angry for most of the day – and not without cause. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that while I occasionally get annoyed, I rarely get really angry – it takes a lot. But even the most cantankerous of mitnagdim know that you can’t immerse yourself and say a blessing with thoughts of strangulation (not literally, don’t worry) running through one’s mind, and so by the time i got done with my pre-mikvah shower, and was halfway down the steps into the mikvah, I was trying to figure out how to get rid of the thoughts in my head – at least long enough to complete what I was doing.
It was not easy. Usually, immersion is pretty quick for me – I dip myself, say the blessing, try to focus for a few minutes on my prayers for my family – when my kid grows up, if I’m not around, someone can tell him: I pray for him to be worthy of torah, chuppah and maasim tovim: Jewish study, Jewish marriage and good deeds. I add to that health, that he should be smart enough to do good and wise enough to do well, attractive enough to find a partner, and loving enough to be worthy of him or her, a job to sustain him and his family, that also does some good for the world – and I pray that I’ll be around to see it and his children grow up to those things- I can get through that in half an hour, even with a shower after.
But today was possibly the longest time I ever spent in the mikvah, because I couldn’t get to the part where I could even think about the immersion and the blessing. All I had to offer was rage. (In retrospect, I rather wonder what it was like to be around me the rest of the day. I hope I didn’t run anyone over). I’m glad no one else was scheduled for the mikvah late this afternoon, because it took me an hour and a half to immerse.
I’m not claiming that mikvah fixed me. Nor am I claiming that I’m not angry any more. And least of all am I claiming that I had a profound spiritual experience that left me changed forever. At least not if by spiritual you mean something divorced from religion, or from discipline. But the effort of finding a way to get that out of my head while I had to do this other thing which was obligatory, was a “spiritual” moment, in the sense that it forced me to think of something other than the rage that I was experiencing.
I had to clear my head to be there, then, and not think about what I was going to do later, somewhere else. And perhaps if nothing else, that does help explain the value of the obligatory. Because even if I am still angry, several hours later, having cleared my head for long enough to think of those other things and to finish by closing my eyes and saying to God, “Let Thy will be my will,” I have at least cleared up enough space in my head for a few minutes to ask whether I can’t just get through the rest of the day before deciding to do something irrevocable, but also to consider whether not doing the irrevocable thing is a sort of cowardice. Maybe I don’t have to decide right now; maybe I can just tread water a little longer.