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.

Baruch Dayan Emet

aravotHoshana Rabbah is kind of a weird day – even for the Jewish calendar. It’s not really a holiday – it’s the last day of Sukkot- but it has some peculiar rituals associated with it that we don’t do for the rest of Sukkot. We have an all-night tikkun (study-session), like Shavuot.  It’s named for the fact that we say more hoshanot than on all the other days of Sukkot. Its main, distinctive feature is the beating of the aravot – the willows that are stuck into the arba minim — that leafy thing-lemon wanna-be combo- that we hold and shake throughout  the week -but we don’t say a brachah (blessing) on doing so.

There have been lots of proposed explanations of why we beat the aravot – some of which are quite lovely, and I hope that people will look them up and get a great deal of meaning from them. One of the most likely explanations, though, is rather prosaic: My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, writes elsewhere on MJL, that the mishnah explains that the destruction of the aravot is actually because, since the festival is ending, we render the aravot unfit to use, as a signal of the end of the holiday. He notes that the beating takes place after the willows are no longer needed, and in fact are destroyed immediately following their last use; that we do so without any blessing; and that the mishnah, following the discussion of the ritual destruction of the willows, then tells about children loosening the lulavs and eating the etrogs – in other words, rending them unfit as well. He then notes, “The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes]  from a tallit [prayer shawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit].”

What I found interesting here is the analogy to the clipping of the corner of the tallit, which is also done when someone dies, in order that they can be buried in a tallit, because one doesn’t bury the tzitzit (fringes) if they are still ritually fit to use. What many people don’t know is that hoshana rabbah is the actual ending of the cycle of repentance, of the Yamim Noraim.

The mystical text, the Zohar, says that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, which we noted above, is the end of Sukkot). So until Hoshana Rabbah, it is still possible to change your behavior, seek forgiveness through teshuvah, and have the decree set for each of us changed (That’s why the special greeting for Hoshana Rabbah is different than the rest of the holidays: pitka tova ”A good note,” which is a wish that your final decree for the year will be a good one).

Since Sukkot is when the world is judged for water and the blessings of agriculture, together with this notion of a final moment of verdict makes Hoshana Rabbah a bit like Yom Kippur, a day on which we wear white, cease to eat and drink and engage in physical, human activities, mimicking death. So, perhaps, when we beat the aravah – but only to the extent of rendering them unfit for ritual use (after all, we have ritual items for many holidays that we don’t destroy at the end of the holiday), perhaps this, in a small way, mimics our burial, and offers to God the final means by which we are able to be forgiven for our sins: through our deaths. And of course, willow leaves look like teardrops.

And now, when we celebrate Shemini Atzeret – our joyful, intimate, gathering with God, and we return the Torah back to its beginning, before anything has happened or gone awry, we too, are able to be completely new, in love and wholeness with God.

Posted on September 25, 2013

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In praise of the boring

keas1_page_013I admit that I’ve never been particularly hip.

Even as a teenager, at best I was probably pretty geeky, and what’s more, not appreciably bothered by it. I liked the Beatles, had hair down to my tush, wore nothing but jeans and t-shirts other than when I was hanging around at the Renaissance festival, and spent most of my free time reading. Even my mother, decidedly not a fashionista, would wonder aloud about which era I had been born into—apparently the one before hers.

When my son was a toddler, I read to him all the time. I often read classics—but a lot of the gender and race descriptions in some of those could be a bit squicky, so I would change them on the fly. This proved to be more difficult than one might think: toddlers—at least mine—have excellent memories, and like to be read the same stories over and over, which meant I also had to remember exactly *how* I read the story the last time. Because it had to be exactly the same.

These days, being unhip in the Jewish professional world is a terrible disadvantage. Grants go to the young and groovy -which I never was, even as a teenager—programs have to be innovative, and tefilah prayer services have to leave one panting with joy and overflowing with meaning.

I admit, I like a good indie minyan myself. And I have nothing against meaning, or innovation. But I do begin to wonder whether we really need those things—at least as much as we seem to think we do. Or even if we are sure about what they are and where they come from.

Our community has gone from one where elders are revered to one where they are ignored; where meaning seems to be derived from “finding something new to do,” and where innovation replaces commitment. It’s not that I don’t like new tunes, and I always find something new when I study a text (which I admit I prefer to davenning), but it seems to me that we have become hampered by our search for something to stimulate us. We want happiness, but what we seem to reach for instead is distraction.

I wonder what would happen if, instead of looking for new things, the Jewish community started cherishing some of our old things – starting with our elderly. I’d love to see a liberal shul teach their community to rise before their rav (or rabbah) and their aged (just FYI, I don’t work in a synagogue, so this isn’t some personal grandiosity).

What if, instead of “programs,” the shul simply instituted regular study at different intervals (for people who had different schedule-juggling needs) – no more movie-night slichot, but instead an evening of study followed by simple tefilah, maybe with explanations for those who are beginners? What if we asked our communities to make a commitment to some kind of regular out-of-shul meet-ups with other congregants, and to commit to attending weekday services a certain number of times a year? It would probably be different for different communities, but what I’m aiming at is less innovation, less programming, and stripping things down not to basics, but to core.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the warmest, most active shuls I’ve been involved
with are ones that aren’t so interested in inviting the hippest groovy innovator—they’re the ones that keep on rolling in their homely little buildings with active lay people who simply do human things week after week – phone calls and davenning, and bikkur cholim,and dinner together on Shabbat. Ones where there is a commitment to consistency.

It isn’t only toddlers who need repetition to learn and to feel comfortable, and it isn’t only geeky teens who are uninterested in doing something new, just because. I wonder how much of the “search for innovation” is counterproductive, and I wonder if we spent less time on flashy gewgaws, would we actually attract more people—people looking for an alternative to, or at least a supplement to, the highly innovative, always stimulating, constant change of the secular world.

Posted on September 11, 2013

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Hillel and Shammai

Two weeks ago I posted a piece responding to some articles on patrilineality which provoked several excellent other blog posts and a lot of conversations. I deeply appreciate both the supportive and the critical responses, as a result of which I continue to examine and reexamine my approach to the matter.

Although after having done so, I remain convinced that the Conservative approach remains correct, halachicly speaking, I thought it might be interesting to present a sugiyah from the talmud in which the schools of Hillel and Shammai discuss a breach between them which could have led to their division from one another in a profound way, yet did not.

In the talmud Yevamot 14a (I’m using the Soncino translation) we read the response to a dispute involving who is permitted to marry whom. I’ve added comments in brackets to try to make it more understandable.

The talmud says,

Come and hear: THOUGH THESE FORBADE WHAT THE OTHERS PERMITTED … BEIT [The school of] SHAMMAI, NEVERTHELESS, DID NOT REFRAIN FROM MARRYING WOMEN FROM THE FAMILIES OF BEIT HILLEL, NOR DID BEIT HILLEL [REFRAIN FROM MARRYING WOMEN] FROM THE FAMILIES OF BEIT SHAMMAI. Now, if it be said that [Beit Hillel]  did not act [in accordance with their own view] one can well understand why THEY DID NOT REFRAIN [from intermarrying with one another] [Because this would mean that they both acted according to the same principles, but one school did so while acting contrary to the principles that they held].  If, however, it be said that [Beit Shamai]  did act [in accordance with their own view], why did they not refrain? That Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from the families of Beth Hillel may well be justified because [the individuals in question] are the children of persons guilty only of the infringement of a [relatively minor prohibition, for which the punishment is also minor] but why did not Beit Hillel refrain from [marrying women from the families of] Beth Shammai [Because descendants from these marriages between rivals, which are permitted by Beit Shammai, are regarded by Beit Hillel as forbidden and involve a major penalty]? Such people,  surely, being children of persons who are guilty of an offense involving karet, are illegitimate [this causes a major problem - how can one marry into the family of someone if their status might be someone you are prohibited to marry, and which carries a major penalty for doing so if it turns out to be the case]!  And if it be suggested that Beit Hillel are of the opinion that the descendant of those who are guilty of an offence involving karet is not a [illegitimate],  surely, [it may be retorted], Rabbi Eleazar said: Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the questions of rivals, they concede that an illegitimate is only he who is descended from a marriage which is forbidden as incest and punishable with karet! Does not this then conclusively prove that [Beit Shammai]  did not act [in accordance with their own view]? — No; they  acted, indeed, [in accordance with their own view], but they informed  [Beit Hillel]  [of the existence of any such cases] and [Beit Hillel]  kept away.

So, we see that situations like these are not novel – we have always had a diversity of halachic opinions on matters that in their time were no doubt just as painful to those involved.  Yet, in the end, the two schools continued to marry one another – their solution, according to the talmud, being that they made clear, out of respect for one another,  who fell into or outside of their boundaries – but they remained one community, despite their differences.

 

On Yevamot 14b, the talmud concludes:

Come and hear: Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the
questions of rivals, sisters, an old bill of divorce, a doubtfully married woman, a woman whom her husband had divorced and who stayed with him over the night in an inn, money, valuables, a perutah and the value of a perutah, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai.
This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace.”

Discuss.

Posted on August 28, 2013

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The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent

Tallit-man

Two articles posted earlier this week made reference to an individual  who had been born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, but had had an upbringing that compelled her to choose a Jewish path, ending in her ordination as a  Reform rabbi but - the articles implied (or stated outright in one case)—she did not convert to Judaism. As it turns out, both articles* were incorrect on this point, but what was interesting to me was the question that the articles raised with regard to the possibility of such a thing happening, and the responses to that.

Most people have reacted to this article in one of two ways: a sort of galloping schadenfreude — “haha! told you those Reformim were up to no good, they’re not really Jews at all!” (not to mention the general inability to distinguish between Reform Judaism and other kinds of non-Orthodox Judaism. I’m not sure they even know what Reconstructionists are) and on the other end of the spectrum an open rage that traditionalists don’t accept the children of a non-Jewish mother as Jewish, often coupled with the idea that this means those traditionalists are racist.

As a Conservative Jew, the movement to which I belong explicitly does not accept the Reform position of patrilineality. As a Conservative rabbi, I have bumped up against the enormously painful problems generated by the American Reform movement’s promotion of patrilineal descent, over and over again (American because outside the USA, patrilineality is not generally accepted, even in the Reform movements).

I understand how enormously painful this is to many people:  I understand that for many people, what I’m going to write will make them angry, and I accept that and offer my apologies in advance.

First of all, those who denounce the Orthodox and Yori Yanover (the author of the article in TheJewishPress.com) as racist, because they are opposed to patrilineal descent are wrong. I presume that some Orthodox, like some of every group, are racist, but it is not racist to maintain that before a person can be called a Jew, they should convert to Judaism, unless their mother is Jewish (which of course includes women who have converted to Judaism). Yanover, himself, says— and I believe him—

“In the shuls I attended on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, spotting an African or a Hispanic face was always such a source of pleasure. As a tiny nation and an even tinier religious group, we prize every gentile who embraces our faith and goes through the sometimes grueling process of becoming one of us.”

Putting aside the extremely problematic assumption that if they’re Hispanic or African, they’re obviously a convert, this isn’t rejection of someone from Judaism because of race.

As it happens, converting isn’t all that difficult, halakhicly (according to Jewish law) speaking. We can debate whether it’s a problem that different Orthodox sects won’t accept perfectly valid conversions from other sects or from Conservative rabbis, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically a simple thing to do. But it is necessary.

If one wishes to become a doctor, it’s not enough to be the most fabulously gifted natural talent as a healer on earth. It’s not even enough to have done lots of home study. And it’s certainly not enough to be a doctor in your heart, or have a wonderful bedside manner, or to really love medicine, or to have someone call you “doctor.” In this country, you have to go to medical school, pass exams, do a residency and join a professional guild. Until then, you may be many things, you may even be a tremendous healer, but you are not a doctor. In other countries, the rules may be different. They may just be hoops, but you still have to jump through them.

Anyone who works as a non-Reform rabbi in the Jewish community runs up against the patrilineal descent problem all the time. And it is staggeringly painful for someone to hear that despite being dedicated to their faith and practice, it’s not enough. But it’s also something which is easy to fix – unlike, say, sexual orientation, which is a comparison I often hear (if “the Conservatives” can reinterpret how we deal with gay men, why can’t we change them for the children of Jewish fathers).

The answer is partly that Jewish law is fiercely stringent with regard to what we sometimes call “status issues:” Marriage, divorce, conversion. These are flashpoints for halakha, and they are flashpoints for successful continued existence as a people and a religion. They are also, unfortunately, matters which are deeply in the heart and desperately important.

But additionally, the Reform movement—however well meaning when it decided that either parent transmitted Judaism equally-—was not working from a halakhic framework.

I deeply admire and respect many Reform colleagues. I, myself, grew up Reform, and my parents belong to a Reform shul. Which is why I find this rift so enormously difficult. In my own family, I have had to reconvert family members who underwent Reform conversions because there was no mikvah (immersion in the ritual pool) involved in the conversion in order to be involved as a rabbi in their weddings. I have had to turn down the request of old family friends to be involved in their weddings because the future husband had been married before and refused to get a get – a Jewish writ of divorce. And I have had to tell people, people I love and care about, that if they cannot stomach the idea of completing the minimal requirements of a conversion, I cannot be involved in their wedding.

I find it extremely difficult to ask people whenever I am involved in a lifecycle event where status matters, “did you convert; did your mother convert; who did the conversion; what was the process…” and all the other questions that I have to ask. I hate having to tell some of those people that there is still a hoop they have to jump through if they want me to be involved.  I try to make it as painless as possible, but I understand exactly how painful it is when someone tells me their mother isn’t Jewish, but they have always thought that they were Jewish, and I understand that it feels insulting to them to ask them to convert. I am horrified that I now also have to track down who is the rabbi of a convert to find out if their rabbi was Jewish.

I never went by the theory that since some Reform rabbis don’t fulfill the requirements for conversion, one should consider Reform converts all to be invalid. I do not accept Yanover’s conclusion that  “we should remain steadfast in not calling any of these people and the nice things they do ‘Jewish’ in any way at all.” I always asked about the process and just went around filling in the missing pieces—if necessary. And if nothing was missing, then it was fine. I consider Reform Judaism to be Judaism, and Reform rabbi to be rabbis. But I am at a loss as to what to do when presented with the identity issues that are now extremely prevalent.

I have no idea what the answer to this problem is. But I will say, that when I do a conversion, as a Conservative, female rabbi, I always tell my students that if I do the conversion there will be problems with their status in other movements, and in Israel. And I always offer to make other arrangements for them—and explain what all the various problems that could arise are, and different ways that they could deal with some or all of them.

To me, it would be utterly dishonest and completely unethical for a person whom I taught to go out into the world not knowing that some people would not consider them Jewish, and that for various different reasons, circumstances could require them to convert again, and that it is not a judgement on them, and that they shouldn’t consider it an insult to me or to them if it should be necessary.

It is as essential a part of the conversion process, for me, to teach that, as it is to teach them the differences between the movements, to explain why I consider the movement to which I belong -in its theory, and its expectations, at least, even if not everyone fulfills those expectations- to be halakhic, to explain why even though lots of Jews who are born Jewish don’t observe halakha, I won’t finish the conversion process unless I see the student has a commitment to kashrut, shabbat, and other ritual observances as well as to joining a Jewish community and synagogue,a sense of peoplehood, and a Jewish idea of God.

And ultimately, I have to at least partially echo Yanover, in that I find it problematic to discount the halakha and the halakhic process as divine (I’m willing to debate in what ways). I find all of this terribly difficult, personally—I truly have no idea how to bridge the gap between a commitment to the view of Judaism as a divine mission with obligations, and not insulting people whom I care about very much. In fact, I’d love to hear from people who have found ways to do that very thing.

*Author’s correction: An earlier version of this article was posted by beginning with a link to articles about a Reform rabbi about whom incorrect information was cited. After two people whom I respect pointed out that  even having her name linked with this discussion was a form of lashon hara, I decided to remove that part of the article – and truthfully, she isn’t really relevant to the discussion, but was only a jumping off point.

I’m going to remove her name altogether, as well as the links to the articles with the incorrect information. I apologize to her for the original linkage.

Posted on August 14, 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

What I can’t stop thinking about this week.

70ad-titus-archThis week, we have heard endless blatheration on what Trayvon Martin should have done, whether Zimmerman was legally culpable, whether he was morally culpable. I’ve been told by people who know the law that the case couldn’t have turned out any other way.

I can’t stop thinking about this case – as is true of so many of us. Not because I’m shocked by the outcome. Quite the contrary. But because I’m shocked by the reactions of people I know to the outcome. Not everyone, of course. but the litany of excuses from people whom I otherwise like or respect, I just find it amazing to hear them.

I’ve read up on the law, on the case. I’ve seen a recent study about Stand Your Ground laws and how they increase racism in the courtroom. I’ve read the responses from black men, who fear for themselves, or their children, or who merely speak with resignation. I’ve heard from friends whose children are black boys, who are worried about the risks they take whenever they walk out the door.

Over the last year, I’ve tried to be more open in my opinions; to listen more carefully and more openly to those who disagree with me about things I consider fundamentally important. It is difficult, sometimes, but I find myself able to do it. But this is different. I simply cannot hear one more person saying that Martin was a thug, or that he should have done something different: what could he have done?

I have written my pieces on Judaism and gun control. I’ve nothing to add. I realize this blog is supposed to be a repository of Jewish text or wisdom, but I’ve nothing to add here either. Today, I am only thinking of the children of color whom I have worked with in Barry Farms who, with their families, did the best they could with the almost nothing that they had, and whose chances of getting out are low, and further stymied by the recent upending of affirmative action programs in colleges, and the uprooting of voter rights protections, and who if they do get out, may simply face a violent death because someone is afraid of their skin, knowing nothing about them, and then, if they are gunned down, will be put on trial for their own murder.

We have just passed through Tisha B’Av, in which we mourn the destruction of the Temples, twice. First for idolatry, and again for sinat chinam, baseless hatred. This smacks of both. Our societal idolatry of the individual, the individual’s right to do whatever makes them feel good, even if in the aggregate, the lives of many others are damaged or destroyed; the hatred of those – sometimes even without our noticing- who frighten us, because of their skin color, or origin, or religion.

I excuse myself from none of this, because I live in this society, and I benefit from its institutionalized racisms and privileges and because I haven’t done enough to change it.

In my exile from the just and the true and the good, I sit and I weep. Perhaps at least I know I am in exile. Perhaps that is at least a start. That’s it; I have no other words for you.

Posted on July 17, 2013

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But what have you done for me lately?

bribeA  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.

Posted on July 3, 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

Fitting in

ExclusionI 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.

Posted on June 19, 2013

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Are today’s Americans really wimps?

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.
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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.

Posted on June 5, 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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In Which I Piss Off Every Possible Group of People at Once

RamseyBrace yourself, this is going to be a bit of a bumpy ride.

Steubenville
Rehtaeh Parsons
Audrie Pott

Amanda Berry
Gina DeJesus
Michelle Knight

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

Posted on May 8, 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

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