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.

The Torah of second chances

Back Camera 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.

Back CameraIt’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.

 

Posted on April 24, 2013

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On Pesach, you are not alone.

wavesPassover 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.

Posted on March 28, 2013

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The Power of Community

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.220px-Mean_Girls_movie

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.

Posted on March 13, 2013

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Is “Gimme” the most important prayer?

gimme-prayerA 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.

Posted on February 27, 2013

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The power of the obligatory

This entry was posted in Prayer, Ritual on by .

800px-Mikvah_-_goldbergI’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.

 

Posted on February 13, 2013

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Hand me my tiara, please

As a rabbi and an activist, I often get called upon to speak at interfaith events of various sorts.  Over the years, I’ve been jealous of the fact that clergy from other faith groups are easily recognizable. tallit-e1319482273707

Run a list through your head: what does a priest or minister wear? A Buddhist monk? a nun? OK, then think rabbi. Often rabbis will wear a tallit. And that bugs me.

Initially, I just thought to myself, that it “looked funny.” But the more often I saw it, the more it bothered me. A tallit isn’t a rabbinic garment. It’s a Jewish garment. All Jewish adults should be wearing their tallit daily.

So, if we don’t wear a tallit, what should a rabbi wear to identify herself?  Perhaps the answer is that we ought not to be trying to single out the rabbis. Although the Jewish tradition views the rabbi (or at least the tzadik, which is, as well know, not necessarily the same thing) as a kli kodesh, a holy vessel, a rabbi  is not really supposed to be different from the rest of the Jewish population. She is someone who,  yes, models behavior for the community, but her primary role is to be deeply immersed in the laws and traditions of Judaism, and to teach them. Rabbis are just people who have learned the intricacies of Jewish law and practice and the attitude should be “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” But  she is not apart from the community – anyone can be that person, if they are willing to put in  the time and study, if they are willing to make their life a holy vessel.

At the same time, our tradition does recognize that the rabbi should be respected for the role they play. But it seems to me that perhaps the way to do it is not to repurpose a garment which during prayer serves the purpose of making the individuals wearing it almost anonymous – when one looks up after completing one’s prayer of Amidah and sees a sea of wool tallitot around one,  there is a certain sense of being a single part of a larger organism. And perhaps this should instead of serving as an opportunity to demonstrate our importance- look, I’m a leader! – maybe we should reconsider, and as clergy, instead of  pointing ourselves out, maybe we should take off the tallit, and when we represent the community to the world, be just another Jew, without a special costume, to represent that we could indeed be any Jew, that all of us should be working toward a more perfected world, and that anyone who wants to do so, can, just by stepping up.

And if that doesn’t work, well, when I proposed this on facebook, a friend told me he’d get me a mitre. But I have to say, I’d really prefer a tiara. Or maybe a cape.

Posted on January 30, 2013

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But the Children of Israel had Light in their Dwellings

scubadivingI recently was reading an article that happened to mention an interesting study. In the study, researchers in the 1970′s had collected New Year’s resolutions from two groups of kids — one of average middle class kids, and another group made up of Amish and Mennonites. They happened to notice an interesting difference between the two groups (which was not relevant to the study they were trying to do). In the “average” group, the kids were focused on goals such as “getting an “a” in class. In the Amish group, though, even though the kids also were focused on goals, they phrased their resolutions very differently. Instead of focusing on the achievement, their resolutions spelled out the process of what they would do to get to the goal. In other words, instead of resolving to get an “a,” the Amish child would resolve to spend more time doing homework. In addition, the Amish kids were more likely to be about things that they were already doing – getting faster at doing chores rather than one of  the “average” kids who would be more likely to express a goal of doing something new, such as learning to scuba dive.

As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think of another article I had read recently which discussed the seemingly endless research into happiness, and the pursuit of happiness by Americans – and asks whether, in fat, happiness is something that can be pursued at all. The article, drawing on psychological research and the writings of Victor Frankl concludes that rather than pursuing happiness, we should be pursuing meaning. It suggests,  “the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research.” Continue reading

Posted on January 16, 2013

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How Are You Feeling?

Facebook thumbThe other day, I noticed, to my amusement, that Facebook had changed the status update a bit.  In place of whatever used to be there (I have to admit, I can’t quite remember, it was so innocuous) there is now a revolving collection of queries, most of which seem to be something along the lines of, “How do you feel today, Alana?”

Now, I am perfectly sure this was done with the intention of making Facebook a warmer,  more personal place. But most of the folks I know seem to have had the same reaction as I did: why does Facebook all of a sudden want to be my therapist?

Part of the reason that Facebook is so popular is that it allows us to maintain relationships with people who have gone far from us physically, or sometimes even with people who are near, but we simply don’t have time to actually go to see. But when Facebook starts acting as if it, itself, is the thing we’re interacting with, a lot of us suddenly become uncomfortable. Yet, in truth, Facebook does influence how our relationships exist through its medium.  Our interactions are short; on our own terms; they don’t require us to face our friends – or those with whom we tangle in argument. We post pithy idioms, and funny pictures, and  those who agree with us “like” them, and those who don’t …slip away, or “unfriend” us.

It’s very different than the kind of relationships a community is made from. I worry that fewer and fewer people join synagogues (and churches, too, have this problem). In “online communities,” we feel as though we are connected, but to whom are we connected, really? Instead of looking into the faces of people who are older than us, younger than us, politically of a different stripe than us, we are peering mostly into a mirror.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone – I recently ran an app that measured my Facebook posts – it told me that over the past year, I’d written enough words for a book. While I am grateful that  social media allows me to stay in touch with people who might otherwise have drifted away, in some ways, I rather wish I’d written the book, instead. Granted, I use social media as part of how I make my living. Also granted, I rather like confrontation and argument. I enjoy disagreement and the sharpening of teeth over different opinions, so that when I go to shul, and someone has a very different idea than mine over what the government ought to be doing, well, I relish the discussion – even if neither of us walks away convinced. So, I don’t find Facebook all that comforting.

One of the great gifts of a synagogue, or a church or a mosque is that we come into contact with people who are there at different stages of their life, who have different opinions about everything – and yet we  are brought together for a common purpose, and in the task of glorifying God,  we are required to set ourselves aside.

I’m not advocating dumping Facebook, or ignoring Twitter.  Heck, I’ll even give the new MySpace a try if it offers anything interesting.  But it is a relief to be obligated for set times every day, to disconnect from them, and instead of looking at a screen, look at living faces. Even when they’re scowling at me. I think  if I decide I need a therapist, I’ll go find one with an actual couch.

Posted on January 2, 2013

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The blessing of lack

Kabbalah is an attempt to understand the brokenness of the universe.The other night, my chevruta (Study partner) and I were reading  a section of a work by the Magid of Mezritch, in which he about what it means to “rule” or have dominion.

In the version of kabbalah that the Magid is discussing, we understand God as being essentially unapproachable and beyond understanding.  But there is a little piece of God, called the shekhina, which is just, just approachable, just barely comprehensible, by human beings. This, the lowest  “level” of godliness, is a kind of conduit. If we do mitzvot, commandments, we help repair the essential brokenness of the universe, and  we open a little flow – like a faucet almost- into the human world of time and stuff, that allows God’s animating principle to bring wholeness and blessing into the world.  But this lowest level also has another tap – not just hot water, but also cold – if we don’t do mitzvot, or if we do evil, then this other tap is opened, and not only doesn’t blessing come into the world, but  brokenness – the brokenness we create by not doing God’s will, does.

This is a roundabout way of saying that our actions affect the universe in profound ways, and are reflected even in the divine realms.  The magid says that this brokenness comes because the sitra achra- the “other side” which plugs up blessing, says to itself, “Ana Emloch,” I will be king.  This is interesting when you consider that the other name for the shekhina is malchut – dominion, or kingliness.  The sitra achra is made up of several discrete parts, but when each one says, “I will be king,” the brokenness comes not because they wish to be king, but because they cannot join together – each one is a thing unto itself, alone, complete unto itself. But even more, each piece is complete unto itself, and thus doesn’t need anything else.

This, he says, is the negative aspect of dominion. In its utter completeness, and lack of need for others, it shuts out the very thing that could make it godly and truly whole.

There is a blessing after food, somewhat less known than the rather long bircat hamazon, which we say after foods that are sort of snacky and don’t really come under any other category. This blessing blesses God who, borei nefashot rabot v’chesronan, is the “Creator of many souls and their lacks.”

The late 19th-early 20th century rabbi known as the Chofetz Chaim explains the blessing in terms of a verse in psalms (89:3) olam chessed yiboneh “the world is sustained by kindness.”  He says that the borei nefashot blessing is unique in thanking God for “having created numerous living things with their lacks” and that we say it because of the deep and essential importance of acknowledging that God did not create people to be self -sufficient.  Rather, we need to remember that  everything with a soul is in need, and that this is a good thing, because it means that we must reach out to one another, thus building into the very foundation  of society the need for us to help one another, and for society to build “passing it forward” into its very structure.

We acknowledge God and bless God for creating us in need – because it allows us to help one another. What greater blessing is there than that? True brokenness is not lack – a lack can be filled. True brokenness is thinking that one is complete unto oneself and doesn’t need anyone else.  That tendency to  think of oneself as self-sufficient leads to the desire to dominate, because the truth is that when one  doesn’t ask for help, one prevents blessing from entering, from other people, and from God.

Hameivin yavin.

Posted on December 19, 2012

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Who isn’t a Jew?

In the ongoing dustup that started several years ago between Rabbi Daniel Gordis and a series of young rabbis, most recently Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Rabbi Gordis either implied or directly stated that  in offering the opinion that Jews should have compassion for those who aren’t Jews – in Gordis’ case, for Palestinians- is a betrayal of Judaism.

The columnist Jeff Goldberg, in a somewhat confused defense of Rabbi Gordis,  couches Gordis’ plea as saying  that a Jew should “love Jews a little more than [one] loves Palestinians.” Rabbi Gordis defending his own statements, begs us to notice that our tradition speaks in a particularistic language, that Judaism has always been internal looking, and strongly asks Jews to recognize one another as part of a special family, a family that we are obligated to care for first and foremost.

He is right, of course.  It is absolutely true that Judaism is a particularistic religion. It is also equally, simultaneously, true that Judaism is a universalistic religion as well.

For example, the text that Rabbi Gordis suggests as his proof of Judaism’s particularistic bent, the one which we should take to heart when thinking of who to care for first is part of a longer section in the talmud.

The section of the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a, is one whose context is of lending money to the poor, whether one may lend money for interest and to whom one may charge interest.  The text there is attempting to clarify the argument by quoting  Exodus 22:24: “If you lend money to any of my people that is poor by you, ”  continuing, “[this teaches, if the choice lies between] my people and a heathen, ‘my people’ has preference; the poor or the rich — the ‘poor’ takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town — your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town — the poor of your own town have prior rights. The Master said: ‘[If the choice lies between] my people and a non-Jew — “my people” has preference.’ But is it not obvious? — R. Nahman answered: Huna told me it means that even if [money is lent] to the non-Jew on interest, and to the Israelite without [the latter should take precedence].”

Clearly, this is indeed a section that shows that  the tradition expects a certain sort of preference for “one’s own.”  And yet, it’s not so completely clear as that.  Note that  the section does not say that  one should help one’s own alone; note that it doesn’t say, help your family and ignore the poor of your town; nor does it say that one should help one’s town and ignore the poor of another town. It does recognize that in a situation of limited resources, one may have to parcel them out preferentially,  and in that case, one helps those who are close, first.  Elsewhere, the order of importance is laid out even more clearly, starting with oneself, the one’s family, then one’s community, and so forth. Continue reading

Posted on December 5, 2012

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