As an ex-pat British Jew, living and working in the USA, I’ve been following the press coverage on the search for a new Chief Rabbi in the UK with interest. The Times of Israel just recently published an update on what is becoming quite a lengthy and arduous search, raising a number of poignant issues in its coverage. Its been nearly two years since Rabbi Jonathan Sacks announced that he would be stepping down from the position come September 2013. British commentators have noted that the Anglican Church managed to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury in a mere 8 months.
For those less familiar with the British religious landscape, that comparison was not just plucked out of the air. Rabbi Herman Adler became the first, self-designated ‘Chief Rabbi’ from 1891-1911, and promoted this role as the Jewish equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury. With a much more centrist Orthodox rabbinate, the fledgling progressive communities were content with this singular spokesperson for the UK Jewish community for quite some time.
However, the official title is actually ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth,’ and the preciseness of this label has become more pertinent over time. The United Synagogue, as it is often referred to, is the umbrella organization for modern Orthodox communities only. As the rabbinic authorities in the UK – the Dayanim – (judges that sit on the Beth Din – the Jewish Court) have played an influential role in moving the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue further and further to the right (in part, no doubt, responding to pressures felt from their counterparts in Israel), and as the Progressive movements have grown in number and strength over the decades, it has become virtually impossible to conceive of one person who can represent and speak on behalf of the British Jewish community. Here, the parallel with the Archbishop of Canterbury breaks down. The archbishop only speaks for the Anglican Church. The fact that this is still somewhat of an influential voice in British culture is not because he speaks for any of the other Christian denominations to be found in the UK, but because of the UK’s own political history, by which the Anglican Church is the official State religion of the country.
And, in fact, there has been an official spokesperson for the Sephardi Jewish community, the Reform and the Liberal Movements of the UK for quite some time. Over the past 20 years or so, the British government has become much more attuned to this plurality of voices and representatives, ensuring that they are all invited to the appropriate State events.
Even before the current dilemma on who to appoint as the next Chief Rabbi came into being, I’ve found my American counterparts to be quite amused by the whole system in the UK. Here, the land of rugged individualism and autonomy, the thought that one would even attempt to find one spokesperson for the Jewish community is seen as laughable. Aside from the enormous diversity of Jewish expression to be found here that is movement-based, there is also a great deal of independence within each and every community.
In today’s cultural milieu, more than ever, when a congregation finds that its’ members values and practices are at odds with the official positions of the movement to which they affiliate, we are seeing more of them choose to go independent. While something is lost from being part of a larger collective, most intently felt when the movement brings people together from across the country or speaks up in the public sphere in a way that makes us proud, there is a growing feeling that communities are willing to let go of those larger affiliations if they perceive the restrictions laid upon them to be too great. Likewise, while rabbis still have great capacity to teach and guide a community, if they are perceived as being too out-of-step with the community, they are likely to find themselves looking for new work.
In truth, these are not new phenomena. This was very much the way of things for many Jewish communities across the world, prior to the communication and travel technologies that enabled geographically spread and diverse congregations to find each other and gather under the banner of a common label. But let us not be fooled – the desire to do so was in the fulfillment of larger communal needs as Jews sought full emancipation and inclusion in the larger societies of which they were a part. They provided a means to gather with other like-minded communities as we found ourselves responding to modernity and figuring out how to keep our religious traditions and practices relevant and meaningful within this new world.
Those needs still exist. And I am certainly making no early pronouncement that our movements no longer fulfill those needs. But what is clear, in the age of social networking and crowd-sourcing, is that they no longer remain the only way for separate communities to explore those questions together. Organizations like Darim Online, and CLAL (National Center for Learning and Leadership) – the creators of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program – demonstrate that speaking across and beyond denominational and movement-based lines can enable all of us to move forward in the ways we create and run spiritually purposeful Jewish communities today.
And we, the Jewish people, continue to do what, in fact, we have always done – we speak for Judaism whenever we engage, act, celebrate, and live our lives through a Jewish lens.
Two days ago my colleague, Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes. While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story. I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.
And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme. Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention. I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.
My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved. While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.
How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship? As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from? Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?
Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior. Sometimes we must speak out. Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.
In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value. I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him. But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls. We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?
And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time. And that is a picture we don’t like to look at. So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’ But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.
This past Sunday was claimed by many churches around the country ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. It’s the day that the pastors of these churches have chosen to speak not just of the issues that are important to us all, where religious traditions and values may offer some guidance or wisdom, but to speak directly about the candidate that they are supporting.
Wait! What about separation of church and state? You may well ask. What about the IRS and preserving their 501 c3 status, which does not permit the endorsement or political candidates by such organizations?
Well, it appears that this group of church leaders are intentionally thumbing their nose at the IRS. They are making the claim that they have a 1st amendment right to speak freely from the pulpit on any matter. It also appears to be the case, according to a report on PBS’ ‘Religion and Ethics Weekly’ a couple of weeks back, that the department that might pay attention to such breaches and the regional directors who might respond do not currently exist, so it is most likely that pastors who choose to speak out from the pulpit this Sunday will face no consequences for doing so.
Now, its interesting to note the somewhat non-inclusive nature of this ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. There are no synagogues or mosques identifying with this movement. Although it has certainly sparked some conversation among rabbis, and I suspect that I’m not the only rabbi who spoke on this issue last Shabbat.
And it does appear that there are considerable numbers of religious leaders who are comfortable parsing the difference between their 1st amendment rights as individuals versus their organization’s limitations based on their tax-exempt status. So, for example, while it would be wrong for a synagogue board to vote and endorse, on behalf of the congregation, a political candidate, should or could a rabbi who works for that congregation publicly do so as an individual in their own right?
Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’. There is no equivalent website with names listed for Romney, although a rabbi has sought to create such a group and can be contacted online too.
I will tell you now, my name is not on that list. And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it. I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right. Continue reading
In the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, for our pre-Selichot service study and discussion, I presented the animated shorts of Hanan Harchol, found at www.jewishfoodforthought.com Not only are these charming, they are wonderfully thought-provoking, and generated a great deal of conversation. We watched ‘Forgiveness’ first (Click here to watch).
I will speak for myself when I say that, despite my understanding that forgiveness is creating an internal change that allows another person’s acts to no longer keep a grip on my thoughts and emotions – to, as we hear in the animation, no longer let someone ‘live rent free in my head’ – it is an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice. At times, often unexpectedly, I find myself replaying painful scenes from my life when someone’s words hurt me, or I felt wronged, or someone acted in a way that was dismissive or condescending toward me. I have no desire for these scenes to occupy space in my memory banks. But they seem to have an uncanny ability to maintain their grip.
Mindfulness practices can help combat the power of these thoughts. While I may not be able to neutralize them completely, a greater self-awareness can at least enable me to notice when my mind is in that place, and I can then consciously let it go and try to clear the picture in my head. Sometimes that is as good as it gets. I don’t believe that forgiveness is a one-time thing. It is a process that we need to repeat over and over when a particular moment of our past swims back into view, churning up old emotions with it. And then, perhaps, over time, the more we find ourselves able to notice and dismiss the memory and observe rather than be drawn in by the emotions, the more we are able to neutralize the intensity of the memory when it arises the next time.
Why is it so important to forgive? I’ve been thinking a lot during my preparations and sermon-writing for the High Holydays, that our entire orientation to life – our outlook, our motivation to engage in purposeful acts in the world that make a difference to the community we live in, and the ways that we engage with others on a day-to-day basis, are all driven by the things that we marinate our minds in. There are many ways that we can marinate the mind in something that is burning with negativity. Painful memories from the past are some of the ways. And I know that, for me, when those memories arise, I feel myself get tense and my teeth grit, and my brow furrows, and I’m more likely to be sharp with someone or impatient, and I’m more likely to want to shut myself off from interactions and just hibernate in my own, private space.
But when I do those things, how can I make a positive difference in the world? How can I contribute in a meaningful way to the life of my family, friends, or community? How can I be open enough to give and receive love, to act compassionately, to create space for a different kind of interaction next time around?
Forgiveness is the key. When we read Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, that is the message. Jonah wants to see strict justice applied to Nineva. When we dredge up past scenes of hurt, isn’t that what we want? We want to know that person got their comeuppance. We want to know that someone gave them as good as they gave. We want to see them fail at something. But what does that achieve? If we recognize that when we feel miserable we are less likely to do good in the world, why would we hope for someone else’s misery? Yes, there are times when acts are committed that require societal justice to be done. But, on an individual level, forgiveness and legal justice are compatible and can co-exist, because one is an internal state of mind, while the other is a social system for maintaining some controls over the worst excesses of human behavior.
Forgiveness is the key.
This piece was originally published at Rabbi Gurevitz’ blog, ‘Raise it Up’ at http://shmakoleinu-hearourvoices.blogspot.com
During the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a number of bloggers are contributing to #BlogElul – a communal online project initiated by fellow ‘Rabbi Without Borders’, Phyllis Sommer. Each day of the month has been allocated a theme. Today’s theme is Love. You can read the daily contributions by following #BlogElul on Twitter. If you don’t use Twitter, a google search for #BlogElul will enable you to read many of the contributions.
Last year, Jewish musician and Spiritual Leader of Temple Shir Shalom, Oviedo, FL, Beth Schafer wrote a book called ‘Seven Sparks.’ Taking the 10 commandments as her inspiration, she re-cast them as seven sparks that can truly guide us toward what she has labeled, ‘Positive Jewish Living.’ The origins of both the book and the larger ‘Positive Jewish Living’ project was a belief that Beth held that Judaism was chock full of wisdom that we can truly live by, but our Jewish tradition can sometimes make it challenging to find your way into the complex, rabbinic texts, commentaries and interpretations of Torah in which this wisdom is found.
The first of the 10 commandments is more of a statement: ‘I am the Eternal Your God, who led you out of Egypt.’ From this, Beth extracts the first of her Seven Sparks: ‘I am free to love and be loved.’ She asks why God needs to make such a statement of introduction. Why does God need to introduce God-self? Perhaps because our people, newly freed from Egypt, have been distanced and need to be reintroduced. God frees us from slavery in order to reestablish a loving relationship (our covenant). Restoring love helps to bring healing to our broken world (tikkun olam). Our time of wandering in the wilderness was a time in which we were re-taught and re-membered how to love. We also learn how to receive love. ’It’s hard to feel that you are loved, if you’ve spent all of your energy as a slave to something unhealthy. It’s hard to feel worthy when you are ensnared by self-doubt or self-criticism. When someone shares love with you, you need to know in your heart that you deserve it.” (Schafer, 2011).
At the end of each chapter, Beth includes a section called ‘Ignite!’ How do we ignite the spark of love in our day-to-day lives? These are her suggestions. How appropriate they are as a source of contemplation and inspiration as we prepare ourselves spiritually for a New Year:
- I love myself.
- I have immense potential to grow.
- I appreciate my quirks as well as my gifts.
- I am proud of both big and small accomplishments.
For your family:
- I express love generously and often.
- I approach disagreements from a loving perspective.
- I give without expecting anything in return.
- I extend courtesy and respect to both superiors and subordinates as part of my work.
- I extend amazing service to clients or customers as one of my many goals.
- I act naturally and honestly to promote a great environment.
At your Congregation:
- We welcome all who visit the congregation from the parking lot, to the phone, in meetings, services, and all written correspondence.
- We respond with immediate compassion and caring to those in need.
- We recognize special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, recovery from illness and special lifecycle moments as a community.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve had some very interesting enquiries from couples seeking to be married by a rabbi. A couple of them are especially interesting because they have two things in common – they found me through a website resource that specializes in reaching out to interfaith couples and families… and in both cases both parties to the marriage were Jewish. I think its worth sharing and reflecting on these interactions, because they have something to teach us about the changing face of religious engagement, and the landscape that some of us are working in today.
I recently moved to a new congregation in central Massachusetts – Congregation B’nai Shalom – and when I made the move, one of the places where I updated my information was Interfaithfamily.com. This wonderful site is a depository for hundreds of articles; some written by clergy or for clergy, but the vast majority written by and for people in interfaith families. They provide introductions to the holidays and Jewish ritual for a non-Jewish family member wanting to understand more. They provide thought-pieces on the choices people make around raising their children. They provide a resource for Jewish grandparents figuring out their role in their children’s interfaith family. And much, much more. One of the things they also do is provide a referral service to help couples find a rabbi who will say ‘yes’ to the question of officiating at their marriage. This referral service was designed to bypass the historical experience of many Jews marrying non-Jews who, in the past, would often have to hear many ‘no’ answers before they found a ‘yes’… if they persevered that long.
Now, I know that rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages is a tough topic for many of my colleagues. And I do respect the path each takes in determining what role they feel they can have, if any. But today I’m not writing about that choice. I am a rabbi who says ‘yes’ most of the time.
But I am fascinated by my recent experiences. One might expect that most of the people who think to use the referral service are Jews marrying a non-Jew. One probably would less expect to find enquiries coming from two Jews.
In one of my recent exchanges, the bride-to-be was quite clear about how she had taken this route. She is the child of an interfaith couple. She was raised Jewish and is fully Jewish according to Jewish law. But she wanted to find a rabbi to marry her who would have said ‘yes’ to her parents.
In a second instance, an older couple getting married, one for the second time, sought out the website referral service because of a more complex concern involving the first marriage only having been dissolved with a civil divorce and not a ‘get’ – a Jewish divorce. The details are not important here (although I will say that this was not a case where there was any possibility of children being an issue). What is interesting is that there was a desire to consecrate a marriage in a traditional, Jewish manner, and a website initially conceived of to primarily serve interfaith families is being seen as a resource for a much wider range of individuals whose particular paths don’t entirely conform with some of the strictures found in some areas of organized Jewish life. This couple came to interfaithfamily.com because they perceived it to be a place where one could more easily find Rabbis who do Jewish things beyond some of the traditional borders of Jewish life.
In the first instance, we see a case where a young woman practices and identifies with her Jewish heritage. She chooses to do so, and actively embraces and desires the Jewish religious sanctification of her marriage, even while knowing that there are parts of the Jewish community that would not have warmly welcomed her parents. The search for a Rabbi who would not only say ‘yes’ to her, but would have said ‘yes’ to her parents is a search for a personal Judaism that offers up the rich wisdom tradition that is ours, with all its beauty, yet also demands a contemporary and inclusive response to the plurality of Jewish identity that exists in America today.
As a rabbi, I’m quite adept at the ‘on on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ argument. There is no question that one could put forth an argument regarding the rabbi’s role in preserving traditional communal boundaries and practices. There are many rabbis who do so passionately. I certainly do not seek to judge that path. At the same time, as I observe the pathways that many Jews, like the ones above, are navigating to maintain their ties to our faith and traditions, yet on different terms, I believe that it is important for some of us to be there to meet them when they come knocking. And I believe, based on what we observe as the changing face of the religious and spiritual landscape in America, that these pathways are likely to become more diverse and multi-faceted with time.
In the meantime, to the couples above, and others, I start by saying ‘Mazel tov!’
This week we heard news from Germany that a regional court ruled that circumcision amounts to bodily harm, even if parents agree to it. There is, as of yet, no law to make the performance of the ritual illegal, but the ruling has nevertheless caused concern. The Conference of European Rabbis are gathering in an emergency meeting to consider a response.
There is news out of Europe on a fairly regular basis that challenges the legitimacy and ethic of one of two ritual practices that impacts both the Jewish and Muslim communities – circumcision, and the practice of shechitah (ritual slaughter) as part of the process of making animals kosher to eat. When this news reaches US shores, we sometimes jump to the conclusion that there is more than a hint of antisemitism (or, increasingly, Islamophobia) behind these challenges. And there is certainly something to that. But it is also the case that these are conversations that take place within the Jewish community too. As a congregational Rabbi, often engaging with and counseling new parents on the question of circumcision, I know that there is much more involved in this conversation, and desire to have it respectfully and fully. In truth, I have a position and I will share it, and it is in favor of traditional Jewish circumcision. But, as a Reform Rabbi, while I seek to educate about this traditional practice and encourage it, I hold to the principle of ‘informed choice’ which is a hallmark of the Reform movement. Ultimately, I will engage parents and their child, performing rituals of welcome into Jewish community and covenant, both in the traditional context of brit milah (the Jewish ritual of circumcision), or as a baby naming ceremony held after a baby is circumcised in a hospital or, in rare cases, where parents are strongly opposed to circumcision at all.
Just this past weekend, at the end of the first week in my new congregation, I co-officiated with a Mohel (trained and qualified to carry out the circumcision) at a traditional brit milah. The context was one with a Jewish and non-Jewish parent, committed to involvement in Jewish community life. For the non-Jewish relatives, this was a new experience, and certainly one that caused anxiety. The mohel, with over 26 years experience, did an expert job of explaining what was happening, how babies respond to medical procedures, and contextualizing the ritual in its historic and halachic (Jewish legal) framework. For sure, everyone was relieved when the act was done, as is only natural; the baby’s only griping was prior to any procedure, in protest to having his legs held still by his grandfather, but the explanations and additional blessings also provided a great deal of comfort.
As the Mohel explained, there are good, medical reasons for waiting until the eighth day for a circumcision; something that our ancestors thousands of years ago may have learned by observation – for the little amount of bleeding that takes place, by the eighth day the natural process of blood clotting has fully developed in an infant. For those who choose to have a circumcision in a hospital, it often takes place before mother and child go home, much sooner. And it is done behind closed doors, with a doctor and nurse. Having had a congregant in my last congregation who was a specialist in this area invite me one day to watch him perform such a circumcision (for a non-Jewish infant) in the hospital, I know that great expertise is brought in both cases. But a mohel who has performed numerous circumcisions in the presence of an infant’s most intimate family certainly brings nothing less than great care and gentleness to every moment of the ritual.
For those who choose not to circumcise their son at all, wanting the child to decide for themselves when they are old enough to make an informed decision, I cannot authentically provide an argument that will conclusively deny their concerns of inflicting pain or carrying out a medically ‘unnecessary’ procedure on their child. I disagree with them – I have not witnessed an infant expressing more than very brief discomfort at a circumcision (discomfort that can be due to having their legs held still, and not necessarily from the procedure itself – most Reform-trained mohels use some kind of numbing agent prior to the procedure) – and I believe there is medical evidence to indicate greater health in this area later in life if circumcised. I also know that is a much more complex procedure later in life, with a much, much longer healing period following. But, ultimately, this is a question of belief for some parents. Jewish faith, and a heritage that commands this act of us, is also, ultimately, a belief.
I hope that the German, secular, courts, do not take further action to intervene and interfere on this matter. But I remain open to having honest and compassionate conversations about circumcision.
In the midst of much activity in Israel in the ongoing push to ensure that women are not silenced or made invisible in newspaper media or public advertising, the celebration of a Reform woman rabbi winning a Supreme Court case to receive public funding, and the ongoing travails of the Women of the Wall seeking the right to pray in peace at the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem – there is much to write about these days about women and Judaism. And there is plenty to say about female leadership in Jewish community, both lay and professional.
Launched less than a month ago, Kol Isha: Reform Women Rabbis Speak Out, is a new blog that provides a new vehicle for Women Rabbis to reflect on their own experiences as female clergy, and reflect on these larger issues that affect women’s’ experience in the wider Jewish world.
Kol Isha is Hebrew for ‘Voice of a Woman’. It is a contested concept in traditional Jewish law, whereby a man cannot hear the voice of a woman, but even in traditional circles there is much debate as to the specific times and contexts to which this precept applies. Is it at all times, just in prayer, only for certain categories of prayer, or just when singing, for example. Among progressive Jews, equality of genders has overridden this precept, as it has in many contemporary societies.
Why just Reform Women Rabbis? The blog was launched as a project of the Women’s Rabbinic Network – an auxiliary of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body representing Reform Rabbis in the USA.
The first blog was posted on June 3rd – the precise date of the ordination of the first woman Rabbi in the USA, Sally Priesand. Sally guest posted the first blog. There are about 30 women Rabbis now providing daily postings, many of whom are blogging for the first time. Just as with this blog, we Rabbis who blog have found that this medium provides an effective way of getting beyond the borders of our own local communities, sharing our voices and reflections on Jewish wisdom, culture, spirituality, and life with an audience that is literally global. I know from the stats on my personal blog, Raise it Up, that I have readers from South Africa, Israel, Russia, Argentina, Great Britain, Spain, as well as from all over the USA. I also know from comments and private email correspondence that I have both Jewish and non-Jewish readers. I’ve met people who have attended programs that I’ve run in the community who have told me that they came to their first Jewish event with me after many years of no explicit Jewish connection, after having read my blog for several months. And I’ve had individuals reach out to me with pastoral needs online, in response to something that I wrote that they found on my blog.
So, what are our women Rabbis writing about? Well, go and take a look for yourself. But among the topics covered in these past couple of weeks, there are reflections on body image, relating to our teenage girls, balancing work and family life, pregnancy and miscarriage, supporting a sick child, leaving congregational positions, being a chaplain to the prison population, and several reflections on 40 years of women in the Rabbinate.
While most women who are Rabbis will tell you that, in the work they do in their communities, they are ‘Rabbis’ and not ‘Women Rabbis’, there is no question that women have transformed the face of the rabbinate in more than just its appearance. Just looking at the topics above, this is clear. In being true to the essence of who we are, we cannot leave any one piece of our identities behind, and our gender informs how we live in this world, what we see and experience, and how we relate to others.
Forty years on, we celebrate the place of women in the Rabbinate, we reflect on the journey and where we still hope to go, and we share our experiences and insights.
Last Saturday evening I was given an opportunity to be part of a truly wonderful celebration – the Sweet 16 party of a very special young woman. As I explained to the guests gathered there that evening, this was an evening of firsts for me. We don’t really make much of the 16th birthday in the UK, probably because 18 is not so far away. In the UK, 18 takes on greater significance as it is the legal drinking age.
So last Saturday was my first ever Sweet Sixteen party. Another new and special part of the experience for me was that this Sweet 16 was celebrated Puerto Rican style. As I learned in preparing for the event, there are variations on the rituals that have become associated with this celebration – Brazilians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latin American countries all utilize slightly different symbolic acts and objects to represent the transition into womanhood. Traditionally, these events took place at the age of 15, and so the celebration would be called a quinceanera.
In North America, the celebration has often shifted to the age of 16, influenced by North American Sweet Sixteen celebrations. At the celebration I attended, two key ritual moments involved replacing a ribbon in the young woman’s hair with a tiara, and a pair of flat shoes with high heels. Another part of the tradition is for a priest to offer a blessing, often presenting a bible and a crucifix necklace. And this is where I came in.
The young woman in question is Muslim. Desiring to celebrate her Puerto Rican cultural roots, but minus the religious traditions of Catholicism, it might have been challenging to involve either a priest or an imam. Much of the family was practicing Catholic, and many of the women from the Islamic community were present for the celebration too. It was a wonderful interfaith and intercultural gathering in and of itself. But why add a Rabbi to the mix?
I was invited to offer a blessing at this particular Sweet 16 after getting to know this young woman these past two years through our Tent of Abraham interfaith activities. We had met on several occasions – adult and teen discussion programs, Rosh Hodesh group and Muslim women’s study and celebration gatherings, and Iftar (evening break fast) during Ramadan. And so it was that, in the week leading up to the celebration we spoke on the phone. In preparing some words of blessing, I asked her to reflect on significant moments in her life up until now that seemed to her to have shaped her life and her faith. She spoke of her father’s death at an early age, and later reflecting more deeply on taking responsibility in the world during a time that her mother was unwell. She spoke of the values that were most important to her – trust, loyalty, compassion, friendship. She spoke of her belief in one God, who could be addressed and experienced directly by every person. These words and more were the sentiments that I reflected back to her. In the mix, as per a request from her and her mother, I explained how the rituals and the celebration compared with Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies. Just as the evening was filled with many firsts for me (I even began with a few sentences of Spanish – a language I have never studied or spoken before – thanks to the assistance of one of our Puerto Rican staff at the synagogue!), I explained that I was sure that the presence of a Rabbi to offer the blessing was a first for everyone there. It became an opportunity to learn from and about each other.
In the mix was the Priestly Blessing, an English interpretative rendition by Debbie Friedman, a Rashi interpretation on the blessing, and a blessing over the food sung in Aramaic and English. In just 5 minutes I had the opportunity to share some rich Jewish traditions and prayers with many who may never or rarely had any direct experience of Judaism before. This was taking Jewish wisdom public in a whole new context. These were blessings beyond borders. It certainly was a blessing for me to attend and participate in this wonderful young woman’s special evening.
cross-posted at Raise it Up: the Blog of Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
I want to share the chorus of one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs with you:
So we’re ok, we’re fine, baby I’m here to stop your crying
Chase all the ghosts from your head,
I’m stronger than the monsters beneath your bed
Smarter than the tricks played on your heart,
we’ll look at them together then we’ll take them apart
Adding up the total of a love that’s true,
Multiply life by the Power of Two (Indigo Girls, ‘Power of Two’)
This has been something of a theme song in my life, these past 11 or 12 years. Ever since I met the woman who, two years ago, became my spouse. In fact, we even incorporated the last two lines of the chorus into the Ketubah that we crafted with an artist-friend.
This past week, a great deal in the flow of the news cycle has caught my attention. Thinking about the monsters beneath our beds, or perhaps ‘where the wild things are’, it was notable that Maurice Sendak passed away this week at the age of 83. Hearing the news, I went online and watched his PBS interview with Bill Moyers from a few years back, and then the very different but quite entertaining interview that Stephen Colbert conducted with him just a few months ago. It was in the PBS interview that Sendak explained that the wild things were somewhat inspired by his first generation immigrant Jewish relatives – the aunts and uncles who had escaped Europe while they could still get in but, to a young child, were grotesque caricatures.
I know the ones he meant – they were probably just like the great-aunts and cousins, once-removed, that I remember –the ones with the lipstick that was painted so high that it almost touched their nose, the bright blue eye shadow and long, red nails. And the great-uncles with the hair growing out of their noses and ears. While Sendak lived his life as a secular Jew, he was clearly informed by that family history.
He speaks with Moyers about the courage it takes for a child to look the scary things in the eye and, in so doing, to be able to take back control not only of one’s fears, but of one’s anger. He had an uncanny ability to write from within the psyche of a child and paint the inner landscapes of their minds in vivid detail that they could so deeply relate to.
In the interview that Sendak gave recently with Colbert he mentions that he is also a gay man. Colbert, in his tongue-in-cheek but straight-faced manner, exclaims, ‘they won’t let you be a Boy Scout leader, but they’ll let you write children’s books?!’
While I certainly appreciate the joke, I found my mind considering the juxtaposition of Sendak’s ‘where the wild things are’ and another story that we saw being played out in the cultural and political sphere last week when first Vice-President Biden and then President Obama voiced their personal support of the GLBT community and of same-sex marriage. Sendak’s most famous children’s story can provide a means for young children to look at the monsters and many other things in life that scare them and, perhaps, to realize that they are not really scary after all. While for Biden, we might be amused by the influence of Will and Grace to make the scary and unfamiliar into something accessible and much more normative, it is the President’s words that most effectively demonstrated how we combat homophobia and those who feel strongly that civil equality should not be afforded to those whose love is not of the heterosexual kind:
‘I have to tell you that, over the years, as I talk to friends, and family, and neighbors, as I speak with my own staff who are in committed and monogamous same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think of those soldiers, or airmen or marines, sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even though ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.’
The President voices what we know to be true about many things in life, and not only same-sex marriage: so often, fear is born out of ignorance. Once we get to know someone who is different from us, whether it be difference due to a physical disability, a religion, an ethnicity, and so on… we find that the world is a much more complex, colorful, and diverse place. We learn to see the partial truths in multiple perspectives. We learn, and in learning, like Max who stares into the yellows of the eyes of the wild things and does not blink, we confront our fears.
Some of the fears that have been voiced about permitting same-sex marriage include fears about how children are raised, fears about how the institution of marriage is understood, fears about the authority of some churches and other more traditional branches of religious faith groups. But, with the exception of the strongly held beliefs of some faith groups whose legitimate concerns arise out of their understanding of their faith teachings, getting to know people – people in our families, our communities, it becomes abundantly clear that these are not the monsters beneath our bed – these fears are not grounded in reality. And for those who are guided by a faith that appears incompatible with the President’s personal statement, it is important to consider whether such beliefs should be applied to civil rights on behalf of the entire population, many of whom are guided by different (and sometimes also religiously-informed) beliefs.
But I have other fears. My fears are borne out of conversations I’ve had with both adults and, even more heart-wrenching, with teenagers, who have shared their pain when they believe that society has taught them that their sexual identity and their religious identity or spirituality are incompatible. They’ve told me that the message they’ve received is that God hates them. Parents who tell me that they fear for their children and are so terribly afraid that their lives will be that much more difficult because they are homosexual. Some of these fears, too, are based on not knowing, and we can confront and learn to crown ourselves king over these too. But I am so terribly saddened that these are some of the messages that have been internalized from our political and cultural landscape.
This is why it is so important that the President and Vice President made the statements that they made. It is why it is important for people to speak out, and write articles, affirming the holiness of being true to our innermost selves, showing that faith and love do go together.
When Max realizes that he has conquered the wild things, he gets back in his little boat and returns to his bedroom, where he finds a hot meal is waiting. What stronger symbol of the unconditional love between a mother and her child can there be? For, once we have conquered the monsters beneath our bed, we come to understand the Power of Two – its all about looking each other in the eye, its all about relationships, and its all about love.