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.
Is it mere coincidence that the Jewish festival of Passover, beginning this Friday eve, April 6th, falls in the early weeks of Springtime? The answer is ‘no’, both from a historical perspective but also from a symbolic perspective. Historically, several scholars suggest that there was a pre-existing Springtime celebration before the Jewish people assigned Passover and the re-telling of the exodus from Egypt to this time in the calendar. In fact, we see hints of this earlier celebration embedded in the Exodus story itself. Exodus, chapter five begins: ‘And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh: ‘Thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast for Me in the wilderness.’ Spring is the season of new flowers and buds appearing in nature, and it is the lambing season. The centrality of the sacrifice of a lamb just before the tenth and final plague that led to the Hebrew slaves being allowed to go free may well have been related to an earlier celebration where a first-born of the new flock was offered up in thanksgiving.
Today we do not sacrifice animals as part of the Passover celebration; instead a shankbone is placed as one of the symbols on a Seder plate that takes center stage in the home-based ceremony held in Jewish homes all over the world to mark the beginning of the holiday. Another symbol of fertility and new life is also found on this plate – an egg (a Spring time symbol shared by our Christian neighbors at Easter).
But Spring time remains deeply symbolic as a time not only of new birth, but struggles for freedom from oppression over the centuries, new hope and new possibilities. We may be most familiar with the recent waves of unrest and uprisings against dictatorial leaders in the Middle East, dubbed ‘the Arab Spring’. These movements did not literally begin during Springtime, but commentators quickly adopted the phrase that can be traced back to the 1800s. Ben Zimmer, author of www.visualthesaurus.com, finds the earliest usage with a German philosopher, Ludwig Borne, in 1818. Referring to several European revolutions in the mid-1800s, in French the phrase used was printemps des peuples (springtime of the peoples) and, in English, ‘The People’s Springtime’.
What is common to both the current socio-political changes, the European revolutions, and the Biblical Exodus is that the journey from slavery to freedom is never straightforward. We are much more certain about what we are seeking freedom from but it usually takes a lot longer to know what we will do with our freedom. For the Hebrews it took forty years of wandering in the wilderness but, along the journey they created a covenant with God that provided them with laws and structures for creating a new society in a new land, where time and again they were reminded not to oppress others, because they had once been slaves in Egypt. This is a message that we all need to hear, year after year, precisely because it is so easy to forget the greater purpose of freedom once we have the power to choose our own path.
Chag Pesach Sameach – A Happy Passover to all!
A version of this article appears in the Editorial pages of The Bridgeport News and other publications of the Hersam-Acorn Consortium
Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks. March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights. How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies. We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.
I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves. But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.
This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech. On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech. This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.
On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara. Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that. Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else). That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.
At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side. It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective. I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.
It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech. But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it. Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard. They set the tone for the rest of us.
A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012
Today saw the spreading of some enticing rumors regarding a soon-to-be-announced ordination program out of the newly-created Kabbalah Institute (KIRR – Kabbalah Institute for Reincarnated Rebbes). The program has already been running in pilot phase for 7 weeks, hence the rumors that the first ordination class is about to be announced.
When contacted for further details, KIRR would not divulge the full details of their program of study. However, it is believed to include sleeping with a volume of Zohar under your pillow for 40 nights, a daily mikvah, and the learning of a series of daily affirmations designed to align the sephirot within you. Rabbis ordained by KIRR will be qualified in the supervision, cutting, and wrapping of red string. They will be able to determine if string that has been worn for some time is still kosher or in need of replacement. All are expected to complete an Advanced course in Powerpoint, due to the centrality of glossy and impressive visuals that accompany the various curriculum they are trained to teach about where to find the secrets of life, the universe, and everything (Douglas Adams is a compulsory text for the first 7 days of the program).
But the biggest potential game-changer in this new rabbinic program lies in the promise that, when the first class of ordained KIRR Rabbis are revealed tonight, it will include their first woman. While the identity of this woman has not been confirmed, many are postulating that it no other than Madonna Ciccone. Evidence from her recent performance at the Superbowl points to this conclusion. A cleverly-orchestrated choreography, provided in partnership with Cirque de Soleil, has been analyzed using the most sophisticated Gematria and Torah code software on the market today, and was found to reveal the secret message, ‘I am a Rabbi Without Borders’. Asked for official comment at CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), Rebecca Sirbu, the Director of the Rabbis Without Borders program simply said, ‘Madonna is not currently one of our RWB Fellows, but we have just put out a call for applications for next year’s cohort (at http://www.rabbiswithoutborders.org).
Upon hearing the news, the Rabbinic Council of America (Orthodox), expressed outrage at the use of the title Rabbi for women ordained by KIRR. However, they were willing to tolerate the use of an alternative title, Baalat shum davar, (Mistress of absolutely nothing).
Last week, while checking in on the latest articles on the Religion page of the Huffington Post, the following headline caught my eye: Proxy Baptism Seekers Eyed Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel For Posthumous Mormon Rite.
For those who might have missed it the details, in summary are as follows: There is apparently a long-standing tradition of Mormons submitting the names of deceased people for a post-humous proxy baptism into the Mormon church. A researcher found among names submitted via an online site that is accessible to Mormons only the name of Elie Wiesel – still very much alive. Among the names submitted for this Mormon ritual has often been those who died in the Holocaust.
In fact, Mormon church rules mean that one is only meant to submit the names of your own direct descendants. After previous examples of famous Jews being included in these proxy baptisms, negotiations between Mormon and Jewish leaders led to an agreement in 1995 for the church to stop the posthumous baptism of all Jews, except in the case of direct ancestors of Mormons. But researchers have demonstrated that the practice did not stop. The church did apologize for these latest events this past Monday, calling them a serious breach of their protocol.
I was going to dismiss the story as just one of those things that often irk us but are so fringe as to be unworthy of great debate, but I was prompted to pause and think about some of the broader questions that arise from this. Before thinking about matters of the soul, I want to first turn to questions of ownership regarding other aspects of our ‘person’, namely our personal data.
In recent weeks there has been a lot of press coverage about the rights we have to our own personal data and information in the era of facebook, twitter, etc. You might have been aware of some black-out days on some services, like Wikipedia, protesting against new proposed legislation that would make it illegal to post any information online without verification that it is yours to post. It would make the sharing that many of us do on facebook of videos that ‘go viral’ or cute cartoons etc. potentially illegal and would hold the services that facilitated this sharing accountable. This, most agree, is taking ownership of data a step too far, bringing the whole online crowd-sourcing, sharing world of cyberspace to a grinding halt.
However, there are also stories of iphone and Android apps that, without your permission, access your address book and collect the data found there. There are questions about the ways that Facebook makes whatever you are posting available as data for their advertisers, which is why ads that might be more pertinent to you pop up on the right side of your Facebook wall. On the one hand, I rather like that the system is smart enough to only show me things that I might actually be interested in rather than the more indiscriminate advertising I am subjected to every day I turn on my TV. On the other hand, I do have concerns about how my data is being stored and who is getting access to it without my knowledge.
How is this relevant to the ‘baptism by proxy’ story? I find it interesting to contemplate whether these debates about who owns some of our essential data in life can also be carried over to thinking about who might make a claim to our essential souls in death.
If we are horrified by the mormon church story, is it because we find the idea that they believe that they are actually doing something of material impact and worth by these rituals utterly preposterous, or is it that we are truly offended that they should claim the rights to any souls that are not their own? If the whole thing is just ridiculous, then perhaps we should all just buy tickets to the Book of Mormon, and have a good laugh at the strange practices of another faith tradition (its not like we don’t have enough of our own, and Purim is coming so we have plenty of opportunity to make fun of some of our own stranger practices).
But I suspect that most of us aren’t finding this a laughing matter. And I think it might be because, whatever we think we believe about what happens to our souls after death, the idea that another faith group has the right to any part of us suggests that we are somehow deficient in their eyes as we are. In their eyes, there is something about our identity, faith tradition, and the way that we are walking through life that is incorrect and, hence, we need to be saved. That they seem to be especially concerned about the souls of those who died or survived the Holocaust just adds to the insult.
There is an old Jewish morality tale, the source of which I haven’t pinned down (but please provide it in the comments if you know it!, but it is the essence of the message that is relevant here:
A story is told about a pious Jew who boasts to his rabbi that he saved another Jew’s soul. A beggar had asked him for a meal and he agreed, but insisted that first they must pray the afternoon minchah prayers. And before serving him a meal, he ordered the beggar to wash his hands and recite the appropriate blessing, and thereafter to recite the motzi prayer over the bread.
The rabbi showed his annoyance with his pious disciple. “There are times, my son, when you must act as if there were no God.”
The disciple, taken aback by this counsel, protested, “How could I, a man of faith, act as if no God existed?”
The rabbi replied, “When someone comes to you in need, as this beggar came, act as if there were no God in the universe, as if you alone are in the world and that there is no one to help him, except yourself.”
The disciple asked aloud, “And have I no responsibility for his soul?” The rabbi replied, “Take care of your soul and his body, not visa versa.”
We are commanded by God to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to do what we can to make existence for each other better in this life; to alleviate suffering when we have the ability to do so. When we die, many of us believe in a soul that continues into eternity; a soul that is reunited with the Source of all existence. But what actually happens and where we go, we do not know. We leave it in God’s hands. We don’t need any intermediaries and we respectfully ask that, like our personal data online, that others keep their hands off!
As I write today’s blog entry on Tu Bishvat, I’m sitting in my home office looking at the piles of paper that I need to sort and file in order to begin getting things in order for filing my taxes this year. Its never something that I particularly look forward to, and I’m sure much procrastination will ensue before I actually succumb to the task. Yet this task that remains at hand, and today’s festival have much more in common than you might imagine.
Today, when we think of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, we think of a Jewish Arbor Day; a day to give thanks for trees, the fruit of the trees, and the beauty of our natural world. Some might think of the Kabbalists’ “Tu Bishvat Seder“ ritual which utilized different kinds of fruits symbolically to take the participant on a journey into the different levels of the soul. However, relatively few will be thinking of the historical origins of Tu Bishvat, derived by the rabbis of old from a commandment in the Torah:
“When you enter the land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten” (Leviticus 19:23).
As explained on the main pages on Tu Bishvat on myjewishlearning.com, ‘when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Tu Bishvat served as the day on which farmers offered the first fruits of the trees they planted, after the trees had turned four years old. The following Tu Bishvat signified when the farmers were allowed to begin making use of the produce of the trees they planted, whether for personal or economic reasons.’ The Rabbis of the Talmud established the 15th day (Tu) of the month of Shvat as the official “birthday” of trees from which to determine the age of the trees.
Today we no longer have a temple and relatively few of us are farmers (although there are some wonderful programs engaging a whole new generation of Jews in farming and growing food locally, such as the Adamah fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Center in the CT Berkshires, and the Kayam Fellowship at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore, MD). Tithing is a term that is more frequently used in churches than synagogues. Perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent would be the paying of our taxes.
While tzedakah (acts of righteousness, including but not limited to monetary charity) is regarded as an obligation in Jewish tradition it is, nevertheless, a choice as to how we give, when we give, and how much. Tithing in biblical times, and paying our taxes today are obligations that fall upon us at particular times, with consequences if we fail to respond.
What is of spiritual and communal significance is that, looking back at the biblical and rabbinic sources, the farmer had an obligation to tithe from the fourth year’s produce and only then could they begin to reap the benefits for themselves. This was part of the biblical understanding that when we reap rewards, even from our own labors, we first give in recognition that we should never see ourselves as the sole agent in our success. We give thanks to the Source of Existence, and we give for the sake and for the needs of the community at large, recognizing that our place in the economic and social landscape is intrinsically linked and benefits from the broader society within which we operate. We begin by designating a portion of the year’s income as ‘not mine’. From there we figure out how to live with the rest of our portion. We might feel a little differently about paying our taxes if we tried on this framework for size, rather than seeing the government as ‘taking’ something away from us.
This Tu Bishvat I find myself considering the wisdom of this ethical framework and spiritual lesson to current conversations about U.S. tax codes, the obligations of the wealthy to pay a fair share, and the ways we talk about our obligations to ensure the well-being of all in our society. How different our communal, political, and media narratives might sound if we embraced some of these lessons today.
Last Shabbat, the guest speaker at my congregation, B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, was Rabbi Andrea Myers, author of a wonderful memoir entitled, ‘The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days.” Through insightful, and often highly amusing, personal stories, Rabbi Myers chronicles her own journeying from a Long Island home with a Lutheran father and Sicilian Catholic mother, to Brandeis University, coming out as a lesbian, traveling to Israel and converting to Judaism, and then returning to the USA to become a Rabbi, a wife, and a mother.
There are many layers to the stories that Rabbi Myers tell – in each chapter of her book we learn something about Jewish practice, something about inter-family interfaith relations, and a lot about the spiritual journey that can unfold for each and every one of us as we find the courage to become more of who we truly are.
Prior to her after-dinner presentation, Rabbi Myers also spoke during our Shabbat service, sharing words based on a piece that she wrote for The Huffington Post some months back entitled, ‘It Gets Beautiful.’ Our suburban middle-of-the-road congregation loved getting to know Rabbi Myers. We pride ourselves on being open, welcoming, and inclusive, but nevertheless I was struck by how everyone present responded to the bigger message – become more of who you truly are – told through the lens of this Rabbi who is a Jew-by-choice and a lesbian. Even ten years ago in a Reform congregation, such a presentation which today reflects some centrally held values of inclusivity and the affirmation of sexual and gender expression found in the Reform movement, would have been seen as much more radical.
The evolving understanding that GLBT Jews can live full and visible lives as Jews loving the people that they love is something that is no longer found in just one or two of the most liberal Jewish denominations. In 2006, the Conservative movement voted to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian Rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies. Back in November of 2011, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox gay Rabbi, officiated at a same-sex wedding.
In the UK this past week, there has been widespread reaction to a controversial story reported in the Jewish Chronicle that a power-point lesson about sexuality at the Jewish Free School in London ended with a slide that some students interpreted as an endorsement of the organization, Jonah (Jews offering new alternatives to homosexuality). While the school, under the auspices of the United Synagogue (the majority Modern Orthodox movement in the UK) has denied any such endorsement, the story has sparked thoughtful conversations that indicate that, in today’s world, there are many young Orthodox-affiliated Jews who no longer regard traditional Jewish observance as a barrier to living a life true to one’s sexual orientation.
The UK Jewish Chronicle also reported on January 19 that the Amsterdam Orthodox Ashkenazi community has suspended their Chief Rabbi, Aryeh Ralbag, who is US-based but travels several times a year to serve the Dutch community. This action was taken in response to Rabbi Ralbag signing a declaration, along with 180 other Orthodox Rabbis, psychotherapists and educators, that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle. Ronnie Eisenmann, the lay head of the Dutch community was quoted in the JC, saying: “homosexuals are welcomed and all Jewish couples are accepted as full members so long as they are recognized as ‘couples’ under Dutch law.”
These recent events demonstrate that, as we continue to evolve in our understanding of human sexuality and move toward a place where civil rights are not given or withheld on the basis of sexual orientation, Jews of all denominations are engaging with these questions in new ways that challenge the boundaries for some within our communities. As they do so, many draw on Jewish wisdom and values to reframe the conversation; no longer the language of toevah (abomination) found in Leviticus 18:22, but the language of b’tzelem elohim (made in the likeness of God) or lo tov heyot ha’adam levado (it is not good for a human being to be alone). These conversations require us to consider whether religious truths must be defined by their unchanging nature, or whether, as Rabbi Andrea Myers suggests, truly becoming more of who you really are requires a kind of truth that can evolve with us as we, as individuals and as Jewish communities, continue on our journeys.