Author Archives: Laura Duhan Kaplan

Laura Duhan Kaplan

About Laura Duhan Kaplan

Laura Duhan Kaplan is rabbi of Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Canada, a traditional-innovative spiritual community affiliated with ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Laura, also a retired philosophy professor and a faculty member at ALEPH ordination programs, has a passion for teaching philosophy, theology, and spirituality. Laura lives with her husband Charles, psychologist and musician; their two young adult children, who are active in the Habonim-Dror socialist Zionist youth movement; and many companion animals. Follow her blog at onsophiastreet.com.

What Shall I Wear to the Prom? Spiritual Fashion Principles

clothesClothing is on my mind. Not because I’m a superficial person, but because fabric art has been featured in the last five weekly Torah readings. Uniquely dyed wools – sky-blue, royal purple, and earthworm red – house God’s presence in the mishkan (sanctuary). Fine designers bring to life the High Priest’s sophisticated “layered look,” complete with jeweled accessories. All priests must wear linen underwear, lest they die.

Clothing worn during holy service must be chosen consciously: that is the principle. Why? Torah itself does not explain, but interpreters do. Spiritual facilitators should physically feel God’s being. Priests need physical protection from God’s powerful presence. Leaders should be adorned with articles made in the community. Priests don a persona not their own as they step into a role. Attractive visuals enhance religious ritual.

When I, a female congregational rabbi, dress for holy service, I keep these ideas in mind.

Spiritual facilitators should physically feel God’s being. Hat, yes. Donning a hat is part of my daily spiritual practice. I synchronize my action with the traditional morning blessing, ”oter Yisrael b’’ifarah”: Thank you God; you crown your people with splendor. My hat reminds me that I intend to remain a “God-person,” i.e., spiritually aware, all day. And that “splendor,” i.e. health and inspiration, are special gifts. If I receive them today, I will put them to good use.

Priests need physical protection from God’s powerful presence. Modesty, yes. No cleavage. No short skirts. No bare shoulders. As a clergy person, I accompany people through sensitive transitions, tinged with God’s luminous or terrible presence. My companionship can evoke powerful memories, emotions, reflections. Sometimes it feels as though God arises and envelops our interaction; those times, though beautiful, are exhausting. Juggling complicated associations with romance or sex would be even more exhausting. So I try, in behavior and dress, not to evoke them.

Leaders should be adorned by articles made by members of the community. Talit, yes. I wear a beautiful one made by a woman artist who attends our synagogue. Following a popular traditional design, my talit has stripes and a special collar with Hebrew words. But the stripes are embroidered flowers and the collar is decorated with coloured beads. The inspirational Hebrew words connect priestly service with women’s work: v’chibes begadav hacohen (“the priest shall launder his clothing,” Numbers 19:7).

Priests don a persona not their own as they step into a religious role. Yes, and no. I cannot fully adopt an alien persona. So, tefillin, no. I do not regularly wear tefillin on weekday mornings, though I know from experience how powerful the practice can be. Honestly, it’s a bit of a personal protest for me. Some people insist that in order to be a rabbi, a woman must fulfill a man’s traditional time-bound mitzvot, including laying tefillin. This makes no sense to me; it suggests that, to be authentic, I have to behave like a man. Why can’t I just be scrupulous about fulfilling the traditional women’s mitzvot?

Attractive visuals enhance religious ritual. “How you dress is a reflection of your personal brand,” said Troy Alexander in The New York Times. Yes, personal style. Mine is feminine, west coast, eclectic, artsy, purple, comfortable, weather-adjusted, and carefully selected for my size and shape. Each day, I consciously assemble disparate elements into a coordinated outfit. Life is ambiguous and filled with unexpected surprises. Dressing myself with creative order helps ground me as I start the day. Reliable yet flexible structure is a gift I bring to religious ritual.

Beginning female clergy worry when congregants judge their clothing. Over the years, however, I have adopted a different approach. Congregants can talk about my clothing all they want; I do not take it to heart. They also talk about my sermons, my classes, my children, and how many cats I’m rescuing this week. They talk because they are interested in the synagogue and its people. I trust them not to cross the line into lashon hara (destructive gossip); if a genuine issue arises, I expect them to speak directly with me. We might even end up talking Torah!

Posted on March 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Alas Poor Marius, I Knew Him…

free-giraffe-face-and_274898Last week, the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark killed a healthy two year-old giraffe named Marius. Zoo staff dissected Marius’s body in front of visitors, calling it “an educational program.” They stored Marius’s meat to be fed to large carnivorous mammals.

Without a context, this story is horrifying. In fact, zoo staff members have received death threats.

But there is a context, important in the world of zoos. Zookeepers responsibly try to prevent overpopulating a zoo or inbreeding a small herd. In the U.S., zoos rely on contraceptives, rarely killing healthy animals. European zoos, however, criticize American practice as unnatural and unhealthy in the long term. Thus, in Europe, the average professionally run zoo kills five large mammals per year.

From a Jewish perspective, should this context quell your horror? Not necessarily.

Giraffes, you may be surprised to learn, are kosher animals. Giraffes meet the Torah’s criteria for kosher mammals: they have split hooves and chew their cud. Many scholars say they are listed explicitly in Deuteronomy (14:5) by the Hebrew name zemer. To be fit for eating, a kosher animal must be killed with a cut to the neck; the giraffe’s long neck makes it very easy.

However, it’s just not socially acceptable in Jewish circles to eat this beautiful, exotic animal. When the ancient Israelites built their mishkan (portable desert sanctuary), they covered it with skins of an animal called in Hebrew the tachash. The exact meaning of this rare Hebrew word has confused scholars. Some say it is a mythical animal; others say it is a dugong from the Red Sea; still others say it is an African giraffe. The Talmud describes the tachash as a large, kosher, non-domesticated animal, with beautiful skin and a horn on its head.

Kosher animals ought to be treated with great respect—though often, in our world of factory farms, they are not. Our Torah’s account of the Exodus includes explicit mention of the sheep and cows who walked to freedom. In the book of Jonah, God asks the prophet, “Shouldn’t I care about a city with 120,000 people, and also many cattle?” Anthropologist Mary Douglas points out that only kosher animals were allowed to enter the Temple precincts; thus, they were in some sense part of a covenant of holiness. From an anthropological perspective, one particular kosher animal—the sheep—seems to emerge as Judaism’s totem animal. Our ancestors were shepherds; we still blow the shofar, a ram’s horn, to announce the New Year; observant Jews wear a talit and with tzitzit—woolen fringes.

Contrary to these values, people often treat food animals horribly. With a little interspecies imagination, an industrial farm looks like an overcrowded detention camp. You know the shocked question, “How could people treat one another like this???” Some animal activists answer, “We practiced on animals, and transferred the skills.”

Perhaps you remember the animated DreamWorks movie Chicken Run. Spoiler alert: a group of chickens escapes from a factory farm. The farm looks very much like your worst nightmare of a secret maximum-security military prison. If you have not seen the movie, do try to watch it. It’s actually funny and inspirational, not gruesome at all—but it does make you think twice about human-animal relations.

So, yes, be horrified. Be very horrified.

But do not lose hope. Instead, take action. Keep in mind a famous principle from the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single [human] life, it is as if they have saved a whole world.” When you save a life, you give life to a person’s future generations. You make it possible for the living person to help others. One life is connected to other lives in a great network, and one saved life means more than you can imagine.

Keep using interspecies imagination: Whoever saves one animal life, it is as if they have saved an entire world. When you adopt an animal from a shelter, choose vegetarian for a single meal, or sign a petition, you are a node in a network that changes the world. You help save one animal life; you demonstrate a more respectful way of living with other species; you undercut lessons of dehumanization; you influence human behaviour. Torah teaches that animals and humans are intertwined, practically and psychologically. Think about how you can make use of that teaching.

Traditional Jewish memorial prayers say: in honor of the one I remember today, I pledge tzedakah—righteous deeds and charitable donations. If you are one of Marius’ many mourners, what action will you take?

Posted on February 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Everyone Wants to Be Jewish. Why Stop Them?

starJudaism is in fashion in the U.S.—and in Canada, too.

Non-Jews are happy to join Jewish families. Christian communities want to explore their Jewish roots. A television show features a Christian bar mitzvah celebration. The current U.S. President has a Jewish brother; the previous democratic president has a Jewish son-in law; the Canadian Prime Minister loves Israel.

The old-world European questions about how Jews might break in to non-Jewish society have been replaced. New questions arise: to what extent should we allow non-Jews to break into Jewish society? Should a rabbi perform an interfaith wedding? Accept a job as minister of a Unitarian church? Allow non-Jews to accept honors during the synagogue service?

Over the centuries, Jewish intellectuals developed a theological vocabulary for talking about the old issues of inclusion and exclusion. We spoke of “universalism,” Judaism’s messages for everyone, and “particularism,” Judaism’s practices designed just for Jews. Using these concepts, we asked questions and we answered them.

Medieval Biblical scholar Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), living in Muslim-ruled Spain, asked, “What will change the damaging view of Jew as Other?” Nothing less than a theological revolution, he answered. Jew and non-Jew alike must recognize that the god Jews call by a particular name is not just a Jewish god. Rather, this God governs the universe we all share.

Modern Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) wrote in Germany as liberal democratic ideals gradually opened citizenship to Jews. He asked, “How can Jews be accepted as equals to Christians in a new, secular society?” People need to know the true history of democratic ideas, he thought. By teaching monotheism, Jews gave the world a particularly special gift. Belief in one God, who legislates a universal ethical code for all humanity, makes justice and peace possible.

And contemporary blogger, Laura Duhan Kaplan (okay, it’s me), living 15 years ago in the buckle of the U.S. Bible Belt, asked, “All around me, Christians seem to be transformed by their authentic spiritual experiences. Can I, a Jew, access genuine spirituality?”

At that time, my young children were in bed by 8:00 pm, and I looked forward to a quiet break before working in my home office. But quiet would not come. Inside my thoughts and feelings I heard a knocking. Something insistent begged for recognition. When I listened, my imagination showed me a door.  On one brightly lit side, I stood in a narrow hallway; on the other, shadowy side, a hidden spiritual force waited.

After about 90 nights of this, I finally confessed to my Jewish husband, a cognitive scientist. “Someone is knocking on a door inside my mind,” I said. “What if I open it and it’s…Jesus? … If it is I’ll deal with it, but my parents won’t be happy!”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “It won’t be Jesus. Your spiritual experience will come to you in the Jewish symbols and metaphors that have shaped you.”

He was offering encouragement, not scientific truth, but it was enough to push me through the door. One universal spiritual truth, I found, underlies all experiences: God is energy, and so are we. This truth is shared through particular concepts, emotions, and actions. Jewish literature, music and rituals can be beautiful agents of this giving and receiving. My experiences through these media are authentic.

Many voices in our spiritual tradition say it clearly: Judaism is part of a larger whole. The whole is greater than any of its parts. Judaism offers a theology, a language, and many symbols that point to something greater.  We are one finger pointing at the moon.

In North America right now, many serious seekers find that finger beautiful, or welcoming, or strangely familiar. They want to ride it to the moon, so to speak. Sometimes, we make it so difficult for them to get on board.

Is there a theological basis for our reluctance? If not, it is time to reexamine our gate-keeping tendencies.

Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on February 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Bridgegate vs. God

GW bridgeBridgegate.

The story broke two weeks ago, and updates are still front-page news.

Allegedly, New Jersey Governor Christie’s leadership team closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge into Fort Lee for no reason — except to annoy the mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse Christie’s bid for re-election.

No one died in the four-day traffic jam. However, some very nasty emails were circulated. Emails documenting a petty, mean-spirited understanding of political exchange, in which politics serves individual careers rather than the common good.

“Moving on can’t happen,” says one New York Times reader-commentator, “until Christie accepts the blame for creating and enabling the culture that led to Bridge-gate.”

Two weeks ago, at our Young Adult Talmud study, we agreed: it is a matter of creating an ethical culture. Around a table at Kafka’s Coffee and Tea in Vancouver, Canada, graduate students in political science, education, business and medicine discussed a famous passage of Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) about verbal fraud.

Just as there is fraud in buying and selling, so too there is fraud in words. One may not say to a merchant, “How much is this object,” if one does not wish to buy. 

“Why not?” I asked. “Why should I not entertain myself by bantering with a shopkeeper?”

Because, students said, business is based on trust. Asking prices for no reason gives a false impression; thus, it is a breach of trust. Normally, we assume we can trust our business associates, unless we have a specific reason not to. If you think you are too cynical and savvy to trust naively, remember your behavior when shopping in the supermarket. You read labels, assume the information is true, purchase a product, and put it right into your body.

And because, students said, it is personally harmful to the shopkeeper. By engaging with you, the shopkeeper invests time. The time, however, might have been more wisely invested in another customer. The shopkeeper also invests emotional energy in you. When you falsely represent yourself, you manipulate the shopkeeper’s mood, for your own purposes.

And because, students said, words are the foundation of human communication. When you intentionally misuse words, you undermine a social foundation. The real purpose of communication is to create human community. In fact, the real purpose of business is to create community. When you are dishonest in business, you undermine human community.

At this point in the discussion – I am not making this up – an education student said, “Hey, did you hear about what happened in New Jersey?” Words were used badly, moods were manipulated, trust was broken, and community was undermined.

For the matter is entrusted to the heart, and concerning any matter that is entrusted to the heart, it was said: “And you shall fear your God” (Leviticus 25:17).  

“When you do a very small wrong,” said a medical student, “you may think you are getting away with it, but God sees what happened.”

“Let’s get away from the idea of God as a judge,” said another medical student, “and talk about our conscience. When you do something bad, you feel bad.”

“And the bad feeling in you affects others,” said a business student. “If we want good relationships, we have to stop stockpiling lists of times others harmed us.” Otherwise, we retaliate simply for the sake of retaliation – as Governor Christie’s team seems to have done.

Didn’t the students think they were getting a little overly spiritual? After all, we were discussing business and politics.

“There are higher truths than business,” said a political science student.

“The matter is entrusted to the heart, and that’s where God lives,” said a medical student. “God is the space where we do interpersonal mitzvot. Create a trusting community, and you bring God into the world.”

As they talked, I began to see the bridge as a metaphor. Bridge-gate does open onto higher principles. A bridge of trust connects humans in community; narrow the bridge, and community is constricted. Jewish mystics talk about the flow of divine energy that animates the world. When we see only our selves and fail to honour others who help sustain us, we block the flow.

The students in our Talmud group understand this higher truth. May they be the politicians, educators, healers, and business leaders of the future.

Image: theoldmotor.com. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on January 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Religion and Politics: Already Mixed

kotel doveIt’s Israel week on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. My colleagues Ben Greenberg and Alana Suskin discussed debates among university Hillel organizations about inviting anti-Israel speakers. Just before that, our blog featured the words of a young Canadian in Israel re-thinking his own views.

Of course, we don’t have to be registered university students to explore multiple perspectives and begin a dialogue that leads to deep rethinking. We can begin with the simplest of tools, actually: a traditional Jewish text and a commitment to asking questions.

The Siddur includes many prayers that refer to the land of Israel; here I will highlight just one. This short paragraph is found, in slightly different forms, in the prayer books of every Jewish movement, towards the end of every Amidah prayer, whether weekday, Shabbat, or holiday. The theme of the paragraph, worshiping God who dwells in Zion, was set by the year 200 C.E.; the precise wording has changed along with Jewish circumstances and philosophies. Below are two different modern versions, in English translation.

Accept the prayer of Your people Israel as lovingly as it is offered. Restore worship to Your sanctuary. May the worship of Your people Israel always be acceptable to You. May we witness Your merciful return to Zion. Praised are You, Lord who restores his Presence to Zion (Siddur Sim Shalom, 1985, Conservative movement).

Take pleasure, GRACIOUS ONE, our God, in Israel your people; lovingly accept their fervent prayer. May Israel’s worship always be acceptable to you. And may our eyes behold your homecoming, with merciful intent, to Zion. Blessed are you, THE FAITHFUL ONE, who brings your presence home to Zion (Siddur Kol Haneshamah, 1999, Reconstructionist movement).

The Conservative wording asks that worship be restored to the Temple sanctuary; the Reconstructionist version asks that worship be acceptable wherever it is offered. Modern Judaism teaches that God is everywhere, and thus people can pray everywhere. So is there or is there not something special about worship in Jerusalem?

What is your experience? Have you been moved to pray in unique or passionate ways while visiting Israel? Does thinking about Israel intensify your prayers for peace and justice? Do you believe that putting a written prayer into the Kotel sends it straight to God? One of my relatives insists that the Kotel is an idol; how would you respond to him? Do you know where the Holy of Holies is said to have been? Do you agree with the recommendation of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to avoid the site? Do you know about recent Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount? If you were a responsible government official, how might you mediate?

The Conservative version hopes that we may “witness” God’s “merciful return” to Zion (a historic name for Jerusalem); the Reconstructionist one asks that “our eyes may behold” God’s “homecoming, with merciful intent.” Both “witness” and “behold” refer to the same Hebrew word, v’techezena. In Biblical Hebrew, its root chazon, typically refers to a prophetic vision. Does the prayer ask that we literally see the return, or that we gain a clear vision of what a compassionate return would look like?

How would a compassionate return look? Like the vision of Ezekiel, where no foreigners would enter, and only priests of one of Aaron’s many lineages could be certified to serve? Like the vision of Isaiah, where a new line of priests, representing multicultural Judaism, would be created? Or like the vision of Zechariah, where the renewed Temple would host annual interfaith Sukkot services?

Both the Conservative and Reconstructionist versions hope for the return of God’s shechinah, which they translate as “presence.” What sort of shechinah would you like to see return? Shechinah as understood in early rabbinic literature: the presence that originally accompanied the Israelite camp in their 40 years of wilderness wandering, a presence strengthened by correct ritual and ethical behavior, that also accompanied the Jews during exile to Babylonia? Would a return of this presence require that all Jews make aliyah and turn their backs on the creative diversity of the diaspora? Would its return depend on Israeli Jews practicing mitzvot, including compassion for the strangers among them? How would such compassion respond to Palestinian proposals for a right of return?

Or would you like to see the return of the Shechinah as described in the mystical work Zohar, one of ten cosmic energies that make up the Godhead; specifically, a feminine motherly energy who feeds all creatures, and without whose embrace God is unbalanced? Would the return of this Schechinah include widespread respect for the practice of gender-egalitarian Judaism, even at the Kotel plaza?

Is your head spinning yet, or is it just beginning to clear? Read the text, consider the questions, and click on the links. Recognize the political pointers in the Siddur. Use them to help you clarify your own commitments and actions. Remember that every prayer is also a prayer for understanding.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

An abridged version of this post appears on OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on January 6, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Faith in the Jewish Future

habonim-dror-semelThis week, I am in Israel.

On Friday, I visited with a group of 18-year olds participating in Habonim-Dror [Jewish Youth Movement] Workshop, a nine-month program of learning and service in Israel, with a liberal Labor Zionist perspective.

If you worry about the future of liberal Judaism, an hour with this group can heal you.

If you can’t make it to Israel for your hour of healing, read about my interview with one of the workshop students.

Tell me about one great educational aspect of your Workshop program: Jewish education doesn’t feel forced. I chose to be part of this program and I am enjoying it. Our learning is discussion-based. We took a serious Judaism course. We read some texts by Amos Oz. In one, he talks about the difference between a museum religion and a living religion. A museum religion you leave on the shelf; admire it; dust it off once in a while. A living religion changes with the times. It adapts; it is always being adapted.

What is the core of being Jewish? If I had to choose a core, I would say: Jewish values like “love your neighbor as yourself.” They lead to a Jewish way of life. Obviously, mitzvot about how we treat other people are value-driven. But so are the more ritual ones. Even practices like kashrut [keeping kosher], for which no one knows the reason, bring us back to values. These practices are mysterious so that we question them. They bring us to the intrinsic Jewish value of questioning everything.

What are your thoughts on God? I don’t know. Any conclusion I come to is not a real conclusion, because it’s not possible to know whether God exists or not. Someone can say they don’t believe in God, but believe the same thing as people who do say they believe in God. Belief is a lifestyle choice; it gives you a sense of meaning.

“The old man in the sky” is not the Jewish view of God. A Jewish view is more like the one I learned in elementary school: God is all around you; God is the air; everything has a piece of God. Judaism doesn’t have only one view of God.

Why do you think Judaism is important? Judaism feels important to me because it’s a part of me. Sometimes I think that religions have caused a lot of conflict. But then I realize people cause conflict, using religion as an excuse. I am still struggling with this question, to be honest. No matter why I think it’s important, it exists. I could not break myself off from it; I will always be associated with Israel and Judaism.

Why do you think Israel is important? Jews live in disparate, disconnected Jewish communities around the world. In some ways, Israel is a unifying factor among Jews around the world. It brings people together. In my mind, why ask if Israel should exist? It does exist. It is a Jewish state. It could be a really positive amazing place. I want it to be positive and I feel a sense of responsibility for it.

Israel today has a lot of issues. Religious and secular Jews do not always respect each other. Mizrachi Jews and migrant African workers are mistreated. Ideological settlers carry out price tag attacks [against Palestinians]. There is government corruption.

What do you think about the future of the Jewish people? Someone’s got to take responsibility for it.

Would you make aliyah? Maybe. I don’t know if aliyah is the best method for taking responsibility. We read some interesting texts in our Habonim-Dror history course. One said that the ultimate hagshamah (actualization) of the movement is aliyah. Another talked about how the movement started in Europe. One youth leader was running a Jewish club, but came to realize it was just a club for Jews; they weren’t doing anything Jewish. So they started doing Jewish activities but the club still had no center. So, he put Israel in the center. Originally, Israel was a method, not a value. The real value was the empowerment of young Jews.

Maybe there are other methods of empowering young Jews. You know that survey that came out this fall that said a lot of Jews are intermarrying and assimilating? A lot of people used it to say that Judaism is dying. We had an Orthodox rabbi come and tell us that Diaspora Jewry is dying. He said, if you’re not Orthodox and you don’t move to Israel your kids won’t be Jewish. I don’t agree.

There’s a lot we can do to enliven Judaism.

Image: Habonim-Dror semel (symbol). Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on December 23, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Mandela and Messianic Time

133380518_mandela_435954bIn less than a week, so much has been said to eulogize Nelson Mandela. Together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, he was responsible ”for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa” (Nobel Foundation).

Mandela was a world icon, showing that nonviolent progress towards justice is possible. 

Reading the eulogies has helped me as I struggle day after day to find hope. Generally, I don’t believe that humanity is evolving morally or spiritually. I find it tragic, in fact, that the wisest people are retired, while young learners lead the world. Human history seems a repetition of terrible mistakes.

Frankly, I cannot wrap my mind around the vision of Messianic time, even though the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides insists that hope is a pillar of Jewish spirituality. On Yom Kippur, I had a quick glimpse of hope. The idealism of my son and his friends, the liturgy’s endless prayers for peace, and the community’s yearning for self-improvement seduced me. But the glimpse soon faded into memory…

Until this week.

Last week, Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard commented on the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his long-lost brothers. What a risk Joseph takes when he reaches out to these men he knew only as bullies! He reveals himself, literally and figuratively. Literally, he cries and cries. Speaking his brothers’ language, he says “I am Joseph.” Figuratively, he opens his heart, showing that he hopes to be received with love.

Where does Joseph get the courage to take the risk? He actually explains it in his own words. He tells his brothers, “Don’t feel bad that you sold me into slavery, because God put me here to save lives. God sent me ahead of you, to keep you alive ” (Genesis 45:5-7). Joseph believes in a grand narrative where everything ultimately turns out for the better.

Rabbi Blanchard says: Often we secretly hope for reconciliation, but fear taking the risk. Could we, he asks, follow Joseph’s lead? Could we allow ourselves to believe that the rift is part of a larger story with a happy ending? If we believed that was where we were headed, would we be more willing to take a risk?

This week, Rabbi Julie Danan says: Nelson Mandela must have believed in a greater good, too, as he became the public face of “Truth and Reconciliation.”

Hillary Kaplan adds: It’s easy to draw parallels between the Biblical character Joseph and the real man Mandela. Both were harmed in their youth; both served long prison terms; both were skilled politicians; both took risks for reconciliation; both were criticized for compromising too easily with the seat of power, and for failing to broaden economic opportunity.

Compromising is a risk, too, when you’re a politician. But you compromise in order to reach a vision of a greater good.

The great midrash collection Genesis Rabbah explains that the world was created for the sake of such a vision. In the mind of the editor, everything that happens leads ultimately to the flourishing of the Jewish people.  And, of course, the flourishing of the Jewish people is necessary for the redemption of the world. History has a plan; the plan is set out symbolically in the Book of Genesis; and it is being realized even now.

Normally, this kind of thinking seems ludicrous to me. It’s irrational, it’s patently false, it’s ethnocentric. Nothing in my mindset resonates with this at all.

But this is not a normal week. It’s the week of Mandela’s passing and the anniversary of Joseph’s reconciliation.

I hold Mandela in high moral esteem. His belief in social evolution seems beautiful, blessed and true. And, like Joseph, I do believe in interpersonal healing, and I do sometimes take risks to achieve it. Sometimes rupture is only a chapter in a story of deepening friendship.

Through these reflections, I receive another glimpse into the reality of Messianic time. Hope is visionary. It does not have to reflect current conditions to be real. When it motivates people to move forward personally and socially, it is real.

I want to grow my hope, to string together glimpses into a clear vision. But I need help. Can you tell me: What makes hope real for you?

Image: the times.co.uk. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on December 9, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Thanksgivukkah: The True History

seth's hat

Thanksgivvukah, the rare convergence of American Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, has been a mechayeh—a revitalization.

Maybe even a re-dedication, which is the literal meaning of the word Hanukkah.

Do you know how challenging it can be for rabbis, teachers and writers to come up with a new Hanukkah insight every year?

This year, the blogosphere overflows with creative teachings.

Aren’t change and creativity part of the fun of celebrating a holiday year after year? It’s great to return to the candles, singing, latkes, and the story of the Maccabees. And it’s also great to make a new menorah, learn new songs, try new recipes, and retell the story in a different way.

Actually, retelling the story in a different way is a very old tradition. Neither Thanksgiving nor Hanukkah has clear foundations in recorded history. Our very earliest descriptions of both holidays offer multiple interpretations.

Three eyewitness accounts from 1621 describe the first Thanksgiving season in Plymouth’s English colony.

William Bradford describes the great bounty at Plymouth: fish, fowl, and Indian corn. Yes, folks, he says, all those letters home about how great things are in the New World are true.

Edward Winslow explains that one day the Englishmen were out playing with their guns. The local Indians, though bound by a formal peace treaty, came to investigate. Everyone went hunting together, and then feasted for three days.

William Hilton affirms the natural abundance and the good relationships with the local Indians, but tells a harsher truth. Members of the English colony “were sick and weak, with very small means.”

No wonder some people use Thanksgiving to celebrate multicultural cooperation; while others focus on abundant feasting; and still others count their blessings, simply grateful to be alive another year. Each theme is a part of the original story of Thanksgiving, depending on which original story you follow.

When it comes to Hanukkah, there are no eyewitness accounts written in 164 BCE. We do have two works, dated 100 years later, that we call Maccabees I and Maccabees II.

Maccabees I gives a political account of events. Alexander the Great was tolerable as conquerors go, but one of the local Syrian Greek rulers, Antiochus, was not. Antiochus was a petty tyrant, and the Judeans, led by the Hasmoneans, successfully rebelled against him. The Hasmonean military leaders restored the Temple, lit the menorah, and gradually took over the priesthood.

Maccabees II gives a conservative religious account of events, showing the hand of God behind the political history. The Judeans had fallen away from true spiritual practice, activating Divine wrath. Thus, God allowed Antiochus to invade. But Judah Maccabee called the Judeans back to true worship; God’s anger turned to compassion; and the Judean forces were victorious.

Five hundred years later, the Talmud introduces a new detail not found in either book of Maccabees. When the Hasmonean forces tried to restore the Temple, they found only one jar of pure oil, sufficient for only one day’s lighting. They lit the menorah anyway and through a miracle, the oil burned for eight days. The holiday was established to commemorate the miracle.

The usual teachings about Hanukkah are based not in fact but on these highly creative accounts. Hanukkah reminds us to gather political strength under oppression, to remain culturally true to Judaism, to know God performs miracles when we need them, and that the light of our soul shines bright even when hidden by difficult times.

Knowing how flexible the meaning of Hanukkah has always been, I am enjoying Thanksgivukkah teachings with no guilt whatsoever. The convergence has brought into focus a wonderful set of possible meanings for Hanukkah.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude; so, too, is Hanukkah. Hanukkah is about being Jewish, and being Jewish means being grateful. Our name “Jews” comes from the Biblical name “Judah,” which means “gratitude.”

Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest. So, too, does Hanukkah. The original eight-day celebration of a restored Temple was modeled on the eight days of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday. Sukkot, taught the prophet Zechariah, could be shared by all cultures and religious traditions.

Thanksgiving is a deeply meaningful cultural event that cuts across religious and ethnic divisions. So, too, is Hanukkah. The themes of gratitude and hope are deep spiritual experiences for religious and secular Jews alike.

Thanksgivukkah reminds me how flexible Jewish tradition has always been in helping us find meaning. Perhaps that’s my favorite teaching of all.

Image: Seth Goldstein wears a Thanksgivukkah hat. Cross-posted at SophiaStreet.

Posted on November 25, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Terror in Afula, Seen from Afar

ein-dorA numinous dream, last Wednesday:

I am on Kibbutz Ein Dor, near the city of Afula in Northern Israel, visiting my 18-year-old son, a participant in the HabonimDror Workshop program. A road lined with trees circles the kibbutz. My late cat Yogi – my dreamtime wisdom guide — and I sit on a bench by the road, quietly contemplating. The air is still; the sky glows with twilight; the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold; the world is absolutely perfect for a human being.

Cosmic, messianic; a perfected world of beauty and peace; good for the human body, heart, and soul; the kind of dream I want to dwell in forever.

Until my alarm clock – an iPhone app — rings.

As I reach to turn it off, I see the notification: an unusual early morning email from the HabonimDror office. What parent would not be concerned?

Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to inform everyone who may have heard about the suspected terrorist incident in Afula today that all of the Workshoppers are safe and on kibbutz. Nothing to worry about.

B’shalom,

J.

In an instant, my cosmic dream turns practical. My parent radar had received J’s reassurance. Relief at my son’s safety and trust in my parental connection fill me. Who needs email when your dream guide takes you astral traveling?

When I enter the kitchen, my husband says, “A stabbing on a bus. I noticed it in The New York Times. You might get more info from Haaretz.”

Sure enough, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, already has a full article posted. There I read that a Palestinian who entered Israel illegally has stabbed an Israeli soldier, claiming revenge for his jailed relatives. A 16-year-old Palestinian and a 19-year-old Israeli. The 16-year-old is in custody and the 19-year-old is dead.

What parent would not be concerned?

Strip away all the politics and that’s what you have here: children. Motivated by terrible beliefs, traumatic experiences, a sense of responsibility, a desire for meaning, or a social current beyond their control, children take on what they imagine to be adult decisions.

At least, that’s how I see it through my parental eyes. Through my eyes still heavy with the dream of a world perfect for all human beings. I see two boys, not two representatives of countries or social movements, caught in tragedy. A universalist perspective, to be sure.

Just one year ago, the blogosphere buzzed with commentary on an exchange between Rabbis Sharon Brous and Daniel Gordis. Rabbi Brous suggested we try empathizing with our enemies as fellow human beings. Rabbi Gordis wrote that if we do so, we betray our own people.

Their exchange raised a familiar philosophical problem: moral vs. ethical commitments. And the double demand they place on us.

Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit defines morals as imperatives based on our connection with a group. A moral mode disposes us to favor those closest and most like us. Ethics, Margalit says, are formulated when we step outside the group’s perspective. Ethics express a reasoned view about what is best overall.

Margalit does not favor one approach over the other, but notes that both have a role to play in healing trauma. Group solidarity gives meaning to loss and turmoil; universal awareness makes clear that evil anywhere affects all human life.

On Wednesday morning, I felt a double demand. My first concern was for my own son. When that was satisfied, I stepped into a larger view. The relationship that connects me so deeply with my son became a basis for empathy towards the sons of others.

Of course, I am not in Israel or Palestine. My personal traumas come from non-ideologically motivated injuries. Though I try to understand others, I do not stand in their shoes. It might well be harmful to preach empathy when self-protection is needed. Or to preach self-protection when empathy is needed.

Small-group solidarity is only one part of the fullness of human experience.

The symbolism of my dream seems so much deeper now.

I sit at the edge of a circular road. Inside the road sits the kibbutz, home of a tightly knit group. As I look outwards, I see a world perfect for all human beings. I sit with Yogi the cat, who embodies the full experience. She is both inside my family and outside my species. In her calm cat pose, she watches as I shift between seeing her in these two ways. She does not judge either one as better or worse, but understands that both are living parts of our relationship. 

She brought me all the way to Afula so that I could see what she sees.

***

Image: Kibbutz Ein Dor, kibbutzimofisrael.netzah.org. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on November 17, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Does Judaism Ultimately Matter?

world trade center croppedLast week, I had a mystical experience.

As I took my seat on an airplane flying from Toronto to Vancouver, the man next to me put on large headphones. He then actively avoided noticing me for four and a half hours.

His behavior bothered me.

He had his reasons for wanting to be alone and they had nothing to do with me. Still, what he did sparked something for me.

Despite the walls he put up, we were not actually separate. His actions, and the thoughts and feelings behind them, affected me.

And I saw:

His psyche is inside him, and also outside of him.

Consciousness is both inside and outside each of us.

To imagine my consciousness centred in my body, as I usually do, is an illusion.

The source of experience lies beyond my body, brain, or mind.

What I am, what we are, is not bounded by our bodies.

Of course there is life after death, because the source of life does not die.

My old view of an “I” centred within me and generated by my brain is a false product of unclear thinking.

Just as gossip makes it hard to see people truly, so the conventions of language and dogmas of science make it hard to see myself truly. 

To see clearly, I have to lift veils of opinion over and over again.

I sat in my seat, typed a report on my laptop, entertained someone’s bored baby, walked through the airport, and endured the chaotic crush at baggage claim. I just did it all with a beatific smile on my face. Many people smiled back, delighted to be lifted for a moment out of their traveler’s stress.

The words I choose to describe this experience are not unique. I seem to have learned them from great teachers before me.

In his book Republic (c. 380 BCE), Plato tells the allegory of the cave. We live as if we are prisoners in a darkened cave, seeing shadows cast on a wall, and imagining them to be real objects. If a person were to break free, exit the cave, behold the real world in sunlight, and return with a magnificent report, the prisoners would still prefer to live in their shadowy reality. The cave is everyday human thought; the prisoners are you and me.

The Alter Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, in his Kabbalistic work Tanya (1797),  describes God’s light emanating through successive screens. Some screens, such as the human experience of identification with a body, cannot be removed. But we can increase our awareness of the screens, and thus of the Divine light showing through them.

Some religious traditions label mystical experience subversive.

This week, I understand why. In this type of experience, gossip appears as a veil. Models of the self appear as a veil. Religious theories about the nature of God and the soul appear as a veil, too. At best, they seem to be partial metaphors; at worst, they seem to be mistakes and lies.

Not just everyone else’s religious theories; the ones I was raised with, too.

No, I won’t be abandoning Judaism. My parents raised me with religious and cultural Judaism as a natural habitat and I did the same with my children. For me, connection with ancestors and a chain of tradition 3,000 years old is another kind of mystical experience. It’s an experience rooted in body, culture, and personal identity — quite different from last week’s transcendent experience.

From a personal and cultural perspective, Judaism is “mine.” At the same time, from a spiritual perspective, I am part of something much larger than “me” or “mine.”

So when I encounter choices, like Susan Katz Miller’s decision to raise dual-faith children described in the New York Times article “Being Partly Jewish,” I understand. I understand both the negative and positive responses to her decision.

I understand, profoundly, the fear of Jewish civilization disappearing. If that happened, a lot of what I am, too, would disappear. It might even seem as though I had lived in vain.

And I also understand, profoundly, that Judaism is only a civilization. Its religion is only a set of symbols pointing beyond themselves. By enjoying two faith traditions, one might compromise everything on the cultural level. But, at the spiritual level, one might well compromise nothing at all.

The prophet Zechariah speculated that Judaism might ultimately transcend itself. “On that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9).

Maybe it will. I don’t ultimately know.

And that’s okay, because ultimately, there may be no “I.”

And, ultimately, true spiritual knowledge may not belong to the “I” at all.

**

Image: One World Trade Center, a structure mirroring the sky, photo by Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2013.

Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on November 7, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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