We are the “selfie generation.” Don’t let the epithet unsettle you. According to leading sociologists, we are not the first to be self-obsessed.
American “baby boomers,” born from 1946 to 1964, are the “Me Generation.” Old surveys of eighteen-year-old boomers reveal that their most important goal was to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” They created a “culture of narcissism,” said sociologist Christopher Lasch, obsessively consuming self-help books and seminars. Instead of looking out for others, they looked inside. To me, this seems a wee bit over-critical. If you were born right after millions of people killed each other for no good reason, wouldn’t you wonder about life’s meaning?
More recently, American “millennials,” born 1982 to 2004, have been called “Generation Me.” On comparable surveys, eighteen-year-old millennials identify “being very well off financially” as their most important goal. Sociologists criticize them for valuing money, image and fame over concern for others. In their defense, if you grew up at a time of successive world financial crises, wouldn’t you hope for personal financial stability?
We can’t help but be shaped by our time. We are, after all, historical beings, born into cultures. Spiritually, the historical self is our starting point. Our search begins with the concerns of our society. In that sense, we are all part of a “me” generation.
The famous revelation at Mount Sinai, articulated in the Ten Commandments, starts with the word “I,” anochi. At Mt. Sinai, says a famous midrash, the Israelites heard that first word “anochi” – and promptly passed out. No one but Moses heard the rest of the commandments we find in the Torah. What’s that about?
According to philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, God personally connected with each individual consciousness in the fullness of love. That connection was the revelation. All the ethical rules represent Moses’ interpretation of his experience of Divine love, in light of his concerns as a nation-builder. Divine love is available to every generation; they articulate its meaning through their historical concerns.
The surveys I’ve cited, from the American [College] Freshman project, are a snapshot of one demographic: college-bound young adults at age eighteen. Respondents are just beginning to know the historical “me” out of which a responsible life mission might arise.
For seventeen years, I taught philosophy to college students, including baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials. Yes, in keeping with the temper of the times, I used a “me” approach. What experiences made you say “wow”? Which of your life stories hold your most meaningful moments? How will you earn a living with integrity? Through journals, group discussion, and listening with a fullness of connection, we explored these concerns. We approached timeless ideas through personal perspectives and, in so doing, broadened our perspectives.
This is how it works: we get to know big ideas through our little consciousness. The inner life of the soul is our only gateway to higher perspectives. We start with self to transcend self. So says the Talmud, in a poetic comment on Psalms 103:5:
About whom did King David [author of the Psalm] say five times “Bless the Lord, O my soul” ? He said it about the Holy One of blessing and about the soul. As the Holy One fills the whole world, so also does the soul fill the whole body. As the Holy One sees and is not seen, so also the soul sees and is not seen. As the Holy One sustains the world, so also does the soul sustain the body. As the Holy One is pure, so also is the soul pure. As the Holy One dwells in the innermost chambers, so also does the soul dwell in the innermost chambers. Let the one who has these five things come and praise the ONE who has these five things (B. Berachot 10a).
Go ahead, says the Talmud, embrace the selfie. A snapshot of you is a fine starting point. Knowing your self leads you to know God. So, study your self well. Recognize your generation’s concerns; know that they will shape the religion and spirituality of your time. Explore the way you personally reach for spirit; see your lens, and see through it. Do it all with an attitude of praise, i.e., with humility, gratitude, and wonder.
A business leader exclaimed: “How can groups of different religions dialogue, when denominations within the same religion won’t talk to each other!”
A good will ambassador said sadly: “I’ve been attacked many times for my views.”
An activist declared: “Talking about our views and doing nothing together is a waste of time.”
A rabbi complained: “Usually, we just talk about our commonalities, and gloss over the important differences.”
A Holocaust survivor said with a heavy heart: “The ones who want to dialogue aren’t the ones we need to worry about.”
Call me idealistic, but I think interfaith dialogue can save lives. My favorite example comes from the memoir of Zivia Lubetkin, the only woman on the command staff of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1940, Lubetkin and fellow youth leaders took in the orphaned teens arriving in the Warsaw ghetto. In response to dehumanization of Jews, they organized underground schools for their teens. In response to scarcity, they organized work permits. When scarcity progressed to starvation, they put the teens to work in soup kitchens. When they learned of the death camps, they armed the teens, fought alongside them, and helped survivors escape. At every step on the way, they worked with contacts outside the ghetto: their friends from interfaith summer camp.
Why am I so idealistic when others are so cynical? Why do I hold out high hopes when others lose faith in dialogue? Perhaps it’s partly my open-ended view of what counts as interfaith “dialogue.” Dialogue is conversation, communication, an exchange of speech. Speech comes in many forms, some nonverbal; communication can come simply through shared experience.
Reflecting on the many modes of dialogue, I am reminded of the Kabbalistic concept of four worlds of consciousness. Simultaneously, we live in worlds of action, feeling, thought, and being. Under the rubric of interfaith dialogue, I have participated in projects touching all four worlds.
In the world of action, Ahavat Olam, a Vancouver havurah, has organized a Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry project. Together, Jews and Muslims serve meals at a Christian-sponsored homeless shelter. Discussion of religious differences is not the point. Instead, participants focus on the familiar comfort of working with the same people month after month. Communication about shared values happens in the doing.
In the world of feeling, our regional Christian seminary, Vancouver School of Theology, hosts an annual concert “Musical and Sonic Landscapes in Islam.” Contemporary Islamic composers lead the students in exploring the role of sound in spirituality. Students move, sing, speak – and are surprised by their own confusion, laughter, and mixed feelings. Emotions are aroused, and their meanings discussed. Music communicates by stimulating emotion, which in turn stimulates conversation. This, too, is dialogue.
In the world of intellect, the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community organizes interfaith dialogue panel discussions. Religious teachers and leaders representing Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist groups speak to a deep existential question, such as “How does my religious tradition address suffering?” During the Q & A that follows, attendees ask questions in the language of their own tradition. Sometimes this mismatch of language is strikingly odd, requiring presenters to re-frame teachings most familiar to them. This awkward conversation, too, is dialogue; thoughts are stimulated, and curiosities sparked.
In the world of being, the Vancouver Multi-Faith action society recently hosted an ecstatic “Sacred Earth Celebration.” This interfaith service raised awareness about a shared human concern: the health of our planet. Its intent was not, like so many interfaith services, to declare each community’s commitment or show how each community prays. It was to unite us for an evening into a single community, brought to heightened awareness through music, poetry, images and food. No information about different religious traditions was shared, though elements of all were woven into the service. Just being together in altered consciousness was a kind of soul-to-communication; this, too, was interfaith dialogue.
I agree with the cynics, just a little bit: if you try to reach people by speaking only to one dimension of their experience, you may well find ill-will, ignorance, inaction, fear and disunity. But if you reach out on every level, sharing action, feeling, thoughts and being—as many youth do at summer camp—you just might find one harmonic convergence that grows into a reliable connection.
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The fifth of the Ten Commandments states: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).
My brother and I decided to spend Mother’s Day with our late parents.
No, we did not visit the cemetery. Instead, we sat on the living room floor, sifting through boxes of memorabilia. Without my brother’s guidance, I would have avoided the memorabilia forever. My parents are present in my thoughts, dreams, and feelings; that bittersweet ethereal presence is enough for me. My brother, however, feels that each photo and letter carries their imprint. To honor them, we must witness each one.
As we witnessed this Mother’s Day, we did discover for ourselves a longer life. Letters written to and from our parents connected us across the generations, and with significant events in Jewish history.
During World War II, we learned, our uncle wrote frequently to his younger sister, our future mother. Uncle H, drafted into the U.S. army, found himself stationed in Africa. To his 18-year old sister, he spoke frankly: I’ve been seeing quite a bit of North Africa…don’t let anybody tell you different, it’s war torn.
In March 1943, he wrote: I saw that article about Hitler’s supposed death. It is strictly a matter of speculation as to whether he is alive or not. If he did die I hope it was in the same manner some of our people were forced to end their existences.
Uncle H hated Hitler, but had compassion for ordinary German soldiers, required to serve a terrible cause. He wrote: I’ve spoken to many Italian and German prisoners already. The are a nice lot generally speaking but apparently misguided. They are as one fellow remarked “typically GI.” You know, that’s the army expression for soldiers. It is just the fact that they’re fighting under another flag and for a cause of hatred and injustice. I thoroughly despise what any German soldier represents.
Uncle H applied those same democratic principles when he gave his sister dating advice: I was surprised to learn that you have discarded your democratic views in regard to Service men. The only difference between officers and enlisted men is rank. Under the skin they are all the same. Personally I have had very little if any respect at all for girls who would only go out with officers. It is against my principles and very anti-democratic.
No surprises here: I know the U.S. army had knowledge of the horrible crimes against European Jewry. I know that Uncle H was opinionated; that he was close with his sister; and that she was a tough-minded future policewoman. But, coming through the letters, this all seems like precious new information.
Uncle H, as I knew him, was funny and sardonic, a commentator on the human condition. And here he suddenly was, dropped into World War II, reporting just as I might expect. And here was my mom, a future student of political science, receiving his reports; pondering world events; bemusedly accepting his dating advice, though all potential dates were serving overseas.
I know Mom and Uncle H; I know how they thought and felt. As I imagine them in this historical situation, I see it through their eyes. My own life becomes longer. It extends backward into events taking place before I was born. I participate in them, borrowing sensibilities already familiar to me.
In the self-reflective journey of counting of the Omer, we pause this week on the quality of Netzach, eternity. The word netzach is used eight times in the Tanakh. In some places it refers to God, the unchanging one; in others, it describes a human experience of enduring long suffering. Netzach expresses a divine quality, a sense of time as it might exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Netzach also expresses a human quality, the subjective experience of enduring for a really long time.
My uncle’s letters bring me into netzach. Not the divine kind, eternity beyond the boundaries of human perception, but the human kind, a sense that something endures longer than one might expect. Today, my life seems to extend beyond its boundaries. Events I once thought mythical become a living part of my experience. For me, that’s a very human taste of eternity.
That’s how I feel about being Jewish in general. The sense that I am part of a community whose narrative extends 3,000 years into the past offers me a sense of eternity. This kind of eternity seems attainable. After all, it is only 30 Uncle H’s ago. But it also seems divinely soul-expanding. To reach it, I imaginatively join with with other minds, experiences, and stories. When I honor my ancestors in this way, my own life becomes longer.
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At least, that’s what I’m learning as I reflect this week on the meaning of “strength.”
During the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, Jewish tradition invites us to sefirat ha’omer. Literally, it means “counting of the measure” of barley. And, in ancient Israel, for seven weeks people took daily account of the ripening of the grain. But in medieval, urban, diaspora Europe, Kabbalistic teachers creatively reframed the ritual as sefirot ha’omer: taking account of the sefirot, the spiritual qualities of God as reflected in the human soul.
Each week we are invited to explore the role played in our lives by one of the following inner qualities: Chesed/Love, Gevurah/Strength, Tiferet/Balance, Netzach/Endurance, Hod/Gratitude, Yesod/Foundation, Malchut or Shechinah/Presence.
Towards the end of this week of gevurah, strength, I find myself inspired by psychologist James Hillman. We talk so much about “ego strength” and “integration,” says Hillman, that we have only one picture of the healthy psyche: one that holds it together through all stress and strain. However, no person’s psyche holds it together all the time. Everyone falls apart once in a while.
Falling apart, which Hillman calls pathologizing, is a normal function of the psyche. It’s actually a strength of the psyche. We fall apart, says Hillman, so that the parts can speak.
Falling apart, however, does not feel good, so we try to banish it by explaining it away. Sometimes we label it by naming a symptom it creates, such as depression. Or we say it’s an appropriate response to a sick society. Or we reframe it as a step on the path to joyful transcendence. But the explanations may not hold anything together. Sometimes a psyche keeps cracking: therapeutic problem-solving doesn’t glue it together, and reaching for God’s pure spirit seems irrelevant.
For me, pathologizing is not merely theoretical; I have lived it for six years. After a car accident, I experienced chronic pain. Then, I experienced exhaustion from a malfunctioning organ. Conditions changed at my job, and my workplace became a daily challenge. My mother and then my aunt declined and died. (I sought treatment for injury and illness, and addressed workplace issues.) Publicly, people knew I was ill and grieving, but they also saw me cheerfully continuing to work, raise teens, maintain friendships, care for sick relatives, blog and more. Subjectively, however, I experienced depression, rage, and anxiety.
My family doctor had me fill out inventories to diagnose depression. My therapist insisted I was responding sanely to abnormal conditions. My colleagues told me to pray about it. My health-educator swore by deep breathing in the shower. A friend suggested I focus on the positive. None of this increased my sense of well-being.
Lately, I have more good days, but I don’t know what I healed from or am moving towards. I do know I met a “me” I didn’t know before, filled with dark passions I thought belonged only to other people. Yes, I am a wiser counselor, parent and friend, with greater empathy and tolerance for a range of emotion. Finally, I understand that the whole range can be indicative of inner strength. Suffering and disintegration are part of the speech of the psyche. Sometimes, when we work too hard to hold a fragile self together, we silence that speech. And sometimes the speech will burst through anyway.
Life requires a great deal of strength, including the strength to face our own selves when we seem to lack it. So I have gleaned, as I take account of my strengths during this week of gevurah.
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As a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?
Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.
One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.
Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.
Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.
As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.
Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?
At our home, the seder is not over until we sing “Chad Gadya“ – making the appropriate animal noises for every verse of this Jewish “House that Jack Built.” When we sing, full of food, wine, and holiday euphoria, Chad Gadya comes out sounding silly. What if it’s really meant to be a serious work of religious poetry? As it turns out, many famous Jewish thinkers have found deep teachings of one kind or another.
Midrashic. The original author of Chad Gadya in plays on a famous midrash (c. 500). The Aramean King Nimrod challenges our monotheistic ancestor Abraham to a theological dialogue. Nimrod suggests that Abraham should worship fire. But Abraham argues that water quenches fire, clouds bring water, wind blows away clouds, and humans can control wind through breath – so if you worship forces of nature, you might as well worship yourself. Nimrod, angry, sentences Abraham to death by fire – but God saves Abraham’s life. Hence, Chad Gadya explains, the Holy One of Blessing can slay the Angel of Death.
Historical. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1997) says that Chad Gadya is an allegory of Jewish history, showing the recurring relevance of the Exodus. Israel is the kid, and everyone else wants to destroy us. But in the end, God saves us. This interpretation is, however, a bit loose, as cat eats the kid in the first verse.
Apocalyptic. Contemporary philosopher Rabbi Neil Gillman says that Chad Gadya celebrates Elijah’s visit to every seder, where he announces the End of Days, the coming of mashiach. At that time, God will triumph over everything, even death. All who once lived will come alive again.
Political. According to Lawrence Hoffman, a contemporary scholar of Jewish liturgy, Chad Gadya warns against taking revenge. The cycle, once started, may never end. Similarly, modern Israeli songwriter Chava Alberstein used Chad Gadya as a metaphor in a 1989 song urging the Israeli military not to retaliate against Palestinian strikes. “Why are you singing Chad Gadya? How long will the cycle of horror last, the pursuer and the pursued, the striker and the stricken?”
Spiritual. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) sees in Chad Gadya an allegory about the inner journey towards spiritual refinement. One who sings Chad Gadya declares: I am the beginning seeker, bought for a blessing, whose creativity is threatened by too much rationality, which is in turn threatened by desire, which is then transformed into passion for the holy, which passion is defeated by the body, causing me to judge others harshly, which I can temper with love, which is sometimes defeated by my shadow side, until God helps me perfect my id.
Ethical. Rav Nasan Adler (1741-1800) taught that Chad Gadya is really a warning against lashon hara (gossip). Once, this controversial rabbi overheard a group of strangers gossiping about him. He walked over and said, “How about that Chad Gadya! The cat that ate the kid did a terrible thing, so the dog was right to bite it, and the staff was wrong to beat the dog. If you follow the logical steps of the song, it seems like God was wrong to punish the angel of death. The song cannot really be criticizing God, so how do you solve the problem?” “You have thought about this a lot, so perhaps you have an idea,” said the strangers. “Indeed I do!” said the Rav. “Actually, the dog was wrong. It was up to the father who owned the kid to punish the cat. The dog should never have gotten involved in someone else’s business!”
Perhaps Chad Gadya expresses the essence of retelling the Exodus story in every generation. Each year, different goals drive us: answering religious questions, learning about Jewish intellectual traditions, grappling with Jewish history, hoping for a just future, growing spiritually, dealing with difficult people and more. If Chad Gadya, a mere fragment at the end of the seder, can spark so much insight, how much more can we glean from the seder as a whole!
My husband and I are binge-watching Lost, a 2004-2010 TV series. An airplane crashes, leaving survivors stranded without rescue on a remote tropical island. The survivors bond as they face the island’s threats together. “Lost is the perfect blend of drama, action, and science fiction,” says my brother. By drama, he means character development. By action, he means shooting guns. By science fiction, he means writers weaving random impossible ideas into a plot.
Except, this week, Lost seems a bit less like fiction. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has disappeared. We do not know if, where, and how the passengers are living. We can read in great detail about attempts to find them — and learn that no one really knows where to look.
This week’s terrible travel news is the flip side of Lost. Viewers of Lost know a great deal about the characters on the island. But we know nothing about the anxious family and friends waiting for news. Nothing about the airlines, governments or rescue crews as they search.
In real life, no one yet knows both sides of the missing jet’s story. But in my own mind, I cannot separate the facts from the fictional story. When I watch Lost, I imagine the untold stories of those who wait. As I read about the search for Malaysia flight 370, I worry about the passengers and crew; I pray for their well-being.
Imagine a story with only two sides, where no one can experience both sides, where anyone who sees one side cannot see the other. Imagine you see only one side. But when you look closely, everything flips around, and now you see only the other side.
V’nahafoch hu, as we say at Purim. It all turned over. Inside-out. Upside-down.
During Purim this year, I had a v’nahafoch hu experience.
You know the ongoing, polarizing debate about Jewish power. Do we, in North America and Israel, have enough power and security? Or are we always battling the beast of antisemitism with money and military strength? Two views, mutually exclusive. Normally, I see only the former.
From that perspective, I cannot stand the triumphalist tone of Megillat Esther. Deep down, I think, I am embarrassed to celebrate Jews winning political power. When history treats us well, we should be pleased with our efforts, providence and luck. But celebration of triumph over others, well, that’s in bad taste. That’s my gut feeling as a fourth-generation American Jew who grew up at ease with both her Ashkenazi ethnicity and American citizenship.
This past Shabbat morning, just a few hours before Purim, v’nahafoch hu—something turned over. A 65 year old man in our congregation, whom I have known for a decade as Mr. I-am-spiritual-but-not-religious, celebrated his bar mitzvah. Throughout the service, he held hands with his 94 year-old mother. Towards the end, he addressed the congregation. “I am the first person of my lineage not to have a bar mitzvah at age 13. I grew up in post-World War II Romania. Where we lived, it was not safe to express our Jewishness. But now, Hitler and his friends are mostly gone, and here I am, in Canada, celebrating my bar mitzvah at 65.” He smiled. All 150 witnesses cried. Except his mother: she laughed and cried at the same time. V’nahafoch hu.
That evening, I experienced the Megillah from the perspective of my Romanian friend. Yes, we are still here! With enough power to live without fear. With enough security to be Jewish, whatever that might mean. Like Mordehai and Esther in the Megillah, we triumphed. But not in their flashy fictional style. We moved forward in real ways, with trauma and heartbreak and a very slow recovery. This Shabbat, one man stepped forward into his sense of Jewish power. Not everyone is ready yet to follow him.
So much in life is hidden from us. Sometimes it takes 65 years, or 94 years, to find what we seek. Often we make the search extra-hard, letting binary thinking narrow our perception and insight. But if we look closely at the clues offered, everything can shift around, and maybe we can see multiple sides all at once.
May that happen to those who search for flight 370. I will pray for them, for the flight’s passengers, and for its crew.
Clothing 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!
Last 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?
Judaism 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.