The NSA knows who you called last Tuesday at 8:00pm—should you care?
From an American civil liberties perspective, we have seen and heard a cacophony of reaction ever since news broke last Thursday, June 6, that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been given access to millions of our phone records, emails, and other personal information. Some see this as the unfortunate but necessary reality of living in a post-9/11 world in which the government needs greater access to information to combat terrorist threats. Others see this as a Constitutional violation of our privacy rights. Others, especially younger Americans who grew up with Facebook and Twitter, seem somewhat indifferent to the idea that the government is monitoring their communications. As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently put it, “After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”
The key to this issue, I believe, is whether we can trust our government to use Big Data appropriately and judiciously; whether government can exercise self-restraint given the powerful technological tools at its disposal. Given this context, I think Judaism has a lot to say about how we ought to respond to the NSA story. Specifically, I suggest that both Torah and Jewish history urge us to towards a cautionary and skeptical approach to this type of governmental expansion of power. The historical argument requires little explanation here. Jews have been subject to the whims of governments for millenia. As but one example, much of the medieval history of European Jewry—whether in Spain, Portugal, England, France, or Italy—is simply the history of Jewish communities first being welcomed and then expelled. There were often reasons for optimism during the “Golden Years” of expanding opportunity and tolerance, whether in 13th century Spain or 19th century Germany. But government overreach into Orwellian states of horror were not that far away. And we, as a people, continue to have a moral imperative—both out of self-preservation and out of a desire to be a light among nations—to speak out against contemporary instances of government overreach. (Are we also allowed to kvell about the fact that the reporter who broke the story is a Jew named Glen Greenwald?)
What about Torah? It turns out that the Torah portion this week, Parashat Hukkat, has something to say about governmental overreach in times of crisis. In Numbers 20, mid-way through the portion, the Israelites lack water and complain to Moses and Aaron about their conditions. It is the latest in a litany of grievances offered up by the Israelites since they began their journey from Sinai. While Moses has been patient with them up till now, even interceding with God on their behalf when God grew wrathful with their complaints, this time Moses loses his cool. God tells Moses to take his rod, assemble the community, and order a rock to yield water for them to drink. Instead, Moses takes his rod, yells at the Israelites, and strikes the rock with his rod. Water pours forth and the community drinks, but Moses and his brother Aaron get punished by God for failing to follow the correct procedures. God tells Moses and Aaron that “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12).
How could Moses, who so punctiliously followed God’s commands, screw up such a simple one? I suggest that, in the heat of the moment, Moses chose expediency over virtue. He had a problem, was angry that the people’s grumblings continued to persist, was given access to a technology that would resolve the problem by creating water, and acted on it.
This preference for expediency over virtue is precisely why we should be worried. If the greatest leader our people ever had, Moshe Rabbenu, was susceptible to using his power in a less than ideal way, then how much the more-so should we expect today’s leaders to overreach? “National security” has become one of the only bipartisan issue there is today, with both Democrats and Republicans sanctioning increased aggregation of power and spending of resources in response to every new threat or crisis. It is at times like these that the wisdom of our tradition, both textual and experiential, should compel us, as Jews, to speak out.
Why do you try to be so inclusive? It’s OBVIOUS that you are liberal because you care about these marginalized groups! Why do you have to be politically correct all the time?
These questions and more are often posed to Orthodox rabbis and individuals who care and advocate for the full inclusion of all Jews in organized Jewish life. Regardless of whether the advocacy is on behalf of people with differing physical and mental capabilities, women, LGBTQ Jews or others invariably there will be those in the community who label those actions of inclusion as gestures of political correctness and/or secular liberal values.
I would argue though that there is a deep underlying Jewish value for the full inclusion of all Jews in Jewish life that does not depend on someone being politically correct or solely motivated by secular liberal values. Indeed, full inclusion is an imperative that serves as a prerequisite for meaningful Jewish life for anyone and its roots are at Sinai:
“In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-2)”
“Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel…’ (19:3)”
“Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!’ and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord. (19:7)”
The Torah in introducing the moment of Sinai emphasizes that all the people were present for the episode of the great theophany. The liberation from Egypt and the journey through the desert were for this experience. The people were forged into a nation through the servitude of Egypt but only at Sinai did they become a nation with destiny.
Rashi, the great medieval commentator, offers the insight quoting the early midrashic work Mekhilta, that the people were as “one person with one heart.” The exceedingly large, disparate and diverse group of Jews encamped in the desert wilderness became unified in heart and soul. Each person valued intrinsically every other person in the community. No one person saw another person as an instrument towards a greater goal or, the reverse, as an impediment towards a desired outcome. Every member of the community was valued. Every member of the community was welcome. Every member of the community was powerfully present.
During the holiday of Shavuot we carve out a single time in the year where we attempt to recreate the experience of revelation. Many people have the custom to stay up all night studying in anticipation for the first rays of light of the revelation. We declare in our prayers that Shavuot is the “time of our receiving of the Torah.” The truth is that while Shavuot is a specially designated time for recreating the Sinai experience, we are called upon to approach God and the Torah anew every day. Every day is a new opportunity to meet God in a revelatory experience through prayer, study and sacred interactions. The aspiration of the synagogue prayer experience is to encounter Sinai anew again every day.
However, the Sinai moment cannot be recreated, the mountain cannot be gathered around and God cannot be heard unless every member of the community is present just as they were at the first Sinai moment in the desert wilderness. The religious life of every Jew and the religious life of the entire community is deficient when not everyone is able to be present. That is why it is so fundamentally important that historically marginalized groups are treated with dignity, respect and honor just like anyone else in the community. When the barriers towards inclusion and access are removed and every member of our community — not just those who already have a seat at the table — are fully present then we will have restored the community to a point ready to encounter Sinai.
Those who see the work of inclusion as a concession to political correctness or some outside values that do not stem from the Torah would do well to hearken to the story of revelation. The story of how a diverse and large group of former slaves found a way to stand next to a mountain with respect and dignity for all paved the way for the chasm between heaven and earth to have been bridged and the Torah, the book that lit the world with Divine meaning and purpose, to be revealed is not just a narrative to be revered but an imperative to strive towards achieving that level of inclusion in our modern communities today.
“There will be no poor among you…” – Deut. 15:4
Last night I was stranded in a Mercedes E Class in the parking lot of my favorite vegan restaurant. It was the most expensive car in the lot by tens of thousands of dollars. Other than the new, sleek black Benz with the dead battery that I was sitting in, the newest car in the lot looked to be a late 90’s Subaru splattered with lefty bumper-stickers and a license plate that read “MS YOGA”.
I called Mercedes’ Roadside Assistant. Katie answered.
“Mercedes Benz Roadside Assistance, this is Katie. Can I help you?”
“I’m in a loaner care from Mercedes Benz of Encino,” I told her, and then I explained that the cool car I had been driving for two days simply would not start.
“Oh, darn,” she said. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” and I believed her. She was upset on my behalf.
Sure there are fancier cars, but you have to understand that everyone inside the Follow Your Heart Cafe is perpetually working on being eco-everything, organic-everything, and decidedly against conspicuous consumption like luxury cars. Though there is a prominently hung quote by His Holiness, the 14th Dali Lama extolling the wisdom of tolerance just inside the doors, nonetheless, I can confirm more than a handful of off-put faces through the restaurants’ windows. I felt I had two choices: A) Try and defend my predicament to every quizzical customer who entered or exited, or B) I could keep my head down and pretend to be on the phone.
I chose B. For the record, I waited just fifteen minutes, but that was long enough to reflect just how it is that I ended up stranded in front of the Follow Your Heart Cafe.
Here is the short version: My teenager crashed our Honda Civic – Nobody hurt. Thank God! The insurance company considered it totaled, wrote us a check, and I bought another Civic, a used one, from our local Mercedes dealer. They assured me that a nice, little old lady had traded it in for a new Mercedes. I drove it around, negotiated the deal, drank two free Diet Cokes from their lobby cooler and then I drove off with it. Two days later, my new-used Civic wouldn’t start. I called AAA to jump the car and while I waited I called the Benz place. “Will you fix it.” Long pause. Please, please, please. “Yes, drive it in.” Yes! I brought it in, they gave me a Diet Coke, but after twenty minutes they informed me that they couldn’t fix it for two days, so they offer me their loaner car in the meantime, a Mercedes E350.
The first place I drove to was my kids’ Jewish private school. My black Mercedes looked at home. As I step out of the car, I smile about the surprise my boys would get when they saw the car. I was still smiling as the driver in the Mercedes next to mine also stepped out. It was one of the school’s board members, and I’m pretty sure he sits on the financial aid committee that I’ve appealed to every year. He wasn’t smiling.
The next place I went was home. My in-laws were there visiting. Let me quote my favorite part of the conversation between my father-in-law and mother-in-law:
“Those Nazis make great cars.”
“What? I’d never buy one, but it’s a great car.”
As I sat in the Follow Your Heart parking lot I realized, that, “hey man” (if you’ve ever visited this retro hippie joint, you understand sounding like The Dude from the Big Lebowski and saying things to yourself like “hey man”). “Hey man, you’re lucky,” I said into my phone to no one but myself. “These are First World Problems.”
Of course it’s true. John Edwards turned out to be a well quaffed liar and cheater, but he was right, there are “two Americas”. In a recent Times’ opinion, Charles Blow cited two studies in this regard:
“From 2009 to 2011, average real income per family grew modestly by 1.7 percent but the gains were very uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 11.2 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes shrunk by 0.4 percent. Hence, the top 1 percent captured 121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.” -Emmanuel Saez, professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent. – The Pew Research Center, April 2013.
“For the poor will never cease to be in the land…” -Duet 15:11
Soon enough the tow truck Katie sent was behind me in the lot. I liked the driver, Henry, right away.
“Trouble with your car, Boss?” He said as we shook hands along side the beautiful dead tank.
We talked for the entire fifteen minutes it took him to jack it up, turn it backwards, and fill out the paperwork. I explain the whole crazy scenario to Henry. Tried to buy a used Civic but end up with a Mercedes. Henry said his wife drives a Civic, but that he drives a 68 VW Bug when not in his tow truck. “It got me back and forth from Compton twice this past weekend. No worries with that car,” he said.
I had a great time driving that car for a few days, even with the trouble it caused me. I was also happy to see the Benz hanging backwards off of Henry’s tow truck.
“Who is truly rich? The one who is happy with what he has.” – Pirkei Avot 4:1
There are at least two Americas. Some of us are duel citizens.
Political discourse finds expression everywhere it can. People discuss their convictions over dinner, at water coolers in the office, in the gym and nowadays through their Facebook profile picture. When the Supreme Court began hearing arguments on two cases related to same-sex marriage people began to change their profile picture to a symbol from the Human Rights Campaign to express their support for complete civil marriage equality. Facebook was painted red as the red logo with an equal sign in the middle became ubiquitous. Those who did not change their picture were almost making a political statement by doing nothing.
I chose not to modify my Facebook profile picture out of a sense of discomfort with politicizing the medium of a profile picture on Facebook. Yet, nonetheless, this is an issue that has great importance. How should a sensitive, politically aware and thinking Modern Orthodox individual approach the topic? There are a multitude of approaches, attitudes and perspectives and what is written here represents no one else other than myself but is one direction that I offer for contemplation.
Melissa on the blog Redefining Rebbetzin contributed her thoughts to the issue and I would highly recommend people to review what she has to say because it is a perspective sorely missing from the current discourse in the Modern Orthodox (or broad Orthodox) community. She essentially argues that there is a fundamental distinction between what we call “marriage” in civil language and what we call “marriage” in a religiously framed Jewish language and they are not the same thing. One can argue for equal rights and protections under civil law for all types of people without needing to compromise the internal theological language of a particular faith tradition.
I believe Melissa is correct in her assessment and that many religiously conservative Jews conflate the two types of marriage and imbue civil marriage with an aura of holiness and sacredness that it does not possess. Perhaps this is an area where many Jews have inadvertently adopted the dominant outlook of the religiously conservative Christian community endowing a mechanism of the state with religious significance.
In addition, I would offer another thought to further the discussion. The words of the German pastor Martin Niemoller are powerful in the sentiment they convey, which should be a guiding principle for all historically conscious Jews:
When the Nazis came for the Communists, I remained silent; I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I remained silent; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.
This famous poem by Pastor Niemoller represents the sentiments of all too many German citizens who did not protest the increasing restrictions of civil protections and liberties by the Nazi government. Each increasing restriction was targeted towards specific minority groups so that others could distance themselves from a sense of responsibility because they were not of that group. Additionally, many people in 1930s Germany (and other parts of Europe) did have significant political, philosophical or theological differences with many groups that were being targeted and of course many were just simply prejudiced towards some minority groups to begin with.
The lesson Niemoller conveys is that when the state begins restricting its protections and rights from one group, or in the case of Nazi Germany actively persecuting one group, it does not take long for other groups to become implicated. The path of civil restrictions with plenty of requisite rationalizations and justifications rarely ends at just one minority group.
Jews, of all minority faith communities, should be hyper-sensitive to the danger of restrictions of civil liberties, protections, rights and benefits against any one minority group. We know, perhaps more than any other faith community, what it means to be denied privileges, rights, benefits and protections because of a litany of justifications and rationalizations. Those justifications changed throughout the course of Jewish history dependent on time, place and culture (i.e. scientific, political, religious, cultural) but they all served the same goal: To deny the Jewish people the same place in the fabric of civil life that others had.
Therefore, it seems both possible and responsible, to both always be on the side of the increasing of civil liberties and protections while firmly holding true to the unique outlook and language of our religious worldview. To do both is to be simultaneously in tune with the imperatives drawn out from two millennia of victimhood and to be faithful to the halakha as understood through the ages.
I will never forget the moment when my daughter came out. She was 5 years old. We were eating dinner as a family. My daughter put down her fork, placed her hand on the table, looked at my husband and me, and said “Mommy, Abba, I’m not going to marry a woman.”
Our daughter had come out as straight.
My husband and I both felt that it was important not to make any assumptions about our kids’ sexual orientation, and to make a concerted effort to reflect that value in conversation. So when we spoke about marriage with our kids, we always said, “If you fall in love with a man or a woman and want to get married,” etc. Turns out that, at least at this point in our kids’ development, both our son and daughter identify as straight. But it could have been different, and we knew that from before they were conceived.
Last week, when I changed my Facebook profile picture to an equality sign made out of matzah, my daughter asked what that was all about. I explained that the United States Supreme Court was in the process of discussing marriage equality and Prop 8 — the same legislation that our family protested four years ago when we lived in California — and that the equality sign affirms that both gay and straight couples who love each other should be able to get married. Her response? “Well, of course.”
But the matzah equality picture actually reflects much more. At our Passover seders last week, Jews throughout the world said “In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.” In other words, we are called upon to not simply understand the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom as the trajectory of our ancestors; rather, we must experience it as our own journey, allowing the story to seep into our very being and inspire us toward further action in our day. In every generation, we must remember our history — and we must use it as a catalyst, inspiring us to have the courage to move humankind to the next stage of liberation.
That next stage of human liberation is right in front of us. The matzah illustrates that this is not merely a secular issue: This is a Jewish issue as well. As a rabbi, my support for marriage equality is not in spite of my religious convictions; rather, it is because of my religious convictions that I stand strong on this issue. In every generation we must remember our oppression and we must work tirelessly to prevent the oppression of others. This is the Jewish way.
I have stood under a chuppah with many loving couples, creating a meaningful space for them to publicly celebrate their deep connection, transforming their partnership into a marriage. I long to live in a country that supports my ability as a rabbi to affirm the love of two consenting adults — whether gay or straight — who want to make a holy commitment to one another.
The word for marriage in Hebrew is kiddushin. Loosely translated as sanctification or holiness, kiddushin literally means separating, making distinct. From my experience working with couples, I can guarantee that each marriage is distinct. They each come with their own blessings and their own challenges. What they have in common is love. Commitment. A desire to spend a lifetime together. A dream of creating happiness with one another. A promise to hold each other up in difficult moments. A conviction to leave this world a little better than the couple found it. Each couple I have married truly believes that they live a more enriched, more meaningful life together than they ever would apart.
Is this kind of holiness limited to straight people? Of course not. It takes love, kindness, respect, a desire to support and build something greater than oneself, the courage to look inward and expand outward, a sense of humor and whole lot of work. Anybody who has a healthy marriage can tell you about that work. Because marriage is really hard. Why would we deny committed, holy love to courageous, determined people simply because of their gender?
My daughter may be straight, but even were she gay, my dedication to this issue would not stem from its impact on my own family. I am passionate about marriage equality because there are many, many people throughout these United States who are currently being denied simple rights that so many of us take for granted.
In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.
It is time to mobilize, to part the seas and walk together to the promised land that the founders of our great nation dreamt into existence. It is time to help our nation become a place that is truly built on “liberty and justice for all.”
“My father was a wandering Aramean.” With this quote, from Deuteronomy 26:5, we begin not only the Maggid (story-telling) portion of our Passover seders but also the very ontology of Judaism as an ethnicity. We originated as a wandering people and, for much of the past 2000 years, have remained a people dispossessed of a homeland, expelled from one location to the next. Migration is interwoven into our national fabric; it is part of Jewish DNA.
That is why I find the paucity of Jewish voices about domestic immigration reform so troubling. Congress is on the verge of addressing comprehensive immigration reform for the first time since the 1980s, but where are our Jewish organizations in this effort? To their credit, the Religious Action Center, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and other large organizations have passed resolutions and issued press releases supporting immigration reform. But where is the passion? Where is the zeal? The Jewish community certainly has it when it comes to issues impacting Israel; in recent years we have mobilized in highly effective ways for Darfur; and most recently have been at the forefront of gun control reform. But on an issue that speaks so deeply to our national consciousness—from the biblical mandate to care for the stranger to our historical experience of exile and persecution—we should be leading immigration reform efforts, not retroactively offering words of support.
Reports this past week suggest that a deal in the U.S. Senate is close at hand, but there are still political battles to be fought. Perhaps most significantly, some members of Congress are still reluctant to include language creating a pathway to citizenship for the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in America, preferring instead a secondary “residency” status. We know first-hand what second-class status means. If we truly care about human dignity, if we embrace the “tzelem Elohim,” the spark of divinity, within each individual, then we ought to speak out in favor of opportunities for full citizenship in the immigration bill.
As we enjoy the last days of Passover and begin the sacred work of purifying our bodies, hearts, and minds in anticipation of Shavuot, let’s commit ourselves to purifying this nation of its immigration blight. Let’s ensure that decent, hard-working people don’t have to live in the shadows, terrified that deportation and exile lurk just around the corner. The transition from exile to redemption is the foundation of our national story. Let’s celebrate this core aspect of Judaism by leading the charge in immigration reform, so that eleven million people likewise can experience a contemporary redemption here in America.
Passover has always been my favorite holiday. I love the foods, seeing my family and my friends who are normally far away, and I love the incredible power of the holiday itself - a message that speaks to people of many faiths, throughout the world, inspiring them with an idea that after thousands of years, remains a powerful and inspirational idea: liberation is possible.
And yet this year, I have to admit: I’m tired. I don’t just mean that the cooking and cleaning balanced with a daily job and family life have worn me out, although there’s some of that. It’s that all my life I have been farbrent (on fire, in yiddish, as my father always says) for the very things that I believe Pesach represents: speaking truth to power, that the status quo is neither natural nor inevitable, that God and community working together can change the course of history and dig a new course for the imagination, leading to new ways of doing, and to new ways of thinking, that freedom is not simply an absence of fetters, but a responsibility and an obligation towards the Good.
But last year, although I still put an orange on my seder plate, I called a moratorium on other items: no tomatoes, no olive oil, no olives, no coffee beans or chocolate. This year: no seder inserts. Any extras came exclusively from the talmud or from a more-or-less traditional commentary (we happen to like the meandering stories of the Ben Ish Chai). I felt just completely worn out by the vast number of projects, problems, issues, wars, oppressions to which I’ve devoted time and energy – and which somehow this year, feel as though they’re never going to go away. And no amount of scrubbing has rid me of that chametz – the chametz of – is it despair? Perhaps not so grand as that: let’s just call it – a fading of energy.
And so yesterday, after we returned to chol hamoed – the intermediate days of the holiday, when we’re permitted to use electronics and the like, thus drawing me back to the sucking hole of the internet – one might think that Facebook would only make it worse. And it kind of did, until I saw a post of the marriage equality image with matzah as the symbol. Well, to be truthful, the first time I saw it, I thought it clever, and then ignored it a dozen or fifty times. Until I saw a response to a snarky post pointing out that the SCOTUS was unlikely to take the many facebook posts into consideration in their decision on marriage equality.
The poster said that he was annoyed by the snark. Of course he knew that one’s Facebook icon wouldn’t change a Supreme Court ruling. But simply seeing all those avatars changed into equality symbols of a dozen different kinds, seeing people whom he had never expected to be supporting marriage equality, seeing the sheer numbers of people – reminded him that he was not alone. That that was the value of those images. And more importantly that even though it’s true that SCOTUS doesn’t vote based on facebook images, society changes when the individuals that make it up change, and that that happens one person at a time, but also in waves, as each one sees another, and realizes that the status quo isn’t right, and that even if I myself, can’t change it all, I can be one drop in the sea, and eventually every tear that falls can make an ocean, when they are counted together.
I know that. I do. And, so, okay, I’m still tired. But the message of Pesach isn’t that I’m supposed to be farbrent about everything. It is that I have my part to play in creating that ocean. I don’t have to be even an entire wave – I can have faith that there are others out there, working hard on these problems along with me, and that together, with God’s help, they will be overcome. Maybe not today, or even this week. Maybe it will be 430 years, although I hope it will be someday, soon, speedily in our day.
As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.
The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!
- Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder. So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
- Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked? The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
- Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah. Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
- Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
- Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus. Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
- Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
- Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy. There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
- We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
- Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom. This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
- Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
- Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
- Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction. We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
- Miriam’s Cup: Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
- Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.
Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!
A couple weeks ago news stations around the country featured the story of an 87-year old woman, a resident of a nursing home in Bakersfield, California, who was denied CPR by a nurse even while the 9-1-1 operator pleaded with her to administer the life saving intervention. The audio recording of that 9-1-1 conversation sends chills down our spine as we listen knowing that her refusal to offer treatment results in that elderly woman’s death. The nurse claimed to the 9-1-1 operator that it was against the policy of the nursing home to attempt life saving intervention by any of the employees and her sole job was to only call for help and wait with the patient. The facility later confirmed that this is indeed their policy.
The response to this incident was an overwhelming display of horror and disgust. How could anyone sit idly by while a person quite literally dies in front of them? This is even more pronounced when the person who refuses to help is a nurse, a member of the medical profession. This case and the wrong committed is so clear and unequivocal that it requires little commentary, if any.
The situations that are obvious are not where the struggle lies. We are defined not by doing the right thing when it was obvious but by the times we navigated uncertainty and chose to act properly and justly. Life is made up more of the gray than the black and white. How do we navigate the uncharted? How do we find direction when there is no immediate and visceral reaction of what we should or should not do?
This is what placing oneself into the fabric of a religious tradition is all about. It is embracing the limits of the “I” and finding strength in shared wisdom and collective insight. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the sooner one can accept the boundaries of what they, alone, can decide or figure out — that not all situations are as obvious in what one should do as the case of the nursing home in California — the sooner one discovers real strength and moral bravery.
Oftentimes, our society’s stark individualism is traced back to the experience of the rugged Western frontier of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. A man or woman who decided to venture out and settle the front range of the Colorado Rockies or attempt to make a go of it in Southwestern Utah by themselves was not only doomed to failure but risked their very lives. The Western frontier would not have been transformed and struggling farms and communities in their infancy would not have overcome all obstacles and survived if not for the total embrace of the power of the “we” and the inter-dependence of one person to the other.
There are times where the decision to make is obvious. Those times we can act alone, confident in our course. The majority of our lives are not composed of such moments. A community of ideas and a faith tradition connect us to wisdom that has been forged through the test of time and hammered in the fires of experience that transcends the lifetime of any one person. Let us not abandon the the power of community and the teachings it offers in the absolute pursuit of the “I”.
Earlier this week, Rabbi Shira Stutman wrote a short essay in Slate about her realization that when she was in middle school, she had been a “mean girl.” After seeing it posted several times in my Facebook feed, I went and read it. I don’t know Rabbi Stutman personally (although we move in the same circles, and people I know and respect like and respect her, and I’m pretty sure we’ve met once or twice), and frankly, my initial reaction to the post was …subdued, compared to – well, certainly compared to a great many of the comments posted.
It was the level of vituperation in the comments that led me to spend some time thinking about whether I had missed something. Certainly, her point that we all struggle to be our best selves and don’t always succeed is not novel. Her opportunity to reflect on whether or not there are still parts of her which bully others, is reasonably laudable. So, what was it that so incensed so many of her readers?
Then this paragraph caught my eye:
The Lavender Ladies, by the way, remain my lifelong friends. They are the ones who I would trust with anyone or anything, the ones who danced at my wedding, who flew cross-country when my father died, who hold my deepest secrets. They now are mothers of daughters, too, deeply involved in the work of justice and of building community. They are Good People. We want our bullies to be Bad People, but, like Whitman says, we contain multitudes.
Certainly all the Lavender Ladies were children, and they grew up. But it is enough to say that they are good people because she trusts them, because she has remained friends with them, because they are deeply involved in work she respects?
They were children who -together- were on the cusp of adulthood, and they acted as a group. She asks herself about whether she is still, somewhere within, a mean girl (an appellation I hate, by the way, for its genderedness – my experience is that boys engage in just the same kind of behavior)? But what now bothers me is that there was no examination of the group dynamic – are they good people, if they act well towards one another? Is that enough? I would say no, it’s not. We know that people act differently in groups, that we are susceptible the actions and attitudes of those around us. The rabbis recognized this – it is why we have Jewish law – halacha is intended to build a community where the group dynamic is influenced from the start. That’s why there is such picayune attentiveness to the minutia of daily life as well as broad sweeping principles in halacha. It’s not sufficient of course, but it may well be necessary.
We know from studies that people are inclined to act well towards people who are in their group. We know that groups can be easily led to be not just competitive, but downright ugly towards those “outside.” We also know how those “in” and “out” groups get formed – often by picking an out group and defining ourselves in relation to it. Groups made this way form easily, and are difficult to break down.
It’s actually pretty likely that all the Lavender Ladies did grow up to be decent people. In fact, they were probably all decent people even in middle school – except when they were together, and happened to come upon the wrong person.
What I would like to see is us questioning ourselves not about whether any of them – by which I mean “us” – are good or bad people, but whether we are good or bad groups. Americans have very little sense of ourselves as being defined by group identities – especially those of us who are or can pass as white. And yet in many ways it is our groups which define us most deeply. There is even a social theory that posits that our personalities are actually only a collection of social ties. It is how we act in our social networks that most shows who we are – and perhaps is most truly who we are. It is easy to be a lion when you’re the only cat in the room.
As adults, we engage in this same kind of behavior more subtly – and more powerfully. How does this kind of group think inform the way we talk about what’s going on in Israel? Between different aspects of the Jewish community? The way we talk about poverty? As children, we can hurt one another badly enough, but as adults, the very same dynamic can play into politics on even a global scale. Rabbi Stutman opened a very important conversation, but if we leave it at one individual examining her actions as an individual, it is simply not enough. Because even if we are not each guilty, we are certainly all, together, responsible.