It used to be that most Jews affiliated with a synagogue. My parents’ generation supported their synagogues and the organized Jewish community because they believed we were “one people”, responsible for each other. They honored their congregations’ rabbis and looked to them for guidance. Yet, these norms have now evolved into entirely new realities, with changing values and assumptions.
My young adult children live in a very different world from the one in which I was raised. Few of their generation choose to be members of synagogues, and they dislike rabbis who lecture them about what to believe or do. But they are just the crest of the wave that includes many of my boomer generation, who increasingly reject commitment to synagogues. They respect rabbis only when they inspire and serve them in intensely personal and meaningful ways, often ‘in the moment.’
It used to be that rabbis who served Jews independently (derisively called “rent-a-rabbis”) were not highly respected within the community. Yes, some individuals do call themselves rabbis yet lack communally recognized rabbinic ordination or appropriate knowledge and expertise.Yet, it is also the case that some very fine rabbis of upstanding credentials and experience are now functioning independently, serving unaffiliated Jews in a variety of ways.
Some rabbis consider this to be unfair competition with synagogues. Rightly so, they feel that Judaism is not a commodity that is bought and sold – it is a commitment to being part of the Jewish people, found within community.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
Synagogues will certainly remain essential for Jewish community. Along the way innovative leaders are creating new modes of Jewish belonging and inspirational spiritual experience for the Jewish people and fellow travelers.
Now rabbis who are providing personalized, independent rabbinic services are spiritual leaders who are meeting people where they are to help them find Jewish fulfillment and connections. With skilled rabbis helping Jews and fellow travelers to find their way within the Jewish community, so much more is possible. With professional rabbis offering this service to individuals and fellow travelers, there is room to build on the pride that 94% of surveyed Jews express at just being Jewish.
That is why I am excited to be going independent. Amidst Jewish communal hand wringing about the dramatic decline in affiliation rates, I am shifting into another gear as a rabbi. It is time to teach, guide, facilitate, officiate and lead from outside the box.
I will soon launch a new center for Jewish learning and experiences. Through it, I will also seek ways to collaborate with local rabbis and communities whenever possible. We are all in it together. ”The times, they are a’changin.” The Jewish people and our fellow travelers need us.
What gift to get for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? The challenge with gifts for a life cycle event is two fold. On the one hand you want to give something that is relevant and meaningful to who the person is. On the other hand this gift is meant to mark an exceptional moment and as such we might hope for a gift that either endures or creates meaning. Most of whom a child is at 13 is not likely to endure, and for the most part is a good thing. So finding a fitting gift can be complicated. Moreover, becoming bar or bat mitzvah is about moving towards adulthood not necessarily about staying where you are. And if you opt for trendy you might end up with one of many which for many years ago was personalized Lucite and for my brother calculators. So finding the ‘right’ gift can be challenging.
My daughter and her friends are in the midst of becoming bat and bar mitzvah and I’m hoping to side step the accumulation of Lucite and calculators which besieged me and my brother when we reached that stage. Here are some of the better ideas I’ve gathered so far. I’d love to hear from you about the best (or worst) gifts that you have given or received.
Books: Sure books are old fashioned and may not be relevant in twenty years but they can be meaningful on several levels. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is in no small part about Jewish learning so helping set up a basic Jewish library is entirely appropriate. What to give? A Bible (I’m partial to The Jewish Study Bible) a haggadah with cool commentary or pictures (Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday) other basics include books on Jewish humor, Jewish women or the The Book of Jewish Why.
Secular books can also have staying power. I still have the complete works of Shakespeare cousin Tamar gave me and the atlas cousins Phil and Gil gave me was used up until google maps took over. Jewish educator, Tamar Rabinowich, recalls that, “ I got an entire beautiful collection of the Bronte sister’s books – loved them especially in my late teens.” Similar kinds of classic works can be influential.
Art: Nice art endures. As Debbie Fein-Goldbach of Toronto explains “My favorite Bat Mitzvah gift was a limited edition framed print. Owning some ‘art’ made me feel so grown up.” A print I was given at 13, hangs I my living room even today.
Jewish ritual items: There are particular items that one needs to fulfill Jewish rituals. Many make quite lovely gifts. Everyone can use candle sticks, a Kiddush cup, a Hanukkah menorah, havdalah set, and a mezuzah. The more religious types might appreciate a yad (the pointer used when reading Torah), tefillin or a tallit. Some of these can get kind of pricey, so Andrea Hodos of Moving Torah recommends doing what she and some friends did for a child in their community, “getting together to purchase tefillin.” You may of course not be the only one thinking in this direction, as Career Coach and mother of two Pearl Mattenson warns, “kiddush cups were so popular among my boys’ friends that we can open up a store at this point.” A tallit is often given by a family member so check in before going ahead with a purchase.
Cash: Yes, admittedly it is crass but it is also very useful and is often used by kids to make some of their first adult purchases. My husband pooled his money and bought himself a computer which in the early 1980s put him ahead of the curve on his way to a life time love of technology. Others have used it for buying cars, a trip to Israel, or paying for college. It is also common for b’nai mitzvah to give a portion of their gifts to charity so it may go to a good cause. Denominations of 18 (which is linked to life) are considered good luck.
Tzedakah: Teaching kids about philanthropy as a means of helping them grow is a wonderful gift. I’ve seen several people give two checks, one for the child and the other one to be filled out for the organization of the young person’s choosing. Sometimes a straight donation will do wonders, especially if there is a cause that is near and dear to the heart of bar or bat mitzvah. Author Amy Meltzer gives out Kiva Cards which help to facilitate the giving process.
Sports Memorabilia: Sport team affiliation endures and memorabilia from a beloved team or player are likely to mark both the moment and feel timeless. If you want to give it a Jewish spin, educational consultant and Hebrew School teacher Nancy Martin suggests a ”rare baseball card and poster of famous Jewish player who played for bar/bat mitzvah’s favorite team.”
Jewelry: This is a popular choice. Wearing jewelry is part of being grown up and nice pieces can endure as we grow. Items can be Jewish or not!
A truly personal gift: If you know the kid well, you know better than anyone what might be the right thing. Tickets for an outing? A photo of the family dog? A framed copy of the invitation?
You tell us, what is best to give or to avoid?
You may have caught a couple of stories that have been spreading virally over blogs and Face book the last couple of weeks. Both share one theme in common – in simple and unassuming ways, ordinary people acting morally or compassionately. In the first story, a fellow traveler on a subway line caught a picture of an African-American man taking a nap on the shoulder of a white man wearing a kippah. I mention the specifics of ethnicity and religious identity here because I believe they are relevant to the impact of the story and the way it went viral. More on that in a moment. In the second story, a rabbi in New Haven bought a second hand desk and, upon taking it apart to fit it through a door at home, discovered $98,000 hidden inside it. He called the previous owner and returned to her what happened to be an inheritance that she had hidden there years ago.
Why have these two stories caught the imagination of so many? They may have particularly moved Jewish readers, pleased (or perhaps even relieved) to see a story featuring a fellow tribe member in such a positive light, but clearly these stories have spread far beyond our own community. Are we surprised to see such acts of kindness, compassion and honesty in a world where we have come to expect only self-interest and getting ahead? That might be the cynic’s response, but I think there’s more to it than that.
First, let me back to the detail of ethnic and religious identity in the first picture. While I don’t believe for a moment that this had anything to do with the motivations of the individuals themselves, from a purely pragmatic perspective, I do think it had something to do with why the picture went viral. Think for a moment; if it had been two white or two black people side by side, with no distinguishing garb to demonstrate the difference in some aspect of their identity, would this have caught the photographer’s eye? There might have been an assumption that these were two friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. So, while it might detract a little from the overall ‘feel good’ of this story, I think it is hard to deny that part of the impact of the image is the underlying assumption that these two individuals were not previously connected in any way. There’s a whole other narrative we could write about that but, for now, let’s stay with the positive. What I see here is a visual cue that is largely interpreted as ‘the kindness of strangers’.
Likewise, the Rabbi who returned $98,000 had made a transaction for a second-hand desk with someone with whom he previously had no connection. So we see two examples of people acting kindly and morally toward others because of some inner calling that directs them to interact with others in these ways in these particular moments. And, in both cases, what drives that decision is consideration of the ‘other’. As Isaac Theil was reported to have said to the traveler who took the photo, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”
I’d like to suggest one other frame for both of these stories. We are presented with individuals who, by appearance or title, are assumed to be observant Jews. While I know that many others without such an identity may have acted in exactly the same way in these circumstances and, in fact, people are demonstrating these acts of kindness every day (but rarely to this attention because there is nothing remarkable about their identity to make them stand out from the crowd), I think that many may be assuming that an underlying spiritual ethic is at least a part of the story here.
And certainly, Jewish ethics are in alignment with the choices that were made in these stories. So often, when I talk about Jewish ethics as abstract theory, I will find my students (teenagers or adults) reflecting on what feels like lofty ideals to aim toward but that are hard to truly live up to in practice. Many of the stories we have to illustrate these values are drawn from times and places that seem so distant from our own, featuring exemplary figures who are hard to emulate. Take, for example the following ethical statement that can be found in our morning liturgy:
“May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui]. It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?” (cited from The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud, By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing).
And here is a story that illustrates this principle:
The Chaffetz Chayyim was once given a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver, unaware of the identity of his passenger, stopped the carriage near a grove, and stepped down. After instructing the Chaffetz Chayyim to ‘call out if anybody sees me,’ he started to gather fruit from the trees in the field. Within a matter of seconds, the Chaffetz Chayyim called out in an agitated voice, ‘We are seen, we are seen.’ The frightened driver dropped the fruit, rushed back to the wagon, and drove off in great haste. After he had driven for a minute or two he turned around and saw that the road behind them was empty. He turned to the Chaffetz Chayyim in anger, saying, ‘Why did you yell out like that? There was no one watching me.’ The Chaffetz Chayyim pointed skyward: ‘God saw what you were doing. God is always watching.’ (as told by Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol 1: You Shall be Holy, p. 489).
Perhaps what we have in these two recent stories are simply contemporary examples of a spiritual ethics story; ones that we can relate to, that we can discuss and debate, find ourselves in more easily and, ultimately, be inspired by.
Can a 6’5’’, 310 pound man be bullied? Prior to this week, many of us probably thought such a question to be absurd. But the recent allegations surrounding the treatment of Jonathan Martin, a 24 year-old right tackle for the Miami Dolphins, should cause all of us to take a step back and reassess the complexity of power relationships.
The drama surrounding Martin grows more surreal each day. He left his team after a lunchroom hazing incident and checked himself into a treatment facility for emotional distress. Then a voicemail message from his teammate and fellow offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, surfaced in which Incognito berated Martin with racial slurs (including the use of the N-word), death threats, and physical threats against Martin’s mother. Additional allegations surfaced involving physical, verbal, and financial hazing by Incognito and others against Martin. Incognito, who was kicked off two teams in college and was voted the NFL’s dirtiest player in the past, has been suspended by the team.
Incredibly, rather than rallying in support of Martin, many of Martin’s teammates, and other NFL players, have at least partially blamed Martin! As Antrel Rolle, a safety on the New York Giants, put it:
“Was Richie Incognito wrong? Absolutely. But I think the other guy is just as much to blame as Richie, because he allowed it to happen. At this level, you’re a man. You’re not a little boy. You’re not a freshman in college. You’re a man.”
As a football fan, a parent, and a rabbi, I am appalled by the harassment Martin was forced to endure and even more appalled by those who fault Martin for breaking a code of silence or for not being “man” enough to retaliate physically. Many in the media rightfully have been quick to vilify Incognito and decry the destructive machismo of the football locker room. I am glad that Incognito, and the racist, homophobic, “warrior man” culture he embodies is being addressed. Yet Martin is a multi-millionaire adult with a degree from Stanford. Whether or not he plays football again, I believe he has the resources to come out of this ordeal and go on to lead a healthy, productive life.
But what about all those who are bullied yet lack the support systems or resources to cope with its destructive impact? What about the 15 year-olds like Jordan Lewis of Chicago, who killed himself because he couldn’t tolerate the bullying in his school? Or Rebecca Sedwick, the Florida teen who jumped to her death from a silo because she couldn’t handle the onslaught of online bullying from fellow teenagers, one of whom responded to her death by posting on Facebook: “”Yes I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a f—k.”?” I could go on and on, but instead I urge you to just google “teen” “bullied” and “suicide”: the sheer number of hits, of lives lost to bullying, is sickening.
So where do we go from here?
The ugly truth is that we all have some Richie Incognito inside of us. In our various relationships with others, there are times when we have relatively more power than others and a temptation to exploit that power for our personal gain. We don’t like to admit this. How often do we look in the mirror and point the finger at ourselves, at how we conduct ourselves in our own “locker rooms?” Even where we are not the actual perpetrators of bullying, how often do we permit a permissive bullying culture to persist around us? ADL and others have developed incredible resources for combating bullying, including resources for families to use with one another. It is incumbent upon us, as rabbis, parents, teachers, and members of a community where our youth are essential to our survival and prosperity, to shine a spotlight on the permissive culture of bullying and demand that we change. We need to insist that our religious schools, youth groups, and other fora where vulnerable and impressionable children and teenagers find themselves are safe spaces. We need to affirm, not marginalize, their value as unique and special human beings is affirmed. We need to be vigilant against “just letting things slide,” or minimizing the impact of harmful words or actions. The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 58b) teaches that “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood.” We all have the potential to shed this blood, but we also have the potential–and the obligation–to ensure that this blood is no longer spilled.
You might also be interested in: Should a Known Bully Be Allowed to Become a Bar Mitzvah?
There has been a tremendous amount of ink spilled and keys pressed discussing the finer details of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Why has Conservative Judaism experienced such a sharp decline in the past 20 years? Why did so many Jews raised Orthodox 65 and older leave Orthodoxy (22%) while so many 30 and under remain Orthodox (83%)? Perhaps the most perplexing question: Who are the 1% of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that had a Christmas tree in their home last year?
These questions and so many more have been debated and argued about extensively in the weeks that have followed since the publication of the survey. The survey shows a Jewish community that is increasingly becoming more divided between those who affiliate and those who do not and between those who are on the liberal spectrum and those on the Orthodox spectrum. However, sometimes when examining the macro situation it is worthwhile to zoom in on the micro as the micro can be helpful in understanding the larger picture. After all, a large picture is only but a collection of many smaller pictures sitting together on the same canvas.
This week we welcomed our second son into the covenant of the Jewish people at his brit milah ceremony. It was a beautiful and joyous event that we were blessed to share with members of our synagogue community. It was also an incredible display of broad Jewish community and Jewish affiliation. In the room there were Jews who affiliated with synagogues of every denomination and Jews who affiliated with no synagogue. In contrast to the picture that is painted by surveys of the American Jewish landscape, the ceremony for our son was an example of what is happening on the ground in so many places, including our city of Denver.
Above is a picture of many of the rabbis of Denver who I have been blessed to call my friends and colleagues who joined us at the brit milah of our son, Moshe Aharon.
I present this as just one small illustration of all the cross-denominational community building and friendships that are formed throughout the contemporary American Jewish story. It is time we focused less on the results of surveys and more on the work of community collaboration and building bridges, which is at the heart of what can be an even more vibrant American Jewish story.
The confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah seems to have brought more than the usual rush of madness to Hanukkah, which has become a major holiday in the USA by virtue of its usual proximity to Christmas. Although most of the Thanksgivukkah posts have been at least a bit tongue-in-cheek (other than the ones with recipes, which all look either terrifyingly heavy, or not particularly appetizing), one article I saw recently castigated the Thanksgivukkah celebrants, pointing out that Thanksgiving was not, and is not, a celebration for Native Americans, who remember it a bit more as the beginning of the end of their cultures, a destruction of their peoples, and as the beginning of the theft of their land.
Dare I say it? It’s something for us to consider that people at the borders of cultures can see the very same thing quite differently—and here’s your dangerous aside: It’s legitimate for Native Americans to mourn this day, just as we celebrate it, and it is legitimate for Palestinians to observe their Nakba, or catastrophe, rather than Israeli independence—without it meaning unending hatred of either side for the other—only history that must be understood and moved forward from.
Native Americans and non-Native America have a quieter, but no less fraught relationship. Native Americans still suffer from poverty, and violence. They will never, though, have full sovereignty of their original lands, which makes sympathy easier—at least in part because we have no expectation that we will ever have to give up anything. But there was a time when Native Americans were portrayed as dangerous savages, people who would rape or steal your women, scalp you in your sleep, or any number of other stereotypes—and everyone knew these things as truths.
Today, there are still plenty of places where stereotypes of Native Americans continue—not the least of which is the noble tribal elder, or primitive wisdom hawker, no less than the shiftless alcoholic, and there are places and people who know these to be “truths,” as well.
In the Middle East, our “truths” are just as hard, our stereotypes just as firm, and we are just as distant from seeing one another as people. But we also should have hope. Perhaps someday, Thanksgiving will come to be a symbol of overcoming years of prejudice and wrongs. and perhaps someday, there will be a day that Palestinians and Israelis, too, can celebrate together, remembering a time when we were enemies, but were able to make peace, and eventually became neighbors, and who knows—maybe even allies.
We are in a moment now, when that could begin to happen—if. If we are willing to step out of the stories that we know to be true, and take a breath for a moment instead of repeating the histories that are our own perspective. Not because they are wrong, but because at this time, in this moment, they are not helpful. They will be, someday, something we can talk about together, but when we come together to discuss how to make peace, they turn into a whose-victimhood-is-more-important contest. If we stop insisting on the stories that we usually tell ourselves, and instead look toward the future we could build, then it could be no dream.
We can’t be Pollyannas about it—it does mean that we—both—will have to give things up. Not least of which is the idea that the Palestinians have given nothing up. Not least of which is the idea that all descendants of the Palestinians will be able to return. But it will be worth it, because the foundation of the world is built on peace, truth, and justice, as Pirke Avot reminds us, and it is in our hands to make those foundations firmer.
“Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay a total of $2.2 billion and plead guilty to a misdemeanor in a deal that would settle U.S. Department of Justice investigations into the marketing of antipsychotic Risperdal and other drugs.” – The Wall Street Journal.
The Talmud records that the very first thing a person is asked upon death is the question, “Were you honest in business?”
Gordon Gekko taught us that “greed is good.” The central purpose of a corporation is to make a profit; not, by contrast, to make the world a better place. To prey on an unsuspecting population is reprehensible and abhorrent. The same actions, if made by a person, would not just be criminal, but the individual would be considered a dangerous sociopath. Yet, for some reason, we Americans accept this behavior from corporations.
Can you imagine what would happen if someone in your neighborhood admitted to pushing drugs on the elderly and making mountainous profits from it? The dealer would be incarcerated. They would take away his voting rights; and heaven forefend, his gun ownership rights. The sociopath would be serving a life sentence. The government considers corporations as individuals regarding freedom of speech (see the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Case), but the law gives corporations a privileged eye when it comes to crimes that help the company’s bottom-line at the expense of public safety.
Apparently, J&J encouraged the use of the anti-psychotic for off-label use. They worked with old-age homes and large pharmacies to push the drug as a treatment for dementia – an application the drug was never approved for. People are hemming and hawing about the clumsy launch of healthcare.gov; they point to it as proof of the issues of “big government” involved in healthcare, all the while ignoring a very real issue in health care: The greed of corporate America.
In his final interview before his death in 1972, Rabbi A.J. Heschel said, “There was an old idea in America, that virtue pays. And the idea was helpful to many people, until some of us discovered that crime pays even more. And it does. So why not commit a crime?” Many American corporation have made the switch from virtue to crime and considered the price of getting caught as simply the price of doing business. Apparently, the investing class accepts this reasoning, as evidenced by Johnson & Johnson’s stock dropping a mere 0.4% after their admission of guilt and $2.2 billion fine.
$2.2 billion dollars is a lot of money, but from Johnson & Johnson’s perspective, it’s just the cost of doing business. Their official response to the guilty plea and the fine was to simply put this behind them. “[This] resolves complex and lengthy legal matters, allowing us to continue focusing our full attention on delivering innovative health-care solutions for patients and their families,” said Michael Ullmann, the company’s general counsel (WSJ).
My concern is not with J&J or with JP Morgan Chase (see a previous blog), or any other corporation. No, my concern is with us, that we have come to accept theft and public endangerment from central corporations with little moral outrage. Greed and indifference are a dangerous combination. Heschel taught that “there is a drive for cruel deeds in all men, as there is a drive for goodness in all men. But you need more than a drive for goodness to overcome the drive for evil. You need some greater help. And that greater help, I believe, is a little fear and trembling and love of God.”
One might not need God to be good. Perhaps surprising to some, numerous Jewish text support this notion. However, corporations such as Johnson & Johnson show us exactly what lacking a strong moral compass can lead to.
Imagine the uproar that would happen if a rabbi said that he or she composed a new Torah. The rabbi would face criticism across the board.
Recently one of our Rabbis Without Borders, Rabbi Zach Fredman shared a new “Torah” called The Maqam Project with some rabbis on a listserv. The negative reactions came swiftly. Not knowing that a “maqam” is a is an Arabic musical scale, similar to a jazz mode, which repeats a musical theme while allowing for and encouraging improvisation and has been used for centuries by Syrian Jews as a means of interpreting Torah, the rabbis on the listsev reviled Rabbi Fredman’s supposed “Torah.” Some ungraciously asked who was this guy? Was he even a rabbi?
Imagine their surprise when it turned out that Rabbi Fredman is reviving an ancient Judeo- Arabic tradition of Torah study. What he is doing may be new to us, but is actually quite old. Each weekly Torah potion has a melody that goes with its story line. Rabbi Fredman studied these melodies and then teamed up with another rabbi, James Stone Goodman, to create an interplay of poetry and music which explains the main themes in the weekly Torah portion.
Both the music, which has a distinctive Arabic sound and the spoken word, might sound strange to our Western ears. This is not how my Eastern European ancestors learned Torah. It is different, but it is also traditional Torah. What is old becomes new again.
The Maqam Project is border pushing in the Jewish world. It causes people like me, an American born and raised Ashkenazi Jew, to expand my understanding of what Torah is and how I can access it. I find it both unsettling and beautiful at the same time. I am thankful to have been given a new way to approach Torah.
Take a listen. I would be curious to hear your reactions.
On October 1 (and about four and half weeks early), my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world. It truly was every bit as incredible, miraculous, joyous and nerve-wracking as everyone told us it would be. We can’t quite believe we have brought a new person into this world, and every time I hold her, or feed her at 3:30 AM, or bless her on Shabbat, when I look at her, all I can think of is, “Who will she be?”
As a rabbi, I live in a world where I regularly experience a whole lifespan in the stretch of just a few days. I hear young parents sharing their hopes for their brand-new child on one day, and hear grown children sharing their memories of their recently-deceased parent on the next. I see parents cry with joy as their children become bar or bat mitzvah, and see people of all ages cry with anger and frustration as they struggle with the challenges life throws at them.
But while I have had the title “rabbi” for a few years, I have had the title “daddy” for just under a month. Naturally, this new relationship is causing me to think of all sorts of questions: “What are things that my daughter will say and do that will crack me up? What challenges will she face in life? Will I have any chance of keeping it together when she becomes bat mitzvah? And what will my daughter say about me as a father when I am gone?”
What compounds all of these questions is the fact that right now, her communication consists of eating, sleeping, crying and pooping. Yes, I am thinking about the life she is going to lead, but the truth is, neither of us have any real idea of what she will sound like, look like or act like three months from now — let alone three, thirteen or thirty years from now.
My sister — who has a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old — once told me that, “When it comes to children, you can’t interpolate out, but you can extrapolate back.” In other words, when we are looking at the next generation and wondering what children will look like, sound like and act like years down the road, there simply isn’t enough data to make any sort of accurate prediction. But when we look back, when we study old baby pictures or tell stories about when kids were even younger, we can often say, “You were like that from the time you were a baby.”
So whether it was the way they loved to be rocked, or that they always hated being cold, or how if they had a choice between eating and sleeping, sleeping would win, there seem to be certain personality traits that stay consistent throughout life. But the only way we recognize them is when we reflect back — we can’t predict them in advance.
That’s why one of my favorite quotes is from Soren Kirkegaard: “Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.”
After all, we humans are meaning-making creatures. We have all sorts of things happen to us, and we don’t always understand why. It is only when we can put them into a story that they start to make sense. I don’t believe that “Everything happens for a reason,” because that creates a very challenging theology (did God really look down on the earth and say, “I’m going to give that person cancer”?). Instead, I believe that no matter what happens, we can look back on events and try to make sense and meaning out of them. What can we learn from our experiences and how can we grow from them?
As Jonathan Gottschall explains in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, ”The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. It is what makes life more than blooming, buzzing confusion.” (102) The reason I have no idea what kind of person our daughter will be is because at one month old, her story is just beginning to unfold. Only after she has more life experience will she be able to tell it and tell us “who she is.”
And there is another level to the story of who our daughter is, as well. Like most Jews, my wife and I named our daughter after people we loved who have passed away. Yes, their lives have ended, but the values that they taught us are inspiring the way we are trying to raise our daughter. And so God-willing, she will lead a life that will inspire the values of those who will come after her. Our daughter’s personal story is in the context of a larger narrative.
Indeed, for all of us, while our past has guided us towards who we are, we are the ones who construct our life story. And when we see ourselves as one link in a long chain of tradition, we miraculously bring both the past and the future into each and every moment of our lives.
Because ultimately, the answer to the question “Who am I?” is a dynamic one. It is always changing. So who will my daughter be thirty years from now? Ask me in 2043. All I know is that right now, she is someone my wife and I are simply loving getting to know.
My colleagues Joshua Ratner and Alana Suskin have offered their perspectives on kids trick or treating, and generally engaging (or not) in this week’s Halloween rituals. Notwithstanding all that they have already said about the opportunities to bring Jewish values to bear on everything from respect for the dead to the choice of candy purchased, I’ve often used this time of year as an opportunity to share some interesting and lesser known dimensions of Jewish thought and folklore. When it comes to questions of ghosts, spirits, and questions of the afterlife, I am fascinated not only by the content of the ideas found in our tradition, but in the human questions and needs that drive them.
There is a vast menu of beliefs and ideas to choose from when it comes to questions of the afterlife in Jewish teachings. One of the best surveys of the entirety of our tradition over the centuries can be found in Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael‘s book ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife‘.
If we begin with Biblical sources, the fact that is often most novel to those I have studied with is not the fact that consulting with mediums and those who can speak with ghosts and spirits is banned in biblical law, but that the tradition clearly accepts the existence of such spirits and the possibility of communicating with them. Much of Jewish law is concerned with not mixing categories or crossing boundaries set between two things, and so it is no surprise that the crossing of the ultimate boundary between life and death would be taboo. And yet, in I Samuel, 28, when King Saul is desperate for guidance from his deceased advisor, the prophet Samuel, he breaks the very law that he himself has enforced in his kingdom, to communicate with the dead. He finds ‘the witch of Endor’ to assist him:
28:7 Then said Saul to his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.’ 8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine for me, I pray of you, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name to you.’ 9 And the woman said to him: ‘Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’ 10 And Saul swore to her by the Eternal, saying: ‘As the Eternal lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.’ 11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ 13 And the king said to her: ‘Be not afraid; for what do you see?’ …
While rabbinic literature develops ideas about where we go after we die, the purification of the soul in Gehenna, and the existence of a ‘world to come’ (a term which is used to mean multiple things), it is in Kabbalistic literature (the Zohar) and later Hasidic sources that are infused with the teachings of Jewish mysticism that we find the richest well of writing on ghosts and spirits, and the ability for such entities to make themselves known in our world. Clearly, these ideas drew on beliefs and folklore from other cultures and traditions in the places where Jews lived, but they take on their own, particular Jewish flavor. Kabbalah speaks of the three (and later five) levels of the soul and, while the highest level is reunited with the Source of all Being, the lowest level was believed to still be present, and wandering in our material world, at least until the physical body from whence it came has decomposed in the ground.
A ‘good’ spirit was an ‘ibbur’ and could inhabit the body of another living person for some period of time as an ‘additional soul’. Its purpose was often to help in a matter of this world and, when the help had been received, it would leave and continue on its journey.
A malevolent spirit was a ‘dybbuk’, understood to be the lower soul of someone who had done something so unspeakable that this level of soul could not even enter Gehenna for purification, but was condemned to wander out of body. When it came across a living person who also had committed a particularly serious sin, or was vulnerable because of being in some transitional state (about to get married, pregnant, for example), it had the possibility of entering a human body to possess it, and the end of such a story was seldom good. A classic play, that was also made into an early silent movie, featured such a story of ‘The Dybbuk’. Stories such as these had power in communities prior to the time that conditions that today we would recognize as epilepsy, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder, were understood.
This weekend I’m coming to the end of a short course I’ve been teaching at my congregation on Jewish views of the Afterlife. While the historical review of beliefs, folk tales, and rituals, has been educational, the most powerful part of our time together has been the sharing of experiences when we have felt the presence of a loved one who has died. Many have had experiences at the time of someone’s death, or in the months following, myself included. While there are many possible explanations for these experiences, including psychological explanations, the emotional power behind them provides a great deal of comfort and, for many, the hope that there is a reality to a ‘world to come’ where the spirit or soul continues, and where we will be reunited with loved ones.
So… whatever you do or don’t do with your children at Halloween, the pervasive presence of images and stories of ghosts and spirits at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to dip into Jewish sources on these topics, reflect and share together and ask yourself, ‘what do I believe, and why do I believe it?’