When Did I Become A Late Person?

lateI was a stickler, emphasis on past tense. I complained about it a lot – why was everyone always late to everything? From social events to work commitments I found it rude and irritating – truth be told still do. It was, maybe even still is my biggest pet peeve, it drives me crazy.

Today the only difference is I am in violation, I am late…often. Usually, it is only a couple of minutes but still, someone’s time is their time. I asked a dear old friend today (when I was late meeting her for our weekly study session) “when did I become a late person?” She said, without missing a beat, “when you had kids.” I smiled and thought can I really blame them?

As a relatively new parent I still feel like a rookie but what I have learned is as a parent no matter what you do it never feels like enough. I try and beat them to the morning punch and prepare the night before, ahead of the game I think. Until the early morning comes and the hectic nature of those wee hours get the better of me. It might be the syrup someone purposely spilled because it seemed fun or simply a need for more time with being held. No matter the reason the minutes seem to tick away from me at a rapid pace—I have to be out the door at 7:45 at the latest and inevitably I am holding a teary eyed toddler at the door handing him off to the babysitter at 7:50 and I don’t even work full time, just a few part time gigs.

The kicker is really it is not enough. Not enough stories, not enough silliness on the floor, not enough patience for their antics or their challenging boundary pushing. There is not enough time in the world to give them what we want to give them or what we want to give our spouses let alone ourselves. The nature of our lives during these heady and overwhelming days of raising kids means falling short over and over again. And really this isn’t only a problem of parenting but of life and relationships, we Jews say “Dayeinu”— ”it would have been enough,” it should be enough but in this way life sometimes it is the reverse—”Lo Dayeinu” (it is not enough); not enough quality time, not enough energy spent on our relationships, not enough patience and growth.

So we are late for meetings, impatient with our children and tired with our spouses. If we try and create a spiritual practice out of our lives, out of parenting what are we to do if we want to elevate these very mundane challenges?

The rabbis teach that within the ark containing the tablets given to Moses containing the Ten Commandments was also the set Moses broke when he came down the mountain to find the people worshiping the golden calf. Why? Perhaps it is because the rabbis understand the nature of family life – we always carry with us the inevitable failures, the fallings short, the moments when we give in to our own pet peeves because we have no choice. We carry those with us alongside the triumphs.
In the end I will probably be late again tomorrow but I am hopeful even while carrying my broken tablets alongside my successes. In the meantime I carry the words of the Irish poet Samuel Beckett once wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” – tomorrow this Ima and Rabbi will try to fall again better.

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Posted on January 24, 2014

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What Makes a Home a Home?

What’s the purpose of having a home? While that question might seem obvious, in fact, it raises some fascinating questions about human biology and archaeology.

In an article entitled “In Search of the First Human Home,” curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History Ian Tattersall asks a fascinating question: what distinguishes a “home” that human beings create from a “shelter” that all animals seek?

BeidhaSome scholars think that the sense of “home” began to arise not from a need for shelter, but a need for community. We humans evolved as nomadic hunter-gatherers, but around 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we began to root ourselves in specific locations. As Tattersall notes, “The decision to stay in one place, at least part of the year, entailed a transfer of individual loyalty from the mobile social group to a particular place.”

“Home,” in other words, is more than just a space—as we evolved as humans, “home” became a place with deep emotional significance. And in Judaism, a “home” is more than just four walls; it, too, is supposed to be a place with a strong sense of holiness.

When I work with wedding couples, I do one session with them where they reflect on the homes in which they grew up. What did they see in their parents’ relationship? What do they want to bring in from their past into this new family they are creating? What do they want to leave behind?

Then, we start to think about the future, and the Jewish home they will be creating together. I then share with them just how important the home is within Jewish thought.

For close to 1000 years, God’s dwelling-place was thought to be the Temple in Jerusalem (in Hebrew, the location of the Temple Mount was Har ha-Bayit, or “The Mountain of the House”). But in the year 70, the Romans came and destroyed the Temple, leading to a huge question facing the Jewish community — will God still be with us if the Temple no longer existed?

The Rabbis answered with a resounding “yes”…although God would have to move into two new primary locations. The first, and less important one, would be the synagogue. The second, more important location where God would live would be the home. Jews were to make their home a “mikdash me’at,” a Temple in miniature, or as it’s often phrased, “a small sanctuary.”

“So,” I then turn to the wedding couple, “how will you make your home a mikdash me’at—a small sanctuary?

With this framing, they start to think about their apartment our house in a new way. Words like “safe,” “joyous,” or “ours” often arise. Their sense of “home” shifts from a simple place where they keep their stuff to a place where holiness, connectedness and spirituality emanate.

As human beings, we are wired with a a desire to explore. But as the search for the first human home reminds us, we are also wired to feel a sense of rootedness and safety. We need more than a house — we need a home.

So perhaps, if we truly work on it, we can even transform our home into a true sanctuary—a place where we can find God’s dwelling-place in our midst.

Posted on January 23, 2014

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Bridgegate vs. God

GW bridgeBridgegate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on January 20, 2014

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Social Justice and Shared Society

It was some 30 years ago that President Reagan signed into law and established a new federal holiday: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be observed on his birthday. It took a couple years after the passage of the law for it to be first observed and it was only commemorated in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Every year during this time I try and reflect on the ever evolving nature of social justice and our country. One of the highlights of my previous work at Harvard was the annual event put together by the Harvard Chaplains on this weekend exploring a different theme of Dr. King’s with modern day applications through lecture, poetry and music.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This year I began to re-read Dr. King’s address to the congregation at Temple Israel in Los Angeles in 1965. Three years before he was assassinated he spoke powerfully that evening in California filling the Sanctuary with his prophetic and powerful voice for justice. One paragraph struck me deeply this year:

“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And what affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never sin to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’”

It seems to me that we are witnessing a breakdown in the shared space of society in our current time. The shared public square where divergent views come and meet; where people of differing social backgrounds, educations and religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds gather seems to be disappearing. We live in our own individual silos. It is possible that the only interaction an upper middle-class individual and a poorer individual might have is within the context of waiter/busboy/barista/bus driver and customer.

When we fail to know one another in society we experience a lack of empathy and care. If I can put all the people who are different than me in boxes made by my own lack of personal experience, stereotypes and judgments than I don’t have to worry about their welfare or well being. In the same speech Dr. King also declared the truth that: “A great nation is a compassionate nation.” Compassion grows from an active and dynamic shared society and the empathy, care and concern that it generates.

How do we rebuild a shared society? How do we exit our individual silos and begin to build together? It takes small steps and small victories. It takes getting to know the people who serve you and the people you serve. It takes inhabiting the public spaces of a city together. It takes putting down the smartphone or tablet and not being afraid or feeling it awkward to encounter the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway.

In these ways and in so many other myriad of ways we will cause to flourish yet again the diverse shared society that is one of the keys that made this country so great. During this weekend let us commit ourselves to that important task.

Posted on January 17, 2014

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The Fourth New Year

oliveTu Bishvat, which begins tonight, is the fourth new year of the Jewish calendar. Beginning as  a tax holiday for counting the age of trees in order to know when one could begin to use their fruit, the holiday has come to be a sort of Jewish version of earth day, as well as a celebration of the shivat haminim – the seven famous products of Israel and our connection to the land of Israel.

Although Jews lost many of our agricultural leanings after going into exile, trees are something that anyone can relate to, and many commentators have noted a connection between trees and human beings, and supported this connection with a verse from Deuteronomy.

The original verse is one which is part of Jewish rules of war, asking rhetorically, “When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, you shalt not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged?” (Dvarim 20:19)

Our rabbis took the verse not as a question, though, but as a statement: Humans are a tree of the field.

At this time of year, most trees (at least those in temperate climates) are bare. No one can tell if that tree will bear anything valuable or not – it is only the beginning of the year, and we will have to wait and see – will the sap rise in this tree?  Will it flower? Will most of the branches live? Will the flower fruit, or will the blossoms fall unfertilized? Even if there is fruit, will it ripen, will animals eat it, will they rot on the tree?

There is no way to know yet. Similarly, with humans: we may be wise or foolish, righteous or wicked – until the sap rises, there’s no way to know. It is even true to a certain extent that how we grow is strongly influenced by our surroundings – is there a drought for learning, that leaves us ignorant of our own traditions? Are we forced to drink water which is muddy, or do we grow by a clear stream? Is there enough sun for us, or do we grow in the shade – and very importantly, is there someone to care for us, to make sure we grow straight?

But unlike trees, we also have some say over how we turn out. We may be trees of the field, but ultimately, we can choose to go where there is sun and water, to grow straight or be bent, to produce fruit, or to be a dry stick

.

Posted on January 15, 2014

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If Israel Boycotted the Winter Olympics

imagesIf Israel boycotted the Winter Olympic in Sochi, Russia next month would anyone really care? The games would go on without us. In fact, Israel’s Olympic Committee is sending three figure skaters, one speed skater, and one skier to the 2014 Winter Games. None of these athletes are expected to finish in the top ten. The spirit of the games is non-political and should stay that way, and so it should be in the academic world.

“Insignificant.” That was the reaction some had to the academic boycott of Israel by the American Studies Association last month. The boycott bars collaboration with Israeli institutions but not with the Israeli scholars. No American University has has signed on to the boycott, and at only 5000 members, the groups is tiny, especially compared to the American Association of University Professors at 48,000 strong. This last group states that “academic boycotts stifle academic freedom and are likely to hurt people who are not the intended targets.” Even the Palestinian Authority is officially against the boycott, “We are neighbors with Israel, we have agreements with Israel, we recognize Israel, we are not asking anyone to boycott products of Israel,” Majdi Khaldi, an adviser to Mr. Abbas, said in a New York Times interview on Monday. “The problem is two things: occupation, and the government of Israel continuing settlement activities.”

Some consider the ASA’s boycott as misguided leftist politics of people who don’t understand the real situation in Israel. Others bemoan a resurgence in anti-Semitic activity. It seems that the majority opinion of Israel’s supporters is the boycott is ultimately not that significant – yet.

images-1

The Hillel chapter at Swarthmore has declared itself an “Open Hillel.”

Anti-Israeli politics and the American academic world has been in the news on yet another front. Hillel International, the national organization of Jewish students on college campuses, has barred its chapters from bringing in speakers who take a pro-Palestinian view.

In a manifesto, the Swarthmore Hillel chapter has proclaimed: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” But the president and chief executive of Hillel, Eric D. Fingerhut, responded to them in a letter saying that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” 

The Talmud relates a relevant tale: Rav once had a complaint against a certain butcher. On the eve of Yom Kippur Rav said, “I will go to him to make peace.” The butcher, it seems, had wronged Rav in some way and Rav was giving the man an opportunity to reconcile prior to Yom Kippur. When Rav’s friend Rav Huna understood where Rav was going (and just how obstinate the butcher would be) he said, “Rav is about to cause (the butcher’s death).” Indeed, when Rav went and stood before the butcher, the latter was chopping away at the head of an animal. The butcher said, “You are Rav, go away. I will have nothing to do with you.” And, with the butcher’s next chop, a bone flew off, and struck the butcher in the throat, and killed him (Yoma 87a).

“Go Away.  I will have nothing to do with you.”

There is a common theme between the ASA’s position and Hillel’s: Non-participation, exclusion, a failure to listen to opposing positions. This is ultimately dangerous – especially on a college campus. There is no requirement to take the other person’s position, but disinterest in even listening to the a differing opinion, even one diametrically opposite one’s owe, can be disastrous.

As an educator, I commend the Jewish kids at Swarthmore for being smarter than the “adults” in charge.  Boycotting exchanges of ideas in the college setting makes as much sense as Israel boycotting the Sochi Games just because they don’t expect to place in the top ten.

For different opinions, see the cogent arguments of my fellow RWB bloggers, Rabbis Ben Greenberg and Alana Suskin.

Posted on January 14, 2014

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

Home

Where is home? Is it where you live, even if it is temporary? Is it where you grew up? Is it the place where your parents or grandparents and their families originated?

Home might also be a special place where the heart resides even if it isn’t our place of residence. The Jewish people have held Israel in their hearts for over three millennia.

Home could also be the place where we have grown up or come of age. At a recent event I met someone with whom I had an immediate connection—we shared the history of the same childhood home synagogue in Philadelphia. Neither of us have been there in decades, but the connection to this home bonded us.

And of course, home is where we live, if we are fortunate enough to have stable housing—something we cannot take for granted.

I’ve been ruminating on this for the last couple of weeks as various manifestations of “home” have been in my face.

I spent a week with my husband and two of our kids in the Bay area of California. We stayed in an Airbnb rental in Berkeley and experienced being paying guests in a stranger’s home—it was much more comfortable than a hotel. I wondered how it would feel to have people staying in my home who were paying consumers. We spent a day talking about whether and how we would consider being hosts, renting all or part of our house for SuperBowl weekend (since we live in NJ, not far from the stadium, where hotel rooms are scarce.)

We walked around downtown Berkeley for six days, confronted with a very present and aggressively begging homeless population. The streets are their home. We talked about how homeless people can feel invisible as the streets fill with people who avert their eyes as they pass them by.

Even with unusually frigid weather in New Jersey, it was so nice to come home. But soon the political scandal engulfing my state caught my attention. Maybe it was the sleazy drama of it all, but something drew me into listening to a long press conference and reading endless columns of reactions and analysis. My home, New Jersey, was being maligned. I felt protective of my home state—I wanted to tell the world about the great hiking and biking, lush farmland and gardens in my home state. Please don’t think of New Jersey as traffic and the turnpike and slimy politicians. It’s my home.

This week the Modern Language Association debated one-sided resolutions criticizing Israel, way out of proportion to rebukes to the other nations of the world, and I felt protective of my other “home.”  I am fortunate to have spent enough time in Israel to relate to the land personally; it’s not an abstract feeling of attachment.

We who are fortunate to have comfortable places to call home, with perhaps the means to share with guests, or the opportunity for multiple special places of “home,” are truly living with the blessing of holiness. Jewish tradition has many names for God, including the oft-used “hamakom“—meaning, “the place.”

The homeless people who claim their spot on the street, staying day-after-day in “their” place, are striving for the same shelter under “Divine wings.” They deserve to not be invisible; they too are created in the Divine image.

In this week’s Torah reading (Yitro),the Israelites, newly freed from slavery, had to figure out how to make a home in the wilderness. It was not easy. But thanks to Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, they organized themselves into a representational polity that took the needs of all the people into account.

When we care for each other, as if we are guests in each others homes, we find “hamakom.” Home is where we are respected, seen, nurtured and fully alive as ourselves. It takes eyes that see and hearts that care for “home” to realized. That is the blessing we can make real in our world.

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

Posted on January 12, 2014

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My Children Won’t be Jews Like Me

Jews Like MeI’ve done everything “right”: given my children Jewish education, sent them to Jewish camps, spent time with them in Israel and modeled engaged Jewish living. But with the celebration of my second child becoming a bat mitzvah and officially beginning her journey as a Jewish adult, I can now say with certainty that my children will not be Jews like me.

That this was ever a consideration is on many levels absurd. Happily, from the moment a child first rolls over on its own, children work mightily to dispel the arrogance of parents who misguidedly assume their offspring exist to replicate their values and approach to life. They refuse to eat reasonably, they sleep on their own schedule, they make their own friends, choose their own clothes, challenging us at each step until we understand that while they absorb much from us, children will make their own way in the world.

And yet, when it comes to Judaism (and sports or alma matter affiliation which are like religions to many- but that is another article) people somehow expect continuity and are surprised and frightened by change. In no small part, I believe that this comes from a vision of what religious tradition is or is meant to be. As Jewish tradition teaches, God gave Moses the Torah as Sinai and Moses passed it to Joshua and Joshua to the elders, the same words the same Torah passed down generation to generation. We change and religion remains eternal.

As a historian, I know this was never true. Judaism has survived in no small part because of its ability to adapt and change. I will cede that in the past change was less possible, because of external limitations, and slower to occur because of the limitations of technology. But with the emancipation of the Jews and the industrial revolution, change has become the reality. If we presume that our children should replicate our vision for the Jewish future, we will be disappointed.

Absurd then. It should not even be a consideration. And yet. And yet, what is the point of investing in Jewish education if they will not guarantee continuity? And yet, how can we not feel like we have failed? I hear these questions frequently from parents who have done all that they thought “right’ “are now launching children who are “walking off the path” and making different Jewish choices than their parents would envision for them. Some are becoming less religious, others more so. Some are more left wing, others lean more to the right.

As a rabbi, I understand where they are coming from. On the day I was ordained, a rabbi I respect greatly, placed his hands on my shoulders and entrusted me to pass on the tradition to the next generation. But even as I gladly took on this challenge, I was keenly aware that my children’s Judaism could not be my own –for in an era of change each generation will have to find its own.

There is loss and uncertainty that comes with letting go. Some of the institutions and customs, which I have long benefited from and loved, are loosing relevance and others will undoubtedly disappear. And it can be painful and scary. The fluidity of religious life in America means that experimenting is inevitable. Some of the experiments will be ones that will disappoint me and others in my generation personally and collectively.

Over thirty years ago, my parents pushed the envelope of what was Jewishly possible by finding a synagogue that would allow me (albeit under my father’s blessing) to read from the Torah. It was a move that must have both puzzled and bothered their parents and one that ultimately opened the door for me to become much more religious than they ever imagined.

I am not alone. It is hard to imagine a more committed and creative group of rabbis than the ones who populated my community of Rabbis Without Borders. Going around the table with the first cohort, it turned out to our surprise that only a small fraction of the rabbis represented same denomination of Judaism as in which they grew up. Commitment yes, continuity yes, but also real and meaningful change.

Today, there is a Jewish creative cultural renaissance that is showcasing Jewish themes and values in every aspect of artistic endeavor. There is a renewal of Jewish learning that is taking new forms. A sense of global Jewish life is being renewed with the help of technology and travel. As a community, we are more inclusive and diverse than we have been in decades. Some of this I could and did imagine, other aspects were beyond my own envisioning. Without a willingness to change and challenge the received Jewish wisdom, none of this would have been possible.

Launching children onto the path of adulthood is bittersweet. As they make their own path, children will make their own choices many of which will not be your own. But there is also tremendous hope and possibility that comes from allowing the next generation to imagine and then create their own truth and reality. Both as a parent and as a rabbi, I look forward to seeing how the next generation takes the tradition they receive to create Judaism that will in time be passed down and transformed.

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

Posted on January 9, 2014

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Jews and Tattoos: Navigating a new landscape

LicenseAttribution: Noncommercial, No Derivative Works, Some rights reserved by Crushed Planet

License Attribution: Noncommercial, No Derivative Works, Some rights reserved by Crushed Planet

Once a month at our family Shabbat service we ask families to submit questions in advance in what, in lieu of a sermon, is our ‘So now you know’ slot. It’s great to see what kinds of questions arise. Sometimes it is seeking explanations for why certain rituals look the way they do; sometimes it is seeking an understanding of how to interpret a particular story or text in our tradition; often it is looking to us as Rabbis to help our congregants navigate between tradition and modernity, especially at times when the logic of one of our traditions seems less clear.

This past month I was asked to address the questions of tattoos in Jewish tradition. This included, of course, the question as to the truth of the myth that a tattoo denies one burial in a Jewish ceremony. While I can’t vouch for the individual policies of specific burial societies and grounds, there is certainly no halachah that denies burial of a Jew in a Jewish cemetery on these grounds. Just as we don’t deny burial to someone for their lack of observing another of the commandments found in the Torah, such as observing Shabbat or refraining from eating non-kosher animals or fish.

I shared the historical evolution of the source and interpretation of the Torah that led to a Jewish ban on tattoos throughout the ages. These are reviewed concisely elsewhere on this site.

But then I raised some contemporary examples that demonstrate the complexities of navigating tradition and modernity in today’s world where, rather than providing answers, I offered my congregants the invitation to discuss as families how they felt about the following examples:

1) A man wishes to honor the memory of his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. Rather than tattooing his father’s number that was permanently inscribed in his skin in the concentration camps, the son chooses to have the number 6,000,000 tattooed on his arm. It is his way of never forgetting.

2) A young adult, as a sign of pride in her Jewish identity, chooses to have the Hebrew letters that spell Chai, meaning ‘life’ tattooed just above her heart. For her, it is a sign of her connection to her people and to the land of Israel – Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel still live.

3) A man, upon reconnecting with his sense of Jewish identity, community, and recommitting to Jewish learning, decides to have his Hebrew name tattooed on his shoulder as an outward sign of his return to his faith.

How are we to respond to these stories? Are these well intended but misguided choices? Would not a necklace or a bracelet with the same words have sufficed? Or are we living at a different time? A time when our study of the subject reveals that the origins of the law – a prohibition against idolatry – clearly do not hold in these cases. For those who are not bound by the halachic process, where later rabbinic positions are not regarded as the final word on how we observe today, the landscape of decision-making is clearly different to what it once was. We know that many Jews continue to observe and celebrate based on the additional criteria of personal meaning, and these three examples are saturated with such meaning.

I don’t have easy answers. I believe there are Jewish ways to explore the questions. And, as I reminded those in my congregation last Friday, we can all look back at photos of ourselves from past decades and regret some of the fashion choices we made. The good news is that most of us have the luxury of being able to change our clothes and update our hairstyles quite easily. Removing a tattoo is a much more costly and involved process, so there are still plenty of good reasons to pause for a good, long time before proceeding down that path, even if the threat of banishment from a Jewish cemetery isn’t one of them.

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

Posted on January 8, 2014

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Seeking Shelter From The Cold

WinterMuch of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. is ensconced in a ferocious cold spell today and tomorrow. Known as the “polar vortex,” a blast of air from the arctic is producing temperatures colder than the South Pole in some parts of the country. This got me thinking: 120 years ago, where would poor, marginalized Jews (i.e. most Jews) go to escape the cold? To Jewish relief organizations such as Jewish hospitals, Jewish soup kitchens. In the era before FDR, before a government social safety net, Jewish communities across the country were responsible for talking care of one another. Mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) provided this critical source of support, ensuring not only the well-being of poor Jewish immigrants but also creating community connections.

70 years ago, where would Jews go to escape the cold? To synagogue-centers and JCCs.  Emerging into the middle-class, “second generation” Jews were eager to flee their urban areas of settlement for the expansiveness of the suburbs. They frequently found, however, that secular American society still harbored a good deal of anti-Semitism, so Jews created new hubs for social interaction. The notion of the “shul with a pool” was born, with traditional synagogues expanded to include social, educational, and even athletic programming.

Today, where do we go to escape the “polar vortex?” Starbucks. The public library. The local gym.  Or we just stay at home and tweet about how cold we are. The rise of the welfare state (I mean that as a descriptive, not a perjorative, term), combined with the rapid erosion of institutional anti-Semitism in America, has rendered obsolete much of the social architecture of American Jewry. Jewish Family Services, perhaps the closest vestige to the traditional Jewish welfare organizations throughout the country, often serve more non-Jews than Jews! The same is true with Jewish hospitals and even JCCs. While we are truly blessed to live in a society as open to Jews as 21st century America, that blessing comes with a cost: no longer having a need to come together, our Jewish connective tissue is atrophying. As the recent Pew Study illustrates, only 28 percent of those polled believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to Jewish identity. Continue reading

Posted on January 7, 2014

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

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