Back in biblical times, Israelites would come to the great Temple three times a year, in the fall, and at the beginning and end of spring, corresponding to the festivals of Sukkot (now upon us), Passover, and Shavuot. The commandment was to “appear at God’s appointed place and celebrate – three times a year.” (Ex. 23:17).
What if that is enough? I have said from the pulpit on Yom Kippur that “if you are here today as your once a year, please go home and come back on Sukkot.” I meant it then, and still do. If your once a year is this heavy, often guilt laden burden, that is a tough nut to crack. Come back on Sukkot, better, come at the end of Sukkot, for Simchat Torah – there is dancing, and if you’re into it, drinking too. Plus, there is nature, and guests, and food. Yom Kippur has fasting.
Of course, we are the not the people of the Bible, the “People of the Book.” Rather, we are “the People of the Rabbinic Interpretation of the Book.” The rabbis who brought us our Judaism emphasized daily practice just as much as milestone moments designed after these pilgrimage holidays. To be sure, there is great power in the everyday.There is structure and meaning in taking note of the miraculously ordinary. Nonetheless, there is obviously great power in the extra-ordinary.
Imagine going to see your favorite musician or band. The last great concert I went to was a Soundgarden concert. When the boys cut their guitar chords and let the reverb ride out for a full 5 min. it was, fairly literally, a religious experience. Would it feel the same if I went to hear them every week? Every day? Three times a day?
By analogy I am suggesting that rabbis and religious leaders need to distinguish the purpose of religious experiences. Some moments are for the well initiated, the regulars, the ones who feel comfortable in the service, any service. These people often enough have a sense of the divine in what others might perceive as ordinary (sitting, standing, reading). When some people try and connect this way and fail, they come away with a sense of “I guess I don’t read meaningfully enough, or sit powerfully enough, or I don’t sway with book in hand well enough.”
But there are other moments, ecstatic moments, that are created with music, with dance, with a good old-fashioned “happening” that draw on the power of the crowd, on swaying together, eating together, and just being together that is transformative. For many Jews who connect deeper in this manner, I am wondering out loud: Maybe three times a year is enough?
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
My childhood memories of the festival of Simchat Torah center around a paper flag topped with a candy-apple and candy canes. I loved the joyous dancing and the candy was a real treat. Yet, I can’t remember anything of the ritual of the ending and beginning of the reading from the scroll and any prayers we recited long ago receded into the background.
After years of trying to hold onto all of ritual the elements – the evening prayers, the rituals of the ending and beginning, and the dancing and singing, I felt we needed a different focus. In keeping with other ritual innovations in my community in the last two years, I reimagined the experience. We started and ended with food – always appreciated! And with a room full of kids of all ages and adults, I led a brief guided meditation of evening prayers, sealed with a blessing, and closed in song. Then we got the music going and danced joyously. Moving all the chairs away for a full space, we took off. And as the energy flagged, we slowly switched into a different ritual mode – we unrolled an entire Torah scroll around the room, as silence fell and everyone cooperated in carefully and respectfully handling the scroll. The sense of awe was palpable.
I called two teens for the blessings, the honored roles of bridegrooms of Torah and new beginnings, followed by the briefest of readings from the ending and beginning of the scroll, and everyone was rapt in attention. Then the real fun began – “Stump the Rabbi” – a learning game envisioned by Jay, our spiritual life committee chair. I had suggested that we ask everyone to think of their favorite story or teaching in the Torah so we could find together them in the unrolled scroll. But Jay’s idea was that the community would ask me to find their favorite sections of the text within a 60 second time limit. They came ready and couldn’t wait for me to find their chosen quotes and stories. We lost track of time and I had to apologize that it was time to end when worried parents began to realize that it was time to get the kids home on that school-night. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in stopping. They were having too much fun.
I got stumped once – by a seventh grader who wanted me to read the story of Moses hitting the rock. I didn’t locate it fast enough – and he was delighted. But for all the stories that I did find and read, the joy of learning was just as strong. Everyone left with anticipation of next year’s Simchat Torah, and came back on Shabbat morning talking about the fun.
We didn’t have candy-apples or candy canes. But the pizza, apples and cookies were just fine. And the experience was a new generation’s joy – engaging, meaningful and memorable. How wonderful that it left us all waiting for more!
I don’t know how or when it happened. But somehow, in the not too distant past, the pinnacle of the Simchat Torah celebration moved from the Hakafot and Torah readings to a new, and visually-impressive, presentation — the unrolling of the Torah in its entirety.
More and more congregations have embraced it and I find it both perplexing and troubling.
Traditionally, the Torah is treated as if it is nearly alive. It is NOT alive, but we accord her a great deal of respect. We do not touch the parchment as the oils from our hands will rub away the ink and render it unusable. When we open the scroll for a reading, we open it not more than three columns in order to maintain some semblance of modesty. If we are moving the Torah from one location to another, we would not place her in the trunk. Rather, the scroll would ride inside the car. Nor would we leave the Torah in the car overnight. If a Torah is rendered unusable, we bury her. We stand when the Torah is removed from the ark (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 28:3). And, God-forbid, should the Torah should be dropped, the one who dropped her is required to fast. As are those who have witnessed the incident (Orach Chayim 3:3).
Unrolling a Torah in its entirety seems to defy our customary ways of handling the scroll.
What is troubling is that there are long-standing rituals associated with Simchat Torah. The Shulkhan Arukh, not to mention a number of Sages, provide clear instructions regarding the ways in which we read the scrolls on this festival. Why toss out the mandated practices only to replace them with something new?
Innovation can be a wonderful thing. It keeps stasis at bay. It seems to me, however, that unrolling the Torah is simply a gimmick to get folks interested in participating. When I read descriptions of this practice as “the highlight of the Simchat Torah experience,” I am saddened. Saddened that we have become so jaded that our traditions are perceived to be both uninspiring and antiquated. Saddened that we seek more thrilling, more “meaningful” rites. Perhaps that is what so compelling about Chabad. They are seen as delivering “the real thing” rather than re-branding it or re-imagining it. How is it, then that instead of seeming outdated, the ways in which they practice their Judaism are seen as “authentic”?
*this post appeared on RJ.org in 2010. The discussion that followed in the comments are worth a read.
There are white Jews, Black Jews, Asian Jews, and Arab Jews – but blue Jews? No, no such thing exists. Which is exactly why artist Siona Benjamin paints them. Blue is the color of water and sky. It belongs everywhere and nowhere, so when Benjamin paints her figures are often blue. If the Jews are blue, one cannot simply assume a race or identity to them, they could be anyone, at any time.
Born in Bombay, Benjamin grew up amidst Hindus and Muslims and attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She understands the ability of Jews to blend into their environment. An accomplished artist whose fine brushwork and vivid colors evoke the cultural themes of her native land, the subject of many of her paintings engage the stories of Jewish texts. One look at her illustrations for the story of the biblical Queen Esther and I find myself considering this familiar tale from an entirely new point of view, how did she not stand out? What makes us able to choose not to see difference?
At this time of year Judaism can seem overly cerebral. Lots of praying, listening, talking and of course the exception to the rule, the eating. But the moment we finish with Yom Kippur we prepare for Sukkot. By contrast to High Holidays, Sukkot is about doing. It celebrates the very physical work of the harvest. It has us building physical structures and taking holy objects in our hands and shaking them about. Even the eating, with the moving in and out, is much more physical.
And then there is the art. A Sukkah is meant to be decorated. Sure you can just buy a few premade chains or hang apiece of fruit, but you can also take the opportunity to stretch your Jewish thinking and engage with art as text or in creating new art. There is a tradition of inviting ushpizin, mythical guests from the Jewish past into our Sukkot. Peruse Benjamin’s art online and ask yourself how her depictions of Jewish biblical figures might shape your own take on these potential guests, or inspire you to create your own artistic interpretations and representations. Who might you invite from ancient or even modern Jewish history? What would they look like? How would you depict them?
Those lucky enough to be in Northern California can come hang out with Benjamin and make art at Sukkot Under the Stars. But even if you are not in the area, or not even building a Sukkah, take some time this season to gather some friends, create and consider the possibilities inspired by Siona Benjamin and her blue Jews.
“There is nothing new under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9.
A High Holiday Prayer, as I imagine it, of a beloved, longtime member of my synagogue…
“In time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I am thankful for so many things: The gift of health, for me and my family, that we live in relative security, that we do our best with what we have – but thank the Lord -God knows that nobody’s perfect. This year, again I will try to be a better person. It’s important to try, so I’ll sit and I’ll listen, and I’ll pray, but thank the Lord – God understands that in reality I’m not so different than I was last year. -Amen.”
This is my third high holiday season off the pulpit, and frankly, the only time I really miss it. I miss that guy, and every synagogue has one, who comes early, one of the last to leave, but in fact seems to be going through the motions. I perfectly aware of the lesson that to recognize these qualities in another suggest something similar in myself? Sometimes he’ll cross his arms over his gut, as if to say, “go ahead, rabbi, try and inspire me.” Honestly, I always enjoyed the challenge and if unsuccessful, I would consoled myself with the tantalizing idea that perhaps there is a genetic predisposition for religiosity, ‘so what could I do if he’s not interested?’
The way we approach the High Holidays is completely in our control. That’s what I should remind him. It’s a matter of perspective. A late rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Eddie Tennenbaum (z’l) would say, “If you feel distant from God, who moved?”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “(There is a) statement from the book of Ecclesiastes ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ And I disagree with that statement! I would say there is nothing stale under the sun, except that human beings become stale.”
If you have been approaching the high holidays every year, and it’s become stale, consider this perspective, and hopefully it’s new for you, and might add meaning to the holiday around the corner:
At this time of year we are not only accountable for our mistakes and need to seek forgiveness for them, but also, and just as importantly, we are accountable for all the moments of joy and celebration that came our way and we failed to take part.
Consider this: What moments of joy were out there and I was too busy? It’s missing the joy, the extraordinary within the ordinary, that makes man stale. Let this be the year you see the forrest AND the trees.
Not in a million years would I have imagined that becoming a rabbi would lead to this.
Hora and rabbis go together to be certain, but in conjunction with mariachi? Seriously? But in this setting, nothing could have been more fitting than the juxtaposition of castanets and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”
We were in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the closing gala of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (UJCL). The music, the food, and the setting –the historic courtyard of city hall- were a perfect fit.
For the most part American Jews, and by this I really mean Jews living in the United States, rarely if ever think of Jewish life south the border. If we are to go by size, this oversight might be forgiven. There are only 40,000 Jews in Mexico and in Guadalajara a mere 500. But as our 5 days in Guadalajara proved, size is by no means the only measure when it comes to Jewish life.
All the communities that belong to the UJCL are small; at 180 members the Comunidad Judia de Guadalajara is no exception. Yet, the community put their heart and soul into opening up their home to us and to showcasing what it means to be Mexican Jews and they succeeded.
I was met at the airport (at the very delayed hour of 1am) by Louis and Roxanne. As we drove to the hotel, I learned that every Friday night the entire community comes together to share Shabbat dinner, the sense of belonging is real. There is no Jewish school in the city, but the children are very engaged in congregational life, getting up for minyan weekly. Indeed, when we came to the synagogue on for services all but one part of the Torah reading was done by teens. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen that in any community in the United States. Moreover, the 180 members of the community absorbed nearly their number of guests inviting us into their homes for dinner on Friday night.
The members of Comunidad Judia de Guadalajara are also very proud of their Mexican heritage. In addition to the sessions on Jewish life in Central America and the Torah learning, we experienced some of the cultural sights and sounds of the area with visit not only to the historic city hall but also the Cabañas Cultural Institute – a Unesco World Heritage site, with extraordinary murals and architecture. Like the Mariachi music to which we were treated, the tequila is a local specialty. The town of Tequila is located near the edge of this bustling city.
The Jews of Guadalajara are deeply connected to both their Jewish and Mexican roots, proud of both elements of their heritage. Ahead of Cinco de Mayo, I asked Rabbi Joshua Kullock the rabbi of Comunidad Judia about this dual identity and how he sees it in his community. “Take a look at the video we made singing the Hatikvah,” he suggested. I did, and recommend you do too. Young and old, singers and crooners, with accents that belie their Spanish mother tongue, these Jews remind us of how communities can come together, bringing together multiple identities to help create and share meaning.
This Cinco de Mayo, I’ll raise a glass tequila to my friends in Guadajara and thank God for a rabbinate that includes this.
Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”
This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.
Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.
But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.
As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”
But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.
In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.
So will I eat peanuts this Passover?
I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”
As a child, I looked forward to Purim each year. I spent weeks planning my costume and savored the excitement of the annual carnival and the entertaining megillah reading at my synagogue. Purim represented pure, unobstructed joy.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to experience the deeper meaning of Purim. Our rabbis teach that Purim (a day of exuberant, drunken celebration) and Yom Kippur (our holiest day of atonement) have much in common. In fact, the Tikunei Zohar, a section of Jewish mystical literature, makes a delightful pun using the names of these two holidays. Yom Kippur is often referred to in our liturgy as Yom HaKippurim (the Day of Atonements). Our rabbis adjust the phrase slightly to read Yom K’Purim, meaning “A day like Purim.”
On Yom Kippur, we strive to come to terms with the apparent chaos of our lives. When faced with the reality and complexity of the human condition, we turn to tefilah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteous acts of giving) as vehicles for making ourselves whole. We wear all white (a costume of sorts) and bang on our chests, fasting and engaging in deep personal reflection that will ideally leave us in an ecstatic place of restoration.
On Purim, we also strive to confront the chaos and complexities of human existence, and likewise we ecstatically celebrate our ability to transform these obstacles into entryways to a better tomorrow. We chant the scroll of Esther — the story of how our people came frighteningly close to being annihilated at the hands of Haman and his followers, but miraculously survived due to the brave conviction of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. We remember how, through human courage and connection, our people were able to claim control over their destiny. And so, on Purim we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people with all of our kishkes — drinking, eating and acting silly.
On Yom Kippur, we do the internal work that is necessary to improve ourselves and our communities. Five months later, on Purim, we do the external work. On Purim, we are commanded to eat a festive meal. Each of us is obligated to take part in this celebratory gathering, rich and poor alike. We are also commanded to give matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor. During the remainder of the year, we give tzedakah, righteous charity. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and legal scholar, teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is teaching a person a trade so she can help herself in the future. The second highest form of tzedakah is mutually anonymous giving.
Matanot la’evyonim — gifts to the poor — are neither proactive trade classes nor anonymous donations. Matanot la’evyonim come in the form of food or money that are meant to be used on Purim day for a feast. And matanot la’evyonim are given directly — into the palm of the hand. On Purim, we are forbidden from passing a poor person on the street without stopping, truly seeing him and sharing food. On Purim, we must see everybody in our midst, even those we may be in the habit of ignoring, and we must unite as a community.
Purim forces us to experience the wonder of a world, for one day, in which there is no 99 percent and no 1 percent, a world in which both the billionaires and the working class eat a celebratory meal. We remember that through our people’s ability to unite in the story of Esther, we were able to change the course of history. And so we imagine a time in the future when everybody will truly see each other without shame, and everybody will enjoy a beautiful meal, like we do on Purim, each and every day.
Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, conceals her Jewish identity when she marries the king. Her name includes the root letters of the word “hidden.” However, in order for Esther to do the transformative work of saving her people, she must reveal her Jewish identity. Our rabbis teach that when we dress up on Purim, we should pick a costume that not only disguises our immediate appearance, but also reveals an inner piece of us that we keep hidden during much of the year. With this intention, we use the act of covering to uncover, the act of disguising to reveal an inner essence.
And so we say that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim, and Purim is a day like Yom Kippur. Some Jews repent hard on Yom Kippur, and some Jews party hard on Purim. In truth, both holidays are essential. Our internal reflection on Yom Kippur and our external celebration on Purim both propel us past life’s moments of chaos and pain, and help us embrace our potential to reveal goodness and light.
Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time. This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it. Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.
One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.
After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:
“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”
Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example). While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.
While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”. While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically. I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.