Tag Archives: Jewish wisdom

Asking the Wrong Questions

four-sons-szykEarlier this week, my excellent colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz asked the important question of whether, “there can be a new type of “masculinism” that is not about stereotypical manliness, but about confidently embracing what it means to be a man today while also honoring the narrative, journeys, and rights associated with feminism?”

Rabbi Yanklowitz didn’t initially frame the question in terms of Jewish practice, although he did post it on ejewishphilanthropy, and very properly pointed out his perspective as an Orthodox rabbi certainly must color his views in terms of the spiritual meaning of gender.

In those terms, it is interesting that many traditional Jewish cultures valued masculinity in quite different ways than modern western culture does (Daniel Boyarin writes extensively about this in many of his books, most notably, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, and of course, others have as well).

In the rabbinic imagination, as well as some Ashkenazic cultures that sprang from them, the feminine is judgement to the masculine mercy (for example in kabalistic imagery); women are suited to labor, while men study; and women are physically tough while men are valued for their delicacy and yeshiva pallor. Of course, we all know that the expression of these values most likely differed more by individual case than by actual gender – as is true regardless of what society one lives in- but the fact that these ideas about how gender is performed varies so dramatically from that of our current western society, demonstrates how entirely socially constructed those values are, and how little they have to do with the people inhabiting them. In fact, these values were so different from the cultures surrounding them, that the non-Jews made note of them, often stereotyping Jews negatively based on them, viewing male Jews as effeminate and weak and female Jews as lusty and strong – stereotypes that we have sadly spent a great deal of effort on disproving by assimilating the contrary gender attitudes of the culture around us.

The irony doesn’t quite end there: even though Rabbi Yanklowitz  has essentially brought us full circle, by wondering how we could re-imagine gender roles (to which one might at first consider answering by saying, “bring back the traditional values!”), to solve the problem, it is the question itself which must be examined. As long as society defines each gender in opposition to the other, the problems of sexism cannot be avoided. As soon as you ask, “how can I be not like a woman,” the implication must be that being like a woman is bad (“you throw like a girl,” or the like) and in a society where women are still significantly less powerful than men, it is impossible to avoid this.

Is there a genuinely good reason to differentiate genders in  this way, by defining some behaviors as female-appropriate, and some as male- appropriate? My mother-in-law, bless her, likes to say that there are only two jobs that require a person to be sexed a particular way: sperm donor and surrogate mother.

There is no way to equitably explore separate gender roles until equality has been fully achieved. Even then. On the other hand, there is no downside to trying to achieve full gender equality. It will not in any way rob either men or women of being male and female (anything which is biologically determined won’t change, presumably, so what are you afraid of? And if it isn’t biologically determined, then reinforcing it benefits whom, may I ask?) – but it will benefit people by encouraging them to pursue spirituality that fits them, rather than insisting that they should fit themselves to someone else’s notion of what their spirituality ought to be.

Of course, Judaism does require us to undertake obligations, sometimes even responsibilities that we have no desire for, but nevertheless, we are called upon to fulfill them. But is performing gender roles, and separating what women and men do religiously, part of this set of obligations? Or would it be more appropriate to be strict, and say that all are obligated, unless their specific case renders that obligation impossible, or temporarily difficult. For example, perhaps the exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot should be based on who is taking care of the children, rather than assuming that it is the female person that is doing so. Sometimes it will be, but sometimes it won’t – requiring the exemption along gender lines prevents people from choosing which role suits them – and of course some people might never have children- why should they be exempt?

It’s not the way our sages would have thought about it. Perhaps, though, we can draw wisdom from how we today think about the four sons of the haggadah. Most of us are disinclined to assume that our children are permanently the wicked child, or the simple one (and certainly those of us with children know that they aren’t always the wise child): rather, we understand that all four of those children is within each of us, and at different times, we will ask (or not ask) those questions based on where we are then, at that moment.

And finally, we should remember that while the four children are examples of different kinds of people looking for answers, and provides a script for each of those defined roles, the haggadah also requires us to each ask our own question: that is why one can fulfill the obligation of the four questions by asking any question at all.

Perhaps that is a better example for us today: instead of insisting that we must stick to a preordained script, let us encourage everyone to remember that we are not the same people at all times, and that we will play different roles throughout our lives – thus, we must ask different questions for each of them. Instead of asking, how can men can express their supposed differences from women, maybe the right question is, “How can each person be themself?”

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Posted on April 9, 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

What Does “Dayenu” Mean Today?

One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder is the singing that takes place after we finish eating. There are so many great, fun songs, from “Ehad Mi Yodeah” to “Chad Gadya.” Perhaps my favorite song is “Dayenu.” The words are fairly easy to sing in Hebrew, and the chorus is so catchy that even those who don’t know Hebrew can easily join in. But beyond its functionality, the content of Dayenu (literally “it would have been enough”) also carries a deep amount of wisdom.Dayenu image

Dayenu consists of 15 stanzas referencing different historical contexts the Israelites experienced, from slavery in Egypt to the building of the Temple in Israel. After each stanza, we sing the chorus, signifying that if this was the total of God’s miraculous intervention into the lives of the Israelites, it would have been sufficient.

One of the primary purposes of the Passover seder is to make us feel as if we personally experienced the exodus from Egypt and the redemption from slavery to freedom. This is no less true for the way we understand the Dayenu song. Dayenu provides a powerful contemporary hashkafah (outlook on life), a call to mindfulness about the way we currently lead our lives. We live in an era when capitalism is our state (and increasingly global) religion. Consumption is unfettered by any internal sense of restraint, from the amount of soda we can drink to how much money Wall Street executives can make. We live in a world where it is okay that the richest 85 people in the world have total wealth equal to that of the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet!

Dayenu reminds us that there is another way. Judaism offers an outlook on wealth, consumption, and sufficiency (sova) that is very counter-cultural. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is rich? The one who is content with what one has.” Even more austere, the Talmud instructs: “An individual who can eat barley bread but eats wheat bread is guilty of transgressing the law of bal tashchit (unlawful waste). Rabbi Papa states: one who can drink beer but drinks wine instead is guilty of transgressing the law of bal tashchit.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 140b). Judaism is not, to be sure, an ascetic religion. We are encouraged to carve out occasions for excess, for enjoying the finer parts of living—on Shabbat, holidays, and other joyous occasions. But the wisdom of Judaism is that, if we want to experience delight on these special occasions, we also need moments of restraint. It is the juxtaposition of restraint and largess that creates a life of meaning.

Beyond the individual experience, we also are becoming increasingly aware of the global consequences of championing unbridled materialism over a sense of sufficiency. From income inequality to climate change, our refusal to entertain limits on what we do and how much we consume are wreaking destructive consequences. By returning to a sense of Dayenu, of thinking deeply about what is enough, we have the potential to change ourselves and our world. May we be blessed, on this Pesah and beyond, to replace the idolatry of consumption with an embrace of all that we have.

And if you have thoughts about the meaning of “dayenu” in your life today, of what it means to say we have “enough,” please add your voice to a Facebook and Twitter campaign we are running from now until Pesach. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Hag Sameach!

Posted on April 1, 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

“Is the Lord Present Among Us or Not?”

moses2The state of public discourse, both within the Jewish community and within our society at large, has taken rather a beating. Even when people across the political aisles can be brought to the same room for debate, the exchanges seem to be more a pro forma opportunity to restate one side’s positions or insult the other.

Religious communities aren’t any better. Each one declares itself fully in possession of the knowledge of God’s opinions. And yet, Judaism suggests that perhaps we would be better off having some humility. The Talmud (Berachot 4a) says, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ lest you be led to lying.”

The mystics called this world alma d’sfeka—“a world of doubtfulness,” and yet we find that so often we are convinced of our rightness. Convinced enough to end friendships or to go to war. The talmud is speaking of deliberate falsehood, but it might just as well be speaking of words we speak of things that we consider certain, which may turn out not to be. This doubtful world is one in which conflicting perspectives—which may be equally true to the respective speakers—make the possibility of discerning “the whole story” of anything very difficult, if not impossible.

The midrash compares Moses to the other prophets, saying, “What is the difference between Moses and all the prophets? Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Rabbi Il’ai and the Rabbis (differed). Rabbi Yehudah said: All the prophets saw through nine lenses, but Moses saw through only one. The rabbis said: All the other prophets saw through a dirty lens, but Moses saw through a clear lens.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:14)

Moses saw the most clearly, but he, the greatest of all prophets, still saw truth through a lens. The clearest sighted among us still was divided from direct knowledge; his vision, too, was limited.

We like to think that religion’s business is to give us answers because it is frightening to have to make decisions without knowing the outcome, and yet we must. It is also disturbing to wonder: Can you have trust if you have doubt? Can you have religion, if you don’t have certainty?

The Talmud, that great argument of the rabbis, in which they strove to discern the will of God, is not really a work of answers—it is a work of questions. Some questions can be answered, but many are left for Elijah the prophet to answer in the future. Some truths cannot be known by us, now.

And so while we have to make decisions—to take risks with not enough information, and to hope that we will know enough, even knowing most of the time we won’t—when we try to persuade others to take a course of action, it might be worthwhile to speak with humility, and ask ourselves, when we feel certain of our rightness, whether it is really the other person whom we are trying to convince.

Posted on March 26, 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

Number the Days

MPW-6738When we are small, we wait for everything. Every day takes forever until you get to the time when you get to go out and play. Each year, we count the days until our birthday. At the end of the year, we finish one grade, and then we look forward to summer vacation, and then begin a new grade, with fresh notebooks, clean and untouched. Eventually, we get to high school, and graduate, and then, perhaps, college, and even, maybe, graduate school. And then most of us get jobs, perhaps get married and maybe have children. Then one day we wake up and wonder: when do we get a “next thing?”

Most of our lives, we are trained to look for the next thing, the next grade, the next age, the graduation, the “real world.” And then we finally get there, and all of a sudden, it seems that one day is much like the next and one year, too.

The recent passing of Harold Ramis reminded me of the wonderful film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a self-centered news reporter, who is forced to relive the same day, over and over again until he changes.

In the film, one might think that under the sway of some providential guardian, the world is forced to hold still while he is forced to learn a lesson. But in some ways, the world does not stay the same. Even though each morning Phil (the character’s name) is “sent back,” in reality, each day is different due to the choices Phil makes. At first, he takes advantage, then he despairs, and finally, he tries to improve himself and to help others – even though he knows that the next day everything will be undone.

Groundhog Day is a fantasy, but in some ways, not a very far-fetched one. In most ways, unless we are either particularly selfish, or extremely flighty, our lives are a sort of Groundhog Day. We spend each day doing much the same things as we did the day before, and as we will do the day after.

Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” It is a kind of strangeness that  when we count something, each successive number is different, and yet, the act of counting confers a kind of sameness on the thing we are counting. So it is with our lives. We can take a sort of Buddhist approach and deny the counting, focusing on the moment. But Judaism suggests that there is a wisdom in the counting itself, in the not focusing on the moment. Is it because  when we count, we are able to gaze at a larger picture? Does it remind us that someday, eventually, there will be an end to counting – the great graduation, let us say.

Or, is there a certain courage in noticing that even when we think that everything is the same, there are differences, and those small differences come from us, acting, even when it can’t seem to make any difference.

Even if tomorrow, the cat needs to be rescued from the tree once more, perhaps it is a kind of God’s-eye view to be able to know that that is the case, and, once again, to rescue it.

 

Posted on February 26, 2014

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My Journey from the Closet to the Pulpit

Hear from more LGBTQ clergy, including Ariel Naveh, on the Keshet blog.

synagogue interiorReading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.

When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. But I had no choice. At the time, and until 2007, the Conservative Movement did not allow openly gay students to be ordained, so my sexuality and the life I had built with my girlfriend at the time were hidden behind closed doors. I had a plan in mind: I would get settled, prove myself, and then come out six months into the job and share my life with the community.

You know what they say about the best laid plans. I started working and almost immediately quickly realized the community was one of tremendous honesty and kindness. I couldn’t keep secrets if we were to have a truly holy relationship as rabbi and community. So I came out, first to the senior rabbi and president and then very quickly to everyone else, and I mean everyone: the board, the staff, the religious school volunteer board. I had endless conversations about my sexuality. Looking back on it now, it might have been overkill, but at the time it was what everyone felt was necessary to be forthright and address whatever “issues” people had with the now openly gay rabbi.

It was, I think, the last time I spoke so much about my sexual identity. I remember when I told the then-president of the synagogue, who has since become a trusted friend and wise advisor, over lunch and without missing a beat she said, “Oh, okay – can we order the sushi now?” And that is kind of how I have always felt about this issue: Can we stop talking about this and get back to studying and teaching Torah, creating holy moments at your wedding, bar mitzvah, or when I share the journey at the end of someone’s life? Might we get back to doing the business of helping each other grow in Judaism and learning, in holiness and meaning?

Not everyone was happy with me, of course. A community member once interrupted my Talmud class to tell me I wasn’t talking enough about how hard it was to be gay, chiding me that I had a responsibility to help other gay people by being more vocal. Then there were the other folks – the ones who did not understand why my girlfriend and I held hands as we left services on Shabbat morning—why did I need to be so public? Too gay, not gay enough, either way I was always a troublemaker.

When I am teaching Torah, I am trying share sacred wisdom as a rabbi, period. When I am standing under the huppah with a couple as they join together in a holy union, I am trying to usher in Judaism sacred joy and sanctity. When I sit by a bedside as someone lays dying, I am trying to offer the tradition’s wisdom of comfort and care. I am being a rabbi – a sacred teacher of wisdom, a vessel of Divine holiness and care none of which have anything to do with being gay or straight.

Yet from a young age, I felt different. It took me almost two and a half decades to figure out why. Simply put, being gay feels to me (and has always felt to me) like being a round peg in a square hole – trying to fit in and sometimes squeezing, but never making the perfect fit. In my professional life I feel treated fairly and equally, but I live in a world where I understand what it means to not quite fit in. I know what it’s like to look around and wonder if you have an ally in the room, and what it means to be in a deep and narrow strait and not be sure if you have the strength to break forth to freedom. Perhaps this is where being a gay rabbi is really as much about my sexual identity as my profession – no one has to be able to prove to me how painful it is to be an outsider. I know it from the inside and out and as such have always tried to use this round peg to help others find their place in the wisdom and holiness of Jewish life.

I have a teacher and mentor who taught me the phrase, “it’s a Torah world.” She was trying to explain to us that in each day there is holy wisdom to be found in the world we live in, real life and everyday existence. Jewish wisdom can help people connect not only to the tradition with great sacredness but also to life’s most mundane moments in the deepest of ways.  She was so right. It is a Torah world and in that world of holy seeking, being gay has nothing and everything to do with the kind of rabbi I strive to be.

Posted on February 5, 2014

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Why I Won’t Marry Two Non-Jews

For another perspective on this debate, read Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s post here.

Aside from the bigamy laws, I mean. (JK)

Recently, a rabbi was appointed to lead a Unitarian congregation. In a discussion about this appointment, I had mentioned that I could not lead a Unitarian congregation, or any other non-Jewish group, any more than I could officiate at the marriage of two non-Jews. I was surprised by the (small) flurry of questions about why, if there was no intermarriage, I would refrain from officiating at such a wedding.

I have many friends who are not Jews. I have attended – and even participated- and rejoiced at their weddings, as well as occasionally been asked for (and given) counsel, or attended other life events, as a friend. When I celebrate at a non-Jewish friend’s wedding, I am a guest experiencing their tradition (or lack thereof). Even if I offer a private blessing, it is the blessing of a friend, but from outside.

A rabbi, even by the broadest definition, is one who is a rav, a master, of Jewish tradition, whose role is to teach Jewish tradition, and model a Jewish life. I am expected to be a kli kodesh  – a holy vessel, at least to the best of my ability, and to do so means to have a particular way of being in the world.  My permission to teach and to lead comes from being invested in that tradition, it comes from the people of Israel, and from the Torah of Israel. Even though I share some, and often many, values with people in other traditions, we each have different ways of expressing those values, and of understanding them – and they are not interchangeable.

When I officiate at a wedding, I do so as one who has a particular view of what it means to get married, what the marriage means in terms of future Jewish life and aspirations, of particular spiritual valences as part of a whole Jewish life, joined to a Jewish community that is both horizontal – with other currently living Jews, vertical – with Jews who have passed on and have yet to be born, and of course, in a particular relationship with God.

When I officiate at the wedding of two Jews, I am seeing that they are joining themselves to one another according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Since the laws of Moses and Israel do not apply to non-Jews, I am unqualified to officiate.

In the Polish schools of Hassidut, several of the rebbes teach that to reach God, each individual has a personal spiritual task that they must complete. This is true for religions as well as individuals.  There are many values in the world, and  in different traditions, we are called to serve and fulfill a mission. And it is not the same mission. That mission is not for ourselves, but for God and for the world. If we don’t immerse ourselves deeply in our own tradition – and each of these traditions  are deep  in their own way- then we are not really going to be able to understand them, their goals, their values, their expressions. And we will not be able to carry out our purpose.

I can’t marry Christians (or Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims, etc) to one another, because to do so would be to assert that marriage means the same thing in all of our traditions – and it does not, and should not. 

Posted on January 29, 2014

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Pursuing your dreams?

jobsAbout a year ago, someone recommended a Paulo Coelho book to me—a popular one—The Alchemist. Most people I know that have read the book loved it: they feel it’s speaking to  them, encouraging them to take life by the horns, and live it to it’s fullest; to pursue their dreams. But I… I hated it.

Like many books of its type, its assumption is that when people don’t live their dreams out, it’s because they didn’t try, or they didn’t dream big enough—books like these are inspirational posters writ long. Not that I have anything against inspirational posters. If that’s your thing, feel free. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that this attitude underlies so much of what Judaism struggles with against secular culture: that adults are required to act as part of a social contract and to sometimes do boring things for the sake of others. Where is the recognition that sometimes you work hard at a crappy job to support your family? My father was a bureaucrat until his retirement, and I think he did the best job at it he could, and he did good for others in whatever way he could there. But I strongly doubt that it was the job he dreamed of as a child. But I always had enough to eat and a roof over my head. He’s still married to my mother. Did he not dream big enough? Maybe he should have lit out for the hills to pursue his dreams instead?

When I hear people saying that the only thing in the way of one’s dreams is oneself, I find myself angry for the janitors and clerks and fast food workers—did they not dream big enough? Do they not work hard enough? Do the poor of other nations simply lack imagination? And angry on behalf of people like my father, who work hard all their lives to make sure their families have enough, even if the job isn’t—in itself—meaningful or stirring. Whose lives are just not exciting. From the outside, at least. Continue reading

Posted on December 18, 2013

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

Rabbis Without Borders Hanukkah Gift Guide

Happy Hanukkah, Jewish learners and lovers of Jewish learners! If gift-giving is a part of your Hanukkah tradition, let our Rabbis Without Borders gift guide help you find the perfect gift. From books and albums made by our fellows to silly odds and ends, we’ve got something for everyone.

Also be sure to check out our “Shalom, Y’all!” Southern & Jewish Gift GuideOutdoorsy Hanukkah Gift Guide, Keshet Rainbow Pride Gift Guide, and our Classic Hanukkah Shopping Guide.

Our yearning for answers is no different now than it was in Biblical times, writes RWB Rabbi Irwin Kula in his eye-opening, stirring book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life:

yearnings

A former West Bank settler, RWB Rabbi Brad Hirschfield now teaches inclusiveness and celebrating diversity. You Don’t Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right is a personal, moving read:

wrong for right

The Amidah is one of the most powerful prayers in Judaism. These Amidah Meditation Cards by RWB Rabbi Marcia Prager ($25) offers a guided practice for each of the ancient blessings:

amidah

RWB Rabbi Shefa Gold is a musician and author who introduces Jewish chant, mysticism and spirituality as a transformative spiritual practice. Shir Delight is a gorgeous, spiritual album:

shir delight

Want to learn about Jewish mysticism but don’t know where to begin? Written by a leading Kabbalahist (and RWB rabbi!), The Everything Kabbalah Book is a wonderful first step:

kabbalah

Counting the Omer, by RWB Rabbi Min Kantrowitz is a Kabbalistic meditation guide to the days between Passover and Shavuot, offering insights into daily life and spirituality:

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How to Spot One of Us by RWB Rabbi Janet R. Kirchheimer is a poetry collection inspired by her family’s tragedy in the Holocaust. She provides a moving tribute to the powers of faith and hope:

hts

RWB Rabbi and poet Rachel Barenblat wrote a poem each week of her son’s first year. Her collection, Waiting to Unfold, reflects on the challenges and blessings of early parenthood:

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Found in Translation is more than just a book about words. RWB Rabbi Pamela Gottfried’s essays about everyday experiences are lighthearted and inspirational. A memorable read: 

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…and now for some rabbi fun:

Rabbear (yep, we said it) is a stuffed traditionalist. Decked out in a tallit and hat, he cuts a dashing figure and would look great on a bookshelf. That said, we’d like to see a woman on the plush pulpit:

RABBIBEAR

Take the Rabbi’s Challenge on this hand-finished wooden Star of David puzzle:

HANDWOOD

Melissa & Doug’s Hanukkah Box of Questions helps start great conversations:

HANUKKAHQUESTIONS

Light These Lights is a collection of beautiful Hanukkah songs by Debbie Friedman for the whole family to enjoy:

sing

Are you a fan of interfaith dialogue? This “Prays Well With Others” bumper sticker is a cheeky way to express your appreciation for all religions.

prays well with others

Happy Hanukkah to you and yours. We hope this gift guide helps!

Posted on November 21, 2013

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

Subway sleeper, Rabbi returns cash: when people do the right thing

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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. 

Posted on November 13, 2013

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Why I Don’t Let My Kids Trick-or-Treat

Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”

halloween

I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.

There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)

All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.

Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.

We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.

Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.

And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.

For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.

Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share  or wish to.

Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day,  it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.

One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.

I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.

Posted on October 23, 2013

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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