The expression “black hat” denotes Jews who are extremely observant in their religious practices. They wear black fedora hats on special occasions, including the weekly holiday of Shabbat. Some come from Hasidic families, but many do not. They are somewhere between Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. The men dress this way to show respect to their past and uniformity in their community.
My sister and I both grew up in a traditional Jewish family in the Bronx with our Polish immigrant extended family. She found her observant lifestyle in Israel while working and living there in the early 1970s. Now, nearly forty years later, her family has blossomed to include nine children and 27 grandchildren.
As I stood amidst the sea of black hats and dresses, I asked myself yet again, “Why all the black on such joyous occasions?”
I learned that the medieval church and state demanded that Jews wear black at all times. At that time, European countries generally decreed so-called “sumptuary” laws (the Latin word sumere refers to spending or consuming). These laws required each social class in the feudal system to wear clothes appropriate to its rank. Hence, the upper class wore gaudy clothes of many colors and ornamented profusely. By law, Jews were non-persons and had to wear black clothes so they could be immediately identified.
Black clothes are also known to Jews as an expression of divrei yirat shamayim, “fearing heaven.” To some Jews, life is very serious, and the Jew is always conscious of his relationship to God. Black is worn so as to avoid frivolity. Black is a statement of values.
As I surveyed the invited guests, I realized that though everyone looks similar, they are as unique as you and I. I knew many of these guests, and I saw that their outer clothing did not hide their true beings. In Jewish tradition, what makes an individual is not the clothing but the character.
My family is part of a community of people that all dress the same. There is only one way to stand out: You have to be original not with your clothing but in your character. You are judged not by what you wear but by how you treat people. Fashion statements come and go; what is hip today may not be hip tomorrow.
I wore my black dress and black shoes in deference to their tradition. I didn’t stand out. I blended in with my beautiful nieces and nephews. I actually felt safe doing so.
I hope my character was my defining essence. I am okay with that.
Last Shabbat, the guest speaker at my congregation, B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, was Rabbi Andrea Myers, author of a wonderful memoir entitled, ‘The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days.” Through insightful, and often highly amusing, personal stories, Rabbi Myers chronicles her own journeying from a Long Island home with a Lutheran father and Sicilian Catholic mother, to Brandeis University, coming out as a lesbian, traveling to Israel and converting to Judaism, and then returning to the USA to become a Rabbi, a wife, and a mother.
There are many layers to the stories that Rabbi Myers tell – in each chapter of her book we learn something about Jewish practice, something about inter-family interfaith relations, and a lot about the spiritual journey that can unfold for each and every one of us as we find the courage to become more of who we truly are.
Prior to her after-dinner presentation, Rabbi Myers also spoke during our Shabbat service, sharing words based on a piece that she wrote for The Huffington Post some months back entitled, ‘It Gets Beautiful.’ Our suburban middle-of-the-road congregation loved getting to know Rabbi Myers. We pride ourselves on being open, welcoming, and inclusive, but nevertheless I was struck by how everyone present responded to the bigger message – become more of who you truly are – told through the lens of this Rabbi who is a Jew-by-choice and a lesbian. Even ten years ago in a Reform congregation, such a presentation which today reflects some centrally held values of inclusivity and the affirmation of sexual and gender expression found in the Reform movement, would have been seen as much more radical.
The evolving understanding that GLBT Jews can live full and visible lives as Jews loving the people that they love is something that is no longer found in just one or two of the most liberal Jewish denominations. In 2006, the Conservative movement voted to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian Rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies. Back in November of 2011, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox gay Rabbi, officiated at a same-sex wedding.
In the UK this past week, there has been widespread reaction to a controversial story reported in the Jewish Chronicle that a power-point lesson about sexuality at the Jewish Free School in London ended with a slide that some students interpreted as an endorsement of the organization, Jonah (Jews offering new alternatives to homosexuality). While the school, under the auspices of the United Synagogue (the majority Modern Orthodox movement in the UK) has denied any such endorsement, the story has sparked thoughtful conversations that indicate that, in today’s world, there are many young Orthodox-affiliated Jews who no longer regard traditional Jewish observance as a barrier to living a life true to one’s sexual orientation.
The UK Jewish Chronicle also reported on January 19 that the Amsterdam Orthodox Ashkenazi community has suspended their Chief Rabbi, Aryeh Ralbag, who is US-based but travels several times a year to serve the Dutch community. This action was taken in response to Rabbi Ralbag signing a declaration, along with 180 other Orthodox Rabbis, psychotherapists and educators, that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle. Ronnie Eisenmann, the lay head of the Dutch community was quoted in the JC, saying: “homosexuals are welcomed and all Jewish couples are accepted as full members so long as they are recognized as ‘couples’ under Dutch law.”
These recent events demonstrate that, as we continue to evolve in our understanding of human sexuality and move toward a place where civil rights are not given or withheld on the basis of sexual orientation, Jews of all denominations are engaging with these questions in new ways that challenge the boundaries for some within our communities. As they do so, many draw on Jewish wisdom and values to reframe the conversation; no longer the language of toevah (abomination) found in Leviticus 18:22, but the language of b’tzelem elohim (made in the likeness of God) or lo tov heyot ha’adam levado (it is not good for a human being to be alone). These conversations require us to consider whether religious truths must be defined by their unchanging nature, or whether, as Rabbi Andrea Myers suggests, truly becoming more of who you really are requires a kind of truth that can evolve with us as we, as individuals and as Jewish communities, continue on our journeys.
So there we were this past Saturday evening, some 500 people strong, many arm in arm, singing the la, la lahs, and doing Havdalah together. It was at the 10th anniversary celebration of the local Jewish High School, which at first branded itself as a “Conservative” school, but curiously downplayed that part of its history and no denominational reference was made at the dinner except by an honoree who referred to the school as being non- Orthodox.
It is an excellent high school, with students from across the Jewish religious spectrum, many superb teachers, lots of innovative quality programming, and most significantly, draws a third of its students from public schools. My middle daughter was part of its initial cadre of 25 students, and except for being threatened with expulsion for dyeing her hair green during her freshman year, had a fine educational experience there.
To the school’s great credit, they honored seven teachers and administrators who were there from the beginning, including the maintenance man. A former student spoke about each of them and this was a clear statement of the mentchlichkeit (decency) that pervades the institution.
But back to Havdalah. I was bothered by the fact Havdalah came after Hamotzi and after we had started eating. Jewish law is clear that Havdalah should precede eating on Saturday evening. While it should still be recited if this was not done, I thought a day school should model Jewish practice as the tradition clearly understands it and take the opportunity as a teaching moment to explain why it was preceding dinner. However, in this case, and in many cases outside of Orthodoxy, aesthetics seemed to dominate over the integrity of practice, the genuine and powerful good feelings of the moment having more importance than the rules of the game, the very ceremony marking distinctions discarding the very distinction the ceremony makes and collapsing into feel good mushiness.
So I am left with questions? Should a ceremony about borders have any borders? Is there integrity to how the tradition understands a ritual that should play a role in how it is practiced? Am I too Orthodox that it clouds my vision of the beauty of the moment? Am I being too judgmental?
Sunday morning I was at the Great Lakes Naval Base where I am one of a group of rabbis and educators who teach a class “Jews in Blues” to naval recruits. This is the only naval boot camp in the country. The local JCCs (to their great credit) organize rabbis and educators to staff Friday Shabbat services and they have partnered with the Chicago Board of Rabbis on this project. Attendance at class on Sunday can vary from 1-10 recruits and people are always arriving to or graduating from their seven week boot camp course.
We begin each class with Havdalah. Although it is Sunday morning, it is a good ritual with which to begin the class and the recruits certainly could not do it on Saturday night. This Sunday I only had one student. Like many Jews in the Navy (though not all and everyone we meet has a fascinating story), he had a very limited Jewish background, but was beginning a journey to rediscover and explore his Judaism. He was thrilled to follow along the Hebrew, recognized some words, but this was probably his first experience of Havdalah. And for what it is worth, I was honored to be there to open a door for that one Jewish recruit I will probably never see again. This time I left with no questions.
A young man adorned with a black hat, a prayer shawl and phylacteries offers up his morning prayers in the same library where I study with my erudite Talmud teacher.
On Mondays, I infuse my mind and spirit with the insights of the Babylonian Talmud. Three Modern Orthodox male lawyers and I (a post-denominational female rabbi) find delight in analyzing the legal codes associated with voluminous pages of the detailed conversations and arguments of the rabbis.
Today I am the teacher’s only pupil. I concentrate on reading the Rashi script.
The man with the black hat paces back and forth in front of the room as he choreographs his prayer dance before God. He moves with quiet determination while he places his black and white tallis over his shoulders. He wraps the tefillin around his arm and on his forehead. He adjusts his black hat often and deliberately. I see him focusing on his paperback prayer book, but I cannot detect any sound.
My teacher, oblivious to the young man’s presence, continues to expound on the first sugya (passage). The man with the black hat is my distraction. Is he offended that a woman and a man are studying holy texts together? If so, why doesn’t he take his prayers to another place? Is he eavesdropping on our learning while concentrating on his blessings? Does he find it interesting? Or amusing? Is he surprised at my agility with the Hebrew text, or has he succumbed to the beauty of my teacher’s Talmudic treatises?
I longed to tell him my “Yentl” story.
My father, an Orthodox rabbi, had no sons to transmit his passion for Torah learning. Instead, when I entered rabbinical school at the age of forty and took my first Talmud class, I realized a dream. Every night after class, my father and I studied Talmud. The intimacy of our reflections opened up more than the secrets revealed on the written page. I immersed myself in the wisdom of my father, the greatest gift of my life.
The thrill of those intimate discussions flashed like lightning into my heart space as I held the Talmud in my hands and ingested the instruction of my tutor.
We have many teachers in life. Some remind us of other teachers, not by what they know,
but how they transmit what they know.
The attendance of the man with the black hat solidified the devotion and the dedication
the three of us sustained in the room filled with the books of our people. How could he not have stayed? He soaked up the deliberations of the Talmud just as I had done decades before with my father at my parents’ kitchen table in the Bronx.
Is it permissible to begin your morning prayers while the study of Talmud between a man and a woman is already in motion? According to the man with the black hat, it is permissible and precious.