A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.
Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.
Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.
But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.
Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.
During my first year with a new congregation, I’ve been offering a creative service slot once a month. Borrowing the term from Rabbi Hayyim Herring’s book, ‘Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today’, our ‘Ritual Lab’ Shabbat lets congregants know to come expecting the unexpected for that particular service. Over the course of the year, some services have been more experimental in format than others – more or less similar to the flow and musical styles of our regular Shabbat worship – but each have had a specific goal in mind.
My ‘training’, such as it was, for shaping these creative services came from the Jewish Renewal movement, having spent many years praying with these communities and creating prayer services in that context prior to my formal rabbinic studies. There, one of the terms coined is ‘interpretive davenning‘ – a way of entering the prayer experience in an interpretive mode so that there is a sense of narrative and conscious spiritual journeying that accompanies the flow from one prayer in our liturgy to the next. Different modes may be explored to accompany particular prayers in a way that helps to peel back the layers of history, poetry, and other aspects of meaning found in each prayer. Each of these modes helps to uncover something of the meaning of the prayer, or highlights an aspect of personal spiritual reflection that a prayer might help to highlight. Sometimes it is the mind that is engaged, and sometimes it is something more experiential that helps us see the words of prayer as vehicles for getting beyond words; in many ways this can be the deepest experience of prayer. Such modes can include meditation chanting, movement, dance, study/discussion of a prayer text in pairs, juxtaposing traditional prayers with other kinds of texts to create new readings and meanings, and more.
I so often hear congregants say that the words of our traditional liturgy get in the way of being able to find spirituality in the Jewish communal prayer experience.This is partially because we lack the tools in our spiritual toolbox to unpack the layers of meaning and possibility found in those prayers. But it is also because the sheer amount of words can be overwhelming so that we cannot possibly derive significant meaning from all of them in every service. Of course, not everyone enters into prayer with this expectation – for those who pray in a more traditional mode, it is the overall ritual and rhythm of the familiar prayers that provide the vessel for taking time out to enter into a different mode that is the primary experience. But for many Jews, and certainly in what has been, historically, the more rationally-focused Reform movement’s approach to prayer, the perceived lack of meaning gets in the way for many individuals seeking a spiritual practice that truly touches and transforms them.
In our ‘Ritual Lab’ services, typically two things happen simultaneously; the prayer service becomes a vehicle through which we can attach a learning experience on an infinite number of topics and, at the same time, the materials or experiences we weave into the service brings a new sense of meaning to the individual prayers that have always been there. The next time we pray our way through our traditional liturgy, we bring the insights from these interpretive experiences with us, and they forever change our understanding of and relationship to these traditional prayers.
So, for example, the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we held a drumming worship service, juxtaposing insights from Native American spiritual traditions with Jewish ideas and writings that resonated with similar insights. During Pesach we held a ‘Song of Songs Shabbat’ that raised awareness of the Song of Songs being read at Pesach, introduced Jewish mantra chanting into the worship experience, explored the mystical roots of Kabbalat Shabbat and the connections to Song of Songs, and highlighted the nature imagery in our traditional prayers and our own spiritual experiences in nature. Sometimes I’ve been intentionally provocative. For example, there is great ambivalence in the Jewish world about acknowledging Halloween in any way in our Jewish community. I personally don’t feel that this is a useful battle to pursue, given the place of this day in American popular culture and the families and children who delight in the modern expressions of dressing up and going trick-or-treating. Instead, the Friday night closest to Halloween became a time to weave teachings about Ghosts, ghouls and demons found in Jewish folk and mystical tradition into the fabric of our service, demonstrating how some specific prayer and ritual traditions that we still have today may have their roots in these stories and beliefs.
For some of our more regularly attending worshipers, these services have become a highlight. They tell me that the format offers a way for them to be exposed to different kinds of spiritual practice and ways to pray that are accessible and can be internalized, while also providing a forum for learning in a setting other than an adult learning class. The feedback tells me that these creative services are fulfilling their purpose. I look forward to another year of experimentation in our Ritual Lab.
Yesterday, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu posted a thoughtful and heartfelt prayer by our colleague, Rabbi Aaron Weininger in response to the attack at the Boston Marathon. I appreciate the words, and those of other colleagues who have created and shared words of prayer these past 24 hours. I will, no doubt, share some of those words with my own congregation this coming Shabbat. But, I must be quite honest, today I don’t feel much like praying. Today I feel angry.
Yesterday was my first time being up close to the proceedings of a marathon in this country. A number of years ago, while I still lived in the UK, I spent several years volunteering with a first aid organization, the St. John’s Ambulance, and had the opportunity to assist at the London Marathon. But this year, with my step-daughter volunteering as a guide to a participant with cerebral palsy, racing in a chair, we took advantage of the fact that we live just 5 miles from the starting line to cheer them on for the earlier parts of the race.
We arrived in Hopkinton early enough to spend some time with the Achilles team as they warmed up and prepared. It was nothing short of inspiring to see racers in chairs make sure that the custom-made works of art that they race in were reading for action; others have the use of prosthetic legs. Many are war veterans. I, whose crowning physical achievement was to build up to a 5km run for charity a couple of years ago, was humbled by the determination and dedication of the men and women racing, and their volunteer guides who enable those who need additional support to participate as equals.
We watched the first few waves of starts take off from Hopkinton, cheering on our team and many of the other mobility-impaired early starters. Then we made our way to Natick and were lucky enough to get another moment of cheering in as my step-daughter’s athlete and his team came by at around the 9 mile mark. We didn’t progress any further down the track, knowing that it would be challenging to get into Boston. I was in my car listening to NPR when I got the first news of the attack close to the finishing line.
I cannot stop thinking about the family waiting to cheer on a father, whose 8 year old son is never coming home. Mother and daughter are still contending with serious injuries. I cannot stop thinking about the spectators who were cheering on these inspirational runners one moment – many of whom have dedicated hundreds of hours as volunteers to support teams that raise thousands and thousands of dollars for charity – who today are dealing with the trauma of a lost limb. In a split second the world has changed for these people. Yes, the world changes for many others too – the ones who were close by, the ones who waited with baited breath to hear from loved ones who might have been there. We are shaken too. But we are the lucky ones.
I am angry. I am incensed that someone or some group has caused such devastating harm. Is this different from any other act of terror, or violent attack that kills and injures innocent bystanders? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is on the heels of watching Senators play politics in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting that I find myself in a different mood this time around. I’m not interested in gentle words or prayers. I remain inspired by those who helped in the moment of need, just as I was inspired by the athletes I met at the start of the day. But I don’t simply wish to express my thanks for those who made a difference in the face of terror. I wish to express radical indignation that such random acts of callousness are committed by those who have the gall to believe they can justify turning the lives of others upside down.
I’m noticing these feelings arise, and I am not trying to keep them down today. From what place do we garner strength and energy to act? Sometimes from prayer. But perhaps sometimes we need to get in touch with the anger, and we need to be willing to turn toward the images of torn limbs and bloodied bodies because this, too, can re-energize us to act differently. To truly treasure each day, to treasure each human interaction, to foster more caring and do even more in all the ways we live and act, because we have to counter hate with as much lovingkindness as we can.
And I pray, deeply I pray, that the authorities catch those responsible and bring the full weight of justice upon their heads.
A Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, Rabbi Aaron Weininger wrote this beautiful poem/prayer in response to yesterday’s attacks. We are praying for all who have been impacted by this tragedy.
God of Runners, God of Responders
by Aaron Weininger
God of Runners
God of Responders
We mourn the loss of life
Our cries crack through the icy spring of Minneapolis
To the blood-soaked streets of Boston.
As we remember those whose lives were taken by senseless hate
Lives and limbs torn apart in the blasts of bombs
As we remember people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds
Who seek the help of doctors and therapists, of communities and clergy
Let us open our hearts to heal and hope.
God of Runners
God of Responders
Give us strength to love our neighbors as ourselves *
To reach across borders
To love beyond finish lines
To pray for healing of mind and, whenever possible, healing of body.
God of Runners
God of Responders
Cry with us in our mourning
Lift us again to love
Hear us in our prayer for hope, in our prayer for healing
Shelter us with peace.
* Leviticus 19:18
“Habemus Papam!” — “We have a pope!” After days of breathless anticipation by Catholics around the world, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran appeared on a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and uttered the words that precede the announcement of every new pope: “Habemus Papum!” The media has been abuzz ever since about the new Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina. His selection has been considered noteworthy for being the first Jesuit priest to become pope, the first pope to choose the name Francis, and, most of all, for being the first pope from the Americas. What stood out to to me, though, was not the novelty of all these “firsts” but the relationship between this sense of newness and the role of Catholic ritual that permeated Francis’ selection: from the cardinals sequestering themselves in their conclave to the black and then white smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to signify that a new pope had been elected. Ultimately, the appointment of the new pope was about this dynamic between tradition and change.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the pope was chosen at the same time Jews segue in our cycle of Torah reading to the Book of Leviticus/Sefer Vayikra. Leviticus takes us from the narrative of the Israelite exodus and the foundational moment of revelation at Sinai into the arcane, elaborate, and often hard to penetrate world of ritual sacrifice and impurity. The first two Torah portions in Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, offer extensive sacrificial taxonomies, describing with painstaking detail the rituals of the burnt, meal, sin, guilt, and well-being offerings. And the gory details would make even Quentin Tarantino blush: blood being sprinkled about the altar, entrails removed, and on and on. Let’s face it: Leviticus is hard to read and even harder to connect with. How are we to relate to these materials? Is Vayikra obsolete? Unapproachable to modern Jews?
Our Sages of old faced these same questions, but with a good deal more existential angst. Leviticus had served as a priestly manual, instructing the High Priest and his assistants how to perform sacrifices at the Temple. But once the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifice became impossible. How, then, were Jews supposed to remain Jews? The ancient rabbis, in a brilliant move, took sacrifice and transformed its function into two new modes that would come to define Judaism for the next 2000 years. First, they used the structure of the sacrificial system—its times for sacrifice (daily and holiday) and its liturgical accompaniments (such as the psalms that Levites recited)–to create a new system of daily and holiday fixed prayer. Instead of offering sacrifices as the medium for interacting with God, Jews could pray in synagogues and retain the same (or even better, according to the scholar Maimonides) ability to engage with the Divine.
Second, though there was no longer a need to know the ritual details of the sacrificial system for practical purposes, the rabbis insisted that Jews continue to study Leviticus because the act of studying itself became a proxy for the act of sacrifice. ”One who occupies himself with the study of Torah has no need for the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, nor the guilt offering.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate M’nachot 110a) Indeed, nearly the entirety of the Fifth Order of the Mishnah, entitled Kodashim, pertains to Temple worship even though it was redacted several hundred years after the Temple was destroyed. Grappling with our textual tradition and seeking to derive wisdom from it became an end in itself as important as sacrifice was to our ancestors. What the rabbis did, in sum, was to innovate, to radically change Judaism, but to do so through a deep, organic connection to our tradition.
Tradition and change remains the dialectic through which we live our Judaism today. The challenge Judaism addresses, the challenge that faces each of us every day, is to live in the murky waters between tradition and change. If we change too much, giving up aspects of our religion that might not feel important anymore, we risk losing our connection to our heritage. But if we remain too rigid, holding on to rituals and practices just because that’s what our parents and grandparents did, then we risk creating future generations that will be disconnected from, and likely reject, our heritage. What we must do is to follow the lead of our Sages: to push ourselves to engage with our tradition’s rituals and sacred texts so that we can deduce new meanings and new contexts from them, meanings and contexts that will resonate for us in our contemporary lives. It is worth noting that the term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” In Hebrew, the common biblical word for sacrifice is, “korban,” which means “something brought near.” Through our modern-day “sacrifices” of prayer and engaging with our sacred texts, we have the opportunity to draw nearer to God and to embrace holiness.
In some ways, our Catholic friends have it easy. They can rely on a pope to lead them, to be the intermediary between God/tradition and their daily lives. We Jews, however, reject the idea of an intermediary. We are all, in a sense, High Priests. This gives us both the blessing of direct access to the Almighty but also the obligation to do what it takes to gain that direct access. It is my hope and prayer that we will rise to this challenge, creating a vibrant, intelligent, and meaningful Judaism for the 21st century.
A few days ago, I stumbled across a terrific quote, which I eventually tracked down to a New York Times article in which Rabbi Marc Gellman asserts, “‘I’m saying that techniques can make a difference,’ Gellman said. ‘Like wrapping yourself in a prayer shawl if you want to shut out the world. But really, when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow! … Wow! are prayers of praise and wonder at the creation. Oops! is asking for forgiveness. Gimme! is a request or a petition. Thanks! is expressing gratitude.” The quote reminded me (and perhaps was inspired by, who knows?) of the Christian writer Anne Lamott, who is among my favorite writers. Last year she came out with a new book called, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, in which she asserts the same idea.
I happened to be struck by this quote, perhaps it was one of those moments when things come together – maybe Lamott would call it a miracle- because I had that morning had a peculiar conversation with my partner in which I was feeling a little sorry for myself (Not Attractive, I know). We had been talking about the need for people to share personal things in their lives with their friends, in particular, struggles and problems, and when he asked me who besides himself that would be (on the idea that one’s spouse should not be one’s only support -especially since they’re sometimes the problem that requires unloading) I had to admit that I had no idea who that would be.
It’s funny, but I’ve always felt terribly awkward about burdening other people with my problems. Perhaps I would have made an excellent Englishwoman, since I’m quite good at keeping the “stiff upper lip” and “carrying on” most of the time. But I just feel as though it would be wrong for me to bother people with my petty little bullshit. Is it arrogance? I have no dislike of people coming to me with their problems. To the contrary, like most people, I regard a confidence as a positive thing – part of relationship-building. So maybe it is arrogance – as if somehow I’m different and can get along without.
But I don’t think that I am the only person struggling with this. Indeed, I think it’s why so many people have trouble with prayer – and even with religion (as opposed to a nebulous and unstructured “spirituality,” which demands little of us in terms of self-revelation or discipline). Prayer is indeed “help, thanks, wow,” and there is nothing more difficult than to ask for help.
In an interview with NPR about her book, Lamott says, “Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.
“And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”
There are two levels to not asking for help: there is fear of rejection. What if someone did feel burdened by one’s TMI. On the human level, of course, this is obvious. Who doesn’t occasionally fear being rejected? And being told that you are making yourself too intimate in passing along the more than usual information is pretty scary. Being told that the other person does not want your intimacy.
But people can fear rejection on the divine level as well. The talmudic story of Elisha Ben Abuya, also known as “Acher,” – “the Other,” – is a classic example of this. Although there are several tales of how he became alienated from the community of the sages, it is what happens after that is full of pathos. It is, indeed, terrible. In several places, Elisha is described as being excluded from the possibility of repentance. His student, Meir, begs him to return (to repent and be re-accepted by God for –whatever it was he did), but Elisha tells him that he has heard a heavenly voice which told him, “All may return – except Acher”
And yet this idea is one in every other place foreign to Judaism. No one is truly ever eternally excluded from the possibility of returning to God. Repentance might be very difficult, it might even require one’s death to complete atonement, but it is not impossible. Perhaps what was really so pathetic here is that one can, reading carefully, interpret the passages as meaning either that Elisha wasn’t forbidden to return, but Acher was – in other words, he had to abandon his identity as someone different from everyone else, and allow his community to help him mend, or perhaps even that the only thing standing in his way was himself – that that voice that he thought of as God’s voice was only in his own head, and God would have accepted him back at any time.
Kabbalah is an attempt to understand the brokenness of the universe.The other night, my chevruta (Study partner) and I were reading a section of a work by the Magid of Mezritch, in which he about what it means to “rule” or have dominion.
In the version of kabbalah that the Magid is discussing, we understand God as being essentially unapproachable and beyond understanding. But there is a little piece of God, called the shekhina, which is just, just approachable, just barely comprehensible, by human beings. This, the lowest “level” of godliness, is a kind of conduit. If we do mitzvot, commandments, we help repair the essential brokenness of the universe, and we open a little flow – like a faucet almost- into the human world of time and stuff, that allows God’s animating principle to bring wholeness and blessing into the world. But this lowest level also has another tap – not just hot water, but also cold – if we don’t do mitzvot, or if we do evil, then this other tap is opened, and not only doesn’t blessing come into the world, but brokenness – the brokenness we create by not doing God’s will, does.
This is a roundabout way of saying that our actions affect the universe in profound ways, and are reflected even in the divine realms. The magid says that this brokenness comes because the sitra achra- the “other side” which plugs up blessing, says to itself, “Ana Emloch,” I will be king. This is interesting when you consider that the other name for the shekhina is malchut – dominion, or kingliness. The sitra achra is made up of several discrete parts, but when each one says, “I will be king,” the brokenness comes not because they wish to be king, but because they cannot join together – each one is a thing unto itself, alone, complete unto itself. But even more, each piece is complete unto itself, and thus doesn’t need anything else.
This, he says, is the negative aspect of dominion. In its utter completeness, and lack of need for others, it shuts out the very thing that could make it godly and truly whole.
There is a blessing after food, somewhat less known than the rather long bircat hamazon, which we say after foods that are sort of snacky and don’t really come under any other category. This blessing blesses God who, borei nefashot rabot v’chesronan, is the “Creator of many souls and their lacks.”
The late 19th-early 20th century rabbi known as the Chofetz Chaim explains the blessing in terms of a verse in psalms (89:3) olam chessed yiboneh “the world is sustained by kindness.” He says that the borei nefashot blessing is unique in thanking God for “having created numerous living things with their lacks” and that we say it because of the deep and essential importance of acknowledging that God did not create people to be self -sufficient. Rather, we need to remember that everything with a soul is in need, and that this is a good thing, because it means that we must reach out to one another, thus building into the very foundation of society the need for us to help one another, and for society to build “passing it forward” into its very structure.
We acknowledge God and bless God for creating us in need – because it allows us to help one another. What greater blessing is there than that? True brokenness is not lack – a lack can be filled. True brokenness is thinking that one is complete unto oneself and doesn’t need anyone else. That tendency to think of oneself as self-sufficient leads to the desire to dominate, because the truth is that when one doesn’t ask for help, one prevents blessing from entering, from other people, and from God.
I’ve always been suspicious of the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” crowd. Generally, the eternally sunny scare me. When do they let it out? Also, what does the good-tripping type do with out-and-out tragedies such as 20 first and second graders killed for showing up to school; the murder of 7 adults who cared for them, one of them the mother of the murder. How do you make lemonade out of that?
That is the only honest response I have. “God, WTF?! Here we are, all of us, most of us, trying the very best we can in life – and where are You?”
Yes, “What The F***!” is a prayer. Sure Psalm 13 says it differently, but the sentiment is the same. The prayer asks God, ‘where are You when I suffer, when the the world’s pain echoes through me like a deafening roar?’
How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind, and grief in my heart all day? -Psalm 13:2-3.
When something troubling happens, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I get angry, angry at God. Anger at God is one of the most potent prayers I know. My friend Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu alluded to this in yesterday’s Rabbis Without Borders blog.
Of course, anger, red hot accusatory anger at God is not the entirety of Psalm 13. It opens with the startling finger-pointing accusation of God’s indifference, but it ends:
I will sing to the Lord, for God has been good to me.
I love this prayer. It allows me the honesty I need for the healthy relationship with God that I crave. Please don’t ask me to hold on to blind goodness and blessing, because then I feel especially lost and scared and angry when real trouble comes. But let me rail about: Murder, bloodshed, hunger, homelessness, parents burying their children, young girls in Pakistan being shot for wanting an education, women in the Congo being raped, and mind-bogglingly re-raped, their bodies part of the battlefield, and more, so much more…
God, if you let me say all that, let me spill my heart’s ache, well, then there is a lot left, and it’s good.
God, I am thankful for the health of my children, the gift of my wife’s love, the appreciation of my students, the feel of the ocean when I swim, the tightening of my skin as it warms in the sun, smiles, laughter, my dog, Matzah’s birthday, and I can go on and on.
I am filled with gratitude. Above all the troubles and trials of being human is a deep thankfulness for all that I have. Sometimes the world is upside down, and the troubles pile over the goodness. Expressing both my frustration and my joy is the only honest way to right the earth’s axis and move forward once again.
So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?
Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?
But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.
Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.
Three weeks had passed since they had put my daughter’s hand in a cast. A small misstep while working with her coach on goalie throws brought her hand into contact with his head. He was fine but her thumb was injured enough to warrant a cast. Writing, typing, and pouring milk had been hard but showering had been really complex and washing hands completely out of the question. It had been three weeks of soccer, band, and playing with our bearded dragon, all with hand wipes and a wash cloth. The moment the cast came off, she hopped off the chair and ran the water over her hands.
The moment could not have been more perfect.
Jewish tradition is filled with blessings. There are blessings for seeing rainbows, meeting great leaders, or getting up in the morning. Each of these myriad of blessings has a particular specialized use and meaning. The hand washing blessings that fit the moment so perfectly was traditionally intended for the ritual hand washing one does before one eats bread. Strictly speaking the blessing was not intended for a celebratory hand washing.
Lately I’ve run into several situations where the “wrong” blessing turns out to be exactly right. There is a traditional blessing meant to be said when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah. Until that moment, the sins of the child are considered to be the responsibility of the parents, but upon reaching the age of maturity that responsibility passes to the child. The parents get to utter the blessing for being released (asher p’tarani) from “ha-zeh” literally this one or this thing. The impersonal nature and the element of irony (I still feel responsible for my teenage son several years after his bar mitzah) had me- like many contemporary parents- forgoing this blessing.
In the last few weeks, however, with no bat/bar mitzvah in sight, being released from “ha-zeh” was exactly the right blessing. A friend finished up a decade of medical training. Sure there are all sorts of celebratory mazal tovs that could and were offered. But by the end of her high intensity, sometimes less than perfect experience, there was a need to recognize the release from the burden that the training sometimes was -and so this blessing of releae was a great choice. The impersonal final nature of this blessing was also the perfect fit for a friend who after years of struggle to be granted a Jewish divorce. Lacking an official prayer of thanksgiving for a divorce, “Thank you God for releasing me from this thing” was exactly right.
Even when there is a “right blessing” it is not always what comes to my mind. One morning I got a short email from a good friend whose school age child had without warning suffered a collapse of his intestines. He was in significant pain and danger. When news came that a difficult procedure had succeeded in restoring function, midst my tears the words that poured out were not those of the blessing for passing through a life threatening event but the words of Asher Yatzar, usually said after going to the bathroom. Thanking God for making all the openings open, was exactly right.
I know there will be those who object to using the wrong blessing in a non-traditional setting, but I’d love to hear from others who have found important new uses for the ancient wisdom of our tradition.