The week began with me feeling self-conscious gesturing with my hands and glittery purple nails. I recently read Rebecca Sirbu’s piece about how rarely we heed life’s painful reminders that this is it. To honor the memory of a friend she had lost, she wore a purple hair extension for a week. When I read Rebecca’s reflection, I recalled how much I wanted to paint my nails. I wrote Rebecca my thanks for her piece. I shared what I wanted to do, and my hesitation about doing it. I was afraid it would be too distracting to the students I teach, or my hospice patients and their families.
As a queer man, I have learned not to take my safety for granted. Several times a year, I am the target of harassment: when I walk down the street, people occasionally shout “faggot!”. In my rabbinic work, my sense of unsafety is more subtle. People remark on how “young” I look, a perception I attribute not only to being 32, but also being queer and small-framed. “Looking young” is often code for inexperienced, not wise, or not fit for the rabbinate. To protect myself from these judgments, I sometimes feel I have to dress in ways that make me appear older or more normatively “masculine”.
As Hanukkah begins, we are instructed to “publicize the miracle” (pirsum ha’nes) of the jar of oil that lasted eight days. The rabbis of the Talmud state, “It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah lamp by the outside door of the house. If one dwells in an upper apartment, one places it by the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to leave it on the table” (Shabbat 21b). Though I am largely safe as a Jew, I am not always sure I am safe as a queer male. As I look back over this week, I realize how many times I was tempted to put my hands into my pockets to hide my nails.
After I painted my nails, I taught middle and high school students. In one of my classes a teen asked, “Rabbi Adam, what’s on your hands?” I told him it was nail polish. He asked, “Who painted them?” “I did one hand, my partner did the other”, I replied. He asked “Who?” I repeated, “My partner.” After he asked a third time, I said, with hesitation, “My boyfriend.” Which he responded to by inquiring, “How do you say nail-polish in Hebrew?” As third period approached, I felt anticipatory dread about the response of my class of Jewish teen boys – historically not a “safe” environment for me. Instead of the comments I would have expected during my teenage years had I worn nail polish, they exclaimed, “Cool color!” and asked “Did you pick that because it matches your eyes?”
These days, the sun races through the sky. Each day is short. As the moon wanes, the night’s darkness deepens. Each year at this time, it is easy for me to despair, to believe the light will never return. At this darkest time of the year, we are instructed to light a light. Some of us do it in secret, some visibly. The Talmud says we always have the option to hide this light when we feel we’re in danger. Despite this, I know I have ancestors who, even in times of danger, displayed their lit menorahs in their windows. They recognized that hiding does not always create a sense of safety.
When I told Rebecca my concerns about wearing nail polish, she responded, “What color do you want to do your nails?” Perhaps, as a queer man, it’s time I began to publicize the miracle of acceptance, of relative safety I am finding. The miracle is that it is safe to flame, to shine my light. This Hanukkah, I know I’ll be flaming all eight nights.
“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” So says the author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a famous chapter that begins by telling us, “there is a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, a fast day which traditionally commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient Jerusalem and all subsequent tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Last night, as I studied together with congregants, we looked at a story found in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) that attributes the destruction of the second temple to sinat hinam—baseless hatred. The story demonstrates how powerful emotions such as humiliation, pride, shame, inaction, and revenge unleash a destructive series of events on the people. And it all begins with words—an act of speech that contains the power to hurt and to harm in real, material ways. At every turn in the story, the question must be asked, “what if he had said…? What if they had said…? Did they say something in private? Should they have spoken in public?” I am a struck by the complexity of applying the Jewish ethical teachings on shmirat lashon (guarding the tongue) —taking great care with our words and lashon hara (literally “evil tongue”)—negative speech/slander/gossip in real life situations. When must we speak out, and when ought we to consider silence in order to listen, observe, and witness?
Over the past few weeks I’ve read with sadness as some friends online have shared that they have been “unfriended” or have themselves “unfriended” someone with whom they have a profound difference of perspective over the war between Israel and Hamas. These are indeed challenging times as we consider the impact of our words and the challenge of responding to Kohelet’s observation with thought and care—when is it a time to be silent and when is it a time to speak?
There have been times when speech is absolutely necessary. Those representing Israel must speak in the public sphere; to the media, to the UN, to the people of Israel and the people of Gaza. Those who seek to defend Israel’s absolute right to defend itself from terrorist attack must gather and speak in public venues to demonstrate that Israel does not stand alone. Those who investigate and learn something that can further our understanding of the practices and tactics of Hamas, and of the Israel Defense Forces, must speak. And there are times, using the tools of social media, that we feel that we must share information that illustrates an important truth or an important need.
When, then, might it be a time for silence? I have read literally hundreds of postings and articles on the war this past month. Some I like, because they accord with my already pre-existing opinions and positions. Some I find challenging, because they share a perspective that, while it may contain important truths, are inconvenient because they do not accord with how I wish to frame things. There are things that I read, and I think most of us know them when we see them, that are so strident in how they express the certainty of one way of looking at things that it appears that the primary goal is to antagonize those who see differently, and not to educate on some important matter of fact. Those are the moments when it is easy to be drawn into a war of words—and when, in fact, we might do better to remain silent. I can like something without hitting “like” and I can disagree with something without needing to use the blunt tools of social media expression to bring the poster to task for what I perceive to be their misguided perspective.
Another time when silence may be better than the wrong words, or well-intentioned but clumsily expressed words? When I read the postings from my dear friend, a Muslim married to a Palestinian, who is in pain. I notice that she does not share political pieces, but simply her pain at bearing witness to the pain and suffering of her people. Could I counter with questions about who has caused those deaths and injuries, or talk about the use of human shields? What would be the purpose of my words? What is the emotion and the need expressed in her words? My silence could, of course, be interpreted as a lack of caring. But my silence is meant as an expression of respect—respect for the reality of the pain and suffering. I wish to say nothing that will diminish my friend’s pain. My friendship is more important.
As we discussed these, and other scenarios, in our gathering last night, what became clear to us all is that it is very difficult to discern with clarity when to speak and when to remain silent. Simply carrying that awareness might bring with it a humility that accompanies our word—an awe that contains within it the knowledge of how much, in any moment, we don’t know. There are times when we still must speak, and times when we still must respond. But, perhaps, if we take a little longer to reflect on our felt need to do so, and our perception of someone else’s need to express something different, our words can contribute more to all that we seek to create, and do less harm to our friendships and to our society as a whole.
My husband does not do birthdays. When I first met him over 20 years ago, this truly puzzled me. Birthdays were simply not a big deal and when I pressed for a reason he fell back on tradition, reminding me that Jews don’t believe in birthdays. Personally, I think his lack of birthday enthusiasm is related to his late August birthday falling on the seam between the school year blowout and the camp hoopla, and being resigned to it never being that huge celebration. But he is not so wrong. Birthdays are not a big deal in Jewish tradition.
Think about it. Given the Jewish propensity for celebration and ritual there is a notable lack of birthday celebration. Judaism pays particularly close attention to the anniversary of the day someone dies, the Yahrzeit by saying prayer, lighting candles and remembering the good done during a life. The quiet around birthdays, derives in part from the association of celebration of births as a non-Jewish practice. The only birthday mentioned in the Bible is that of Pharaoh. In the Mishnah the only celebration of birthdays comes in connection to that of pagan rulers. Rabbi Louis Jacobs explains “…in ancient times, Jews saw a birthday as a gloomy reminder that life is drawing closer to its end; a day for solemn reflection and repentance rather than festivity.” But by the time of the Talmud, there was a budding appreciation for the birthday, owing to the idea that famous rabbis birthdays overlapped with the day when another rabbi passed away so that the aggregate Torah knowledge was maintained.
Birthdays may be a less emphasized in Judaism but I’m not buying my husband’s approach. Like most Jews, I love a good birthday celebration and in fact the lack of religious ritual allows for creativity without obligation when it comes to the day!
But with the state of affairs in the Middle East, with so many lives cut short and no clear end to the violence in view, joyful abandon just does not feel like the right approach as we near his birthday.
Instead we have decided to focus on one of his passions, one that puts the power of saving lives in the hands of ordinary people, donating blood. Since he was 17, he has donated over 90 times. He is hoping that in his lifetime he will reach 180 donations. And I hope to honor David Abusch-Magder (also known as Dr. D) by encouraging others to make a donation. Wherever you live, whether you know him or not, we want to encourage you to donate. He won’t derive any direct benefit from what we are calling “a virtual blood drive,” but many others will. Can’t donate? Then encourage others to do so. The summer months are slow giving times. Those of us who are able should take an hour out of our busy lives or vacation time and take this important step.
Let us know if you donate any time in the next six weeks. We have put together a simple form to fill out. We will collect all the names and are taking suggestions on how to celebrate those who are able to give.
Jews may differ on celebrating birthdays but we can all agree on saving lives.
The story broke two weeks ago, and updates are still front-page news.
Allegedly, New Jersey Governor Christie’s leadership team closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge into Fort Lee for no reason — except to annoy the mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse Christie’s bid for re-election.
No one died in the four-day traffic jam. However, some very nasty emails were circulated. Emails documenting a petty, mean-spirited understanding of political exchange, in which politics serves individual careers rather than the common good.
“Moving on can’t happen,” says one New York Times reader-commentator, “until Christie accepts the blame for creating and enabling the culture that led to Bridge-gate.”
Two weeks ago, at our Young Adult Talmud study, we agreed: it is a matter of creating an ethical culture. Around a table at Kafka’s Coffee and Tea in Vancouver, Canada, graduate students in political science, education, business and medicine discussed a famous passage of Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) about verbal fraud.
Just as there is fraud in buying and selling, so too there is fraud in words. One may not say to a merchant, “How much is this object,” if one does not wish to buy.
“Why not?” I asked. “Why should I not entertain myself by bantering with a shopkeeper?”
Because, students said, business is based on trust. Asking prices for no reason gives a false impression; thus, it is a breach of trust. Normally, we assume we can trust our business associates, unless we have a specific reason not to. If you think you are too cynical and savvy to trust naively, remember your behavior when shopping in the supermarket. You read labels, assume the information is true, purchase a product, and put it right into your body.
And because, students said, it is personally harmful to the shopkeeper. By engaging with you, the shopkeeper invests time. The time, however, might have been more wisely invested in another customer. The shopkeeper also invests emotional energy in you. When you falsely represent yourself, you manipulate the shopkeeper’s mood, for your own purposes.
And because, students said, words are the foundation of human communication. When you intentionally misuse words, you undermine a social foundation. The real purpose of communication is to create human community. In fact, the real purpose of business is to create community. When you are dishonest in business, you undermine human community.
At this point in the discussion – I am not making this up – an education student said, “Hey, did you hear about what happened in New Jersey?” Words were used badly, moods were manipulated, trust was broken, and community was undermined.
For the matter is entrusted to the heart, and concerning any matter that is entrusted to the heart, it was said: “And you shall fear your God” (Leviticus 25:17).
“When you do a very small wrong,” said a medical student, “you may think you are getting away with it, but God sees what happened.”
“Let’s get away from the idea of God as a judge,” said another medical student, “and talk about our conscience. When you do something bad, you feel bad.”
“And the bad feeling in you affects others,” said a business student. “If we want good relationships, we have to stop stockpiling lists of times others harmed us.” Otherwise, we retaliate simply for the sake of retaliation – as Governor Christie’s team seems to have done.
Didn’t the students think they were getting a little overly spiritual? After all, we were discussing business and politics.
“There are higher truths than business,” said a political science student.
“The matter is entrusted to the heart, and that’s where God lives,” said a medical student. “God is the space where we do interpersonal mitzvot. Create a trusting community, and you bring God into the world.”
As they talked, I began to see the bridge as a metaphor. Bridge-gate does open onto higher principles. A bridge of trust connects humans in community; narrow the bridge, and community is constricted. Jewish mystics talk about the flow of divine energy that animates the world. When we see only our selves and fail to honour others who help sustain us, we block the flow.
The students in our Talmud group understand this higher truth. May they be the politicians, educators, healers, and business leaders of the future.
Image: theoldmotor.com. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.
About 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
Two weeks ago I posted a piece responding to some articles on patrilineality which provoked several excellent other blog posts and a lot of conversations. I deeply appreciate both the supportive and the critical responses, as a result of which I continue to examine and reexamine my approach to the matter.
Although after having done so, I remain convinced that the Conservative approach remains correct, halachicly speaking, I thought it might be interesting to present a sugiyah from the talmud in which the schools of Hillel and Shammai discuss a breach between them which could have led to their division from one another in a profound way, yet did not.
In the talmud Yevamot 14a (I’m using the Soncino translation) we read the response to a dispute involving who is permitted to marry whom. I’ve added comments in brackets to try to make it more understandable.
The talmud says,
Come and hear: THOUGH THESE FORBADE WHAT THE OTHERS PERMITTED … BEIT [The school of] SHAMMAI, NEVERTHELESS, DID NOT REFRAIN FROM MARRYING WOMEN FROM THE FAMILIES OF BEIT HILLEL, NOR DID BEIT HILLEL [REFRAIN FROM MARRYING WOMEN] FROM THE FAMILIES OF BEIT SHAMMAI. Now, if it be said that [Beit Hillel] did not act [in accordance with their own view] one can well understand why THEY DID NOT REFRAIN [from intermarrying with one another] [Because this would mean that they both acted according to the same principles, but one school did so while acting contrary to the principles that they held]. If, however, it be said that [Beit Shamai] did act [in accordance with their own view], why did they not refrain? That Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from the families of Beth Hillel may well be justified because [the individuals in question] are the children of persons guilty only of the infringement of a [relatively minor prohibition, for which the punishment is also minor] but why did not Beit Hillel refrain from [marrying women from the families of] Beth Shammai [Because descendants from these marriages between rivals, which are permitted by Beit Shammai, are regarded by Beit Hillel as forbidden and involve a major penalty]? Such people, surely, being children of persons who are guilty of an offense involving karet, are illegitimate [this causes a major problem - how can one marry into the family of someone if their status might be someone you are prohibited to marry, and which carries a major penalty for doing so if it turns out to be the case]! And if it be suggested that Beit Hillel are of the opinion that the descendant of those who are guilty of an offence involving karet is not a [illegitimate], surely, [it may be retorted], Rabbi Eleazar said: Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the questions of rivals, they concede that an illegitimate is only he who is descended from a marriage which is forbidden as incest and punishable with karet! Does not this then conclusively prove that [Beit Shammai] did not act [in accordance with their own view]? — No; they acted, indeed, [in accordance with their own view], but they informed [Beit Hillel] [of the existence of any such cases] and [Beit Hillel] kept away.
So, we see that situations like these are not novel – we have always had a diversity of halachic opinions on matters that in their time were no doubt just as painful to those involved. Yet, in the end, the two schools continued to marry one another – their solution, according to the talmud, being that they made clear, out of respect for one another, who fell into or outside of their boundaries – but they remained one community, despite their differences.
On Yevamot 14b, the talmud concludes:
Come and hear: Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the
questions of rivals, sisters, an old bill of divorce, a doubtfully married woman, a woman whom her husband had divorced and who stayed with him over the night in an inn, money, valuables, a perutah and the value of a perutah, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai.
This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace.”
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
It’s not over until…
When the Simpsons go to see Carmen at the Springfield Opera House Homer asked Bart when the show will end. Bart replied, ‘it’s not over till the fat lady sings.’ To which Homer then points to a zoftig soprano on stage and says, ‘is that one fat enough for you, son?’
If you are glad that it is finally Election Day because you think that ‘it will finally be over’, then you’re wrong. “It” being the mind-numbing, ping-ponging Romeny-said-then-Obama-said twenty-four hour news cycle and the billion dollar ad campaigns. And the idea of it being over is wrong. As it stands right now, even in a country where 25% of us are clinically obese there isn’t a fat lady large enough to end this show. The Infotainment industry will not allow it.
My fear is that regardless of who is elected the division created and divisiveness employed in the last two elections have created a powerful schism in the fabric of our country. Regardless of the results of this election, we will remain a country divided. See Thomas Friedman’s piece, ‘The morning after the morning after,’ in the Sunday NYTimes.
Rabbi A. J. Heschel taught, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Rabbi Heschel’s insight should remind us that we must put pressure on our elected leaders, in control of government or in opposition, that we demand action on the 99% of issues where there is agreement. We will not tolerate inaction for the sake of political point scoring or posturing for the next round. As a nation we are above that.
In the Talmudic academy of old, as hot and contentious a place as the US Congress can be, rabbis of diametrically opposed view rallied hard against the other’s position. But there are rules for such a machloket, such a disagreement. First and foremost, the two sides must list everything regarding the issue at hand on which they agree. The Talmud might use the term “chulei alma” – ‘the entire world agrees’, even these two seemingly opposing rabbis about 99% of the issue at hand. Than, ‘mai benaihu’- ‘what is between them’. It is on the minutia of the tiny 1% of a problem that rabbis might agree to disagree.
Regardless of my fear that the battle is done but the war that divides us politically will continue, I pray and hold out hope.
Based on the wisdom of the Talmud understanding of how we go about disagreeing, we must demand two things after this election, regardless who wins the Presidency and who controls Congress: A) Left and Right must publicly and honestly debate the 1% of issues upon which they disagree. B) Right and Left must not use the 1% of issues upon which they disagree as hostage to acting upon the 99% that they do agree upon.
This past Sunday was claimed by many churches around the country ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. It’s the day that the pastors of these churches have chosen to speak not just of the issues that are important to us all, where religious traditions and values may offer some guidance or wisdom, but to speak directly about the candidate that they are supporting.
Wait! What about separation of church and state? You may well ask. What about the IRS and preserving their 501 c3 status, which does not permit the endorsement or political candidates by such organizations?
Well, it appears that this group of church leaders are intentionally thumbing their nose at the IRS. They are making the claim that they have a 1st amendment right to speak freely from the pulpit on any matter. It also appears to be the case, according to a report on PBS’ ‘Religion and Ethics Weekly’ a couple of weeks back, that the department that might pay attention to such breaches and the regional directors who might respond do not currently exist, so it is most likely that pastors who choose to speak out from the pulpit this Sunday will face no consequences for doing so.
Now, its interesting to note the somewhat non-inclusive nature of this ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. There are no synagogues or mosques identifying with this movement. Although it has certainly sparked some conversation among rabbis, and I suspect that I’m not the only rabbi who spoke on this issue last Shabbat.
And it does appear that there are considerable numbers of religious leaders who are comfortable parsing the difference between their 1st amendment rights as individuals versus their organization’s limitations based on their tax-exempt status. So, for example, while it would be wrong for a synagogue board to vote and endorse, on behalf of the congregation, a political candidate, should or could a rabbi who works for that congregation publicly do so as an individual in their own right?
Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’. There is no equivalent website with names listed for Romney, although a rabbi has sought to create such a group and can be contacted online too.
I will tell you now, my name is not on that list. And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it. I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right. Continue reading
There is much discussion currently about imposing limits on blasphemy. It seems clear that the vast majority of those in the West oppose it and many in Muslim majority countries support it. I would argue that Judaism has not only tolerated blasphemy, but found a place for it in its sacred texts. This does not mean that communities have always handled heretics well or to suggest pluralism and liberalism are found everywhere in the community, but I do feel there is a model Judaism has that might contribute to a broad religious discussion and conversation.
Rabbinic literature has many examples of challenges to God, explicitly questioning God’s justice. An early precedent in the Bible is Abraham in Genesis 18 (Will not the Judge of the earth do justice?). A well known passage from the Talmud (Menachot 29b) is where Moses questions God after seeing Rabbi Akiva being viciously killed by the Romans. Moses asks: Is this Torah and its reward?” God responds by telling Moses to shut up!
These two passages share a number of things in common even as one is biblical and one rabbinic. Religious figures are allowed to question God. Indeed, placed in their mouths are the most challenging questions. If Abraham can speak out against God’s justice surely can I. If Moses cannot accept that there is reward in the world for following Torah, surely I do not have to accept that belief.
Secondly, and more importantly, what these texts suggest is that our role is not to defend God or attempt to offer interpretations that let God off the hook. Our job is to defend the people against God. Moses must stand up for Rabbi Akiva. Moses is doing much more than ask a question why good people, in this case Rabbi Akiva, suffers. He is raising it as blasphemy. “ Is this Torah and is this its reward?” It is a rhetorical question that has no answer. God does not attempt one. The response of literally: “Quiet! Or shut up, so it has come to My mind” fails to answer anything. Its abruptness only affirms the legitimacy of the challenge.
There are many other texts I can harness, but a blog post is not the place. I will add that Judaism by and large can accommodate blasphemy and heresy as long as it is placed in the mouths of believers and practitioners. It is because nobody questions Moses’s faith that he ask the heretical questions. Ironically it is the most traditional who can be the most radical and yet remain inside the fold.