Monday, August 14, 2017

Acceptance & Openness as Antidote to Sinat Chinam

Most years I spend Tisha B'Av at Camp Ramah. The day moves differently there. Unlike at home, where work and life move around me no different from the rest of the days of the week, Ramah moves at a different pace. The day is focused on remembrance and hope. This year there was also a frustration stemming from the feelings among staff and campers that, as non-haredi Jews, we were being shut out of Israel.

Sean and I were asked to oversee the Eicha reading and Tisha B'Av learning. Deciding what to teach is always a challenge. The traditional sources surge to the front of one's mind. The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza cannot be forgotten. Unfortunately, all too often, the story's conclusion is left off. Teachers and rabbis present the beginning of story from Talmud Gittin, telling of Bar Kamtza being publicly embarrassed as the Rabbis look on, and then informing against the Jewish community to the rabbis. But we too often leave off Rabbi Zechariyah ben Avkolas's excessive exactitude, putting his interpretation of the law before the needs of the people.

This summer's events in Israel- from the cancellation of the Kotel compromise to the continuing debate over who is a Jew, from the discrimination against homosexual couples in adoption to the name-calling and hurtful rhetoric coming from Israeli religious leaders- cannot but come to mind when studying this text. Is this the definition of sinat chinam, of senseless hatred? And what is the solution?

Each summer, as I prepare to teach on Tisha B'Av, I seek out materials to help children, teens, and adults connect with the day and with our land. The younger children and Tikvah campers again focused on the story of Bar Kamtza. Together we wondered about the act of being an upstander instead of a bystander, one who speaks up and acts, whether in the moment when that fateful party's host threw Bar Kamtza from his home or when the Sages accepted the comments of Rabbi Zechariyah, choosing punctiliousness over people's lives.

Later in the day, I spoke with a room filled with 15-16 year olds. Using the Beit Ha'am - Z-Talks supplement, "Pray For the Wellbeing of Jerusalem," the campers entered the room to a video of the women's sections at the Kotel filmed by Tehila Raanan, "Wall, Crevice, Tear." The film is peaceful, almost eerie. There's no sign of the conflict surrounding the Kotel, no anger, no hate, no protest. Campers shared their impressions of the film, and their experiences at the Kotel. My daughter spoke about being accosted by representatives of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, told her clothes were a desecration, and how much happier she was to sit and think at the Masorti Kotel. From there, we went to the end of the Bar Kamtza story, to Rabbi Zechariyah.

We talked briefly about the news of the summer and the Kotel compromise. Most of our time was focussed on the idea "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh, b'zeh," that all of the people Israel are responsible for each other. Regardless of our agreement on religious issues, regardless of our interpretation of law, we are responsible for caring for and supporting each other.

The Jewish people has never been monolithic. But perhaps we were never so splintered as at the time of the destruction. Perhaps that is our problem, and that is our solution. Just perhaps sinat chinam is the cutting off of others because they do not think or at like us, and the answer is to accept, if not to embrace, the differences.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Questions I Ask With No Answer

We’ve all heard the joke- when my children were little, I, the parent, was brilliant. When they were teenagers, I was suddenly an imbecile. Now that they’re getting older, I seem to be getting smarter again. It’s true. I remember the day I lost all credibility. My eldest was a preteen. He was studying Humash, and said something incorrect. My husband and I, both rabbis, corrected him. “No,” he insisted, “that’s not what me teacher said.” We pointed out the mistake in the text. Still, he insisted the teacher, not a Torah scholar, was correct. I gave up, and emailed the teacher. In my son’s eyes, I no longer knew what I was talking about.

It swings the other way too. As a teen and as a young adult, I was fired up about so many things. I knew the world could be a better place if people just listened, if not to me, then to the experts all around. I could listen patiently (more so than my own children usually do), and then explain exactly what needed to be done. 
Recycle More. 
Use less energy. 
Create a US national service to serve rural and inner city areas in many needed ways. 
Never negotiate with terrorists. 

Life now is different. I’m not old, yet I am twice the age I was when I knew everything. Although I am still very much the idealist I once was, my mind is filled with wonder instead of answers. Now I have questions, where before I had passion. Here are just a few: 
·        Why do we insist on trying to convince people about climate change? As we say in Hebrew, mi she'yavin, meivin. That is, those that understand, understand. The others will never come around. So why don’t we work on a universal idea, one everyone can agree upon? Pollution is bad. I like to breathe. You like to breathe. Smog is bad. Now, how do we clean this up and prevent new pollution together?
·        Why do industries like big tobacco persist? Why are we willing to sacrifice others for a little extra in our pocketbook? 
·        Why do we allow time freed up by so-called time saving devices to be poured back into work instead of the family and social time they were supposed to create?
Yes, I know some of the answers come down to a double standard. Many come down to selfishness. I like things to be easy too. I like to pay less, but get more. 

I also know I am an idealist. I do sometimes use disposable plates, but stick with recycled and recyclable ones. I also invested in inexpensive plastic to use when we’re on the go. It means I need a place to keep them. It means I need to wash them on site or have something to put dirty dishes into to protect everything around them. That’s a benefit of the salary I make. I also know I make less because I chose a job for “unnatural” reasons. When I left my last job, it was to take care of my family. I was on a path upwards, but it required time I didn’t feel I had or wanted to give. When I went back to work, it was in a job I love, but one that is part-time. There are frustrations. There’s always too much to be done. We simply don’t have enough working hours. Sean and I cook all our meals. That means from actual ingredients. There’s no quick rice or frozen meals. There are few canned goods. It takes a long time to prepare a meal from scratch. Nothing is easy. But the effort makes it more important. Even with three teens in the house, we eat as a family. The chef does not have to do the dishes. (The dishwasher must not run the water continuously.) The kids sometimes whine. They should. It’s part of the teen language. But, they also follow through. We talk. We share. 

I have a garden. I have a compost heap. Even when I couldn’t plant because of sciatica, we had plants in pots. My children know what a tomato should taste like. We try to buy local. It’s not a perfect system. Kashrut means not all things are available from local sources. We love bananas and chocolate. Neither grow in a 100 mile radius diet. We buy local and we buy Israel, a seeming contradiction. Whoever said humans were logical? I’d rather pay a little more for something made with safe materials from workers treated fairly. But, bargain-hunting is a draw. It’s a challenge to balance. Sometimes we teeter in the wrong direction. That’s just being human.

My current question- (oft made fun of, but true in spirit) Why can't we all just get along? I don't have an answer.

Bette Midler wrote a song called "From a Distance" The lyrics say, "From a distance you look like my friend even though we are at war. From a distance I just cannot comprehend what all this fighting is for." It's not only from a distance. It's also close up. When we can get to know each other personally, to share hopes and our lives, then you can be my friend. I pray for that day.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

It's NOT Lockeroom Banter

I rarely comment on politics. Actually, this isn't really about politics. It's about acceptable behaviour. I am a child of the 70's and 80's, a time when sexual harassment and assault were often simply accepted. As a child who hit puberty early, I spent my later elementary years being groped on the playground. Every day, really - every day, out on the playground the girls would be chased by the boys. The goal, to grab our breasts. As one of the more developed girls I was a frequent target. We never reported it. The unspoken attitude was boys will be boys. I learned to run fast. In junior high, when I was a counselor at a day camp, to the boys who would speak to my chest instead of my face I would say, "I'm up here. They don't talk." In high school, although I was a virgin and in a monogamous relationship, I still heard the whispers that I was whore.

By the time I went to Brandeis things seemed to be improving in the world. Brandeis was a wonderful and open place. Sexual harassment was being talked about and recognized as unacceptable, even as practice was slower to change. But I still understood that as a woman I would have to work a little harder. It wasn't always enough. I lost at least one job due to my gender. First the job was changed from "School Rabbi" to "Director of Jewish Life." Having a female rabbi simply wasn't okay. The board president was so confident it wouldn't matter actually told people I was hired just until they could find a "male rabbi." At the end of my first year, the position was eliminated. It was the only legal method to eliminate me.

I've seen questions this week about what Donald Trump's comments have to do with policy or with being president. I've read the comments that say it's ten years old. I've seen the comments that claim it was just lockeroom banter. I think if the tape was from the 70's or early 80's I may have said, "Well, what's happened since then?" But this wasn't 1978. This wasn't 1983. This was 2005. Yes, ten years ago, but well past the time when we accepted the phrase boys will be boys. It shouldn't have been acceptable in 1978. It shouldn't have been acceptable in 1983. It wasn't acceptable in 2005. And it's NOT acceptable to write it off as lockeroom banter or claim it's okay because 1) it was a private conversation or 2) others have acted worse. Mr. Trump can claim this is lockeroom talk, but his comments described sexual assult. This is NOT lockeroom talk. To say that people can get away with assaulting women as long as they are famous is NOT lockeroom talk. And to claim that is perpetuates the culture where I learned to run fast. It perpetuates a culture where I have to be concerned about my daughter being groped on a bus. It's time we all stood up to say this is NOT ACCEPTABLE.

The president of my country is not above the law. The president of my country should be a role model. The president of my country should be a person I can respect, and someone who I can be sure respects me. The president of my country can, and will, make mistakes. The president of my country cannot stand behind the claim that what s/he says in private conversation isn't important. S/he stands for what's right - in public AND in private.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Achrei Mot- A Time to Mourn

Vayidabeir Adonai el-Moshe acharei mot sh’nei b’nei Aharon…
And Adonai spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron… (Vayikra 16:1)
As a rabbi, I have attended a lot of funerals. At some I have been the officiant. At some one of many clergy or speakers, and at some an attendee paying respects to the deceased or the mourners. At every funeral I cried. And at every, I am interested in how the funeral rites inform our mourning process.
Those who know me well are not surprised by my crying, no matter the relationship. I am a great crier. I cry at Hallmark cards and at sappy commercials. The other night, Keren and I cried at a scene in Marvel’s Agents of Shield, a superhero television show. In ancient, and even not so ancient times, I might have found employment as a professional mourner. Even now, hired mourners are popular in Asia and the Middle East. Rent-a-Mourner is a real thing in England. Some see this as a breakdown of the family, but others point to the respected history of the profession, and see it as one more way to honour the dead. It’s not false mourning. A mere thought of the hole left by the deceased, and the tears flow. The loss of any life changes the world.
Jewish mourning laws and rituals are very specifically designed to move mourners through these earth-shaking changes. Grief is a part of life. It is not something to be avoided, nor to be experienced alone. Rabbi Ruth Langer, a Boston College Theology professor, writes, “the rituals surrounding death are…the most tightly choreographed and the least liturgical…. Jewish rituals tend to be accompanied by a…[expansive liturgy], the performance of funerary rituals are striking in their combinations of silence and free speech. The result is the creation of a time that is markedly different, that responds powerfully to the emotions of the moment, and that effects the dual transition of accompanying the deceased to the grave and only then of comforting the mourners…. [effecting] first the transition of deceased from the world of the living to the world of the dead/afterlife; and, second, it places the mourners into a liminal state from which they gradually emerge to reintegrate into a social realm reshaped by their loss.*
Unfortunately, in today’s world, this change is often glossed over. Many people want to grieve privately. Shiva is cut short, or severely limited in its hours. We are in a hurry to return to “normal” life, not taking the time needed for shiva, shloshim, and shanah. Each step marks a change from one world to the next. And, while directed at the mourner, they are meant for all of us in the community to share.
Shabbat shalom.

* Langer, Ruth, “Jewish Funerals: A Ritual Description,”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Boaty McBoatface

Recently, Britain's National Research Council launched a public survey to name its newest polar research vessel. Overwhelmingly, the public chose the name Boaty McBoatface. Britain's Science Minister has announced this name will not be used, and the Council is reviewing other names from the survey for a more suitable name.

While I agree that Boaty McBoatface is a ridiculous name, it also has staying power. It's fun to say, and brings a smile to the face of anyone saying it. I bet even the Science Minister smiles when he says it, before putting on a stern face to go speak to the public.

This is why we have decided that Boaty McBoatface will be the new profanity in our home. Try it. Stub your toe? "Boaty McBoatface' You'll be smiling in no time. Lose your wallet? "BOATY MCBOATFACE!"  It'll still suck, but at least you'll have a moment of laughter.

Britain's new ship may not be called Boaty McBoatface, but the name will live on among its fans.