About Tisha B’Av in the modern world

By Anthony Baratier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tisha B’Av is one of the holy days you don’t hear much about if you were born and raised a Gentile. We hear about Hanukkah for sure, and some of us might be aware enough to know about Passover and maybe even Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur (especially if we read Judy Blume books set in New York City). But some of the lesser-known holy days are still surprising to those of us who weren’t born and raised Jewish.

Tisha B’Av is the day commemorating a lot of different Jewish tragedies, including the destructions of the First and Second Temples. It also commemorates the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and more recently people have connected it to Kristallnacht and even 9/11. (The Shoah is not one of the days mentioned – it has its own day, Yom Ha’Shoah, for memorials and remembrances.) For most people, it’s also focused on the loss of the Temples – and the hope that the Third Temple will someday be rebuilt in Jerusalem.

Tisha B’Av is never observed on Shabbat; if the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat the fast and observances are postponed until the next day. Jews observe similar fasting and restrictions to those observed on Yom Kippur: an all-day fast from food and water, no leather shoes, sitting on low stools. People who are ill are not expected to fast, but the general expectation is that the day should not be a happy one.

The point of the day is to remember the ways in which Jews have been mistreated and harmed, in ways that have affected the entire kol Yisrael (the people Israel) over the years. Although anti-Semitism is frightening when we see it happening in a grocery store in France, this is not what we’re talking about on Tisha B’Av. Instead, we are looking at the non-Shoah tragedies that the entire Jewish people have gone through – things intended to shatter and disperse our community.

As a diabetic, I cannot fast all day, so I must find other ways to observe. I am leaning towards the same method that is outlined here: How Should Reform Jews Observe Tisha B’Av? I will fast from food and water from sundown until noon (i can do that much safely). But after that, I will be meeting with friends for a preplanned lunch because one of them is moving out of the area. When we get home, I will spend some time with the Book of Lamentations, while still being aware that the Judaism of the Temple is not the Judaism of today – because Rabbinic Judaism moved us away from a worship focused on animal sacrifice towards a worship focused on personal and community sacrifice aimed at building a better world. And that’s the Judaism that I follow.

I am ambivalent about building the Third Temple. Would it mean we’d all have to go back to living in the agrarian society of the Torah to be good Jews? How would a city dweller who works as an engineer fulfill the Temple-sacrifice mitzvot? Would we see the moneychangers return to the Temple? (Those moneychangers were largely people selling animals for the various sacrifices, and the bankers who would “moneychange” for people to have enough cash to buy those animals.) Will the ability to complete these mitzvot be based on a person’s net worth (if you have to buy your sacrifices)?

I can’t see that being a good development for modern Judaism. I also don’t see it as much in line with the ethic of tikkun olam – how would that be sustainable?

We can already see how the ultra-Orthodox treat what’s left of the Second Temple – the Western Wall (aka Kotel). They have turned it into a Haredi-only synagogue. Is that a meaningful way of addressing our need to heal the world? Is that a meaningful way of rebuilding a scattered community?

sjewindy had some pointed things to say about the meaning of Tisha B’Av for Secular Humanist Jews – and as a Reform Jew, I find a lot of wisdom in what he says. Here’s that link: Tisha B’Av and Secular Humanist Judaism – and here’s the important quote for me: it is “a holiday that can squarely address the question of our obligations to one another and the power of humans to aid one another in times of crisis.

The lunch I’ll be going to is the last one we’ll be having with this friend, who is moving to the northern part of California to attend college. We won’t see her much after this. She’s a part of my community, and reaching out to her is a good thing for us to do on Tisha B’Av. Finding ways to help people on Tisha B’Av, whether it’s donating to a charity or a fundraiser for people in need, or working in a soup kitchen, or calling a friend who is depressed, also seem to be appropriate ways to observe the day. Taking some time to think about what obligations we have to others is also a good idea on this day.

In addition to commemoration of the horrid things that have happened to our community, creating connection and acknowledging our obligations to one another should be at least one focus of the modern Tisha B’Av.

So that is how I plan to spend the day on Sunday.

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On Robin Williams and Depression


Today would have been Robin Williams’ 64th birthday. I share what I wrote when he died, to remind people that depression is not just “feeling down in the dumps.” It’s being below the dump.

Originally posted on Wrestling With God:

This post might look like it has nothing to do with Judaism, but bear with me. It does.

Ever since I found out about Robin Williams’ death yesterday I’ve been sort of in a state of shock. The man who created Mork, Garp, Airman Cronauer, the Genie, John Keating, Armand Goldman, Peter Banning/Pan, and Vladimir Ivanoff dead? Impossible.

But even worse: his death was by suicide? Incredible. Unbelievable. This brilliant, vibrant, funny, successful man killed himself? How can that be?

And yet. And yet.

Finding out that he suffered from depression makes all of that completely believable – both his successes and his death.

You see, I have depression. I have always had it. I always will have it. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear. And I have heard that inner voice saying in a very calm, rational, completely believable way: “Nobody would miss you if you died. They’d…

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The Power of Doubt

One of the most powerful things for me during my conversion has been confronting doubt – not trying to stop doubting, but trying to learn to be okay with doubt, and to engage with doubt. It’s actually been one of the most freeing and the most frightening things I’ve ever done.

Doubt, in many of thquestion-mark-309085_1280e religious traditions I’ve been part of, is considered either sinful or the next thing to sin. It’s an indicator that you don’t have faith if you have doubt. For example, Thomas (one of Yeshua’s apostles) is vilified for his doubt – for saying “yeah, okay, you guys say he rose from the dead, but let me see the nail holes first before I believe that.” Being called a “Doubting Thomas” is an insult in Western society. We’re generally not good with doubt. Heck, just type “doubt” into a Google image search and you’ll find all kinds of images that put down, vilify, or reject doubt as a bad thing. It’s a hard habit to break – generally, Westerners (by which I mean Christians) aren’t good with ambiguity, which is where doubt resides. Let your yes be your yes and your no be your no. Let’s not have maybes, or possiblys – they make things more complicated and we don’t like complications.

Judaism, on the other hand, is pretty good with doubt. How do I know this? Because it’s good with debate, and debate doesn’t happen if the matter is settled, and the matter is only settled if nobody doubts the settlement. But look at the Talmud – the arguments of rabbis over the Law indicate that things are not, in fact, settled. They are up in the air!

In the same vein, today, a friend of a friend on Facebook shared this link:

Kids’ Questions are the Antidote to the Pew Study’s “Jewish No Religion” Category

One of the things that hit me hardest from this article was this part:

Once the conversation got underway, the campers’ questions came pouring forth. It was as if this were the first time they could ask these questions without feeling foolish (or worse). They asked questions like:

  • “If I’m not sure about God, should I still say the prayers?”
  • “If I don’t believe God takes care of the good and punishes the bad people, am I still a good Jew?”
  • “The Romans had
     so many gods, but Judaism teaches there is only one God. Why are we right and they are wrong?”
  • “My grandmother died too young but she was a really good person. Where was God?”

And I noticed that what was hitting me from these questions as a main theme was the doubt. The questions are all saying things about whether doubt is a valid thing for Jews to feel, to acknowledge, and – pardon me for saying so – to wrestle with. Is it okay for me to be unsure about God? Is it okay for me to feel like God isn’t doing the job that God is supposed to do? How do we know we’re right about God being One? And in the classic question Kushner addresses in When Bad Things Happen To Good People: My wonderful grandparent died too young – where was God when that happened? (That question is very close to one of my main reasons for exploring Judaism – where was God when my father died too young at 63?)

Fortunately, the campers were assured that yes, doubt is a perfectly valid thing to wrestle with and to feel, and it doesn’t make you less of a Jew, or a less-good Jew, to have doubts.

It is okay to doubt. That has been so very, very hard for me to wrap my mind around. More than a year ago now, I wrestled with this very thing in Doubt is the Handmaiden of Truth. I’ll just share the meditation from my best friend’s siddur that hit me so hard at that time.


Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery. A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.

Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.

Let none fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it; for doubt is a testing of belief.

For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure. Those who would silence doubt are filled with fear; the house of their spirit is built on shifting sands.

But they that fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on a rock.

They shall walk in the light of growing knowledge; the work of their hands shall endure.

Therefore, let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help: It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.

The demand of “faith and no doubt” is inconsiderate, unrealistic, and unfair. But looking at this meditation again, I can see that in the year-plus since I last posted it, I’ve come to a détente with doubt. I’ve reached the point where I can now say, “I’m not sure about that – I don’t know the answer to that” and although it still makes me nervous, it doesn’t make me feel like the world is going to end if I don’t have an answer right this second.

And if doubt is okay, then by definition, disagreement is, too. I don’t have to be in lock-step with everyone else in order to be a good Jew. I don’t have to agree with anyone else’s perceptions or experiences of God to believe in God.

That is more freeing than I can ever say in words.

The power of doubt is that it allows us to question. The power of doubt is that it allows us to form our own bond with God, in whatever way that works for us – even if that way is sometimes doubting that God exists. The power of doubt is that it allows us to learn and grow and understand.

It’s a tool I was denied for many years. But I’m never giving it up again.

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I have this thing for counting days.

Both counting down and counting up. Heck, the little countdown widgets I had for graduating with my AA (in 2005), my BS (in 2007) and my MA (in 2008) are all still there on an ancient blog of mine, and they assure me that it’s been 10 years, 1 month, and 4 days since the AA; 8 years and 4 weeks since my BS; and 6 years and 7 months since my MA. (And, although I had no counter for it, the three-year anniversary of my dissertation defense – which I passed, thankyouverymuch – was just yesterday.

I’ve been counting up from my husband’s and my wedding day (255 days as of today!) as part of my daily gratitudes on my Facebook page.

And then, of course, there’s my beit din and mikveh date. The day I officially become a Jew.

Which, according to several online calculators, is 44 days from now. Or a month and 13 days, if you’d rather.

"MikvehAJU" by Valley2city - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

MikvehAJU” by Valley2cityOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

So. What’s left to do in those 44 days, apart from working on my class preps and getting my classes ready to go on the Monday of that week?

I will be doing more Judaism-related reading than I have been able to do since the first few months I started keeping this blog. I still have books that I started but didn’t finish on my list of “books to read.” My beginning Hebrew group is meeting once a week on Wednesdays for a chavurah to keep ourselves in practice until our teacher gets back from her summer trip to Israel. My “second” class will be re-forming at the beginning of August when the rabbi gets back from his summer trip to Israel, too, and we’ll be done with that the day before I go to the mikveh.

I need to figure out what I’m comfortable with, in terms of what happens on The Day Itself. The mikveh couldn’t schedule me any earlier than four p.m. and my beit din is at 8:30 a.m. at our temple. The two places where these things are happening are about 40 miles or so apart. I am assuming that my husband, who is taking the day off from work (he’s a better driver than me, especially when it’s concerning Places I Don’t Know How To Get To), will drive me in the morning, and we will probably then go to lunch. I will shower and scrub down before we go to the mikveh, and then he will drive me there as well. My best friend will be with us for all of this.

I will also be having hatafat dam brit at a time close to the day, but not on the day, but that’s not something I’m going to write about further because that’s just a little too private for me. Sorry. If you want to know what that’s like, Michael at Chicago Carless should be able to settle your mind with this post. I feel it’s better to do it beforehand (even though it may be only a pinprick, I know how long it takes my fingers to stop bleeding when I jab them for my diabetes blood sugar tests, and I’d rather not take the risk of having that happen at the mikveh).

My rabbi will be my official mikveh witness. My husband and best friend will also be there, behind a screen, for my privacy. Nobody will see me naked; I will have a robe or sheet or something to cover myself between the prep room and the actual mikveh itself. I am trying to memorize the prayers, but I don’t know which one my rabbi will want me to say for immersion. There’s a specific one for converts to say, you see. I already know the Shema and the Shehecheyanu, so it’s only the one for immersion that I have to memorize before then. I’ll be emailing him as soon as he’s back from Israel.

I will not be having a simcha (party or celebration) as such, on the day – another Jewish friend of mine will be at a conference across the country at that time, and has asked me to delay it until he can get back. So we may combine a Labor Day picnic and my simcha, which is fine with me, frankly.

My best friend and her parents, whose Seder I’ve now attended twice with my husband, purchased the tallit I wanted. It’s at her house and waiting for me, but I won’t see it until the day of the beit din, and I’m okay with that. Our temple does not require the mikveh, but I want it, and I don’t know if I’ll really feel like a full Jew until I’ve done it, although I will probably put on my tallit at the temple after the beit din makes their decision. (I have heard a rumor that something more happens after the signing of all the papers.) I’ve memorized the blessing for putting on a tallit, too: Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav l’hitateif ba’tzitzit.

An Orthodox conversion is not in the cards for me, but after what I’ve gone through, this conversion should even be acceptable to a Conservative-stream synagogue. I hope. And frankly, today I realized that I don’t care what the Orthodox think. This article should explain why I think their claims to being the “original” stream of Judaism are pretty much bunkum: Orthodoxy’s Inconvenient Truths

In 44 days, I can say she’asani Israel and it will be not just spiritually accurate, but factually and legally accurate. I am looking forward to finally bringing my status as a Jew in line with my soul, which already is a Jew.

As for the husband, he has said he wants to go through HHDs once before converting, but he is going to talk to the rabbi about possibly going during the five days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. I am quite good with this, and I look forward to it. But I know that it’s up to him, and I’m not going to push.


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They’re Not Your Shabbos Goyim, and Other Hard Truths

Not for me – for the ultra-Orthodox.

I chose Judaism because of several things: a sense of community, a sense of acts being more important than words or appearances, ritual that made sense to me and spoke to me. I chose Reform Judaism because Reform Jews are open-minded and welcoming while still maintaining the important traditions of Judaism – the ones that matter.

Now. Given that, what I’m seeing from the ultra-Orthodox is that appearances are more important to them than actions, and that keeping up appearances is the most important thing. And in doing so, they are behaving in ways that are bigoted, small-minded, and even dishonest.

When you hire Latinos to dress up as Orthodox Jews to protest my rights as a gay man, that’s dishonest. They’re not your Shabbos goyim. They are people playing a part to keep up appearances.

When you try to block women from praying with the Torah at the Kotel and compare them to church arsonists, that’s small-minded and sexist. That’s not a mitzvah. It’s a sin. When you beat up a man who is brave enough to give them the Torah anyway, that’s not a mitzvah either. It’s a crime.

When you cancel bar mitzvah services organized by the Masorti stream of Judaism for disabled kids because they don’t meet your Orthodox standards, that’s just outright bullying. And to what purpose?

And although I could probably find another dozen examples of ultra-Orthodox small-mindedness, this takes the cake: When you say that Reform Jews aren’t Jews, well, why would I want to become part of your small-minded, bigoted, dishonest group called ultra-Orthodox Judaism?

Sorry. Not feeling it, dudes. When you can move beyond your dishonesty and your pursuit of appearances above all, maybe I’ll consider you Jews. For now, I don’t. I consider you a pox on the People. You’re no different than the Jews whose senseless hate led to the destruction of the Second Temple. 

Oh, what’s that you say? I don’t have the authority to say you’re not Jews? Who says so?

Oh, because “sefer sheli,” huh? Because it’s YOUR Torah?

Sorry, guys. It’s my Torah too. And it’s the women’s Torah too. It’s everyone’s Torah.

When you can get beyond your circular arguments, do feel free to get back to me. And when you do get back to me, you can explain how Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, who joined the People simply by saying “Your people shall be my people, and your God will be my God” is Jewish, but I’m somehow not, even though I’d be right there in the gas chambers with you if the pogroms came again.

Grow up, already. You’re an embarrassment to all of Judaism, and I doubt you even realize it.

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My blog, my rules.

So when clearing out the spam filter today, I found two comments from someone I’d blocked from commenting. They called me a “coward” and accused me of being severely mentally ill because I don’t like any Jew who isn’t exactly like me – which they apparently took from my posts about the Pop Chassid problem.

Dude, I’m not a coward. But you don’t have a right to post comments on my blog. You see, it’s my blog.

Also, I totally accept Pop Chassid as a real Jew. The problem is that he doesn’t accept me as one. So if you want to call someone a coward, or accuse them of being a jerk for not accepting all Jews, his blog is that way.

(I also think it’s quite amusing that you’re blocking me. Why, because I would care? Really? Go away now, child.)


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So, not that I’m counting or anything…

… but I’ll be a full-fledged Jew in 56 days and 3 hours. More or less.

Yeah. Words. I wish I had them, but I don’t. Not right now, anyway.

It’s been a long road to get here, but it’s my road.

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Friday Feature: Special Edition

I am thankful.

I am thankful that I am (about to be) a Jew.

I am thankful that I am part of a liberal tradition.

I am thankful that my marriage is recognized by my family, my friends, my co-workers, my employer, my state, my religion, and now my nation.

I am thankful that five Justices of the Supreme Court chose to take the moral pathway. I am thankful that they prevailed. I am thankful that I can now go to any state in my country with my husband and that we will still be recognized as husbands to each other.

I am thankful for this: Jewish groups celebrate Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage nationwide

Oh, I don’t doubt that there will still be pitfalls. I’d rather not be in a small town hospital in Alabama or Kentucky with him if something goes wrong, for example. But for now, just knowing that he and I are equal to the rest of the people in this nation is really hitting me hard.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha’olam,
Shehecheyanu, viki’yimanu, vihigi’anu, lazman hazeh.

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. Shabbat Shalom.


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Style or Substance?: A Follow-Up Post

A friend of mine told me that a Conservative Jewish friend of hers said this when she read about the whole Elad Debacle of 5775 today: “You know… we don’t talk about the Orthodox. We’re kind of embarrassed about them.”

After the ED of 5775, I can see why. It seems like the Orthodox approach non-Orthodox Jews like they’re Great-Uncle Mergatroyd who just has to spout his anger and bigoted opinions at the dinner table, and expects everyone to just go along with him, because he’s Great-Uncle Mergatroyd.

It saddens me that an entire branch of the Tree is so willing to prune off all the others to maintain its purity, even when there are obvious examples of people who lived as Jews, raised Jewish children, and yet never went through the formal, rules-lawyer, halachic conversion process. Ruth (whose descendant, if you’ll recall, was King David). Abraham. All the women who were taken as brides during the conquering of other peoples. And yet we would never say that their children or descendants aren’t Jewish.

So why do the Orthodox have such a hangup about “you must fit every one of these exacting criteria or you are not Jewish”, anyway?

I’ve read a number of blogs since starting this journey. Occasionally I’ll run into one written by an Orthodox person who lives in an Orthodox community and never ventures outside of it. And it seems from these blogs that in the “frum” community, specifically, there seems to be an awful lot of fuss over appearances. Are you wearing your tallit katan, is your wife wearing a wig or a veil to hide her hair, that kind of thing. And it just tires me out, and I think I know why.

My mother was all about style over substance. For her, how you looked was more important than anything else. How you looked extended to observable behavior. As a result, I have an allergy to people who prioritize style over substance.

In addition to reading those blogs, I also have friends who have left Judaism because they were raised in a similar, frum, Ultra-Orthodox environment. The abuses they report cannot go unremarked:

  • daughters forbidden Talmud study and forced to dress in concealing clothing
  • boys taught that women were second-class citizens
  • intense shaming of those who are “off the derech”
  • parents sitting shiva for sons and daughters who left Orthodoxy (especially if that involved marriage outside of Orthodoxy) but then trying to get back into their children’s lives when babies arrived so that they could try to turn the grandchildren back to Orthodoxy
  • and, of course, the recent exposure of rabbis who molested children and whose communities covered up for them

Somehow, the Orthodox have managed to set themselves up in the minds of many Jews as the authoritative last word on what “Jewish” means. It happens in frum communities all over the world, but it also happens in Israel (witness the haredi control over the Kotel and how they treat the Women of the Wall, just as an example). Too much of it is about style, not substance. It’s about whether you dress in clothing from the 16th century, not your focus on tikkun olam. It’s about whether you are avoiding carrying anything into your house if it’s Shabbat, rather than whether you opened your home to someone who needed a place and a meal on Shabbat. It’s about style, not substance.

I reject that. I reject that fundamentally. For me, Judaism has to be about tikkun olam, and hospitality, and hesed (lovingkindness) – and that has to be the central focus or it’s all just dust and ashes.

If you wear your black hat every day but reject anyone who won’t wear one too, you’ve completely missed the point.

And this brings me back to Pop Chassid. He isn’t being honest in his struggle with the rules. Instead of checking whether the rules can be realistically applied today, he struggles to find bits of support for the rules so they can stay the way they’ve been for 5700 years. That kind of legalistic nonsense is something I don’t tolerate in my students, so why should I tolerate it in him? If he’s not willing to look out and apply Torah to the world as it is today, why should I take his definitions seriously? If his understanding of Judaism isn’t framed in the central values of tikkun olam and tzedakah and chesed, why should I care what he thinks?

It is not just, or kind, to exclude other Jews just because they don’t fit your definition of what Judaism is. It does not serve the goal of tikkun olam to exclude other Jews – it creates more fractures to heal, rather than healing the ones that are there.

Please note: At no time have I said that Pop Chassid is not a Jew. That’s because he’s using a different interpretation of the Torah. I do, however, take issue with his interpretation, because his interpretation goes against those central values, and that’s uncalled for.

If you want to argue with me about this, do it on your own blog. I will be holding the banhammer at the ready.

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Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party


I don’t think I can add to this.

Originally posted on The Weekly Sift:

Tea Partiers say you don’t understand them because you don’t understand American history. That’s probably true, but not in the way they want you to think.

Late in 2012, I came out of the Lincoln movie with two historical mysteries to solve:

  • How did the two parties switch places regarding the South, white supremacy, and civil rights? In Lincoln’s day, a radical Republican was an abolitionist, and when blacks did get the vote, they almost unanimously voted Republican. Today, the archetypal Republican is a Southern white, and blacks are almost all Democrats. How did American politics get from there to here?
  • One of the movie’s themes was how heavily the war’s continuing carnage weighed on Lincoln. (It particularly came through during Grant’s guided tour of the Richmond battlefield.) Could any cause, however lofty, justify this incredible slaughter? And yet, I realized, Lincoln was winning. What must the Confederate leaders…

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