I can’t be thankful today

27 Tamuz 5774

The Israeli leadership has just admitted that they knew from the start that Hamas was not behind the kidnapping of those three Israeli teenagers. Most likely, it was an independent cell of terrorists who did not care about the repercussions of their actions. 

Go on, read the link. I’ll wait.

Done reading?

I am ashamed of my adopted state. I am angry with Netanyahu and his government for perpetuating a lie. And I am furious that this was used as an initial justification for attacks on a civilian population. I am enraged that this put peace talks in jeopardy.

Gratitude isn’t really in the cards in the face of this disgusting revelation. I just feel sick.

I’ll see you all on Sunday. Maybe by then we’ll know more and I’ll have calmed down. But the fact that my challah came out perfectly seems very… trivial, in the face of this knowledge.

Shalom ba’olam. Sooner, rather than later, please.


Filed under Judaism, Wrestling Matches

I’ll be back in a couple of days

Think of this as a placeholder post. It’s the end of the short-term that I’m teaching, so I have some grading to do between now and Shabbat. If I don’t post before then, don’t worry – I’ll be back. 

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23 Tamuz 5774

Sometimes it’s hard to sort out fact from propaganda.

Here’s the issues I know about in Gaza at this point. Please correct me with documentary evidence if I’m wrong on any of these things, because this is only what I’ve been able to find out from various news sources. And please be aware that we are NOT discussing the behavior of individual Israelis or Palestinians (and yes, both sides apparently have cheering sections that celebrate the deaths of people on the opposing side – which is frankly appalling and shameful).

In this post, I am only talking about the interactions of a sovereign state, Israel, with a terrorist group, Hamas. (Anyone who comments accusing me of anti-Arab or, for that matter, anti-Islam bias will be blocked and their comment deleted. Hamas is not all Arabs or all Muslims.)

1. Gaza, for its residents, is very much like the shtetls in Poland were for the Jews. This is obviously not an acceptable situation. Yes, it is an apartheid state. Yes, a two-state solution where Palestinians establish their own sovereign state is the most optimal solution.

2. Hamas is not Palestine or all Palestinians, and people need to stop equating the two because they are not the same. Palestinians are people who currently live in Gaza. Hamas is a terrorist group masquerading as a government. It does not recognize Israel as a sovereign state and has, in at least one documented instance, stated that its goal is to destroy Israel and kill all Jews (if it can). Since that is its goal, and since it does not recognize Israel as a sovereign state, it refuses to enter into any negotiations for cease-fires or other solutions. 

3. Israel, as far as I know, warns both Gazans and Israelis when bombs or rockets are incoming and warns them to get to safety. In Israel, there are bomb shelters for people who must leave their homes, provided by the Israeli government. Meantime, in Gaza, Hamas tells people to ignore Israeli warnings, while not providing any shelters for people who are going to be bombed. Hamas also stores its munitions in schools, hospitals, and mosques, making these civilian spaces into military targets.

To me, at this point, from where I’m sitting in the safety of my home in the United States, it looks like Israel is doing the best it can to eliminate Hamas military stockpiles while trying to get civilians on both sides out of the way of the conflict. It also looks like Hamas (not the Palestinians) is doing the best it can to make that impossible while painting Israel as a bully and Palestinians as innocent victims. I agree that the Palestinians who have died are innocent victims. But Hamas could make this stop by coming to the negotiating table, and it isn’t doing that. Therefore, the innocent victims are victims of Hamas.

It is not blaming the victim to hold Hamas responsible for deaths it could have prevented by either providing shelter or, I don’t know, storing its munitions in military spaces instead of civilian ones. Hamas is not the victim here. Palestinians are.

Tell me, how is it that Israel is the bad guy when it delivers warnings to Palestinians in Gaza that they need to evacuate areas that are going to be shelled? How is it that Israel is the bad guy when Hamas is apparently routinely using schools, hospitals and mosques as munitions storage (Israel does not)? How is it that Israel is the bad guy when it warns its people to get into bomb shelters when Hamas rockets are on their way, while Hamas does not warn any of the people living in Gaza that they are in danger, or even worse, tells them to ignore Israeli warnings of impending bombings?

Hamas is a terrorist group that is not taking any precautions for the people it claims to be governing in Gaza. It is Hamas’ fault, not the fault of the Palestinians, that so many Palestinians are dead. Hamas could stop what’s happening by agreeing to a cease-fire and negotiations. It is not doing that. It is, in fact, creating the problem by letting Palestinians in Gaza die when it could a) stop making them into targets and b) start warning them when they have become targets.

And yet people still tell me that I’m blaming the victim when I say these things. They say that it’s all Israel’s fault for shelling Gaza. They give me images of places being shelled by Israelis and make fun of my position that Hamas is at fault for this. “Aw, lookit the poor little Israeli murderer with his eyes full of tears as he shells Gaza with his bombs, look how sorry he is to have to do this” was one such salvo.

But here’s the thing none of them are paying attention to: they are only looking at the immediate, short-term events. They are not looking at the longer historical arc or the long-term results. The fact is, even if Israel stopped shooting and shelling and withdrew from Gaza, even if Israel made a public, formal statement through Prime Minister Netanyahu that Gaza is now a sovereign Palestinian state in Israel’s eyes, that would not end this conflict. Because Hamas wants the conflict. It wants the bad press. Hamas will not stop firing rockets into Israel because Hamas wants Israel destroyed. And yet when I say these things people shrug it off as if Israel had all the power in this situation. Let’s be clear here: It doesn’t. If it did, this conflict would already be over.

Opposing Hamas is not anti-Arab or anti-Islam. Opposing Hamas is not opposing the rights of the people of Gaza, or of Palestinians more generally, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Opposing Hamas is opposing terrorism.

Of course, I want sane and logical solutions, but ideology doesn’t allow for that, now does it?


Filed under Judaism

“Deserve” is a Toxic Word

22 Tamuz 5774

Ursula K. Le Guin, an author I admire tremendously, has one of her characters say this in her book The Dispossessed:

“We each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free yourself of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

In the scene in question, the speaker is quoting Odo, the founder of the anarchist community on the planet Anarres, which has rejected capitalism for communalism. Much of the book’s description of Anarresti life looks a lot like the life of Israeli kibbutzim, so to me this is a special book. But that quote above, especially, resonates with me.

We use the word “deserve” in a toxic way far, far too often. Many times, recently and not-so-recently, I’ve seen the word used towards a group as if each person in it were homogenous and exactly like all the other members of that group. I’ve seen that word used to exclude, to shut out, to oppress. The Palestinians in Gaza “deserve” to die from Israeli bombs because they were warned the bombs were coming and they refused to get out of the way; the Israelis “deserve” to be called murderers for defending their borders against Hamas’ terrorism (although the news media often conflates Hamas and the Palestinian people – an inaccuracy that enrages me every time I see it). In the United States, poor people “deserve” their fate because they’re somehow “lazy.” New college graduates “deserve” low-paying jobs because they should have to “earn” their way up. I’m sure you can think of other examples, none of them flattering. And let’s not start on the comment threads on these news items, okay?

I’ve also seen that word used to encourage people to buy things, not because they need them or because the things are especially useful, but to show off how special they must be if they own one of these things. You “deserve” that new car, that diamond ring, that new house, that expensive meal. Why? Because you are rich enough to afford it, and you should be ostentatious about it.

Can the word “deserve” be used in any positive way? I don’t think it can. It’s inherently a value judgment, and a negative one. It’s not based on the individual human being’s personal traits or their actions, but on their group identification or on their material circumstances (which, most of the time, they have only limited control of). And I think this ties into one of the big differences between Jewish thought and non-Jewish thought, for me. Remember that whole thing about “thoughts are not sins, only actions can be sins”? That means we should only be held responsible for our actions, right?

The poor rarely did anything to be poor. Many of them were born into poverty. Many others were victims of unpredictable economic shifts. Those who are members of marginalized groups rarely chose to be part of those groups (converts being an exception). And nowadays, there are very few self-made rich people, either. Most of them inherited their wealth, so they didn’t do anything to “deserve” their wealth. They just got lucky in the birth lottery.

And yet, more and more, our Western societies insist on the “deserving” poor being the only ones who “deserve” to get any help – if any – at all. Who are the “deserving” poor? Apparently, they’re the people who show enough shame at having to use an EBT card to buy their groceries, who drive crappy cars, and who have no internet-worthy machines (smartphones, computers, etc.). If they have an iPhone, they don’t “deserve” any help, apparently.

In what world does the word “deserve” show even the slightest bit of compassion? In what world is the word “deserve” worthy of any consideration?

We all “deserve” an adequate standard of living because we are human beings. We are the children of G-d – Jews and gentiles alike. Life and the support of life should be our birthright. And if it is not, for some reason, then it is everyone’s job to make it so.

I challenge you to go a week without using the word “deserve” or any of its related synonyms. See what it does to your ability to be compassionate when you stop using that word for other people’s situations – and your own.



Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

Friday Feature: What Good Thing(s) Happened To You This Week?

20 Tamuz 5774

It’s time for the Friday Feature again, where I ask you what good things happened to you this week. This is direct from Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values, Day 69.

This is a regular Friday morning feature for this blog. Telushkin intended his book to provide topics for Shabbat discussions for at least a year, as each “week” is composed of six values (one per day) and then Shabbat, where he encourages us to talk about those values at our Shabbat dinners and services. I feel that the idea of gratitude is so central to Jewish practice that we should be reminded weekly of what we might be grateful for.

While I know that this might seem a little self-centered, I’m also doing this so that people will have some food for thought for their own Shabbat dinners about what they might be thankful for. I generally talk about the following areas of my life: work and career; family and friends; health; household; my conversion studies; miscellaneous life; and the wider world. Feel free to add or subtract as necessary for your own use.

And we’re back again with the Friday Feature!

In terms of work and career, I finished the lectures for my summer class and I’ll be done with their grading on Sunday. I am planning to spend part of the day today working on a literature review for my writing partner (I hope). Next week I’ll be setting up my fall class Blackboard pages so that they’re all ready to launch.

For family and friends, I’m thankful that my friend Missy’s daughter Cassie was diagnosed and treated for a very dangerous medical condition. I’m also glad that my partner is having a productive week at work both at his workplace and with his writing, and that my daughters will be spending the weekend with us starting this morning. My best friend was over yesterday and we had a splendid time.

In terms of health, I’m still able to walk a mile even after standing for three hours lecturing, which is a good thing. I’m currently free of injuries, my arthritis is behaving itself, and my sugars are mostly under control. All to the good.

My apartment could use a little cleaning, but the kitchen is clean and ready for Shabbat cooking. I got paid earlier than I was expecting, so I’ll be able to catch up on some bills, which is good. The gas tank is full, we’ll be clearing out our old storage unit this weekend, and the laundry will be done on Sunday night after the kids go back home. And the test grain-free challah I made two days ago, with the new recipe tweaks, probably needs two more eggs and a higher mixing speed, but it’s much, much better than the previous grain-free attempts I’ve made, so I’m happy about that too.

My conversion studies have been somewhat on the back burner this week, but I’ve still managed to work on Epstein and my Hebrew studies. (Part of that is that I’ve read alll these library books and now I need to absorb what I’ve read. I should probably renew them, too.) I’ve sent an e-mail to a new rabbi and I’ll be calling him later today if I don’t hear back, to find out if maybe he’s on vacation or something (which is what happened with my last rabbi, too). Listening to new Jewish musical artists has allowed me to memorize the Modeh Ani prayer, which has actually been really neat.

In the wider world, I’m glad that the heat wave here has cooled off. We’re back to temperatures in the low 80s instead of the mid-90s F.

Last but not least, in miscellaneous life: I’ve finished my coming-out process about my conversion by posting about it to Facebook, and I got an enormous amount of support (which is a huge relief).

So overall, things are going pretty well for me this week. How are things going for you?

I’ll see you on Sunday – and I wish you Shabbat Shalom!

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Epstein: A Common Ancestor

19 Tamuz 5774

Epstein asks us in chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism:

“What would it mean if we all shared a common ancestor?”

This bothers me, the idea that having a common ancestor should be this important. Of course, religiously, Epstein means Adam and Eve (and, I suppose, Noah and his children, since nobody else survived the Flood). But he also acknowledges genetics in the chapter that precedes this question. Chapter 4 is largely about balancing scientific findings about evolution and natural selection with Biblical teachings about the origin of humankind.

If we all shared a common ancestor in the sense that we all looked alike, we’d still find other ways to separate ourselves out and treat others as less-than. I’m a social scientist; I study this stuff.

However, we do (technically) all share common ancestry, if not a single common ancestor. And as such, we need to talk about things like race, and how we let this social construct separate us in ways we should never have let it separate us from each other.

Race is entirely a social construct. Evolution has a lot to do with it, but there are no separate “races.” There is the human race, and variation within it. The darker you are, the closer your ancestors were to the equator, and the more sun they were exposed to. Our bodies protect us against skin cancer by increasing melanin content. Conversely, the farther away from the equator your ancestors lived, and the more Vitamin D you needed to attract, the paler you’re going to be, to protect yourself from rickets.

But both of these things are just evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. There are no “races.” There are only human variations.

I really wish people could understand this better.

The problem is, humanity is, by its very nature, an ingroup-outgroup kind of creature. We like our groups and our tribes and we often define ourselves by what we’re not (the outgroup). I think, as a social scientist, that ingroup-outgroup is sort of the fundamental problem with humanity today. We can’t seem to see everyone as part of our group.

This applies to race, and it applies to gender, and to religion, and even to occupation. When are we going to get our act together as a species and see that we all share common ancestry?

So, what might it mean, if we all understood that we have a common ancestor? Maybe the end of us-and-themism. Maybe the end of ingroup-and-outgroup. Maybe the end of fighting with each other.

Yeah, I can dream, can’t I?

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Back to Epstein: What About the Body?

18 Tamuz 5774

In Chapter 4 of The Basic Beliefs of Judaism, Epstein asks us to consider the following question:

What is your religious attitude toward the body? In what ways do you treat it as sacred and in what ways don’t you? 

Wow, Rabbi Epstein. You sure do like to open those cans of worms, don’t you?

I admit that I have a very troubled relationship with my body. I’m overweight and have been most of my life. I have diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, neither of which are fun. I’m short, too. So I don’t like the way my body looks. Since finding out that I am allergic to most grains, I am at least taking better care of my body’s physical needs. I try to walk more than I used to. I’m trying to eat better. I’m not perfect at it, but I try to at least give my body what it needs and avoid the things that can damage it.

But the idea of treating my body as sacred is very difficult. I have always seen it as a meat sack – a vehicle. It’s hard for me to even feel that my body is me, most of the time. I live the life of the mind because the life of the body is sweaty, uncomfortable, and often painful. Sometimes I resent the fact that I got stuck with this body. Okay, maybe more than sometimes.

So what lesson should this question teach me? If we’re supposed to treat the body as holy, as sacred, how can I do that when I can’t even figure out how to accept my body in the first place? It’s a conundrum, but then again isn’t that what Jews are supposed to be good at – figuring out conundrums? I don’t have answers yet, but the questions are sure piling up in a big way from this exercise.

It’s easier to talk about the ways I don’t treat my body as sacred. I will admit I don’t like treating my body as anything but a nuisance. I do the minimum necessary, most of the time. I shower, I shave, I comb my hair, I make myself presentable for social interaction. But I often forget to brush my teeth. I put off eating until I’m dizzy with hunger and I ignore my body’s signals about it until I can’t any more. I hate exercise because it makes me aware of my body. And let’s not even mention sex, okay? That’s not somewhere I’m willing to go.

Most of the time, my body just gets in the way of what I want to do.

Do I have to stop hating my body to be a good Jew? That’s going to be really, really difficult. Right now the thing that’s weighing on my mind about the conversion process the most isn’t all the reading and studying, or learning a new language (Hebrew), or even the social awkwardness of joining a culture that I am not yet as familiar with as I want to be.

It’s the mikveh.

It’s the knowledge that, on the day my rabbi and I decide I’m ready, I’ll have to get naked in front of strangers. That’s terrifying. I never let anyone see my body; I’m covered not from modesty but from shame.

That has to change. I don’t want the day of my dip in the mikveh to be one where I’m walking in a cloud of shame.

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Understanding Mitzvot

17 Tamuz 5774

So, you all know I was raised Catholic, and that I have some pretty bad spiritual hangovers from having been raised Catholic. One of the worst is the idea that you have to do everything exactly right, and if you don’t, you’re a bad person.

In the catechism of the Catholic church (think of the catechism as sort of the Catholic Talmud, if you will), sin is defined this way:

Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

Okay, I can get behind some of this as a Jew-ish person, but certainly not all of it. One of the parts of this definition that I have to learn how to fundamentally reject is that bit about “a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

I can want something and not act on it. But in the Catholic church, even wanting something that isn’t approved or okay is a sin. It’s going to take me a long, long time to get past this idea that just thoughts and desires, even when never acted upon, are sins. In Judaism, you’re held responsible for what you do and say, not what you think and feel – at least as far as I understand it.

Catholicism also doesn’t seem to really allow for “working towards being better,” or even allowing for mistakes. This may be one reason why so many Catholics go to confession every week. You’re supposed to avoid ALL sin – thought, deed, and word – or you are not good enough. Since anything can be a sin, that means there’s a LOT of sins to avoid, including inside your own skull.

To me this seems to be “setting people up for failure.” And here’s something that really irritates me (a direct quote from that same catechism): 1870 “[G-d] has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32).

Isn’t that cute? According to the Catholics, G-d made it impossible for us to be perfectly obedient. And yet, we’re still expected to be perfectly obedient. And if we aren’t perfectly obedient, we risk hell and damnation.

Setting us up to fail much?

Now let’s take Judaism’s approach to this – and I speak here as someone coming at it from a liberal Jew-ish tradition.

1. Thoughts are not sins.

2. Actions can be sins if they violate the commandments (mitzvot).

3. There are 613 mitzvot, but only about 245 of them (77 positive and 194 negative) can be kept by Jews in the Diaspora who are not Kohanim (priests). Some of them are Kohen-only; some of them are Temple-only (and by this we mean The Temple, the one in Jerusalem, which is currently some rubble under a couple of mosques at the Dome of the Rock, so those can’t be performed).

4. You are expected to strive to keep the mitzvot – to do the best you can do. You are not expected to do it perfectly. Rabbi Adar, over at Coffee Shop Rabbi, has two recent posts about this issue here and here, and I recommend reading them.

This is, of course, a really wild thing for me to wrap my head around. There are no mitzvah police, as Rabbi Adar jokes, that will check to make sure I said the Shema in the morning or before I go to bed. There’s nobody who’s going to make a mark next to my name in a book if I forget to say a brachot because I’m tired, overhungry, rushed, or sleepy.

It’s the difference between having to be perfect and striving to do better. The first is negative and damaging. The second is positive and affirming.

Using those two lists, I’m going to start contemplating them as Rabbi Adar directs us to do in her blog post about the mitzvot. I might even talk about that some, here.

Which of the 245 mitzvot do you find most interesting, problematic, or difficult? Why?


Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

Backing Off a Bit

I realized on Sunday that I was completely overwhelmed by my life, and that writing a blog post was sort of last on my priorities list. I’ve left you folks without a post for two days, and I can’t guarantee you’ll always get six posts a week (I wish!), so I will not make any promises.

Also, I’ve done a lot of introspection since early May, and that’s starting to calm down a bit now. I will continue to post about my studies, and about the things I’m learning, as well as my day-to-day interactions with others as a Jew-ish person, but there’s also only so much fodder for new posts, you know?

So, here’s what’s been going on with me.

First, I e-mailed a different rabbi to arrange a possible meeting. The current rabbi has me very uncomfortable because I do not feel heard or listened to (two different things). I have not heard back from Rabbi #2, but it’s also just Monday evening. I’ll email again on Wednesday if I haven’t heard back from him by then (who knows; he may be sticking to the “turn away three times” rule).

Second, I’ve been overwhelmed with other things outside of my studies, so I haven’t had a whole lot of new stuff to read (although I have a lot of books to take back to the library at this point). I’ve been working my way through the Read Hebrew practice book, but it’s slow going. I’m also admittedly frustrated by not knowing which “t” sound to use in any given attempt to write a word. For the first time, I understand why so many of my second-language students struggle with “s” and “c” and “k”.

Third, I have achieved grain-free challah that actually tastes like challah! I admit to being quite excited about this; I shared it with some friends who are in the know, and they approved. This makes me very happy.

I’ve been reading other folks’ blogs that deal with what’s going on in Israel and Gaza, but I’ve said my piece about that, I think. I’d like to recommend a couple of  blogs from the last few days for your reading pleasure, however.

Pop Chassid reflects on his biggest mistake: ignoring science. 

Meanwhile, Rabbi Adar talks to us about 10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home.

Yep. That’s all I have for you today, folks. (Anyone want my grain-free challah recipe?)

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Friday Feature: What Good Thing(s) Happened To You This Week?

13 Tamuz 5774

It’s time for the Friday Feature again, where I ask you what good thing happened to you this week. This is direct from Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values, Day 69.

This is a regular Friday morning feature for this blog. Telushkin intended his book to provide topics for Shabbat discussions for at least a year, as each “week” is composed of six values (one per day) and then Shabbat, where he encourages us to talk about those values at our Shabbat dinners and services. I feel that the idea of gratitude is so central to Jewish practice that we should be reminded weekly of what we might be grateful for.

While I know that this might seem a little self-centered, I’m also doing this so that people will have some food for thought for their own Shabbat dinners about what they might be thankful for. I generally talk about the following areas of my life: work and career; family and friends; health; household; my conversion studies; miscellaneous life; and the wider world. Feel free to add or subtract as necessary for your own use.

Work and career: My summer course is going very well. My “how to write well” class opened a lot of eyes and got my students thinking, which is awesome.

Family and friends: My partner got promoted at work, and that’s been great for him. He’s also doing a lot of writing projects, which is fantastic for him. Another friend of mine recently got published in an academic journal, which is great.

Health: I have been sleeping reasonably well with one day not-so-good sleep (for me that’s really a big deal; usually I don’t sleep especially well).

Household: My new kippah arrived today, and two days ago all the ingredients and tools for my grain-free challah arrived: potato starch and parchment paper and a sifter that hasn’t been contaminated with wheat, a couple of pastry brushes to replace the one we seem to have lost; xanthan gum to make it stretchy like bread should be. This means that I can make my challah again for Shabbat! I admit I’m excited.

Conversion and conversion studies: I’ve made the hard decision and have contacted another rabbi. I am still studying Hebrew and reading every book I can get my hand on and I’m really enjoying it. I have about two people left to come out to and then I can go public on Facebook about my conversion.

So now I ask my readers: What are you grateful for this week? What are you going to talk about over your Shabbat table?

I wish you Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll see you back here on Sunday.


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