Category Archives: Jewish Practices

From a question on Quora

I was kicking around on Quora today and saw this question. After writing my answer, I realized it would work well as a post here. I know it’s been a while, but here – have a post about belief.

How do believers believe in the Bible when it’s a proven fact that there was no exodus? How exactly do believers trust this as source if certain things aren’t exactly true?

I’m pretty sure you’re asking this from Christians, but I’m going to put in a different perspective: the Jewish one. (Also, “ask two Jews, get five answers” – my perspective is my own, and that of the people who taught me and are still my teachers in my own faith. Other Jews may see this issue differently.)

As a Jew, I have never been told that the Exodus was literal. In fact, the rabbi I studied under said specifically that the Exodus was not literal. Multiple times. But the story of the Exodus is a central part of the cultural heritage of being Jewish – and it underlies and informs our ethics and our morals:

  • Treat the stranger as you would your neighbor, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
  • Avoid greed. There is a verse about leaving the corners and gleanings (fallen harvest) for the poor, not hoarding it all for yourself.
  • Show kindness towards those less fortunate. Contribute to their welfare. This is normally summed up with the idea of “tzedakah,” which loosely (but not entirely accurately) translates to “charity.” (The difference is that in Judaism, tzedakah is not optional – it is an obligation.)

When I discuss the Torah with non-Jews, especially Christians, there’s a very basic barrier to understanding and clarity that I run into rather a lot, which is the assumption that the stories must be the literal, exact truth, and that “belief” means “believing those stories are literally, exactly true.” As in, there really was an actual, physical Ark that one man and his three sons built. There really were exactly two of every single kind of animal on it. There really was a flood that lasted 40 days. There really were Israelite slaves in Egypt. They really did wander in the desert for 40 years.

There weren’t, and they didn’t. These are the stories of our culture.

This barrier – this misunderstanding – is a big one, because the power of the story is the important thing, not whether or not the stories are literally true.

You see, the point of the Torah is not to say “these are the literal, true, exact stories of real people who did real things.” The point is to say “Here is a story about how we treat each other, and outsiders. What is the lesson in this story? How does Moses’ behavior, Aaron’s behavior, Abraham’s behavior, Joshua’s behavior, Rebecca’s behavior, Sarah’s behavior – how do these stories instruct us in being good Jews, good people, and good stewards of the land G-d has put into our hands?”

The celebration of the Exodus at Passover does not mean we literally believe we were slaves in a place called Egypt. It is a retelling of that part of our culture – the idea that we were less-than and reviled, which is a known part of Jewish history in many places and many times – that informs our own treatment of the stranger, the poor, the needy, and the destitute.

Many people will not understand this, and do not understand this, because of a naïve belief that the stories of the Torah (and frankly, the Christian bible as well) are literal truth, not cultural truth.

So the trust placed in those stories is about the cultural truths they carry, not the literal truths they don’t.


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613, or, Pikuach Nefesh is a Mental Health Issue Too

(I’m not going to make excuses for being gone so long. Life happens and things get busy, and that’s not a failing – it’s just a fact.)

Today I want to muse a little bit about the ongoing tension many Jews by choice have with the 613 commandments and the issue of physical and mental health.

I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve had it all my life; it comes with the territory when you’re autistic. One of the ways I’ve dealt with anxiety over the years is to try to impose tight control on my world (which never works) and to try to be as perfect as possible (which also never works). And I know I’m not the only Jew out there who fits the “neurotic” stereotype, okay?

One of the things that’s helped me deal with this terror – and sometimes it is terrifying – of not being perfect and not getting every detail right is the advice I got from a rabbi about my conversion: “When someone asks you if you are keeping kosher, or giving tzedakah, or whatever observance they’re interested in, and you’re not doing it yet, just say ‘Not yet, but I’m working on it.’ Because your observance is nobody’s business but your own. Just their asking the question is rude. Feel free to ignore their judgment, because they shouldn’t be judging in the first place.”

Mostly, that’s helped. Knowing my medical issues don’t allow me to keep kosher, and knowing that my anxiety has been keeping me increasingly housebound of late unless I force myself to leave the apartment, allows me to be a little easier on myself.

Am I not trying to be observant? Am I lazy about my observance? Far from it. I observe in the ways I am able to, and if someone thinks I’m not observant “enough,” that’s not my problem. Do I always remember that? No, because I was raised in a tradition where I was expected to be perfect and any lapse meant I was lazy.

(I’m trying to find a way to talk about this issue without “outing” someone, so I’ll do my best not to name any names. Those who might know me and the person in question are hereby cautioned not to name names or give identifying details.)

Long story short, I have a friend who is also a convert, who converted in the Orthodox manner. They also have an anxiety problem and OCD. They recently lost a family member and have been observing shiva, including tearing their clothing, but recently found out that they didn’t tear it “correctly.” (Except I’ve looked, and there are multiple pages with multiple descriptions of what “correctly” means for this particular mitzvah.) And their worries center on being “outed” as a convert among their congregation and having random Jewish strangers tell them they’re not “grieving right.” They also asked why none of their knowledgeable Jewish friends had told them about the right way to tear their garments so that they would be “doing it right.”

I find this very sad, because religion is not supposed to be oppressive, especially when it’s a religion you chose. And when you’re grieving, the last thing you should have to pay attention to is these kinds of details. Isn’t that what shiva is supposed to be about – allowing the bereaved to have time not to deal with the details?

I have seen this friend get very stressed out about things that, to most people, are just details and grace notes. And I worry that their focus on these details is going to cause them harm.

But I also remember being that nervous about my last name (which is definitely not a Jewish-labeled name) or my looks (Western European, mainly Irish) “outing” me as a convert among other Jews. I also remember feeling like I had to qualify any statement I made about my Judaism and my observance with “But I’m just a convert, so…”

I used to say “I’m a Reform Jew,” until a rabbi said to me, “No, you are a Jew who observes in the Reform manner.” And now I just say “I’m a Jew” (because I am), and if someone asks, then I will expand on that by adding the stream I am part of. But it doesn’t have to be out in front anymore.

I used to beat myself up for not doing everything exactly correctly. I used to feel like I was a bad person, a sinner, if I didn’t go to Torah study every Saturday morning and have a full-on Shabbat dinner every Friday night. But anxiety is a real thing, and I finally had to accept that right now, my people-interaction skills are not great. Diabetes is a real thing, and I had to accept that some things (like gluten-free challah) are not safe for me to eat, even if eating them is a mitzvah.

There are 613 commandments that Jews are supposed to follow. (Some can’t be, because we don’t have a Temple anymore, and some are specific to certain groups of Jews – such as the Kohanim – but 613 is the generally accepted number.) That’s a lot of details to keep track of, and I don’t know of anyone who does that perfectly all the time. No one. And a lot of people – like my friend – get very stressed out over trying to do all of them perfectly all the time.

But here’s the thing. I have not yet found anything in the Talmud or Torah that says “put your health at risk to be observant.” In fact, there’s even a doctrine called pikuach nefesh – the preservation of human life – that says that, apart from defaming the name of God or committing murder, you can break any commandment to preserve human life. That means that if a commandment or mitzvah would cause your health to be at risk, you must not follow that commandment.

That includes mental health. It has to, or it doesn’t make any sense.

For example: Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the ill are excused from fasting on fast days, because it would harm their health. However, I read a blog last year from a woman who is battling an eating disorder, whose rabbi told her she is not allowed to fast on Yom Kippur (because it is too likely that fasting will switch her back into her anorexic headspace). That’s a mental health issue, not a physical health issue.

People with anxiety often don’t allow themselves to have bad days, or give themselves adequate self-care. I know. I deal with this every day. And I still have the looming guilt and shame from my abusive Catholic upbringing that makes me worry that if I don’t kiss the mezuzah on my way out of the door, I’m somehow marked as a bad, sinning person.

I was in that space for years. Mostly, I am not in that space anymore. But I am so sorry that my friend still is. And I’m not sure how to help them, because I would have loudly rejected the advice to go easy on myself back in the day.  I would have seen pikuach nefesh as an excuse.






Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning without fail, and made my Judaism the first and most important thing about my life. But the world got in the way, and, well….

Since November, less than three months after my husband and I completed our conversion processes, we have had to be – paradoxically – far less active Jews than we were hoping to be. We haven’t been able to attend a real Friday night shul service in several months, because of his work schedule (he works for an amusement park; November to March is “peak holiday time” and lots of mandatory overtime for him) and the inopportune arrival of several illnesses that kept me and him both flat on our backs and unable to function. Due to a personal conflict at our Torah study group, we stopped going for a while because it made us uncomfortable, and we still haven’t really resolved that, either.

In short, we have not been good members of our community, and although the reasons are valid, guilt’s still a real thing and I’ve been feeling it.

Here’s the thing about feeling guilt for not measuring up to some standard that you or others have set for your behavior: it makes it less likely that you’re going to try to fix it. At least, it makes it less likely that I’m going to try to fix it. Every time I’ve thought about going back to shul, the guilt has come up and hit me with “but then people would ask you where you’ve been and you know that that would really mean ‘why are you only showing up now, you half-asser?'” That’s a deterrent, not an incentive.

We missed Purim entirely, because we were sick; but was that a good enough reason? We haven’t been to Torah study in months because of illness and over-stress; is that a good enough reason? We missed a concert at our shul with a Jewish musician that I love because of stress and exhaustion; is that a good enough reason? And of course there’s also the cost, and right now we’ve had to penny-pinch, so we haven’t had the money to buy tickets to concerts or food for Purim baskets or, well, pretty much anything.

And yet…

All during that time, we still managed to have Shabbat dinner with a friend at least twice a month, and take Shabbat pretty much “off,” even if that meant catching up on missed sleep the majority of the time.

I have still worn my kippah and my Mogen David, and I haven’t backed down when someone says something anti-Semitic.

I have still said the Sh’ma every night, and meant it.

I have still experienced the world as a Jew, even if I’m not especially active at my synagogue right now.

And that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

As the author of the Kveller article said:

Embracing Jewish motherhood (and motherhood in general) isn’t about following every rule and winning the game. It’s about showing up and staying in the game, even when you don’t know which rules apply to you, or what it even means to win.

I’d argue that the same thing applies to Jewish identity. Recently, I have not been able to follow every rule. But I have done what I can to keep my foot in the door, even if it’s been mostly outside of the community of Jews in my area. And once I have recovered from the stress, exhaustion, and overwork, I’ll be getting back in the game in more substantial ways. For starters, we’re going to a Seder on Saturday evening, and hosting one here the following Thursday, and ideally we’ll be going back to shul after Pesach is over.

But I also think Adonai will understand if, just at the moment, I can’t quite do it all.


Filed under Day-to-Day, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

Countdown -7: The 5th of Elul and Accepting

Today is the 5th of Elul, which is one week until I officially become a Member of the Tribe.BlogElul 2015

So today’s theme is “Accept.” Hoo, boy. I’m not sure I even know where to begin.

In our class yesterday, we discussed the idea that in order to change, you have to begin by not changing – by accepting who and what you are, where you are, right here, right now. For a lot of people that’s a really tough thing to do. I know it is for me. I’ve been fighting with this – wrestling with it, if you will – for all 44 years of my life. There’s always something preventing me from accepting who and what I am, where I am, right here and now.

So I guess I’ll talk about acceptance by talking about that.

Part of yesterday’s lesson in class, which came from the outstanding book God Was in This Place, & I, i Did Not Know by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, really hit me hard. It was the part where the book says that in order to improve yourself, or better yourself in any way, you have to accept your starting point. The class got very exercised about this point. One person said “But then how can I better myself, if I accept where I am right now? Isn’t that like giving up or giving in?”

I (and several others) brought up the idea that we focus too much on the goal, or what we think we “should be,” instead of the process, or how we get incrementally closer to the goal, as the main point in change. For example:

  • I’ll be acceptable once I’ve lost 30 pounds.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I can run a marathon.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I can quote the Talmud from memory.
  • I’ll be acceptable once I have that job.

But isn’t the truth that God finds you acceptable right now, as you are, even though you’re not perfect? Doesn’t acceptance, at its heart, come down to being okay with not being perfect? Because the truth is, none of us can be perfect, no matter how driven we feel towards perfection.

This brings up another lesson I’ve already learned before, but I’m seeing it in a new way. (Judaism does that to lessons, I notice: Turn it and turn it, for all can be found in it.) The lesson I’m thinking of is the one that says “When asked if you are keeping kosher/giving 10% of your income in tzedakah/whatever, a good answer is ‘I’m working on it.'”

  • Are you giving 10% of your income in tzedakah? Not yet, but I’m working on it. I gave $20 to a homeless man the other day.
  • Are you keeping kosher? Not completely, but I’m working on it. For example, I no longer eat shellfish.
  • Are you saying all the required brachot and other prayers? Not yet, but I say the Shema every morning and every night.

Why are we so unwilling to say “I’m working on it” instead of “I’ve got it done/fixed/handled?” Why are we so prone to demanding completion rather than process?

Robert Merton, in his theory of institutional anomie, said that the American society is far too focused on the goals and not nearly enough on the means of achieving those goals (aka the process). Is it a human condition to focus on the goal rather than the process? Or is it simply a condition that we’ve created for ourselves in this hectic world where you don’t eat unless you have a paycheck?

It might seem that I’ve strayed far afield from the idea of “accept,” but I haven’t, really. Because all this is, is accepting where we are, right now, isn’t it? It’s accepting that a goal is not the be-all and end-all, that process is the real thing, and that being 1% better than you were yesterday could mean a 365% improvement in a year, if you did it every day.

But to do that, you have to accept where you are as the starting point.

Where are you today? Right here, right now, what do you need to accept in order to move forward?

Look down at the starting line. That’s where you are, right here, right now. The finish line will wait for you.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Jewish Practices, Judaism

Countdown -8: the 4th of Elul and Understanding

Today is the 4th of Elul, which is 8 days before I officially become a Jew.BlogElul 2015

So today’s theme is “understand.” And it occurs to me that this goes quite nicely with a request from Rafi: What are the rules of my blog? and something else I saw on Facebook today. That something is here:

Realization isn’t always the absence of confusion. Sometimes it’s the total acceptance and embracing of confusion. – Brad Warner

Understanding is also, sometimes, when you have to totally accept confusion. I do not pretend to be a straightforward, uncomplicated, linear person. I have contradictions, and I know I do. Some of those are centered around Israel and its politics, and also its political situation (the two are not the same). Some of those are centered around my views of Judaism and what it means to be a good Jew. Some of those are just contradictory because I’m a human being and humans are contradictory, go figure.

I don’t know everything about what it means to be a Jew who practices in the Reform manner. But here’s the thing: nobody does. Just like nobody knows everything about what it means to be a Jew, period, or an American, or a woman, or a gay man, or any other category you care to name. This goes along with yesterday’s theme of seeking. Sometimes we seek understanding and we don’t find it.

What the quote above is telling me is that it’s okay not to find it. The world is not a nice, linear, orderly place. There are a lot of weird things in our world – ever seen a duck-billed platypus? That, my friends, is weird. (It also tells me that God has a sense of humor, which has been a life-saving thing for me since I started down this path.)

So let’s start with this basic point: Sometimes there are things you don’t understand. Sometimes those are things you won’t understand, or can’t understand, or can never understand. For example, I can never understand God. My finite mind is not capable of understanding the Infinite, the Eternal. At a Shabbaton that I attended during our Intro classes, we talked about the infinite universe. We talked about how understanding – comprehension – really isn’t possible for us when we look at something that macrocosmic.

For me, today’s theme is more about letting go of the need to understand. I have been intensely frustrated trying to understand things that I cannot understand, and it’s caused me insane stress. Why do that to myself? Part of this process of preparation is to stop intellectualizing everything and just experience it sometimes.

I will address Rafi’s question in another post, but for this one I’m just going to leave you all these questions:

  1. What do you think you have to understand?
  2. Why do you think you have to understand it?
  3. What would life be like if you knew that you could never understand it? How would that change your life?

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A small triumph

Today’s Beginning Hebrew class ended with us learning the “ee” vowel, and then I turned the page and was confronted with the blessing on the Torah before reading (aliyah). AND I COULD READ IT. IN HEBREW.

When I got home I typed “Hebrew text” into Google images. I can read the Hebrew text it shows me. I don’t understand the words, yet, but knowing how to read the groups of letters is a huge thing. It means I can now start to read and recognize words I know, and learn ones that I don’t with their meanings, eventually.

This is exciting for me. I have been struggling with this for over a year now.


Filed under Jewish Practices

“A Wasted Yom Kippur”

The High Holy Days are just over a month away. The time of the New Year and, ten days later, the time of repentance at Yom Kippur are almost upon us.

As a Jew by choice who will be officially a member of the Tribe only sixteen days before Rosh Hashanah (if I’ve counted correctly), and who had a powerful, meaningful experience at last year’s Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days will probably hit me hard every single year.  Last year, part of what hit me so hard was that we aren’t getting singled out for our sin. We are all confessing, communally, as a community, to grave sins.

This is on my mind today partly because of an article in this morning’s New York Times.  This article is talking about the recent murders of Shira Banki and Ali Saad Dawabsheh by Jewish extremist fanatics. I could quote from all kinds of places in this article, but I think this is probably one of the best ones, from Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi:

“The interesting question for all of us is, ‘Is this going to be a growth moment or is it going to be another wasted Yom Kippur? Oh, we’ve sinned, and we feel so righteous for saying we’ve sinned.’”

Mouthing the prayers is not the same as meaning them. It’s not even close. It’s the difference between keva (saying the words) and kavanah (feeling the words). And although I have seen many Christians mouth the words of repentance and then turn around and hurt people (what are sometimes called Sunday-only or Christmas and Easter Christians), it never occurred to me that many Jews might do the same thing.

So what is Yom Kippur about? Repentance and atonement? Or feeling prideful that you’re at the service, and fasting, and look how impressive you are? That’s not attractive to me. I doubt that anyone at my shul does this, but I don’t know for sure. And I’m going to be remembering what the words mean when I say them on Yom Kippur, because on that day the community confesses together:

Ashamnu: We have trespassed.
Bagadnu: We have dealt treacherously.
Gazlalnu: We have robbed.
Dibarnu dofi: We have spoken slander.
He’evinu: We have acted perversely.
V’hirshanu: We have done wrong.
Zadnu: We have acted presumptuously.
Hamasnu: We have done violence.
Tafalnu sheker: We have practiced deceit.
Yaatsnu ra: We have counseled evil.
Kizavnu: We have spoken falsehood.
Latsnu: We have scoffed.
Maradnu: We have revolted.
Niatsnu: We have blasphemed.
Sararnu: We have rebelled.
Avinu: We have committed iniquity.
Pashanu: We have transgressed.
Tsararnu: We have oppressed.
Kishinu oref: We have been stiff-necked.
Rashanu: We have acted wickedly.
Shichatnu: We have dealt corruptly.
Tiavnu: We have committed abomination.
Tainu: We have gone astray.
Titanu: We have led others astray.

A couple of those are general enough that a lot of sins can fit into them. V’hirshanu, for example. Tainu, as another example.

And frankly, this year, given what happened to Shira and Ali, in a nation where the police could have stopped the man who killed Shira and the men who killed Ali, all of Israel should be admitting “Hamasnu, Tsararnu, Tiavnu.” Because those murders were violence, they were oppression, and they were abomination.

Now, as a Jew in the United States, do I bear a share of the responsibility for those murders? Yes. Every Jew does. Every Jew should be saying “The murderers were Jews, and how horrifying and shameful that they were Jews.”

But if we simply say “that was shameful and horrifying,” and mouth the Ashamnu on Yom Kippur, have we changed anything meaningful? Or are we just feeling righteous for saying we’ve sinned?

I don’t know how I can help as a non-Israeli Jew, but there has to be something I can do to bring about tzedek (justice).

Justice is one of the things that brought me to Judaism. It has to be one of the reasons I continue in it.


Filed under Current Events, Holy Days, Israel, Jewish Practices

About Tisha B’Av in the modern world

By Anthony Baratier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, 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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Filed under Holy Days, Jewish Practices

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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Filed under Identities, Jewish Practices

The Rules Lawyers

Michael Benami Doyle said, in his description of his conversation with the beit din, that there is a prophetic element to being a Jewish convert. I’m experiencing that this week since the Women of the Wall managed to actually read from the Torah and dance with it at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5775.

One of the jobs of a prophet is to draw attention to what’s wrong and how it can be repaired. Prophets are often disliked when they do this; people don’t like being told that what they’re doing is wrong.

And yet. And yet.

It is still wrong to deny Jewish women the right to pray at the Kotel, as the Haredim continually try to do.

It is still wrong to deny Jewish women access to the Torah at the Kotel, as the Haredim continually do.

It is still wrong to harm anyone who helps Jewish women have access to the Torah at the Kotel, as the Haredim did on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, when they beat Charlie Kalech and Alden Solovy.

This Haredi man continued insisting "sefer sheli!" (my book!). Yeah, no. The Torah belongs to ALL Jews.

This Haredi man continued insisting “sefer sheli!” (my book!). Yeah, no. The Torah belongs to ALL Jews.

Nothing excuses the behavior of the Haredim in these instances. They are fundamentally wrong. They are extremists, and they are damaging the Jewish faith far more than women who pray at the Wall, wear tallitot and tefillin, and read from Torah. They are, to borrow a term from gaming, rules lawyers.

Rules lawyers miss the spirit of the law by adhering so hard to the letter of the law. They never see the bigger picture.They never win in the long term, but they do a lot of damage in the short term. The Haredim are harming themselves and don’t know it. They are harming Judaism and they don’t know it (or perhaps they don’t care).

Regardless of their justification for their actions, I cannot see Adonai supporting the behavior of the Haredim towards the Women of the Wall or the men who helped them. Adonai is not a petty God who needs defense against people who want to worship him. If their God is, well – then the only conclusion I can draw is that their God is not Adonai.

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, lo yil’madu od milchamah. 

Perhaps the Haredim should look at that verse and think about their behavior.


Filed under Current Events, Identities, Jewish Practices