Tag Archives: Jewish practice

Tikkun Olam and the Kindness Boomerang

4 Av 5774

I sign a lot of online petitions. I’m a slacktivist – I sign, I repost the link to my Facebook, and I do what I can to make my voice heard. I draw the line at “let us know you called” petitions because I can’t hear on the phone very well, so I avoid the phone generally. For a while, I blogged politically for the things I thought were important: marriage equality, anti-poverty programs, education funding, a few other things.

The problem with signing these petitions is that it gets you onto email distribution lists. And then you get emails. Lots and lots of emails.

Right now, almost every email I get from a political organization is asking me for money to help with some issue or other. And how I wish I could, but it’s money I don’t have right now. It’s summer, work is over for most teachers, and I’m living carefully until school starts again and I have some assurance that my classes will remain populated for me so that I’ll get paid for them. It’s a shaky life at best.

But the issues – man, the issues! There are more than you can shake a stick at, and all of them are important, and all of them are interlinked, and how will we ever find our way out of this morass?

Just off the top of my head, here’s a few of the issues that these groups are emailing me about:

  • Gaza and Israel
  • The refugee children coming up here from war-torn Central America
  • General funding for different progressive candidates’ midterm races
  • The GOP lawsuit against the President
  • Comcast’s attempt to kill net neutrality
  • Attacks on servicemembers’ rights to their own religious practices in the military
  • Constitutional amendments to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon, the Supreme Court decisions that gave personhood to corporations
  • Campaign finance reform
  • Marriage equality fights across the nation
  • Veterans’ health and disability funding
  • Unemployment funding renewal
  • The adjunct crisis and funding for higher education
  • Protecting James Risen, a reporter for the New York Times who is refusing to reveal a confidential source and is now facing prison time, in blatant violation of the freedom of the press
  • Fracking in California, where I live
  • The drought in California, where I live

And on and on and on. It’s overwhelming. There’s just too many issues and I can’t process, let alone handle, all of them. And this is just a sampling – it’s certainly not every issue that has hit my inbox in the last 72 hours.

There are times I get really discouraged about this stuff. There are times I think that as a human being – never mind as a Jew-ish person, just as a human being – it’s my responsibility to fix it all. Tikkun olam, you know? Heal the world? But how can I do that with only 16 usable hours in a day? I do need to sleep, you know.

When I get into this kind of I-must-fix-the-whole-world despondency, it helps me to remember a passage from one of my favorite books on medicine: Psychward, by Stephen B. Seager. Seager is a white, middle-class, originally-from-suburban-Utah physician who spent nine years as an ER doctor and is now entering psychiatry due to PTSD from having worked in the ER too long. The book is about his first year as a psychiatric intern in The Bin (Los Angeles County General Hospital), which is located in the heart of the ghetto. Seager gets education on more than just psychiatric terms and medications; he gets an education on what it’s like to be blindingly poor. He has to interact with the homeless and turn them away from the hospital on a daily basis during triage because they don’t have mental illnesses. He sees grinding poverty and the anguish that goes with it.

And at some point, it overwhelms him.  On the day he finally reaches his breaking point, he sees a five-year-old who found his parents’ cocaine stash and tried a few lines, resulting in a cocaine overdose. He has to help other people who have problems bigger than he can handle. The last straw comes when has to deal with a woman who is both a cocaine addict and who admits to having sold her children to the “baby man” in exchange for cocaine. He can’t handle it. He leaves in the middle of his shift and goes home to his suburban middle-class house in a nice part of Los Angeles. The next morning, over breakfast, he tells his wife he can’t handle the job any more. The issues are just too big.

On her suggestion, he goes back to tell everyone that he’s leaving, to apologize for leaving in the middle of his shift, and to pick up his stuff. And it turns out that his wife called in one of his friends who works on the ward to cover for him, and told the people at work that there was an emergency at home. Him leaving call blows over, and that same friend, a brilliant doctor named Glen Charles who grew up in and still lives in the ghetto, takes him to lunch.

This is where Dr. Seager gets a lesson in how much (and how little) we can actually do about the big problems. I’ll quote from the book here.

“Everything comes to a head,” [Glen] continued, “when we realize the ghetto exists not because ‘they’ tolerate it but because we ourselves tolerate it, you and I. This place is like it is because we allow it to be so. That’s the conflict,” Glen said. “The kernel for the explosion. How can this place be, and why did I permit it? That’s a heavy cross to bear.”

I felt like running from the room or punching Glen. He’d found a sore spot and was leaning down hard. I think I actually pulled at my shirt collar.

“There is a way out, however,” Glen said with a reassuring look. “Since you were part of the problem, you have to become part of the solution. Not the entire solution, just your part.”

“What’s my part, Glen?” I said, thinking back to the overwhelming rush of emotion I’d felt while driving through the ghetto streets.

“Your part,” Glen continued, “is to take it one person at a time. To realize that all these people are human beings […] That they didn’t ask for this, just as you didn’t ask for the troubles in your life. Do the best you can for each patient that crosses your path and you’ve done your job. The larger issues here are too much to comprehend. But the little ones we can handle. And if enough little ones go away, one day so will the big ones.”

Seager, Stephen B. 1991. Psychward. New York: Berkeley Books.

The value of tikkun olam often feels to me (and, I’m sure, to other Jews and Jew-ish people) like we have to fix everything, right now, all at once. I know that when I point out to my students that there is no one right answer, and that there is no one quick fix – that higher taxes are linked to how we get people out of poverty, and that poverty is linked to a lack of education, and that education isn’t as much of a help as it used to be because we’ve culturally devalued knowledge and value ignorance, and that that ignorance leads to discrimination against people who are different (non-Christian, nonwhite, female, poor, queer), they get really uncomfortable. They ask me “Then what’s the answer?”

The answer is exactly what Glen Charles said it is. Take it one person at a time. Handle the issue you can handle, today, now. Make the world a slightly better place where you are, and let the rest go, because we are human, not superhuman. Reach out in kindness to the stranger. If you can help someone today, help them. If you can say a kind word, say it.

Research has shown that acting kindly towards others makes you feel better about yourself. But it’s also shown that it acts as the start of a kindness boomerang for most people who witness or experience someone else’s act of kindness. A perfect example is this video from Live Vest Inside:

As a Jew-ish person, my job is to be a light to the world, to be an example. So today I’m going to make a point of thanking people for their help. I’m going to make a point of helping people who need it if I can provide the help. I’m going to try to set off kindness boomerangs everywhere I go.

If you do the same, we can make the world a better place, one person at a time.

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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?

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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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From My Readings: Back to Epstein

8 Tamuz 5774

I’m working my way through Leonard Epstein’s book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism for the next few weeks. In this book, Epstein gives us a chapter on some topic, and then some exercises at the end of the chapter for the reader to think about. He doesn’t number his exercises at the ends of his chapters, so sometimes it’s a little hard to figure out if a sentence is an exercise to write about or just something to think about. For example, Epstein asks us at the end of Chapter 2 to “Consider what is at stake in your beliefs. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put this very well: “[G-d] is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.”

Hm. OK. I’m not sure how to parse that, especially with the Heschel quote attached. Since the chapter is about G-d, Epstein probably means our beliefs about G-d. But as a former agnostic/atheist (and even now I’m not sure which of those I used to be), it’s hard to even put my beliefs about G-d into words, let alone talk about the stakes of those beliefs. I know what I used to believe. Now, the only thing I can be sure I believe is that G-d is there, somehow, and that a lot of what I used to think about him isn’t true.

I don’t know what Epstein means when he says “what is at stake in your beliefs.” Does he mean Pascal’s wager? Does he mean what people might do to me if they find out what I believe? Some other stake that I can’t discern yet? I’m at a loss.

So I’ll just address those two things and move on.

Pascal’s wager is that if we believe in G-d, there’s a chance we’re wrong. If we believe and we’re wrong, we simply die when we die, there is no afterlife, and there is no reward. But if we do not believe and we’re wrong, then we end up in Hell. Meanwhile, if we believe and we’re wrong, nothing happens to us, but if we believe and we’re right, then we end up in Heaven. So it’s better to believe than not believe.

But Pascal was talking to Christians, not to Jews. Does the wager even apply to Jews? Since Jews do not believe in the afterlife or in hell, and since Judaism is largely based on what you do rather than your statements of belief, it’s kind of hard to apply Pascal’s wager to Judaism. Besides, I’ve always felt that believing in G-d only because you were afraid of what would happen to you if you didn’t believe in him seems kind of dishonest, and that G-d would see through that in a heartbeat.

However, on a more pragmatic level, there are certainly things at stake in my belief in G-d and my performance of that belief through Jewish practice. On a very mundane level, it means giving up Saturdays as a day when I work and catch up on things, which for me is a pretty big deal. It means that sometimes I will make people uncomfortable when they see my kippah or my Mogen David, or when they see me praying the brachot at mealtimes (although I generally do that sotto voce; it’s my conversation with G-d, not theirs). It means that I may lose friends and even family members when I finish my coming-out process later this month. And it means that I will be a target for violence, because there are plenty of people who don’t like Jews, even today in this supposedly enlightened age.

On a less pragmatic level, the things that I risk in my belief in G-d include the stuff I’ve already talked about having to let go of: empiricism as a solution to every problem, black-and-white answers, suspicion and mistrust.

So what’s really at stake? Pragmatically, it’s my time, my energy, possibly my social relationships, and (in the worst case) my safety. Emotionally, I risk having to admit I’m wrong, having to get good with doubt, and having to change my perspective on the world.

So why risk that, you ask?

Well, in a pragmatic sense, many of the things about being a Jew (which will be the public face of my belief in G-d) that will make me a target are no different than the things about being queer that make me a target. People who hate tend to hate all groups that aren’t just like them. The KKK doesn’t have a Log Cabin KKK group, for example. They hate on Jews and queers pretty much the same way. As far as my belief in G-d specifically making me a target, I expect it’ll mostly be from the die-hard atheists who can’t tolerate other people believing in G-d for the same reasons I used to be unable to tolerate it. But even then, atheists rarely rise to the vitriolic level of a Richard Dawkins or a Greta Christina, and if they do, I can simply ignore them, as hard as that may be.

Taking this a step closer to my own personal life, as far as the atheist friends who demand sameness of belief or nonbelief as a condition of friendship? Well, it was nice knowing them. As the saying says, “Sometimes people come into your life for a reason or a season, not a lifetime.” I have already (probably) lost one friend over this, and I’m just hoping I won’t lose more, but if I do, it’s not that different from when I came out as queer.

So maybe the reason that it’s hard to parse Epstein’s question is because there is nothing new under the sun here for me. Almost everything that I have to face from other people’s reactions is the same stuff I had to face when I came out as queer. This is not my first rodeo. The things at stake that happen internally? That’s stuff I’ve been considering even before I started this blog. Could I maintain my self-respect after admitting I’d been wrong? Could I see myself as intelligent when I still have doubt? Could I accept non-empirical evidence and not think of myself as a fraud?

As it turns out, yes, I can.

But then there’s the other half of Epstein’s exercise, the Heschel quote. In many of the other books I’ve been reading, there’s this presumption that G-d is central to everything in Jewish life. And I can see that it must be for those who are Orthodox and even, to some extent, Conservative. But I’m not in the habit of praying before everything I do and everything I think. I don’t know if there’s a way to make G-d central when I’m at one of my medieval events, for example, except through my practices – avoiding lashon hara, being kind, being considerate.

Is that enough? Must I become a fundamentalist to be a good Jew?

I reject that. While Heschel has wonderful things to say, I don’t think the idea of G-d as an on-off switch is compatible with my Yiddishkeit. I do not think that it’s possible to allow for doubt if G-d must be of supreme importance all the time. I do not think it’s possible to allow for argument and debate if G-d is of supreme importance all the time. I think that in my experience of Judaism to date, it’s been about people – how you treat other people – far more than about G-d being central. And even some writers have said that it’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

That also calls the question of what it means to make G-d central to everything. Is it professing continuous belief in G-d that makes him central? Or is it behaving towards others with kindness, giving them the benefit of the doubt, avoiding lashon hara that makes G-d central?

I’d say that as a person who aspires to become a Jew, my answer would have to be that it’s the practice, not the profession, that makes G-d central.

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Friday Feature: What Good Thing Happened to You This Week?

6 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.


In terms of my work and my career, I filed grades on Sunday this week and my students had an 86% pass rate, which makes me happy. My current class is keeping up with the work and we’ve had some amazing and enlightening discussions. The structure I put together for the course is working better than I could have hoped, too. And I’m going to spend part of this week working on the book that is closer to being finalized than I could have hoped for, so I can get it onto Amazon and get students to buy it so they can succeed in school this coming school year.

In terms of my social relationships, I got lucky enough to spend time with several friends this week: my best friend was here on Wednesday, and yesterday I got to see an old friend from graduate school whom I hadn’t seen in months. I was asked to be part of someone’s elevation ceremony in my medieval group in a couple weeks.

In terms of my health, I got a good night’s sleep last night and I’m feeling better now that my blood pressure is under control. I’m grateful that all my pharmacy stuff is taken care of for the month so I don’t have to worry about medications. I’m glad that walking a mile is no longer an exercise in pain and frustration, and that I was able to do that a couple of times this week, too.

For my household, we have a full refrigerator and gas tank again. My bank is working with me on the fact that one of my paychecks is going to be here much later than I wanted it to be. Our library books are renewed and I was able to afford a copy of Epstein’s book for myself when the library copy was called back on a hold. We were able to reserve a local storage unit for a reduced price from the one we have in another city, and we’ll be spending part of the weekend going up and getting our things out of the other unit and moving them here, so we can stop having to pay that bill and so our things will be close by.

In terms of family, my partner and I have been having a good week with each other, with lots of down-time and time spent together. My kids won’t be here this coming weekend as originally planned but that’s okay; we’ll have time with them soon again.

In terms of my studies, I’m still learning and growing, and I find almost everything I read fascinating. I’m glad that I came to the realization that I need a different rabbi early on, instead of later on when it would have been more difficult to switch.

In things that don’t seem to fit into any category, an older man saw my kippah while my friend and my partner and I were waiting to be seated for lunch on Thursday, and said “Shalom alecheim!” to me. I’ve been positively recognized as a Jew again in public, and that was exciting. I’m excited that I have more followers here at WWG. I’m glad that I am reaching people and that they’re responding positively.

In the wider world, I’m grateful that so many people have reacted so strongly to the Hobby Lobby ruling, and that it’s spurring greater voter registration and activity out there. I’m also grateful that more marriage-equality rulings have come down on the side of the GLBT community (most recently the 6th Circuit ruling and what’s happened in Colorado).

So tell me. What good things happened to you this week?

And that said, I’ll wish you Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll see you again on Sunday.

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Taking Back the Word “Morality” From the Right Wing

3 Tamuz 5774

Tell you what, friends and neighbors. I’m really troubled tonight. I’m going to come back to Epstein tomorrow, but tonight I need to vent.

I am tired of “family values” being a synonym for “keep women in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, and keep gays in the closet until they’re so far back in it that they can see Narnia.” I am tired of “moral” being a synonym for “repressed,” or “anti-sex,” or “anti-woman,” or “anti-gay,” or “Christian.” I am sick to death of morality being used as a bludgeon and one very small group of die-hard the-rules-are-everything people swinging it like a club at anyone who isn’t exactly like them. I have had it with “decency” being used to shame people for self-expression.

I’m not going to continue to support selfishness, or self-centeredness, or every-man-for-himselfishness. I’m not going to be silent when the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is considered the right way to live, even if you have no boots. I’m not going to let people say that the poor are just lazy, or that women should know their place, or that gays and lesbians are mentally ill or making a choice. I am not going to stand by while my brothers’ and sisters’ blood is shed.

Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the right to the freedom of religion, and that this means that corporations can deny women certain kinds of health care if it conflicts with the corporation’s “deeply held religious beliefs.” This follows on from a previous decision, Citizens United, which held that corporations are people and so, as people, corporations have the constitutional right to free speech – which is considered specifically as money and political contributions. What’s next? Corporations having the right to bear arms? Corporations having the right to vote? Those are constitutional rights guaranteed to people, too, right?

Last I checked, people were born and had hearts, and blood, and bones, and brains. They live, they breathe, they die. They marry. They have children. They divorce. Last I checked, corporations can’t do any of those things.

The fact is, today’s decision – and the ones leading up to it – are a horrific marriage of corporatism and religious self-righteousness. The Christian right and the corporations got in bed together way back when I was in high school, in the 1980s. Today, that marriage has borne fruit that I cannot even think about too much without beginning to shake in anger. Corporations have used far-right religionists’ anger about difference and dissent, and their determination to make their religious laws the law of the land, to forward their agenda of corporations eventually ruling the country.

This decision harms people of faith as well as women – although in its instant effect it certainly harms women far more. This decision opens doors to make it possible to rescind rights for women, people of color, GLBTs, and anyone who is part of a religion that doesn’t conform to the Christian far-right agenda for my country.

It also makes religious people look like sex-centered jackasses. It reduces religion to moral policing, rather than what religion was originally supposed to be – the drawing-together of community. Religion was never supposed to be the world’s moral policeman, but more and more, people are seeing it – and using it – as only that.

The mentality of the Christian right is one of the main reasons I find Judaism so appealing and so right for me. You see, Judaism does not teach that only Jews have a corner on the world to come. Christianity and Islam both teach that their way is the One True Way – the only way – to get right with G-d. Of course, One-True-Wayists annoy me anyway, but when religion affects public life, it’s a special kind of NO for me.

I’m also sick and tired of the Christian right saying that I’m immoral for being gay, or that my female friend is immoral for enjoying sex and not wanting to have to worry about getting pregnant, while at the same time refusing to say anything about the immorality of how the homeless, the poor, and the disadvantaged are treated in this nation and around the world.

So here’s my response to the Christian right’s straw-man morality.

Yes, our current world is immoral.

It is not immoral because there were Pride parades all this past week and weekend. It is immoral because people who are gay get attacked by Bible-thumping bullies and the bullies get away with it.

It is not immoral because women can protect themselves from having a baby that they may not be able to afford to raise, or that they may not be able to cope with (not all women are cut out to be mothers). It is immoral because a dedicated phalanx of whited sepulchers can bend the law to deny women the ability to avoid pregnancy. Pro-life positions that do not allow for contraception are not pro-life. They are simply pro-birth. Unless you care about what happens to that child after it’s born, you have a lot of nerve telling a woman to have a baby in the first place. Your position on this is immoral.

Our world is not immoral because poor people are lazy. It is immoral because poor people are demonized and we refuse to help them. It is immoral because we demand that the poor somehow produce miracles when we won’t even give them a helping hand. It is immoral because our elected officials cut food stamps, unemployment, and anything else that might help the poor get back on their feet.

Our world is not immoral because we have homeless people. It’s immoral because we do everything we can to make it impossible for them to live. It is immoral because instead of helping them get off the street and into housing, we put spikes on covered areas near buildings to ensure they have nowhere to sleep.

Our world is not immoral because capitalism exists. It’s immoral because the 1% have done everything possible to stack the capitalist deck in their favor. It’s immoral because we lionize the filthy-rich instead of shaming them for their selfishness and self-centeredness. It’s immoral because the Real Housewives of Orange County are looked at as role models.

Our world is immoral because it prioritizes financial success over personal connection. It is immoral because it prioritizes winning and competition over compassion. It is immoral because it prioritizes and rewards selfishness instead of kindness.

Last I checked, a Jew was required to show their morality through charity and kindness. I doubt there’s a Jew out there who supports this decision.

So don’t talk to me about morality, Hobby Lobby. Don’t even try to tell me that denying a woman the ability to be close to her partner with sex without the constant worry about pregnancy is moral. Don’t even try to tell me that letting the poor suffer instead of helping them is moral. Don’t even try to tell me that making it impossible for the homeless to live is moral. Don’t tell me that putting profits ahead of people is moral.

That’s not morality. That’s sin. And it has to stop.

 

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

29 Sivan 5774

Telushkin’s Jewish value for day 69 (in his book The Book of Jewish Values) asks: What good thing happened to you this week?

This is going to be a regular Friday morning feature for me from now on, I think. 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, so I’m going to make this my regular Friday morning feature.

In yesterday’s post I talked about making gratitude part of my daily practice even before the idea of converting to Judaism had become part of my reality. Gratitude doesn’t have to be about Big Things. It can be about little things, too. Being little doesn’t make a thing trivial. And over the past week, I have had all kinds of things to be grateful for.

In terms of my career and my job, my summer class is completely prepped, which is a new thing for me – I won’t have to worry about scrambling to get anything set up for students, because it’s all done. That gives me an extra hour or two per week, at least. My online course will be done on Sunday and I hope to have grades ready to file at that point. Both of these make me thankful because I get to be with and interact with students, which is a powerful experience for me. They also make me thankful because they will produce a paycheck, with which I can meet my family’s needs. I will have time on Sunday to write, very likely, which will allow me to finish the student-success book that I want to put up on Amazon for sale well before the school year starts.

In terms of my health, I’m grateful that my blood pressure is back down in a normal range. I’m grateful that my blood sugar is mostly stable. I’m grateful that I am getting good sleep every night and that I wake up rested instead of tired.

In terms of my household, I’m grateful that my car has nearly a full tank of gas. I’m grateful that the refrigerator is full of food after my grocery run on Tuesday. I’m grateful that we made it to the laundromat on Sunday so I have clean clothes, and that the kitchen is clean so that baking challah for Shabbat dinner will not be a problem. I’m thankful that my partner got paid and that the bill that was waiting is now paid as well.

In terms of my studies, I’m grateful that I can now write out transliterations for most of the Hebrew I’ve been studying, which means I know the letters and the nikkudim well enough to stumble through it. I’m not fluent yet by any means, but it’s coming along. I’m also grateful that I have been able to take the time to read through most of the library books I picked up two weeks ago, and that I have the ability to go online and renew some of them so I can take a deeper look at them this coming week.

In terms of friends, I’m grateful for getting to have lunch with one of my newer friends yesterday, for seeing another friend for most of Monday after work, and for having plans to see other friends this weekend. I’m grateful that I have so much love in my life.

In terms of family, I’m so glad that I got to see my children this past weekend, and that my partner and I have been able to see each other every day this week. I’m grateful for his presence in my life. I’m grateful that my other partner is in my life.

I’m also grateful for the music of the Josh Nelson Project, Neshama Carlebach, and Aryeh Kuntsler. I’m grateful for authors: Telushkin, Epstein, Diamant, Leaman, Kushner – all of whom have enlightened and educated me this week as I work towards conversion. I’m grateful for the good weather we’ve been having locally, and that I was able to walk to and from my lunch appointment yesterday with minimal pain.

And, in the wider world, I’m grateful for the recent court rulings in favor of marriage equality, which tells me that justice may take its time in getting here, but once it’s here, it stays.

As you can see, once you start listing the things you’re grateful for, it can get out of hand. But perhaps that’s a good thing to do on erev Shabbat. We often look at our lives and only see the bills, the worries, the stressors. While it’s human to notice the bad things first – because in an evolutionary sense, that helps us avoid danger – an over-focus on bad things can be damaging. So take some time today to list the things you’re thankful for. Talk about them with your family over Shabbat dinner.

One of Josh Nelson’s songs, “Seven,” talks about the Sabbath being a time to slow down and consider what the seventh day means:

I am waiting for the sunset

I am waiting for the peace

I am waiting for this holy moment

For a moment of release

Seven days, take my worries

Taking time to catch my breath

Seven days, start me over

Slow me down and clear my head…

Now I ask you – what better way to enter the seventh day than with gratitude? What better way to calm down and catch your breath than by spending a little time listing and thinking about what you’re grateful for?

So let the day take your worries. While you wait for the sunset, let yourself start over and clear your head (from negativity and stress) by listing the good things that have happened to you during the week. Feel free to use the comment thread here to state it, if you like.

And that said, I wish you Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll see you back on Sunday morning.

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Counting My Blessings: Gratitude is a Choice

28 Sivan 5774

Even before I realized that Judaism was the path I needed to take, I was doing things that were Jewish. Gratitude has been one of the main ones, but it wasn’t always that way.

My partner, bless him, is an everlasting optimist. He rejects the negative in the same way I rejected the positive. He may get hurt sometimes, but he’s generally happier.

Two years ago this January, I posted something to my private LiveJournal blog about religion. I noodled about the idea that religion might be more about practice than belief – which, for me at the time, was a completely novel concept. I talked about studies I’d read that show that religious people seem to be happier and more grounded than people who are not religious. I wrote about AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically and what the author seemed to get out of following every rule in the Bible for a year (which he did not expect): more calm, more focus, and more aware of his life and what was going on around him. I admitted, even back then, that even if you do not believe in the deity in question, the practices do things to and for you that you can’t get otherwise.

I think this was a helicopter too, although I didn’t know it at the time. Realizing that religious people are happier, and that the reason might be the practices, rather than the beliefs, really shook me up.

That post also had me admitting that I had a problem with Something being out there that I couldn’t sense with my five senses, but instead of saying “and so there’s no proof of it,” for possibly the first time in my life I asked if maybe there was something broken about me, that I couldn’t sense this Something that everyone else seemed to be able to sense. And I admitted that my anger at people who believed in G-d (at the time) was because I was scared that their ability to sense/perceive G-d when I couldn’t might be evidence of me being broken or wrong – and I know I’ve already discussed the roots of that particular hangup here in this blog, since.

It was a big step for me at the time, realizing that I needed a religion that was practice-focused, even if I didn’t say it in quite those words. I did admit at that time that I missed the practice of religion, even though I was still totally turned off by the belief systems.

In the spring of last year, I attended Renaissance Faire several times during the season for the first time as a prospective volunteer, rather than just a patron. At the end of the Faire season I was invited into a Faire family, and the open acceptance blew me away. It blew me away, in part, because logically I saw no reason why I should have been invited or accepted, but I still was. I admitted at that time that “logic is how to go perfectly wrong with confidence,” and that with my doctoral degree in social science I really ought to have admitted that humans are illogical, and run with that, instead of insisting on logic. I apologized to people who I’d been angry towards because of their religious beliefs. And I said “My insistence on logic and my rejection of anything that didn’t have hard concrete proof? Was my own stupidity and arrogance and…. misguided protection of the vulnerable person inside me, that didn’t know how to believe or trust without organization and structure and proof and logic.”

Then, this past January, I realized I was only looking at the negative things in my life – money worries, problems with my health, issues with my students. I’d always called that “realism,” but let’s be honest here; it was pessimism. For me, the positive simply didn’t exist.

At the same time, my partner the optimist had read a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and he shared some of it with me. One thing that struck me was that research had shown that if you ask someone to list three things they’re grateful for every morning, their focus eventually shifts and becomes less pessimistic and more optimistic. If there had been no research, I probably would have pooh-poohed it, shrugged, and ignored it. But I’m a researcher, and so I am convinced by research evidence… so I decided to try it.

At first it was hard to come up with things I was grateful for. And it was equally hard not to think of them as trivial. But having a hot cup of coffee in the morning – I was grateful for that. I was grateful for this amazing apartment that my partner and I moved into last fall. I was grateful that I had friends who would reach out to me when I was hurting. So I began listing three things I was grateful for, every morning, and posting them to my Facebook as a sort of gratitude-accountability thing. At first, it felt really awkward – as any new habit does.

But then something amazing happened. I got happier. Slowly, but surely, I got happier. Sure, I still have my bad moments, but I can’t deny that I got happier by simply reminding myself of the things I’m grateful for.

How does this tie to Judaism? Well, most Jewish prayers aren’t about petitioning G-d for things. They rarely, if ever, say “G-d, do this or that for me, please.” They’re about praise and/or gratitude: Praised are you, G-d, for your works. Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, who makes me sleep peacefully. Thank you, G-d, for being there for me when it hurts; for giving me a body that works;  for this food which sustains me; for giving us the Torah at Sinai.

The Modeh Ani, one of the first prayers taught to children after the Sh’ma, is a waking-up prayer that starts the day with gratitude:

מוֹדֶהאֲנִילְפָנֶֽיךָמֶֽלֶךְחַיוְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּבִּינִשְׁמָתִיבְחֶמְלָה. רַבָּהאֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ׃

Modeh ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, raba emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; your faithfulness is great.

So Jewish prayer is rarely a petition for help; it tends to be a thank-you note or letter to G-d instead.

And now, having gone through this gratitude practice for over half a year, I am ready to pray that way.

Maybe I had to go through these seismic shifts in order to find a religion that was based on practice and gratitude. Maybe I wouldn’t have found Judaism if I hadn’t gone through them. So that’s another thing to be grateful for, isn’t it? Thank you, G-d, for the seismic shifts. Thank you for your still, small voice. Thank you for being there and being patient. Thank you for my yiddishe neshama and my pintele yid.

I’m thankful for my readership – you folks. I’m thankful for my mind, that allows me to take these steps and make these changes. I’m thankful that the rabbi accepted me as a conversion candidate.

What are you thankful for today?

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From My Readings: Acting Cheerful is Not A Choice (Telushkin, Values)

Today a friend of mine posted a link to Facebook that said “Maybe the reason you get bad customer service is because you’re a bad customer.” She works in customer service and takes a lot of abuse from her customers. I sympathize, because I’ve been there and done that – both as the service person and, to my chagrin, as the customer.

I need to remember not to do that any more, for a number of reasons – most of which are fundamentally Jewish reasons. I will explain.

First, in Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values, one of the values (day 33) is “Acting Cheerfully is Not a Choice.” This seems to be a little much at first reading, but Telushkin’s explanation points out that it’s not our right to inflict our bad moods or bad tempers on other people. People serving us in a business transaction did not ask for our bad mood, and it’s not our right to dump it on them. He quotes Prager saying “We have a moral obligation to be as happy as we can be.” A passage from the Talmud backs his up for Telushkin as well: “The man who shows his teeth to his friend in a smile is better than one who gives him milk to drink.”

For me, this also ties into the I-Thou relationship as opposed to the I-It relationship (which comes from Martin Buber’s work). We tend to see people who are serving us in business transactions as Its, rather than Thous. We don’t see them as people. And this even goes beyond business relationships to other relationships, when we start just thinking of other people as a means to an end, rather than as human beings. The mechanic produces a functioning car. The grocer supplies food that is quality enough that I can eat it. The storekeeper sells me a kippah so I can wear it. But do I know anything about these folks as human beings? Do I care? If they died tomorrow, would I notice it in any way other than the basic material irritation of having to find another mechanic?

Well, this value tells me I should care. If that’s my regular mechanic, I should know more about him than just that he fixes cars. I should know the shopkeeper where I buy my Judaica, ideally by name. Even in the process of conversion, it’s easily possible to slip into thinking of the rabbi as a gatekeeper whom we must “get something” from, instead of another human being who has knowledge we do not have.

But that can only happen if we stop seeing them as their role, and start seeing them as a person. Instead of Jim the mechanic, I should be seeing Jim Smith, whose wife is having surgery next week and who is pretty stressed out. Instead of seeing Rabbi Jones, I should be seeing David, my rabbi, whose son is moving towards a bar mitzvah in two weeks. I should know more about them than just their names and their roles.

I work hard with my students so that they know that I don’t really see my doctorate as something that puts me “above” them. I work hard to make them see me as a coach, not a high-muckety-muck. But I’ve known professors in my time who really needed their students to see them as minor gods, and who maintained that I-It relationship for all they were worth. I refuse to do that. I try to learn names as quickly as I can. I make time for casual chit-chat to know more about my students. I do my best to be open and honest with them about myself (they know I’m queer, and that I’m converting, for example). And I think it makes a difference. They remember me – and I remember them – as people, not objects.

It’s harder to see people as people when we’re grumpy, or tired, or otherwise negatively framing the world. So being cheerful is a good first step. Some research has shown that just smiling will put you in a better mood. There’s also the “fake it till you make it” idea, which has worked for me as well – just keep acting cheerful, even if you aren’t. When we do that, we’re more likely to see people as people.

Maybe that’s the lesson in this link I read today. We have to see all people as people, not as obstacles or tools. Until we do, we have no chance of healing the world.

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The Prophetic Aspect of Being a Ger Tzedek, and How To Do It Wrong

26 Sivan 5774

When Michael Benami Doyle stood in front of his beit din, his rabbi asked him how he reconciled his deep commitment to the Jewish community with the luke-warm commitment of many of the synagogue’s members at the time. Michael’s response, which I generally agree with, is that there is a prophetic aspect to being a Jewish convert. Michael says that the very act of converting makes us “take Judaism with joy and sincerity and totally in earnest because it’s so new to us, and because of that we often serve as an inspiration to born Jews who may have lost their sense of wonder about their native religious tradition.”

In essence, Michael is saying that gerim tzedek serve as a light to the Jewish community through our lived example. To me, that’s the right way to go about this prophetic aspect of being a convert.

But there are certainly wrong ways to go about that aspect, as well. To explain this statement, I’m going to combine insights from two other areas of my life here, and then tie the package up in a nice, neat bow for you. Bear with me.

First, many different sources that I’ve been reading have pointed out that in the Tanakh, the prophets were by and large very reluctant to be prophets (with the possible exception of Isaiah). G-d essentially demanded it, even though the last thing they wanted to do was go out and tell other people how to live, even if G-d required it of them. If we read the stories of the different prophets, most of them only began to speak their prophecies after great reluctance and some resistance. They did not jump at the chance to go tell people how to behave, or what to do, or what to think. Jonah is the classic example, running as far as he could and still being caught by the requirement that he speak G-d’s prophecy.

So it should be clear that it’s not fun to be a prophet. Prophets tend to say “you should change,” or “what you’re doing is not pleasing to G-d – so cut it out already.” Prophets tend to be rejected by their own countrymen. It’s not exactly a cushy job.

The second insight is that nobody likes to be told what to do by someone who’s just showed up on the scene, prophet or not. Even in non-religious contexts, this is quite clear: the new guy on the job who comes up with a way to speed up production is generally not liked by his coworkers, the new kid who can play basketball better than the other kids because he’s had some actual coaching gets drummed off the team because he makes everybody else look bad, and so forth.

My personal example is Usenet. I used to be an active participant on Usenet newsgroups, which (back in the days when rocks were still soft) were the “internet message boards” of the 1990s. This was before AOL and before Compuserve. Newsgroups were community-policed; that is, there were no moderators to come down on someone like a ton of bricks if they came into the group and started causing trouble. Instead, individuals who were group members had the responsibility of shunning the disruptive new member. This was accomplished by the use of a “killfile,” a small program that filtered out any comments from the disruptive member before you ever saw the message threads.

Sometimes my killfile had twenty or thirty people in it. And most commonly, the disruptive member would come in, say hi, and then immediately begin demanding changes to the way things were done in the newsgroup, simply because they didn’t like how things were being done in the newsgroup at that time. Since newsgroups were, in some ways, very clannish (the longer you’d been there, the more status you had, just like in real life), this usually didn’t go over very well. Oh, occasionally a new member would assimilate and become one of the group, but like as not, he or she would end up in everyone’s killfile because of the demands that the community change for them.

So there is a right way and a wrong way to go about being a prophet in the modern world. If there is a prophetic aspect to being a convert – and I agree with Michael that there is – it doesn’t involve taking it upon ourselves to demand change. Unless we are guided by G-d to do that, we need to keep our traps shut and simply be prophetic by the example of our lives. Demanding doesn’t work. Nor should we think it’s okay to demand anything. Instead, simply living the example will probably bring more people over to our side as they see that what we are doing is working.

The reason this is on my radar right now is that there’s a very well-intentioned person at my temple who is, like me, going through the conversion process. But this person is full of ideas, and most of those ideas are about how the temple needs to change, or become different – “more Jewish.” This person is also one of those extroverted, enthusiastic, and socially clueless folks who come across kind of like a very well-intentioned, good-natured bull in a china shop, with very little sense of boundaries and no understanding of the fact that they’re walking all over them. I won’t go into more detail than that, but the fact is that this person seems to think that demanding change is the right way to get it. As an example, they (and I’m maintaining gender anonymity here as well) thought it would be a good idea to wear a tallit “to make other people uncomfortable.” Never mind that as a not-yet-converted not-yet-Jew, they don’t have the right to wear a tallit! That simply did not occur to them in their enthusiasm and desire to shake things up a little bit.

While it’s certainly appropriate and necessary to confront corruption or favoritism or systemic problems when we see them, I think two things have to happen first. One, we need to have credibility. This person (and I) are not yet Jews, regardless of our yiddishe neshamot. We are conversion students. We currently cannot claim to have a dog in this fight – if a fight even exists (and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t).

Two, we need to be very careful not to judge how others live their Judaism by the measuring stick we’re using for ourselves. Just as we have to own our own Yiddishkeit, we have to allow others to own theirs, even if their way of being Jewish makes us uncomfortable. In any congregation, there will be people who follow kashrut to the letter and those who have the occasional bacon cheeseburger. There will be people who can manage to avoid working or doing anything that is disallowed on Shabbat, and there will be those who have to work on Shabbat because they need to pay rent and feed their families. And the moment we start getting judgmental is the moment that any credibility we might have is lost.

This is not to say that it’s not right to make a stink about systemic problems. But demanding that people be “more Jewish” because they’re not practicing to the standard you’ve set for yourself is not right, ever, and it’s certainly not prophetic. It’s just being a jerk – and unless G-d told you to do that, you should probably cut it out.

How can you tell if G-d told you to do it? Well, from the known prophets, you really should feel reluctant. If the impulse to tell others how to live their lives makes you feel excited or happy or smug, that’s probably not G-d talking – and despite what you might think, ego is not G-d.

So yes, live your life as the convert that you are. Show your community what your Judaism is like by your example, because this is a religion of practice, and actions speak louder than words.

But unless you’re addressing actual problems, and not just things that make you uncomfortable because they’re not doing Judaism like you do Judaism, keep your words to yourself.

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