Tag Archives: mitzvot

Friday Feature: And Now For Something A Little Different

16 Tishrei 5775

I want to talk a little bit about responsibility. Specifically, personal responsibility.

During Yom Kippur, I had some guilt and shame about what I had done to my fellows, but by and large not much. To myself, on the other hand…

In the Maccabeats’ “Book of Good Life,” which I’ve linked to many times in the last few weeks, one character’s mitzvah seemed, to me, to be something I would never be able to do. This character in the video wakes up, rolls out of bed, throws on his kippah, grabs a slice of cold pizza from the fridge, and goes out to do whatever he does. But taking care of his body is not one of those things. Later, after he’s had a chance to consider his actions, he ends up at the gym pumping iron – caring for his body, in other words.

Jewish teaching is that caring for the body is a mitzvah. That’s really hard for me to believe or accept because I have always lived in my head. My body is just what I ride around in. But if it is a mitzvah to care for the body, then I must accept that.

I’m a diet-controlled diabetic. I am overweight. Severely so. I low-carbed for a long time, but this summer, with the heat and the heat and, well, the heat, I succumbed to the siren songs of ice cream and frozen yogurt and fried rice and many other things I’m ashamed of now. I gained 20 pounds between my doctor’s appointment in June and the one I just had today.

Obviously, this can’t go on. So I am making my New Year’s resolution: I am going to treat my body better than I have been. It’s back on the low-carb diet, hopefully for good this time. This means that I will get one small piece of my gluten-free challah and one SMALL cup of grape juice on Shabbat, and that’s it in terms of carb intake. Everything else is going to be the ketogenic diet that brought my diabetes under control for the first time in my life. I have too much to lose now. I’m aiming to keep myself below 100 g of carbs per day, and eventually below 50 g of carbs per day.

My partner supports what I need to do. He needs to do it, too. We’re getting married on the last day of the (non-Jewish) month, and we both want to be around for each other for a long, long time. So we are changing our ways. Low-carb, and going to the gym to lift weights regularly. More activity, and less sitting. More paying attention to our bodies, and less denying that they matter.

So today, I am thankful for something. I’m thankful for a change in my attitude, as well as my partner’s support in that change.

Shabbat shalom, all. I’ll see you again after Saturday night is here.


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On Robin Williams and Depression

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

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

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

And yet. And yet.

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

You see, I have depression. I have always had it. I always will have it. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear. And I have heard that inner voice saying in a very calm, rational, completely believable way: “Nobody would miss you if you died. They’d celebrate if you were gone because you’re a waste of space, energy, and air. You’re worthless. You’re pointless. Anyone could have done the things you did. You’re not that special. You deserve to feel this way because you are scum. Your partner could do better, and probably is doing better. Your kids are ashamed to be seen with you. Your family thinks you’re an embarrassment. So why don’t you just give them all a break? The knife is right there on the kitchen counter. The pills are in the medicine cabinet.”

Life with depression is a constant fight against that voice, because that voice never shuts up. I’ve had three suicide attempts in my life. The first one was when I was fifteen. The second one, I was sixteen. The third one was in my thirties and very few people knew about that one until just now. Thankfully none of them were successful, but at the time I was just disappointed (and ashamed) that I couldn’t even kill myself correctly.

It. Never. Stops.

If you have depression you find ways around it. You find ways to shore yourself up against it. Comedy is a big one. Music is another. Publishing a book. Writing a screenplay. Getting a doctorate. All of these are bulwarks against depression and the lies that it tells. But even those ways don’t always work. Sometimes the levees break. Sometimes the foundation crumbles.

To this day I still have far too many times when I don’t think I’m a very good or important person. Despite all my accomplishments, I still have depression living in my skin. It tells me that my doctorate is no big deal, that the students I’ve reached would have succeeded anyway, that my family and friends see me as a bother rather than a blessing. Sometimes I believe it. Sometimes I fight it. Not always.

If you have never known true, clinical depression, be thankful. It is worse than being sad. It is worse than being “blue” or down in the dumps. It is worse than feeling grief when a loved one dies. Depression is the sense of total worthlessness, of feeling that you deserve every bad thing that happens to you and that you don’t deserve any good that is part of your life. Depression is an endless black hole of suck, like a tar pit. On a good day you might be able to claw your way up to only waist-deep in it. On a good day you might be able to draw a few breaths thinking that you will be able to keep breathing without a struggle tomorrow.

But it never goes away. Medication can help manage it for some people. Therapy can help manage it. Learning strategies to cope like cognitive behavioral therapy can help manage it. But it never. goes. away.

Robin Williams’ death and the circumstances surrounding it serve as a stark reminder that we must address this problem as a national public health issue, just as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death reminds us that we must address addiction as a national public health issue. But in the meantime, until our policymakers get off their collective asses and start doing something about depression, here’s what I have for you. And here is where Judaism informs my approach. When I am in pain nowadays, when that low, rational voice is telling me that I’d be better off dead, I turn to G-d as well as to my friends. I cry out for help instead of holding it in. I pray. And when I see someone else in this kind of pain, it is a mitzvah to reach out to them and help.

If you have a friend in pain, reach out to them. Reach out to them. Reach out to them. Send them a note, an e-mail, give them a hug or a phone call. Take them to a movie or out to lunch. Don’t let them struggle alone in the endless black hole of suck that is depression. And don’t be fooled by their shiny happy exterior – it’s a front. Let them know you’re here. Let them know you care. Let them know they matter. And say it again, and again, and again, because depression can be louder than you are.

If you are in this kind of pain, if you think that ending it would be better than going on, if you can’t see the point any more, please, please get some help. Please reach out. Please call a suicide helpline –http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ even has an online chat program if you can’t handle a phone call. But don’t wait. Don’t give up.

Because my life is better because you’re in it.


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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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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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Shiva for a Six-Year-Old: Community and Shared Pain

25 Sivan 5774

An Internet acquaintance of mine very recently lost his god-daughter Rebecca to something that should not happen to children. She made it to her sixth birthday, but she had an inoperable brain tumor. She died on her birthday.

Naturally, her parents were hit hard by her death, and so was he. Apparently this little girl was a light to the world, funny, silly, snarky, and she deserved a much longer time here than she got. Saying “It was G-d’s will” or any of the other Standard Platitudes would be a shonda.

He’s been very open about what’s been going on as she went through her dying process, and recently he wrote about the week of shiva for her, and what it was like for him. I can’t do better than to link to it, so I’m doing that here: Shiva Is. Would that there were something more I could do for him beyond saying “Baruch dayan emet” and offering my condolences, but I live nowhere near him, and I’m just an acquaintance.

I never got to sit shiva for my father, because at the time I wasn’t Jewish. I will never have had that experience. Of course I will remember him on his yarzheit and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for him from now on. But too much of my memory of the time of his death was his disbelieving friends coming to his funeral and demanding to know what had happened to him, at a time when I was least equipped to deal with questions (especially questions that, to my ears, sounded accusatory). How different might it have been if the community I was part of at the time had had that process of shiva in place for us?

Oh, I had a community – don’t get me wrong. I had a blogging community that rallied around me while he was dying and afterwards, when I poured out my grief into my LiveJournal. But that is not the same as being able to sit with the pain and process the grief while trusting that others are taking care of food, and running interference between you and the questioners.

So it hit me hard, reading about him sitting shiva for her (and how he ended up being a comforter, rather than being allowed to really mourn). It hit me how much we really do depend on community to get through this kind of pain. Ursula LeGuin had a character say once that “brotherhood begins in shared pain,” and perhaps that’s part of what shiva is for. Another writer, Spider Robinson, had a motto for the bar he wrote about in many of his books: “Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased: thus do we refute entropy.”

When we visit the grieving or are grieving ourselves, isn’t that about sharing pain? Isn’t it about refuting entropy? And even sharing happy stories about the person who’s died is increasing shared joy, isn’t it?

G-d forbid you should have to sit shiva for a loved one now or anytime soon, but we all have pain, sometimes daily. What pain are you having today? What pain does your neighbor have? How can you help and be helped? What joy can you share?

How can we, as a people, make each others’ lives a little less painful?

Perhaps that’s what shiva is for. It’s a way of formalizing the ancient Greek axiom (variously attributed to Plato and to Aristotle): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.

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Do Not Stand Idly By: Being A Jew Who Picks and Chooses

18 Sivan 5774

I recently found a wonderful article by Rabbi Maurice Harris on MyJewishLearning.com. I’ve been struggling with the idea that you have to keep and observe every single one of the mitzvot or you are not a good Jew. But Rabbi Harris gives a really, REALLY good reason for rejecting some of the Leviticus laws that require us to be sexist, racist, or homophobic. He says:

“I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).

“Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.”

Now, Judaism has certainly carved out some exceptions to reduce harm that might be caused by religious beliefs. Pikuach nefesh deals with some of the mitzvot that are harmful for Jews in certain health situations, as well as prioritizing life over almost any of the mitzvot. I believe there is also a ruling somewhere that says that financial hardship is a reason not to perform certain mitzvot. And there’s definitely a rabbinic doctrine of human dignity before rules whenever possible.

But that is still a powerful, powerful – and true! – statement for Rabbi Harris to make. “I was just following orders” is not an excuse for following rules that harm real people, even if the orders supposedly came from G-d.

I don’t believe that it is a mitzvah to condemn someone for their gender, their gender identity, their sexual orientation or their race. I don’t believe that HaShem actually wants that. I believe that while many of our traditions are good and should be preserved, some of them are harmful and should be set aside. Keshet, the organization that is working for full equality for LGBT Jews, has a signature drive called Do Not Stand Idly By, a pledge to speak out against homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and harassment in the Jewish community. (By the way, I urge you to sign it.)

I’m now going to switch to a discussion of Rabbi Kushner’s book How Good Do We Have To Be? that I referenced in another post, because Kushner also has some important things to say about this whole rule-bound thing.

I quote:

“To say that we are destined to lose G-d’s love or to go to Hell because of our sins is not a statement about us but about G-d, about the tentative nature of G-d’s love and the conditional nature of G-d’s forgiveness. It is a claim that G-d expects perfection from us and will settle for nothing less […] I strenuously reject [this idea]. If I am capable of forgiveness, of recognizing intermittent weakness in good people or good intentions gone astray in myself and others, how can G-d not be capable of at least as much?”

Too many times, people who cling to every rule teach us that everything about us is sinful, that we are sinners, that we are fundamentally wrong because we are not obeying each and every rule and performing every mitzvah perfectly. Kushner and Harris are both arguing against this “marriage to the rules” instead of “paying attention to the people” mindset; Harris by saying that there’s no “I was just following orders” defense for harming people through obeying rules, and Kushner pointing out that G-d does not demand that we be perfect in order to be loved.

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, in his Orthodox-flavored tome Judaism for Everyone, points out that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is better than doing the wrong thing for the right reasons:

“[J]udaism insists that one must do a good deed even if it stems from improper or insincere motivation. Refraining from doing a good deed because we question our intention is the piety of fools.”

Kushner also points out this important fact: Religion, at its best, does not exist to carp at us and make us feel inadequate, or guilty, or wrong. It exists (or should) to tell us that even in our imperfection we are welcome. Even in our flawed humanness, we are acceptable.

We have a choice between being self-righteous and taking comfort in being the ones who do everything perfectly and perform all the mitzvot and never transgress a commandment (as impossible as that probably is), or in being the ones who trip, make mistakes, do dumb things, fall down, and get up again and make amends. Certainly the idea is not to say “Well, I can’t even try to perform X mitzvah” – but it is important to recognize, I think, whether some mitzvot are also gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness), or if they are simply relics of a time when the rules were more important than the people.

And then the question becomes: given the choice between following mitzvot that harm others (which, for me, is the same as standing idly by while our brothers’ blood is shed) or treating people with kindness, tolerance, and acceptance – well, which do you think is more important to HaShem in the long run? Which choice truly seeks to serve justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with our G-d?

I know my answer. Do you?

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