Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Pecking Order

Those of you who are close to me know that recently I had my tire slashed in the synagogue parking lot. (I park there,sometime even when I am not in the building, because it is close to our house and in view of my kitchen window.) And while I can’t know the motive of the culprits, I do know it was purposeful as evidenced by the one-plus-inch wide puncture in my sidewall. (I am not so bad a driver as to be able to run over a foreign object with my sidewall.) I reported it to the police and an officer politely took a report. I called my insurance company, but since the repair was less than my deductible-they offered some sympathetic words, some paper work and little else. I asked my mechanic if I should show the tire to the officer, as the slice was much more visable once the tire was removed. He seemed embarassed to tell me he didn't think much would happen.

Not so long ago we had a guest speaker come to the synagogue. Her name is Eva Schloss and she is an author of The Promise and Eva’s Story, both about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Like her stepsister, Anne Frank, Eva was found in hiding and taken to a camp at 15 years old. During her speaking engagement, one of the questions asked was “Do you think this could happen again?" Her answer was not only that it could, but also that it seemed likely. The worries she sighted for the Jewish people in the world today parallel the ones she saw in Nazi Germany: the difficult economic decline, the increase in anti Semitic overtures, and the acceptance of people wanting to play the ‘blame game’.

Schloss also told us about Nazi officers, who had escaped and never faced trials like Nuremberg and were interviewed years later. Not only had they not apologized, or even offered feeble excuses,as some citizens had, she told us of one man, who when asked if he had any regrets, was quoted as saying only that they hadn’t been able to finish the job!

Online and in social situations, more recently, I have seen more infighting among Jewish people, than I care to. (Sometimes this is based on denomination, sometimes not.) A woman I know fairly well belongs to a synagogue that is independent, which means they have members of more than one denomination. This presents, what I can only imagine are some remarkable challenges. But who would have guessed that one of the challenges would be infighting and back biting among members.

More recently, a friend of mine posted on FB that she dreamed she had married to a conservative Rabbi. (She is Orthodox.) This post led to a good deal of congratulations and good-natured joking… at first. Then some of the comments started to lean toward the aggressive, the judgemental and, I thought, a little mean. I even began to wonder if this was the purpose of the post, however, this doubt is more a reflections of my state of mind and a harsh social climate, rather than any fault of my FB friend.

I understand the urge to be proud of one’s identity-but are we so separate? Do we have to be? I recall that old adage that ‘anyone less religious than me is a heretic and anyone more religious, a fanatic’. But it also occurs to me that in Eva’s books, or in any other account I have ever read of the Holocaust, no one ever asked about a Jewish person’s affiliation before the victims were carted off and locked up, or worse.

One need only read a list of headlines to see that incidences of anti Semitism are on the rise. And, just as effectively, read the nasty comments left on related online articles. People are quite vocal about their beliefs, especially negative ones. And it is no secret that anti-Zionism has become the new anti-Semitism. One need only blame their hatred of an entire people on perceived political ideals and imagined injustices.

During a recent meeting (whose purpose will remain nameless, as it doesn’t really matter) I saw two people arguing with each other in a way that would make you think they were enemies rather than those with a common goal. One of my colleagues remarked before she left-that someone should tell people- “We DO have enemies, and they are NOT the people in this room!!

(So I am.) Ahavas Yisrael

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


In the news, whether politics, current events, or celebrity following, “shame” seems to be the word. People seem to have lost the ability to discuss or debate an event or topic, or plainly just refuse. When we see celebrity news in even limited amounts, it tends toward the use of drugs, relationship failure, threats of jail, or drunkenness. It titillates. Not so much is even made of who won an award or their work as a whole.

Even much has been made of shame in child rearing. I can’t tell you how many times as a teacher I have heard variations of the theme that all ‘so and so’ really needed was a ‘kick in the pants’. When in truth, most of the time children who needed the most guidance had very clearly been kicked enough.

The Rabbis say, “Whoever shames his fellow person in public has no share in the world to come. He is one of those who will go down to Gehinnom and never come up again.” Shame is, of course, closely related to Lashon Hora.

“Shaming” is described as a “whitening of the face.” Can someone die of embarrassment? It seems unlikely, however, because of the comparison of the blood draining from the face and causing the person to go pale as well as the damage to their reputation in the community, shaming is compared to murder.

Leviticus 19:17 tells us, “You shall surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him.” Notice that it doesn’t say you should shame him, nor does it say you should talk about him to the general public. His errors should not be expounded upon, or speculated upon, and certainly not for entertainment purposes or to further a cause. It does not say, either, that he is answerable to you. Rashi’s interpretation is that we are to have a stand against sin, but not shame the sinner. This sounds like a delicate balance.

One example of how this may be achieved is the story of Tamar who recounts the pledge she had from her father-in–law, Judah, but not that they had had relations. Another example is when Joseph revieled himself to his brothers in Egypt. He did this without on lookers and only out of absolute necessity. His brothers had sold him into slavery only after abandoning a plot to kill him, so if he wanted to shame them, he clearly had a lot to work with. So did Tamar. Tamar’s relationship with Judah resulted in a pregnacy. Aditionally, she had the proof of the belongings he had left behind and the rather scandulious fact that he had mistaken her for a ‘harlot’.

There once was a beautiful custom of woman wearing borrowed clothes on Yom Kippur when unmarried men would be looking for brides. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, "… the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such.” Given the current economy, perhaps this is worth remembering. Further, we are also not allowed to speak ill, even of the dead. "One who shames those who sleep in the dust has also committed a grave sin."

We know that it is human nature to measure a person against our own yardstick, and since they are not us, find them wanting. How quick are we to ‘tell some home truths’ once we are angry? How anxious to pontificate about someone’s perceived shortcomings, especially when things don’t go our way? How hasty are we in joining in? But the parameters are clear. We are not to shame someone for being not as smart or not as wealthy or not as educated, as we would like him or her to be. We are not to shame people for owing us money, past offences, ancestry, or personal weakness. There are rules of etiquette built around this, too numerous to name here.

And if we believe that Gehinnom is a spiritual condition, rather than a place, then maybe the point is that shaming someone not only harms the target and both their reputation and connection to the community, but we harm ourselves, spiritually and socially, when we undertake these behaviors. And that’s a shame.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Are you talking to ME?

“Are you talking to me? Are you talking to ME?” who can forget this famous line forged by the character of Travis Bikle of Taxi Driver fame. They have been repeated over and over in comedic content and in drama. How often in writing do we see ourselves, and wonder that? So many stage plays and novels begin with a standard disclaimer of denial of real persons, places, or things. Good writing, we are told is universal; it appeals to a wider audience and holds some agreed upon, universal truths that speak to us all.

And aren’t Drushas, in part, good writing? Or at least good speaking? I have had some of my best conversations of the week just outside of out Shul because of the Rabbi’s Drusha. I have even asked myself, sometimes kidding and some times less so, if the Drusha was about me. Is he talking about me being… impatient? Judgmental? Unkind? Might I have treated someone unfairly? Some might find this type of introspection upsetting.

It was recently remarked to me that ‘people want uplifting messages’ and that maybe true. But is really the job of a good Rabbi to make us all only feel good about ourselves? And is he responsible for any discomfort people experience at all?

Judaism has specific rules for specific situations and though some customs change from place to place the rules do not. Nor does custom ever replace the rules. It is the job of a spiritual advisor to let you know about these rules. Try not to shoot the messenger. Every discussion, like every pancake, has two sides. For example, when there is a dispute about how something should be done and the Rabbi tells everyone what the rules are, there is always going to be a ‘side’ that didn’t get what he or she wants. I repeat, try not to shoot the messenger. And don’t ask your friends to shoot him either. Rabbis don’t just arbitrarily make up rules. And they DO have to be sure the rules are followed in the synagogue. It is up to you to decide to follow them in your own life.

The Rabbi often reminds us a this time of year, with the High Holiday on the horizon, that it is human nature to easily turn a critical eye toward our fellow man, but difficult, at best, for us to aim that all seeing lens at ourselves.

So, to be clear, he is talking to you…maybe through some universal truth, maybe by offering to educate you on some rule or custom you hadn’t known about, or maybe by giving you the means to become more introspective. But you cannot really hold any one other human being responsible for your internal dialogue or your journey or whatever processes you are going through. He can offer support and spiritual guidance.

The Torah is about behavior-and the Drusha is about the Torah, if it makes you regard your own behavior with a critical lens then perhaps it is not about you personally, but IT IS ABOUT YOU because it speaks to you. And that makes it a really good Drusha.

Friday, June 24, 2011

“The world rests on three things: justice, truth, and peace" (Avot 1:18)

What a peaceful world it might be, if even in the face of opposing view points, without politicing…people rested their arguments on the topic at hand in a direct and respectful manner. More often than not, reasonable people could find reasonable solutions. One need only regard the nightly news to find sensationalizing of current events, false analogies and character assasinations that all but completely veil the original and true concerns.

Consider recent political news: A new flotilla of Pro Palestienian activists is ready to set sail and try to break through Israel’s navel blockade. Brg. Gen. Yoav Mordechai has said on Israel Radio, “There is an unequivocal directive from the government to enforce the navel blockade that is recognized by international law, and we will not allow it to be broken.” News of the proposed fotilla comes nearly a year after the flotilla, where nine were killed, and Israel has already warned of a potential use of force, yet activist set to participate still insist on refering to themselves as “peace activists”. Is there really any doubt as to their true agenda?

Further, consider the proposed ban on circumsision in San Fransisco. Is it really about children’s rights, as ‘intactavists’ claim or is it a ban intent on hindering the practice of Judasim? The writer of the proposed ban in SF, Mathew Hess, is also the author of the notoriuosly anti-semetic comic “Foreskin Man”, which has been sited by the Anti Defefamation League for “gross Anti- Semetic imagery and themes.” ADL Associates representative Nancy Appel has been quoted as saying, “This is an advocacy campain taken to a new low. It is one thing to to debate it, it is another thing to degrade it. This reaches a new low and is disrespectful and deeply offensive.”

When did it become good debate or quality discussion to disparage and degrade one’s opponent? I cannot help but think that these types of tactics betray not only an argument without substance, but often an agenda and are acts of hatred. “Tale-bearing and unkind insinuations are proscribed, as is hatred of one's brother in one's heart (Lev. 19:17).”

At worst, humans fall prey to particpating in this, inadvertantly or not. At best, we can guard against it and demand facts, direct sources, and laws in support of a position, rather than emotion and hearsay. We have to trust each other with the truth and the ability to make democratic decisions. The facts should not be eclipsed or silenced by retoric. It’s okay to ‘fight’, but fighting fairly and ethically is paramount. “The reputation of a fellow man is sacred.” (Ex. 21:1).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Foreskin Man: Fanning the fires of Anti-Semitism

Okay, just as I am nearly about to concede that most people are acting primarily out of concern and information available, even if that information is sometimes misinformation, when some reprehensible creation has to prove me wrong. Enter Foreskin Man. So how like the propaganda of nineteen thirties Germany, to depict the caricature of the bad, evil, scary Jew who will do something unspeakable, with, usually, enough left unsaid that the imagination runs wild. But Foreskin Man leaves no spurious image or wearisome stereotype left to our imagining. And frankly nothing here seems to be all that mysterious.

Even the people who will decry that the Jewish people always claim anti-Semitism in the face of opposition will have a difficult time ignoring the very blond super hero “Foreskin Man” or his darker skinned and exaggerated featured nemesis, the Model Monster. Even if one could block out the less than subtle stereotypes, then enter the ridiculous gore-ifying of the religious rite beyond any recognition. The cover of the particular issue I saw shows the mother shielding the child protectively. Umm. The mother who likely called the Mohel and requested his services, you mean? Seriously. Not to mention his blood spattered shirt.

from Foreskin Man

The writer of the comic is Matthew Hess, who says that the comic is not intended to be Anti- Semitic. According to Hess, "It takes an unflinching look at the practice of circumcising children, as well as those who perform it. The characters are drawn accordingly to convey that message." If I take him at his word, then I can’t help worrying more than a little bit about what true colors and unspoken bias Mr. Hess might be unintentionally channeling through his art.

So far the Anti Defamation League has sited the comic for “grotesque antisemitic imagery and themes”. And Nancy Appel of ADL associates said, “This is an advocacy campaign taken to a new low. It is one thing to debate it, is another thing to degrade it. This reaches a new low and is disrespectful and deeply offensive." But these remarks have not kept the comic from supportive pages on Facebook or items being marketed at CafĂ© Press. (Please feel free to call them or write emails to express your displeasure.)

One can’t help but wonder about how Hess’ group, Male Genital Mutilation Bill, feels the argument is going if they are willing to resort to this type of propaganda. Not well, I’d surmise, if the comic book is any evidence. (If only there were a white, very blond, super hero with Nordic features to tell people what to think!) I’d like to believe that popular culture definitions of an issue wont make a difference, except to those most limited or on the fringe of society. But history has proved this belief wrong.

In the interest of fighting popular culture with popular culture, I recall the character of George Castanza of Seinfeld fame, who gave this advice in a sketch, “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.” If George where a real person, I would be compelled to remind him- that yes, yes it still is a lie, even if you choose to believe it.

A Cut Above?

Banning Circumcision in SF
(Warning: contains adult content)

So let me get this right…you can pierce it…you can tattoo it…and in some cases you can show it off while dancing and in others cut it off entirely! These are your rights. But what you simply cannot do is keep a covenant with G-d and have a circumcision on the eighth day of life. Hmmm. This November voters in San Francisco will have the opportunity to vote on a ban that should it pass will make it illegal to circumcise under the age of eighteen.

Normally, I shy away from making statements about the ‘war on religion’ as I have heard it stated, as it has always rung a little paranoid if not outright ‘fringe element’ in my ears, but this argument under the circumstances makes itself. Who else, after all is bound, and I do mean bound, to have one? The importance of the event is underscored in the Torah when Moses’ wife performs her son’s bris herself in Exodus. “So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his leg with it, saying, ‘you are truly a bride groom of blood to me’ “ And by doing so she saves Moses’ life as G-d was prepared to kill him for having not carried out this command.

I am also reminded of the story of Jonah and the big fish. Many people seem to gloss over the fact that Jonah ended up in the fish because he was trying to avoid what G-d asked of him. He was to go to Nineveh and foretell of its destruction. (The message stands out, that one can return to G-d, if one is sincere. This is bore out with the timing of this reading, as it takes place on the Day of Atonement.) But another message is clear as well-when G-d asks us to do something; it is not really a conversation. It seems best, with us as with Jonah, not to try to avoid his “requests”.

While arguments have been made regarding the relative health benefits of circumcision, and they are many, reduced instances of urinary infections, reduced risk of other infections such as herpes and syphilis, and the Human Papilloma Virus which causes cervical cancer in women (British Medical Journal), the fact of the matter is it that for Jewish people it is first and foremost a religious ritual.

Many laws are designed to save us from ourselves and to this I say, if you dislike the practice of circumcision, you find it wrong or inappropriate then don’t practice it. But don’t interfere with a religious obligation that you do not understand. And I know there will be arguments that people do understand…so let me say that if YOU are not obligated to have your child circumcised then don’t. But don’t force your options on the people who practice this for religious reasons and view this practice in an entirely different light. And I encourage lawmakers and others who wish to understand the practice better, to make an appointment with a Rabbi (A Jewish one-which I know sounds redundant, but I have found people who use this title and are not.) because this is a person who, having studied for years and years, understands the laws.

The arguments comparing circumcision to female genital mutilation while numerous and varied are moot, because the two are incomparable. It is an effort to sensationalize the argument and thus gain support for a law that would undermine the religious freedoms of many. The argument wants my heart to go out to women who are abused in the most indelicate and unsanitary of circumstances and it does. But I am also moved as much, in my heart and in my soul, by the thought of the tragic possibility of a Jewish man deprived of a bris.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In “Honor” of Mother’s Day

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. – Exodus 20:12

Honoring your father and your mother is a familiar and for some people seems like a relatively easy commandment to follow. On one Sunday a year in the US people flock to buy cards, flowers, candy, and other gifts in celebration of a person that, for most, is easiest to love. Sentimental memories flood the day and though media we are encouraged to spend, spend, spend, on everything from cards to diamond jewelry.

But what does it mean to Honor? First of all call your mother. I know she has probably told you this before, so do it. But also know that this is part of honoring your mother as a ‘child’ who is traveling has the obligation of keeping his/her parents from worrying by keeping in touch. So what constitutes traveling? Does it matter? In the spirit of this, in my humble opinion, one could say that keeping the parents from worrying, check in from time to time.

Other requirement toward a parent includes not speaking arrogantly to or in away to shame a parent. No one loves hubris. As a parent and former teacher I couldn’t even count the number of times a fourteen or fifteen year old had reminded me or their parents in my presence that they knew so-so much more about the world than we did. If you are of this age, be warned-this feeling will pass. And if you have done this and not been corrected, you should know it because you are surrounded by love and someone with exceedingly more patience that I have. (I was thinking that I have shoes older than you and you should stop!)

Additionally and in the same vain, a child is not allowed to contradict a parent or disturb a their sleep. Obvious emergency situations not withstanding, a fast rule from my daughter’s youth, “Never wake a sleeping adult.” What does it mean to contradict? It is similar to the above mentions speaking arrogantly, but excludes of course any dealing with any wrongdoing. For example, while a child is required to obey their parent-it is within reason. A child is NOT required to do something that would be considered a sin or against Torah. (If this is a little ‘master of the obvious’ please excuse. I want to be sure to include this rather than risk misquoting.) In this vain, a child is also NOT required to marry someone- or not marry someone based on the parent’s preference.

A child is also required to say Kaddish for a parent during the period after they have passed and on the yahrzeit each year that follows. One of my friends has a mother that he never met because she passed away shortly after childbirth. So how does he honor her? The only ways that he can, he continues to say Kaddish for her on her yahrzeit. One can also continue to do charity in memory of a parent and study Torah, as he does. I’ve never seen him miss a Yizkor service. A good model in honoring a parent, if ever one was needed.

The Talmud compares honoring one’s parent to honoring G-d. I would like to honor my own mother with this post. I meant to post it on Mother’s Day, but distracted myself with other things. One of the friends of my youth once said that sometimes the thing that we least want to do is the thing we need to do most. So here it is, better late than never I suppose. In memory of a woman who in my few short years with her influenced me most,in Honor of the person who made me a person.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Passed agreements about Tznius

A “push up” bikini top for girls was recently in the news. Abercrombie and Fitch market the product, and that wouldn’t be so weird if the product were not literally for girls, little girls, starting at around age seven. Ick.

Passed the shock of parents and other concerned groups, shouldn’t Abercrombie and Fitch be asking who, which designer and which marketing wiz thought that this was a reasonable, nay, even good idea? I think the company should take a much, much closer look.

There maybe on going discussions and disagreements about what in particular is appropriate clothing based on any number of variables. But I think at some places in the road, there is common ground. And I think this might be it. Whether we agree with modest dress or not, and passed all arguments of the fault of the media and blaming parents and/or schools in general, I think most of us agree that sexualizing little girls is wrong.

The problem with a product like this according to Professor Gail Dines of Wheelock College is “It gets young girls to think about themselves in sexual ways before that’s developmentally appropriate.” And as if this were not problematic enough, the negative effects are not limited to girls according to Dines, “It sends out really bad signals to adult men about young girls being appropriate sexual objects, objects of sexual desire for young men.” (WHDH-TV3/25/2011)

First, let me say that I don’t want to give Abercrombie and Fitch any undue press. I think that would only further the insanity. What I would like is a solution or at least an answer. Perhaps parents and others would be willing to contact the company either via email @ or by visiting the manager of their local store. It may seem like these small acts do not amount to much, however, people who answer email and who work in stores have to be paid, generally by the hour, and you and twenty other people like you are going to cost the company time and money. If it cost enough money, perhaps they will find that marketing items to sexualize young girls is not only creepy and amoral, but not at all cost effective.

Additionally, since the publicity the company has removed the term “push up” from their website. The product, however, is still listed.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An open letter to Jim Rizoli:

An open letter to Jim Rizoli:

I don’t readily answer ignorant matters such as these on the Internet or otherwise; I just don’t have that kind of time on my hands. But since you, Mr. Rizoli, asked to hear from the Jewish people on this matter I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are sincere. And here it is:


Having said this let me explain a few things Mr. Rizoli. Kosher is a mitzvot or commandment for the Jewish people. The markings on prepared food is a kosher certification and let’s people who practice kosher know that this food is okay to eat or drink. It is NOT a tax. It is not a vehicle for sending monies to Israel. This ignorant accusation would be the equivalent to Jewish citizens complaining that restaurants serve fish on Fridays and then announcing that “they” are likely funneling their ill-gotten fish funds to the Vatican. It’s just silly, but I think Mr. Rizoli, you know it is silly and are simply seeking to inflame people and insight anger.

Further, Mr. Rizoli, you complain that some soaps have a certification mark as well. And they do. For the same reasons that the foods do, because people use these soaps to clean in their kosher kitchens and/or wash tablecloths napkins, dishes. Why? Because they want them to remain kosher. It is a common practice. The same applies for plastic wraps and foils. There are many, many available that DO NOT have this certification. This is also true of foods. Feel free to purchase them liberally Mr. Rizoli. However, your claim that this is how “they” get more money is a ridiculous one.

Rabbis and the certification companies they work for do get paid to supervise and inspect establishments. That is their job. Much like, Mr. Rizoli, you are paid for your work. And while there are many “help” type jobs in the world such as doctors, lawyers, nurses and teachers, it is unreasonable to assume those who participates in ‘helping’ jobs should be so very committed to improving the world as to also agree not to be paid for their work. Further, Mr. Rizoli, I feel I must tell you that other people who work for the food companies in question also get paid: Shipping clerks, mailroom personnel, cooks, canners, advertising execs and graphic designers. The list goes on and on. Shocking I know, but I feel I must inform you, Mr. Rizoli. There is a chance a your corner stores, your local book store, even religious ones, are paying people who work for them!

Your stuttering, stammering, claim that if a company doesn’t pay the message is “We’re gonna do something bad to you.” Well if by bad you mean you will lose the certification, then yes because the plant needs to be inspected and comply with particular rules. Your use of the word extortion is another matter. Is the USDA extorting money by using an inspection process? Are health departments “extorting” when they inspect routinely and insist that an establishment complies with code? And do you think that this cost is absorbed and not passed on to the consumer? Really? “They force the company to put this Jewish symbol” on a product is another mistaken claim. Food companies approach the certification company; fill out the appropriate paper work; and make an appointment.

The definition of ignorance is to be uneducated, unaware, and uninformed. Ignorance is conquered with knowledge much like fire can be quenched with water. So consider yourself informed Mr. Rozoli and now that you are, you are also responsible, and in the future even culpable.

*You can contact personally Mr Rizoli at 508 875 2043

Monday, February 28, 2011

Cheshbon Hanefesh, an account of the soul

I took an IQ test once, well likely more than once, but as an adult and likely for the last time. I saw it advertised in a local paper as part of a research study and who doesn’t want to contribute to furthering science? Okay, I was grad student, predictably low on cash, and they were offering money for subjects.
At any rate taking an IQ test was a lengthy and somewhat boring affair. During one of the breaks I got up and made coffee, as we were seated in a break area. I did ask first. The interviewer said, “yes.” But she was looking at me at lot like a bug under glass. And I started to wonder what it was they were REALLY measuring. As in so many blind studies, researches often give misleading information to the subjects so as not to influence their behavior. Hmmmmm.

When I was finished I received a paper with information and a phone number. I could schedule an appointment and pick up my test results. Admittedly, I was curious. At my next meeting the doctor told me the ‘secret number’-which was satisfying. He also mentioned that the test was not valid. (Okay, I already mentioned that it was arduously long and arguable more than somewhat boring, did I not? Perhaps I should have also mentioned that arduously long and arguably boring tasks are not my strong suit.) He also mentioned that he thought I was an underachiever. My thought at first was, “Gee I could have saved us both a lot of time an effort!” But I held my tongue. Finally, I thought ‘okay I’ll bite’ and asked, “What makes you think so?”

It seem that it was my job, I was a high school teacher at the time, and my level of education, I had a Masters. Seems my numbers reflected I could have done better. My first thought was maybe this process was invalid on a number of levels! A reversal of logic and the question- “Is it possible I am too competent as a teacher?” - made him smirk, but I couldn’t help, but notice he didn’t answer. Education was another matter. When my daughter was about seven years old, I was invited to the Ph D program at my University. And while I would have liked to stay under different circumstances, mine were that I had a little girl at home who would never, ever. be little again. And I already had a full time job. I told my very understanding advisor that I just wanted to go home…

In retrospect, it occurs to me that what one person thinks is good for me cannot stand up to decisions I make for myself. How could this test know what it is I truly wanted in my life? Do I ever wish that I had finished that last program? Sure, but not at that expense. No one ever dies wishing they had spent more time away from their children, do they?

Similarly, it is a good idea to take our own spiritual inventory, (and maybe not just in the month of Elul.) And, like my helpful, friendly, if mislead, psychologist friend, it is also not such a good idea to take someone else’s. (If one is being honest, as well as human, there should be plenty to work with.) Consider your relationship to G-d. Consider your relationship to fellow humans.

What do you need? That’s right you. Are there mitzvots you want to undertake? Is there a spiritual need you have not answered? Could you be a better parent? Spouse? Perhaps keeping a journal or a small notebook would help each of us to weight, first, where we are, against, where we want to be and to create some decisive, concrete goals and bench marks along the way. If you get overwhelmed, perhaps the best idea is to try one thing at a time. When you feel like it’s on track move to the next. Knowing what one needs to do is half of the solution. Only we know when we are truly “achieving.”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Jewish Unity- Enacting Ahavas Yisrael

How often do we bicker over our differences? Is it so offensive when someone doesn’t agree with us that we MUST resort to name calling and disparaging remarks? Perhaps the later is in part the result of an electronic world in which we can say nearly anything without having to face a person, and additionally, can choose to surround ourselves with people whose comments only agree with our stand. In the real world, after all, don’t we count ourselves lucky to be told by a friend, privately and tactfully, that we may have made an error, if only to correct it.

I’ve heard it said that, “All those who are more observant than me are fanatics, all those less observant than me, heretics.” And who hasn’t lived this? And before you get too comfortable, thinking that, after all you are not really religious-so it can’t be you, let me remind you it goes both ways!

In my personal experience in the past we have been criticized as being “too religious” by members who knew of my husband’s background and his Orthodox smecah. Although he is very careful to tell people what the laws are and what one should do to prepare for particular life events, he is gentle with people. One of his favorite remarks is “I’m a teacher, not a preacher.” We regularly have a people with a number diverse practices, degrees of observance, if you will.

On the other hand judgments go the other way, too. More recently, I was asked, in a private email of course, not to comment on a page because I am not an Orthodox Jew (and hence, it was later mentioned not a “real” Jew). Also, my husband was disparaged as was my shul, which was referred to as, “Temple Beth El Shabbos Desecrator.” I could wax on, but who wants that? We all have our tale to tell. Hillel said, “What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That is the whole law, the rest is Commentary.” It sounds so simple and yet…

Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful to have debates about halaka and discussions about minigs, but discussions and intelligent argument are not the same as bandying about inflammatory remarks or name calling.

It may seem like a long look at one subject, but that’s because I think solving this problem would go a long way to solving issues of unity. It is hard to make a conscious decision to fight fair, especially when in the back of ones mind they are holding on to the idea that “we are right”! Try to put it down.There maybe more than one right approach for some things.Tomorrow the person you are disagreeing with about a kipa could be wearing one!!!

One thing we can agree on is that we are all Jewish and are commanded to “love a fellow Jew.” One way to do that is to speak to each other respectfully and try to answer our differences tactfully. It is not a slight to our own beliefs to listen to an others and share our point of view without tearing anyone down.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pray for Help, but Swim for Home!

There is a Midrash that one of my student’s once proudly repeated for me. It went something like this: There is a man in a small rowboat and big wave comes tips it over and it sinks. The man begins to pray. Shortly, a man in a fishing boat comes by an offers to help the man aboard.

“No, no,” says the man, “I’m praying for G-d to save me and I am sure he will.”

So the fisherman shrugs his shoulders and the boat goes away. The man has been treading water for quite some time and he is beginning to tire, when a sailboat comes by. The party on the sailboat offers to take the man aboard and sail him to the safety of the shore.

“No, no,” the man says, “I have faith that G-d will save me…” and he continues to tread water.

As he is treading water and the waves start to rise. A dingy comes by flinging and dipping in the waves of the impending storm. When the dingy stops a man on board offers him a ride to shore. Predictably the man declines. As the storm rages the man goes under and drowns. When the man appears before G-d he says, “I had faith. I believed in you. And I prayed and prayed. Why didn’t you save me?”

And G-d replies, “Well, I sent you three boats!”

I had an acquaintance as an undergrad in college. She was a born again Christian and was in recovery from drug use. She told the story over and over about how “the J man” had saved her and changed her life. (I think the story was designed and repeated to encourage us all to join her in this newfound faith.) Till finally in exasperation, a mutual friend said, “Yeah, I think stopping smoking crack and hanging around with drug dealers didn’t hurt anything either.”

This sounds like a harsh indictment and truly I was glad for and impressed at my classmates ability to not only stay off drugs, and to completely change her life around, including attending college. (“Who is strong? He who subdues his passions.”) And I have to say that I do believe in G-d’s hand in all things and the power of prayer, but sometimes we also have to be responsible for our choices, our free will, another gift from G-d. It is an ongoing paradox; we have free will and we have Divine determinism. We have to help ourselves in our development, in our lifestyle, and take on some personal responsibility. Not everyone starts out on an even playing field; this is understood. But as adults, young and old, we face challenges and we choose how to respond to them. G-d allows us opportunities. And we decide what to make of them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Number nine of the BIG ten, the most universally known of the commandments, or statements, since there are, after all, 613 commandments. And number nine sounds simple enough doesn’t it? A command that you wont “lie on” someone, as we used to say as kids.

While teaching, one of my friends gave an example of bearing false witness that went something like this:

“What if the window as broken and the Rabbi came and asked ‘Who broke the window?’”

“Assume Josh was standing near and window. And the window was broken, but you didn’t see Josh break the window. Then you cannot say, ‘Josh broke the window.’ Understand?”

One of the other students, a young girl, piped up, “What if we THINK Josh broke the window?”

“If you didn’t see it, then you can’t tell the Rabbi that it was him,” the teacher answered.

“What if I saw Josh and he was really mad that morning?” the young girl persisted.

“If you tell that it was him and you didn’t see it, no. That would be bearing false witness.” And so on.

Toward the end of the discussion, the girl cocked her head in thought for a moment. She recalled that the kitchen window in the synagogue had been broken some months ago. It was found to be an act of vandalism. The police had been involved. Having put together this teaching example and an actual occurance she asked, “Was Josh the one that broke the kitchen window?”

We laughed a little bit about it afterward. “Why is she so interested in believing that Josh broke a window?” The teacher asked aloud. I think the answer and the incident goes a long, long way toward a deeper understanding of the commandment not to bear false witness. The experience says something on a larger scale about our make up, our human nature, that makes us SO inclind to want to blame; even when presented with information that the story was not true-from the original source-the little girl wanted to find her friend guilty. Or at least press hard enough and give enough unfavorable information, for someone else to…

Pehaps that is why we are also reminded to “judge everyone favorably”. Because we so NEED to be reminded.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What is a Rebbetzin?

Someone recently asked me. She is a friend of a woman who friended me. A quick look at her profile confirmed what I already knew. She is not Jewish. I have to admit my radar went up. How often is a question not really a question? I didn’t know whether to brace myself for an argument. A religious one. Again.

But first I tried a sensible and levelheaded response: I answered. As best I could anyway. I typed, “A Rebbetzin means literally the wife of a Rabbi. It is a Yiddish word. Generally speaking, a Rebbetzin is very involved in the community and helps her husband serve.” That seemed to sum it up I thought. Although it seems to be a definition of ‘Rebbetzin Light’.

I admit I half expected my questioner to remark that it is not a real position-much like being a mother is discounted as not being a real job. (Yet how many of us would chose this one over another?) And I guess to some degree it is not. There is no pay as a Rebbetzin. I have never seen a help wanted advertisement looking for Rebbetzins. And there is no hard and fast job description, only expectation.

Generally speaking one is always equated with her husband’s job. But besides that our life and by extension our definition of ourselves becomes very much connected to the synagogue, the Hebrew school, and spiritual life. People ask us questions: about Kashrut, about holidays, about weddings, about just about anything that comes up whether in daily living or in Torah study. (Not to suggest that these are mutually exclusive). And we answer them when it is appropriate and other times we call in the big guns-we suggest the person speak to the Rabbi. We visit the sick, we teach, we cook at the Shul and at home, we have guests for holidays, we participate in the sisterhood and other organizations much like other people.

We help the Rabbi remember things…”This Thursday begins a new month,” we might say, in case he might need reminding to bench Rosh Hodesh. We might keep extra kipas in our purse. We might recommend stores or write letters of complaint to companies on questionable kosher or make suggestions to larger chains to carry products we can actually use or write letters to the editor about stupid, anti-Semitic remarks. Some Rebbetzins write advice columns; some have public speaking engagements; some, like me, just keep the occasional blog and live a relatively less public life.

There is a story, a modern Midrash if you will, that one of my acquaintances told me long before I was a Rebbetzin. In a woman’s class someone asks the Rabbi about making egg salad. The woman asks if they put in an egg with a blood spot could they still use the salad. The Rabbi recalling some of the laws about involuntarily mixing meat and milk says a hesitant “yes,” if it is only certain percentage. A woman from the back of the room disagrees. Who is the woman? You guessed. The Rebbetzin.

In conclusion, I have to say it is difficult to define oneself in such concrete terms. I guess the result is that we, like anyone else, are defined by our actions.