Loving Leviticus, Sanctifying Everything (or Anything)

It’s a small, mostly clear drinking glass – except for the irregular, oval spots of teal and turquoise. We have a good many of them.

They match our everyday dishes, themselves a rich and soothing teal. And everything together rests quite nicely on the copper tile on the kitchen table, rimmed with turquoise all around.

My husband, Ralf, found the glasses at Ikea. He has an eye for that sort of thing. I tell anyone who works on our home that they need to drop their usual assumptions about asking the “lady of the house” for design answers. Go to the professorial-looking dude instead, I say. He’ll know exactly what to do.

Our Ikea glasses are flirty, happy little vessels. They accompany cereal (or bialys!) in the morning and my typical yogurt and fruit lunch. They fit well in my hand, contain the right amount of water, and slide easily into a row designed for glassware in my dishwasher.

Last week, one of these everyday glasses suddenly became a holy object. Then, it became a holy topic.

I frequently tell my university students that Leviticus is one of my favorite books in Torah. Typically, this elicits variant groans of incredulity. If I say such a thing at a church I am visiting, I usually receive polite looks of utter disbelief. Many in my audience are likely thanking their lucky stars that Christianity apparently did away with the need to study priestly niggling about identifying skin diseases and suchlike.

I could rely on the Holiness Code (see chapter 19) to defend myself. After all, it is Leviticus that demands that we give a pawned cloak back to its owner at night to make sure he will not freeze to death. It is Leviticus which insists that we use fair weights and measures, that we leave gleanings for the poor, that we pay laborers promptly, that we judge righteously. And so on.

Instead, I address the apparent niggling. Levitical rules, I insist, are often about making the world sacred. There are important messages in mandates around sacrifices of gratitude and wholeness, around priests securing opportunities for themselves and their people to acknowledge responsibility for wrongdoing, around making certain that God’s sanctuary is cleansed and open to God’s Presence.Leviticus teaches us the importance of doing the daily, difficult work of keeping the eternal fire going (6:2).

We need to know that each day offers us an opportunity to recognize and be thankful for life. We must make the effort to understand where we have gone wrong and to rededicate ourselves to the task of remaining upright and honest in our dealings with others. We have to recognize the chance we are given, in each hour, to keep an eternal fire going.

What is that eternal fire if not our commitment to create and nourish light in darkness? What is that light if not love?

In the last days of March, our son, Erik, came to visit us with his girlfriend, Weiwei. Weiwei comes from China. She, like Erik, is a doctoral student in theoretical chemistry at the University of Chicago.

We met Weiwei last December. I had emailed with her quite a good deal. During our week together, Ralf and I learned more about this beautiful, brilliant woman. We four walked a bit in the North Carolina mountains. We made meals together. We went to an opera and listened to Jewgrass musician Andy Statman. Live.

We shared a home.

Every morning, Ralf, Erik, and I had a cup of Assam tea. For these we used the teal mugs that go with our dishes. Every morning, Weiwei took a polka-dotted glass from the shelf and poured herself a glass of water.

Last Friday morning, I took Erik and Weiwei to the airport and came home to many pre-Shabbat tasks. I walked in the door and saw the remnants of our breakfast on the table. I took away the dishes and the napkins. I folded the newspaper and removed the magazines. I wiped the table.

But I could not move Weiwei’s glass.

I washed sheets and blankets and swept the house. I wiped down counters and scrubbed the bathtubs. I sorted all the elements of life lived together back into their appropriate drawers and closets.

I left the glass where it stood.

The glass stood for the week we had shared together, for the introduction of a wholly new element in our family life. It represented that something sacred and holy had happened; we had become a different family that week.

For all of Shabbat, the glass stood on the kitchen table like an offering of thanks. Only when Shabbat was over did I pour the water away. It was a kind of libation.

During Torah study I told congregants about that glass.

“Leviticus,” I said, “helps us invest and transform the world. It teaches us that there are categories of sacredness and that we can hallow everyday things. Rituals of cleansing, honoring, and sanctifying connect us with the holiness of life itself.”

So, I suggest again that we learn from Leviticus.

We can make the world holy by whatever means are at hand – including an ordinary, polka dotted glass of water.

All You Need is Love

It’s February, the month of love. Valentine’s Day has passed, proposals have been made and accepted, and for those who are planning spring and summer weddings, it is rush season.

I’ve met with three couples in the past three weeks to plan their nuptials.

I love the work; I am hopelessly romantic. I always believe that the couples I am working with will live happily ever after. I imagine them in their old age remembering their ceremony and the little rabbi who stood before them with kind and affectionate commentary. “Remember when she told us to kiss a little longer? Wasn’t that cute?”

So far, only one couple I was involved with hasn’t stayed together. I comfort myself with the fact that I was more or less a sidekick in that ceremony, present to give a blessing to two former students. Both were practicing Christians, though I do not thing this had much to do with the fact that they moved to Splitsville within a year or so of settling at Wedding Bliss.

Certainly, I have learned a lot doing these ceremonies.

I have learned, for example, that it is Most Silly to send a small boy down an aisle with an empty pillow and call said boy a “ring bearer.” I understand the problem: Neither the groom nor the bride can be expected to trust a five year old with diamonds and white gold.

Suggestion?  Forget the fluffy pillow. Instead, have that endearing little boy walk down the aisle with his grandmother. He will be much cuter than the pimply teenager you thought of asking, and grandma will make certain he makes it down the aisle by applying a firm grip to his little hand.

Typically, there is also some lovely little girl who is given a basket of rose petals to toss about. I will never forget the three-year-old who stopped ten feet from the aisle, offloaded all the petals in a heap at her feet and then squatted down to pick some up. It was great fun to watch grown-up women waving from the first row and calling out in high-pitched tones: “Brittany, go to Mommy now!”

Not all children are willing to accommodate the adult need to find them adorable.

By the by: You want adorable? Then please find that little girl a dress that will not slip off her little shoulders. You have no idea how often I see a four-year-old girl with a wardrobe malfunction á la Janet Jackson.

Make sure you have enough music. At one wedding I officiated, the D.J. didn’t realize that the Beatle’s “All You Need is Love” simply would not cover the exit for the happy couple as well as twenty (yes, you read this right) bridesmaids and groomsmen. Three attendants on each side were left standing in a deafening silence after the last “love is all you need” faded out. Awkward.

I have oodles more to say about women of all ages yanking at strapless dresses and bridesmaids hanging on the elbows of men they don’t know and may not like all that much. I have seen the Realization of Imminent Disaster as bridesmaids made ready, in outdoor settings, to navigate grassy aisles in spiky high heels. People invent funny ways of walking at weddings.

But I shall cease declaiming. It’s February, and just after Valentine’s Day. Instead, I will indulge my super-soft romantic spot and remind all couples in the world, whatever your age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, of the Important Stuff.

Honor the hours before the wedding, don’t just rush through them. Take stock of the fact that your life is about to change enormously, no matter how long you have known your beloved. Consider the time under that chuppah sacred. Consider your marriage holy. It is.

May it be sweet and richly blessed with all you need… love.

Valentine’s Day — Jewish Style

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. Now: Imagine having a Valentine’s Day each and every week. That, folks, is totally Jewish.

I explained this fact to a young couple who recently began conversion classes with me. We were chatting after services were over. We’d all chanted the Kiddush and the motzi and had started noshing on little miniature cheesecakes and other delectables.

I asked them if they knew about the “special rules” about Shabbat practice.
They did not. So, in very gentle language I spoke about the way Judaism encourages intimacy. “Intimacy,” I said, “creates bonds. Torah tells us that a husband has to make sure his wife is, um, regularly made happy so the bond is strengthened and renewed. The husband’s obligation is good for their entire life, even when there is neither the possibility nor the wish to have children. It’s a double mitzvah on Shabbat!” I smiled.

They got the idea. They smiled. Our temple’s Director of Religious Services, who had joined the conversation, also smiled.

Said director decided to help out by summarizing Talmudic discussions about exactly how happy a man had to make his wife each week. I noticed that she did this with a certain verve.

Just in case you need a refresher, here’s the text: “The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of R. Eliezer” (M. Ketubot 5:1).

The rabbis also insisted that loving couples should be nude during intimacy. Otherwise, the husband must divorce his wife so she can find a righteous dude who knows how to behave in bed: “R. Joseph learnt: Her flesh implies close bodily contact, viz, that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes. This provides support for [a ruling of] R. Huna who laid down that a husband who said, ‘I will not [perform conjugal duties] unless she wears her clothes and I mine’, must divorce her and give her also her ketubah” (Ketubot 48a).

Some rabbinic direction even includes how to progress through foreplay. I am not kidding. In the spirit of Rabbi Hillel, I say unto you: Go, and google.

Why did the rabbis decide it was especially meritorious to be intimate on Shabbat? They were especially concerned about balancing the need for study with the need for a family life. Some came to the conclusion that once a week was essential for scholars, and that since all work stopped on Shabbat, Shabbat was the perfect time for play.

Rashi calls the “Sabbath a night of enjoyment, relaxation and physical pleasure” (Rashi commentary on Ketubot 62b). Elsewhere Rashi advocates that not only scholars, but laypeople also should engage in this practice Friday nights (Rashi to Niddah 17a).

The rabbis claim’ that if a woman is the first to achieve “satisfaction” and becomes pregnant, she will surely give birth to a boy who would be a Torah scholar. Harumph, I say. The child could be a girl who might grow up to be a rabbi…

When we had concluded our explication of the double mitzvah deal on Shabbat, I turned around to get some more cheesecake.

I cast my eye upon the remains of the challah.

When we had unveiled the challah, I certainly had noticed it was in the shape of a heart and had raised it high for everyone to see. I exclaimed about its general liveliness. Crowded by the many children, I hadn’t much paid attention to the details.

Go back and look at the picture above. That was our challah.

I don’t know about you, but that has to be the most curious arrow I have ever seen.

I pointed this out to my Director of Religious Services.

“What does that look like to you?” I asked.

“It’s an arrow,” she said. “No, wait, no, um, oh my,” she said. “Oh my.”

I pointed it out to the treasurer, who began giggling uncontrollably. When she could control herself, she asked: “Should I tear it off?”

I won’t repeat what I said in that moment. You might find it rather unrabbi-like.

On the way home, in the cold and the dark, I looked at the stars twinkling overhead. I was happy that we had had a challah like that at our oneg. I hoped that whoever had made it, male or female, had gone home that very Friday night to a beloved, male or female, and engaged in an intimate pursuit of happiness.

Love, and its beautiful expression, should be a double mitzvah at any time.

Happy Valentine’s Day.  Happy Shabbat.

Kristallnacht 2013

My fondest memories of the times I lived in Germany are about the nation’s luxurious thermal baths.  Most of these locales feature a number of near-sinful ways to get wet and happy.

Take the Kristall Sauna Wellnesspark in the German state of Thüringen.  This particular destination includes one bathing pool with mineral salts, one which features fresh spring water, and another with a good bit of natron water for special healing of body, soul and skin.  There are twelve different kinds of saunas, including a “gem sauna,” a “rose quartz sauna,” a “crystal sauna” and a “hay sauna” (heat produced by burning horse feed – seriously?).  The saunas also feature a range of temperatures as well as significant and pleasing differences in décor.

As you would expect, there is also a lovely restaurant and a sauna bar where, the website tells you, you may enjoy “leckere” (delicious) cocktails and “wellness beverages.”

Okay, you get it.  Geo-thermal hedonism on a grand scale.

Here’s the kicker.  In the gut, if you please.

This very thermal bath house recently ran an advertisement for a special event.  It was described as a “lange romantische Kristall-Nacht” (long, romantic, crystal night).

You have to be pretty ignorant (or deeply disengaged) to be German and not react – even if you are a youngish person.  The words “crystal” and “night” are indelibly joined in German history.  Together, they have become the name for a nation-wide pogrom against the Jews of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in which dedicated Nazis destroyed over two hundred and fifty synagogues and countless stores and homes. Thirty-thousand German Jewish men were dragged off to Dachau.

But please, excuse me.  This is not actually the whole kick in the gut.  

This special event was scheduled for November 9, which is actually the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Laugh or cry?

To their credit, the Kristall Sauna Wellnesspark issued an abject apology.

We would like to offer our unreserved apology for the insensitive nomenclature we used for our event on Nov. 09, 2013.  OF COURSE that was patently inappropriate.  One timid attempt at an explanation: Many of our events receive the affix ‘Kristall’ because of our company branding.  That is what happened here, too.  We regret this thoroughly, and it goes without saying that this was ENTIRELY unintentional – and believe us, we are quite ashamed ourselves that we made this mistake.

The name of the event has been changed to “the long romantic night.”

So where do we stand on the eve of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht?

Not so good, where remembering, acknowledging, and honoring this particular attempt at genocide is concerned.

My students (including the Jewish ones) have actually been exposed to so much thinly presented material on the Shoah that they enter college convinced that the murder of 12 million souls was a “really bad thing.”  But not something that they can distinguish much from other “bad things” that have happened in history.  They have learned that there were certain groups that were persecuted, but they know absolutely nothing of the history of European antisemitism that set the stage for the murder of six million Jews.

Understanding the implications of the Holocaust has now been reduced to a generic argument about being nice.  Ask my students and they will tell you that the Holocaust teaches us how important it is to be tolerant of people who are different. 

I bet that if they had seen this ad in English, they would not have reacted at all – either to laugh or to cry, because they don’t know enough to be aware of the pivotal importance of Kristallnacht.
Look: I do not believe that the way to strengthen Jewish identity is by repeating, ad nauseam (literally) the horrors of the Holocaust.
 Nor do I believe that we need to assume the worst in this case (that Germans still have not accepted responsibility for what happened under Hitler).
Maybe we can laugh about this. When I told my 22-year-old son about this little gaffe, he remarked dryly, “Gee, do you suppose the decorations included six-pointed stars?”

But the kind of laughter evoked here is the bitterest kind.  In less than seven decades, in less than the length of one human life, the Holocaust has been reduced to a nightmare of history—a really bad one, yes, but one of so many, one that is indistinguishable from any other.

The kind of self-indulgence these thermal baths represent is eclipsed – by far – by the self-indulgence of human beings who would rather not contend with the dark and complex questions the Holocaust presents.  One wonders if we can ask those questions in a way that leads us to learn something – as a species.  Permanently and indelibly.

 

The Revolving Door

I know. You think I’ve forgotten you. You think I have no more adrenaline, let alone drash. You have given up.

Little do you know how often I have thought of you these past months. Scraps of paper with things I wanted to say, things I wanted to tell you, have long since turned into scribbles that are longer comprehensible to me. I have had to throw out many such notes in the past weeks.

Let me explain. It was a spring and summer in which I lived life in a revolving door. On the one side, life. On the other side, death.

Judaism allows me to honor this fact: Death of a beloved leaves an indelible mark.

Death has a sting; it transforms the living. Judaism asks us to remember the dead as a matter of course. Remembering is built into our liturgical year.

I think we do this, in part, to invite transformation. We sit shiva, we mark shloshim, we travel through a year of Kaddish, we acknowledge yahrzeits, we attend Yizkor services.

Today, a grieving husband told me: “It creeps up on you. You never know when it is going to strike.” Yesterday, he said, he sat down to dinner alone. “She wasn’t there. I cried.”

That terrible wave of recognition can stop your breath at any time.  It can freeze life inside the reality of death.

On April 28, my friend Anne went to the doctor for a stomach problem; she was told cancer had run amuck in five organs. She died within weeks.

She had decided to forego treatments that could give her more time.

“What do I want to do,” she asked me. “Throw up all the time? Be too sick to talk or think? I’ve seen friends do that. Not me.”

Anne was one of the most irreverent, acerbic Christians I ever knew. She complained that God was taking too much time to take her. She told me she wanted visitors who could tell her a good joke. She said she’d wanted doctors with a sense of humor.

“So much for that,” she remarked dryly.

Anne left this word with grace. She filled it with grace.

We lost Ruth, too, after years of struggle with ever more regular blood transfusions. The last time I saw her, I fed her mashed bananas to mask the bitterness of the medication she had just taken.

In those last days she reached out to me like a child. I wasn’t always sure she knew what she was doing. I responded as if she needed me to hold her, just in case she did.

It was a spring and summer of loss and life.

One of our congregants is quite unexpectedly expecting again. We named her first child a little more than a year ago. Now her son, Anderson, is walking, a sturdy blond boy.

His mother, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, is a woman whose ebullience and generosity heals. Alone her presence gives life. Her children, I think and pray, will take after her.

Forgive me my absence; I was learning lessons about death and life.

 

On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day: Contending, Again, with the Road to Hell

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be that man,” one of my students said.

“No, look,” I said. “I didn’t say anything. Why should I? He was doing what he thought is right. He was trying to save souls.”

But even as I said it, I knew I was still angry.

That day, a lovely spring day, I’d gone to get some groceries. On the way back to my car, a well-dressed man of around thirty-something approached me with a flyer. The flyer depicted Jesus carrying a cross, bleeding, in pain. The next picture showed Jesus nailed to it. Bleeding, in pain. It advertised a local passion play production.

“I’m Jewish,” I said. And for the first time ever, I pulled out the heavy stuff. “And a rabbi, to boot.”

“We don’t make any distinctions,” he said. “We reach out to everyone.”

I made a polite mumble out of “thanks, but no thanks,” and got into my car. But I couldn’t even leave the parking lot. I had to drive to its outskirts and call my husband, Ralf.

“I told him I was Jewish,” I said. “He makes no distinctions. When can we have some distinctions, please? After almost two thousand years of eviction, oppression, and forcible conversion, can we not have some distinctions? We’ve been strung up and nailed up and gassed. Hell,” I said. “Oh, hell.”

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.

Even now, after years of loving and intense interfaith work in the South, I find the Easter season the most difficult time of the year. The crosses on the church lawns, the purple fabrics, and the signs and billboards announcing theatrical renditions of the last hours of Christ—they trigger an old exhaustion in me. I see them and think of the history I teach.

Easter, after all, was historically a dangerous time of the year for European Jews. Easter was often accompanied by accusations of host desecration, claims of blood libel, the replay of the “Christ-killers” epithets and of the attendant mob violence.

Every year I teach mostly Christian students about the history of antisemitism. I also go to one church after another each year. I keep hoping to establish relationships based on understanding that God does not and will not ever need a translator. (If God couldn’t hear humanity pray in any language, then I would have nothing to say to Her.)

Each and every semester I am appalled at the apparent ignorance of my own students, who claim, that all this is completely, utterly new to them. Can it be?

“Can it be?” I ask. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Jewish crowd willingly accepted the blood of Jesus on their heads and the heads of their children (27:25). Has anyone counted the churches that don’t quote Matthew during Easter as the story is retold? How many churches in America actively, openly name and repudiate this verse for the immeasurable harm it has done for centuries? Which of my Christian students have never, ever heard or read the verses in John in which Jews are labeled the children of the devil?

I know, I know. We bypass, don’t feel, ignore. Most of our living lives, we are completely indifferent to the pain of others. Me, too.

The verses I’ve quoted don’t feel all that real to my students. They don’t associate their texts with Jews they might know. And when they get exposed to the history of antisemitism, they want – badly – to disconnect that tale of woe from any implications where their own religious training has been concerned.  I would probably do the same in their shoes.

Typically, our semesters are challenging. Just as typically, we get where I hope we will go. Whatever I teach always has the same agendas anyway: To demonstrate to my students how little we know about each other (that “each other” includes all of humanity, by the by).  To teach them that humility is – devoutly – wished for in this or any world. To become better people as a result of our education. That is the only education that matters.

Whether they are studying biblical scripture or biblical times, whether we are looking at Jewish feminism or antisemitism, whether we are confronted with the beautiful, the bad, or the ugly, does not matter. We can all do with regular does of humility. We can all be reminded to try and love each other in a way that does not insist on eradicating our diversity.

And yet, if I am honest, I am tired. I am tired of the facts, of the evidence. Six million Jews died within living memory and swastikas still adorn shirts and flags. There are those who still claim Hitler never killed anyone. One million Jewish children were mercilessly murdered and churches around the world still quote Matthew. Passion plays in Europe still depict Jews as Christ-killers and all the old stereotypes and clichés are alive both there and across the Middle East.

The man in the parking lot meant well. But some of the roads to hell are paved with good intentions. Someday, the hell that has resulted from centuries of so many well-intentioned Christians trying to eradicate any belief but theirs must itself be acknowledged.

How will we make real peace on earth otherwise? And is that not the truest and best intention – for all of us?

Little Torah

Every year, I read The Tattooed Torah by Marvell Ginsburg to the children of our Religious School.

“It’s a true story,” I say.

Of course, as a historian, I also know we argue all day about what makes for a “true” story. We can argue about what the word “truth” really means. But any story can tell a truth. This one does.

The Tattooed Torah is based on a rare thing: A genuine piece of redemptive history.

Almost half a century ago, two trucks rolled up to the Westminster Synagogue in London, England. They were carrying precious cargo: 1564 Torah scrolls.

The scrolls, confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish communities in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia, had been labeled and cataloged during World War II, each “tattooed” with a number. Jews of Prague were first forced to sort and pack up the collection for the Reich. Once finished with the labor, those same Jews were sent to concentration camps and murdered.

After the war, the Torahs were rediscovered and eventually donated to the Westminster Synagogue. Over the years, the scrolls were painstakingly restored and allocated on permanent loan to newly established synagogues, retirement homes, hospitals, and youth groups around the world.

The Tattooed Torah tells the story of just such a Torah – a small one from Brno, Czechoslovakia. In the book, the “Little Torah” is restored, given a new mantle and lovingly presented to the children of an American congregation.

When I tell this story to our schoolchildren, it never fails: One of the children shyly raises a hand.

“I wish we had a Little Torah,” she (or he) says.

This spring, I found something as close as I could get and our congregation could afford – the Five Books of Moses printed on paper made to look like parchment, rolled on two decorated posts, and given an embroidered mantle just like a real scroll. Our Little Torah would be about 14 inches long. It came with a small yad (pointer) and a miniature breastplate.

I ordered. Admittedly, I was rather nonplussed when I unpacked the little Torah. It had been wrapped in newspaper. The headline that wound around the Torah (in bright pink letters): “Sex and the Modern Woman.” Above the headline was the teaser: “Bold female-oriented erotica breaks out of its brown paper wrapping.”

I had to laugh. My students come into my classes thinking that biblical scripture is a made of stories about ancient ancestor-heroes, lots of fuddy-duddy laws about skin diseases, and religious poetry punctuated by plenty of “thee’s” and “thou’s.” Maybe they are aware that the Song of Songs is replete with sexual imagery, but if so, it is regarded as an anomaly.

They find out otherwise. In Proverbs 8:30, for example, Lady Wisdom tells the reader that before the world was created, she was daily God’s “delight.” (Trust me, the word translated as “delight” has erotic overtones.) In Genesis 18:12, Sarah laughs at the idea that her elderly husband could possibly, um, offer her sexual pleasure at his advanced age.

The Torah was and remains, above all, a human creation, a human thing. So having a Bible wrapped in an article about women’s erotica seemed oddly apropos of the human experiment as a whole: Messy, unpredictable, flawed, and funny.

Nevertheless, I rewrapped the Torah in a nice, soft cloth, and brought it to Religious School last Sunday. The children were, in a word, thrilled. Noah immediately asked me if he could take Little Torah to school. Evan suggested that the kids use cones to make finials for the posts. Leta took the pointer and read from the print as if she were practicing for her bat mitzvah this August. John asked if the Religious School could make an ark for Little Torah. Everyone practiced hagbah, lifting the Torah high overhead for the congregation to see.

The kids took turns carrying Little Torah around the room while the rest sang Al Shlosha D’varim.  They decided that every Torah service could now include children as well as adults carrying a Torah. We even tried out a novel idea: What if, while I was chanting from the big Torah, one of our older students pointed to the very same passage in little Torah at the side of the leyning table?

I drove home thinking of the original Little Torah of the story, of her tattoos and the marks she bore of a time of destruction and loss. I thought about the way I had become part of a determined effort to help Jews and Judaism – at least in some small way – thrive again. I thought about the way our children cared to hold their heritage in their arms.

It made for a nice story. A true one, too.

I Will Lift You Up

Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people,
for he was above all the people; as he opened it,
all the people stood up (Nehemiah 8:5).

Note the “he,” please.  That’s how most folks imagine the ritual of hagbah, lifting the Torah.  It’s a guy thing, based on a guy story in a mostly guy text.

The first (and only) time I saw a woman perform hagbah, I wanted – immediately and badly – to lift a Torah scroll myself.  Lori, after all, was just about my size (very small).  If she could do it, I thought, so could I.

Every year, I vowed to do the weight training, strengthen my skinny arms, and lift the Torah.  Every year I’d fail to do the training, regret my lack of time and commitment, and renew the vow.

Four years passed.  By that time, I’d been diagnosed with osteopenia.  I’d been given the wake-up call: Do weight-bearing exercise, take your calcium and magnesium daily, and protect those aging bones.

During those same years, our son, Erik, had been increasingly devoting his exercise regimen to strength training.  When I bemoaned my failure to get with any program, he created one specially designed for me (and for hagbah).  I need only do four specific exercises two times a week at the gym, increase reps and/or weight as I go and, Erik promised me, I would do hagbah within two months.

I was devoted to the cause.  I reported on my progress to my twenty-one year old personal trainer.  The ten pounds I could barely move became twenty, thirty, and thirty-five after eight weeks of training.  I was pulling up forty percent of my body weight and it was the time of year when the Torah scroll was near center and relatively balanced on both posts.  I was ready to give it a try.

“Weak,” my husband Ralf pronounced, as my arms shook.

“Wobbly,” I agreed.

Hagbah, Ashkenazi style, demands that the congregation see three full columns of Torah.  The scroll has to be held high and turned so that everyone in the congregation can see it.  Drop the Torah, and everyone present is required to fast during the day for 40 days.

Hagbah is serious business.

I wrote my senior thesis for ordination on hagbah.  My teshuva, a response to a halakhic question, began with a true story:

A small community has gathered for a Shabbat service.  This morning, the rabbi looks around and notes who is in the room.  She knows everyone present – who has back problems and who is in ill health, who is mourning, and who is anticipating a life cycle event.  This morning, she sees that not a single Jewish person is present who could take on the mitzvah of hagbah.

There is one man in the room who would certainly do so, if she asked.  He is married to a Jewish woman and has raised both his children Jewishly.  He has lived Jewishly for two decades.  He attends services regularly, prays alongside his Jewish friends and family, and supports the small congregation wholeheartedly.  He happens to be one of the most morally upstanding members of the congregation, and the rabbi has long appreciated his ethical sensibilities and calm nature.

Can that man perform the mitzvah of hagbah?

It’s a long teshuva, I admit.  I wandered through plenty of ancient history and lots of rabbinic writing.  In the end, my answer was that halakha permitted the non-Jew to raise the Torah.

The fellow in the story has long since joined the tribe officially.  He is one of our regulars where hagbah is concerned, and his way of lifting the scroll is extraordinarily beautiful.  He turns with confidence, the scroll held securely and firmly overhead.

Before services last night, I approached him as he and his wife were setting up for oneg.

“Steve,” I said, “I need help with hagbah.”

He gestured to his clothing.  “I didn’t really dress for it,” he said.

“Well actually,” I said, “I need you to be right there when I do it so if I lose the Torah you can catch it!  But it’s a secret,” I said quickly.  “I want to surprise everyone.”

Steve grinned.  “You’re going to do it?” he asked.

“If I feel I can, I will try,” I said.

Before hagbah, I told my congregation about the way I teach this portion of the service to our bar- and bat-mitzvah students.  I let them know that the one prayer they can sing with a leetle more speed at their service is the one we sing when the Torah is raised (v’zot).  “Be kind to the person doing hagbah,” I say, “and don’t chant too slowly.”

I asked my congregation to be bar- and bat-mitzvah students that night.  “Stand,” I said, “when the Torah is raised and feel free to sing that prayer at a nice pace.”

I saw a long-standing member whisper to our temple administrator.  Both women knew about my goal.  I could practically hear the question: “Is she going to try it?”

I gripped the posts.  I told myself that my earlier attempt that same afternoon was mere rehearsal.  This was for real.  I needed to brace myself and be tough.  “I will lift you up,” I thought to myself.

I wanted everyone to see that a woman could be strong enough for hagbah.  The Torah is the repository of gorgeous and frightening stories, loving and harsh law, enigmatic and revelatory narratives.  When we lift the Torah, we honor and recognize that we humans are those self-same things – beautiful and scary, tender and cruel.  We are carriers of secrets and capable of bringing light.   Our Torah is our mirror, and to look into it is to look into ourselves.

Black fire on white fire, so the Talmud says.  And all colors in between, I think.

“I will lift you up,” I thought.

To see another woman performing hagbah, check out the video on the page below:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Liturgy_and_Prayers/Siddur_Prayer_Book/Torah_Service/hagbah_gelilah.shtml

Not My Brother’s Kippah

I make kippot.  It was a hobby until last weekend. Before I left for the annual Ohala conference, my husband, Ralf, suggested a name for my new business (see title, above).

My business’ name is not simply a clever joke. It’s an answer.

Like so many Jewish women, I know what it is to have Judaism used against me, to crush me and make me small.  I have been told to cover my elbows.  I have been the victim of angry demands: How dare I continue singing when he walked into the house?  Didn’t I know that a woman’s voice seduces?

His brand of Judaism was enraged, extreme.  He was, when I knew him, so far right that some family members joked about where he might have been the night Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, was assassinated.  He wanted to kill every Palestinian, and said so.  He made me want to run screaming in any direction away from anything Jewish that wasn’t academic, and therefore, safe territory for me.

How could I make teshuva when coming back would mean accepting humiliation I had known when I was young?

And yet.

And yet, when we were first married three decades ago, Ralf took my grandmother’s prayerbook out of the discard pile and brought it back to me.  In the late 1990’s, my then six-year-old son took to davennen as if he were born inside its cadence when I dared attend services at a nearby havurah.  Now and again I’d remember – with a kind of longing – my grandfather’s davenning  the Maxwell House haggadah.

What is all that about the journeys that begin with tender, tremulous steps?

The sign on the trail: “Jewish Renewal.” While walking I found men and women opening up the world of halakha and making it more than safe – a source of delight, in fact.  I listened to women singing without restraints, teaching with power and humor.  We all stood together at Sinai – many of us, women and men, with our elbows uncovered.

I had begun making kippot for friends.  I vowed I would only make a kippah when I knew whose head would wear it.  I deviated just slightly, making some for my congregation so that children and adults could choose one as they entered services.  A kippah with a penguin?  Beads and butterflies?  Glittery gold fabric?

For years, at every Jewish Renewal event I attended, women asked me if I sold my kippot.  I would explain, see the sadness, and persist.  I would not sell.  I would only give.

Three years ago, Rabbi Nadya Gross, mentor, teacher, and friend, began bugging me.  “There are women out there who need your kippot,” she said.  “What’s out there for them?”

There are hats that can get too warm and scarves that can look like shmattes. For a while, kippot of beads and wire were in fashion.  Pretty, but insubstantial. Frankly, I want to feel my head covered.  My kippah is a manifestation of sorts, the hand of the divine cupped over my keppe to bless it.

I gave in and began sewing for people I did not know.  My son designed some of my work – making my beadwork asymmetrical, surprising.  My husband matched fabrics and flowers I would not have put together.  I sewed until I woke up at night with my fingers raw and sore.

Then I left for Denver, and the annual conference run by Ohalah, a trans-denominational association of rabbis, cantors, rabbinic pastors, and students of those professions.  Later, I will tell you stories.  Stories of the way women crowded around the table, the way men bought kippot for female friends.  One of the kippot my son designed went to a woman just waking from a coma.

I will tell you the way those men and women nearly cleaned out my stock and asked me for a website, please.  I will tell you stories that made me cry with relief and gratitude.  Stories of women sitting in rows with feathers, flowers and beads on their heads, walking the hotel corridors wearing the kippot I’d made in ways I had never imagined – rakishly, in different directions, with grace and charm.

I want to thank everyone at Ohalah, in Jewish Renewal, for helping me manifest a peaceful, colorful, gentle answer to any who would crush Jewish women and make them small: These are not my brother’s kippah.

May the palm of God’s hand cup the beautiful keppes they adorn.  May those women grow surer and stronger wearing them.  May Jewish Renewal’s path widen in yet more welcome, and may we give answers of love and healing to all who walk even the smallest step with us.

Emory Aglow

Please, take a closer look at the picture on the left.

That’s Emory Spivock and her brother Bryston on the day of their combined bar and bat mitzvah.

The sun’s rays stream into the room, illuminating the cymbals. They have become blurry, golden stars in Emory’s hand. Her tallit floats over her shoulders and arms. She is awash in light.

When I first saw that photograph, I turned to my husband, Ralf.

“Honey,” I said, “I need to show you a picture.”

“Beautiful,” he said. “That’s beautiful.”

“I’m giving it a name,” I added. “Emory aglow.”

Emory and Bryston were bar and bat mitzvahed on October 20. The week before, a woman was arrested at the Western Wall for chanting the Shema while wearing a tallit.

That woman was Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Women of the Wall, an organization that has striven, for almost three decades, to get the Israeli government to realize that the Wall should be open to prayer on terms that are not solely defined by Orthodox Judaism.

Currently, women are not allowed to pray at the Wall while wearing a tallit or tefillen. They may not read aloud from Torah.

Hoffman wants Israel’s courts to allow her group to pray for one hour per month at the Wall. She would like for the Wall’s council to allow some time for prayers without a mechitza – the divider separating women and men.

She’s not asking for much.

Hoffman has been detained by police before. This time she was arrested. According to Hoffman, she was strip searched, her legs were chained together, and she was dragged across the floor of a police station before being imprisoned overnight in a cell without a bed. She lay, she says, only in her tallit.

Imagine that somewhere else in the world, somewhere outside Israel, a Jewish woman was arrested for chanting the Shema and wearing a tallit. What images would be evoked? What memories? What ancient anguish?

The morning of Bryston and Emory’s bar and bat mitzvah arrived. Emory’s tallit was made of many brilliant colors. It was a tallit of planets and stars. We wrapped her in the universe.

She was radiant.

For years I have encouraged the women of our congregation to wear tallitot and kippot. Imagine yourselves enclosed God’s wings when you bring it over your shoulders, I would tell them. Let a beautiful kippah be God’s blessing on your head.

My generation was born in the “look, but don’t touch” Jewish world. We were to watch men praying, cloaked in their tallitot. Men shook the lulav. Men gave the sermons. Men led prayers.

But Jewish women have, in recent decades, insisted on their right to reach for Jewish learning and practice that unnecessarily – even cruelly – excluded them for hundreds of years. We want to sing and chant and pray fearlessly. We want to acknowledge the Mother Lodes in our tradition and honor them without fear.

We have gained much – especially in this country. We have much yet to gain – here and elsewhere.

At the beginning of our Shabbat service, after we had celebrated coming together by singing joyous opening prayers, I asked Emory to stand and turn in front of her congregation and guests. I asked everyone to look at her in her tallit.

Then, I asked everyone to pray with me.

May all our daughters experience no restraints, but only joy from their tradition. May they immerse themselves in love of Torah. May all women have the right – no matter their faith tradition – to pray and to learn and to speak freely.

May we all be so aglow.