Hillel International on Jewish Identity – and Israel

I’m here because my political views have left me without a Jewish community, yet I’ve never felt more Jewish.  I hope older Jews will listen.

Student postcard response at Open Hillel Conference

I know. I was supposed to write about our “Yavneh” rabbis and their hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities of their time.

I got sidetracked by today’s Jewish leadership and its hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities.

Just as we exaggerate the tolerance for diversity among our Talmudic sages in regards to points of law, so we downplay our leaders’ intolerance for diversity of political opinions on Israel.

Last October, I traveled to Boston for the first Open Hillel Conference, “If Not Now, When?” About 350 people – mostly college students, but also middle aged and senior folk – attended the three-day conference.

Background material: Around two years ago, Hillel students in various college campuses began to protest the organization’s recently adopted “Standards of Partnership” rules. Those rules state, among other things, that campus Hillel groups may not collaborate with people or groups that “delegitimize Israel” or support the Palestinian call for political pressure on Israel through boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

Almost a year ago, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first Open Hillel, stating: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” Other Hillels have joined them in making such statements, including Vassar College and Wesleyan University.

I wrote about the conference for The Charlotte Observer.

I joked about this piece with close relatives. I claimed that I had taken the great step forward and “come out” on the topic in order to say, “hey, can we tolerate having a conversation with people who might seriously disagree with us?”  To whit:

I went to this conference because I am – as both a teacher and a rabbi – deeply interested in understanding where the younger Jewish generation is when it comes to defining their Jewish identity. I learned this: They want to be included in Jewish communities, synagogues, and institutions.

These students ask that all Jews be encouraged to come to the table to express their hopes and dreams for themselves, for Israel, and for peace in this world. They want older Jews to understand that they may feel differently than we do, and that they hold a wide range of opinions and positions. They ask that we assure them that no Jew is censored, rejected, or denied a hearing.

It’s an important message. Open conversation is not naïve; it is a basic necessity – for a democracy, for a healthy community, for a nation, and for the world.

Pretty rad, I know. And that is what makes the situation so sad.

Questioning my bona fides on Israel has been part and parcel of recent response to my editorial. Just wondering: Is it likely that someone who teaches course after course on the history of antisemitism (yes, that’s me!) would feel that it’s important to think about how to secure the survival of Jews and Judaism? It is. I do.

But here’s the ethical issue that concerns me: Both the “Standards for Partnership” and Hillel International’s explanation of its vision on Israel link what is appropriately Jewish to the question of whether one supports Israel’s right to exist.

From the website: “Hillel desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities…Hillel views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.”

Hillel’s policy, despite disclaimers that assert that the organization includes “diverse opinions” on Israel, excludes Jews for whom the state of Israel is not a defining element in their Jewish identity.

Those that Hillel International expects to fall outside their definition and vision of Jewish identity are not only to be found on the left of the political spectrum. There are those on the Jewish right who unequivocally deny today’s Israel a right to exist.

See, for example, the website of Neturei Karta, a Haredi group that strenuously objects to Zionism and calls for a peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel. For such Jews, no state of Israel can be permitted until the coming of the Messiah.

If just such an ultra-Orthodox Jewish student walks into any Hillel on any campus seeking, perhaps, a place to davenn with others, to learn about Talmud, or to attend any of a thousand possible programs Hillel students and their advisors might be supporting and arranging, that particular Jew cannot be welcomed and given a place at Hillel’s table.  That student utterly and unequivocally rejects the state of Israel’s right to exist.

Hillel’s vision of Jewish identity will inevitably exclude some Jewish students, in clear contradistinction to the organization’s claim that it “welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds.”

I used to think of college Hillel’s as another (lovely) form of Jewish community, a place for college-aged Jews to explore their Jewishness. I assumed Hillel leaders knew that “Jewish identity” has an extraordinary and very wide bandwidth in practice, in ritual, in belief, and in political expression. Not all Jewish college students see their Jewish identity as related to the state of Israel. Must they do so, in order to participate in Hillel International?

As a rabbi, I do not apply a political litmus test to my congregants. Our membership forms don’t ask people to state their political views before we will allow them to participate in Jewish communal life.

We all want Jews and Judaism to survive – healthy, independent, and strong. On ethical grounds alone we should not insist that Jews who want the right to belong to Jewish community first pass a political litmus test on Israel.

It is a Matter of Torah

TalmudIt has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn. Babylonian Talmud Mas. Berachoth 62a

Perhaps you are feeling awkward just now. You may be feeling reminded of the many unpleasant things folks have had to say about the Talmud over the last, um, 1500 years.

Perhaps this text is making you wonder whether the neuroses described by Freud (after hearing the dreams of largely middle class Jewish women day in and day out) were a natural outcome of belonging to the tribe.

It’s not so much that figuring out appropriate directions, positions, or even which hands to use for what task is an unusual topic for human beings of any religion. It’s rather that idea that students are watching their teachers perform intimate functions because “it is a matter of Torah.”

Now you may argue (some will) that Torah is everything and Talmud Torah is the process of figuring out, labeling, and processing the everything of life. One can certainly make the argument that the purpose of scripture is to explain how it is that we should live our lives, and that living life involves all sorts of details that are human and personal. After all, the functions described in the above text are fairly universal in nature. You can’t survive without being able to perform the first set of functions described above, and though the heterosexual scene Kahana overhears is just one of many ways human beings engage in erotic play, sex itself is a pretty common occurrence among human beings.

(Recently, I learned things about the sex lives of fruit bats that were really quite interesting, but this is neither the time nor the place.)

But what intrigues me most about the passage above is not so much what the students were studying but what the text says about the claims their teachers were making. It is a fascinating example of the way the rabbis who composed Talmud maneuvered themselves into positions (yes, the pun is intended) of authority.

In this text, the direction that rabbis chose for food processing or the way they have sexual relations is now Torah. In this text, it isn’t scripture that has the last word, but the behavior of the teacher, the rav. Torah is now what the rabbis do, what the rabbis interpret, what the rabbis say.

I bring this up because it is common among today’s rabbis to valorize the way our Talmudic texts encode multivocality. Talmud, we happily observe, permits a range of opinions. Maybe one school (Hillel) will get most of the final accolades and approval from on high, but in the end, even the Holy One of Blessing will insist that the rabbis must agree to disagree: “It is taught, a heavenly voice went out and said, ‘These and these are the words of the Living God, but the Law is like the School of Hillel’” (Palestinian Talmud Yabmut (sic) 3b, chapter 1, halakha 6).

I can’t say that I don’t value the Talmudic practice of permitting – even encouraging — dissent. I do. But today’s rabbis need to acknowledge that the dissent they prize was happening among a small and elite group of Jews who managed, ca 500 C.E. and onward, to take upon themselves the right to be the religious authorities for all Israel (with a lot of assist from Christian authorities, by the by).

Judaism and Jewishness is a thing that is created and recreated by a diverse people, a people which, in many areas of the world, have rejected halakha. Most Jews are living lives that have little to do with Talmud. Most do not see what their rabbis do as a source of learning or practice.

So the question for our time is this: Who is a rabbi and what should she teach?

(To be continued….)

Keeping the Ball in the Air

Balls in the airIn his book, Tales of a Dalai Lama, Pierre Delattre tells a story about rules, about games, and about life’s purpose.

Once, he writes, when the Dalai Lama was very young, he was invited to a volleyball game after an interview with a Swedish professor.  The players batted the ball over the net and whenever the ball hit the ground there were, of course, jubilant cheers from some fans.  Others looked on, distraught.

The young Dalai Lama asked the professor to explain why people were playing against each other.  He pointed out the obvious truth:  Every time the ball hit the ground someone needed to be consoled.

The professor explained that points were won when the opposing team missed the ball.

The Dalai Lama was distressed.  “But then the ball must hit the ground all the time. Such a way to play with the human spirit!”

Delattre describes the professor sitting, watching the game, thinking remembering his students batting ideas around, himself offering a concept only to find his student chomping at the bit for an opportunity to prove his argument flawed.

Suddenly, the professor yearned for a class discussion that would keep ideas in the air, allow the human spirit to take flight.  Ashamed, Delattre writes, he left for Sweden with one desire: To go home and to change the rules of the game.

I told this story during High Holy Days and asked my congregants: What if the rules of the game were to keep the ball in the air?

What if we did not wait for others to trip and fall, but actively held each other up?  What if we did not criticize what we felt were mistakes but simply asked others if they could rethink with us – and even consider that we ourselves might have rushed to judgment.  What if we decided that having an ax to grind is equivalent to wishing humiliation and pain on someone else?

WHAT OCCURRED?  The boulder left the mountain.
Who awakened?  You and I.
Language, language.  Co-earth.  Fellow planet.
Poorer.  Open.  Homelandly.

The course?  Towards the unsubsided.
Your course and mine was the boulder’s flight.
Heart and heavy. Adjudged too heavy.
Grow more heavy.  Be more light.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I read this poem by Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel.  Celan became one of the most well-known German – and Jewish — poets after the Holocaust.  He was the only member of his family to survive.

That night, I called the people Celan’s “unsubsided.” Class and gender-neutral, stranger in the camp and Israelite from way back, old and young, the unsubsided, I said, all these stood side by side to listen.  I imagined that the boulder’s flight must have been the truth expressed in that moment:  Torah is for us all.  We can stand together to receive truth, work together to understand it, and support each other in making our revelation real:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  1Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 30:11-14)

It is close to you.  It is in your mouth and in your heart.

On Kol Nidre I asked my congregants: Can we disavow clinging to agendas, our egos and their needs?  Could we vow to change the rules of the game, to keep the ball in the air?

Should this not be our life’s purpose?

Read Lament, Utter Praise: The Paradox of Mourning

Yom Hashoah candleThis Shabbat, at Yom Kippur, we will mark Yizkor, a service of remembrance, of honoring the dead.

Last Saturday night, I awoke around 2 am, remembering how we buried my sister, Suzie. That enormous mound of earth, the dark, deep hole.

Suzie died of cancer. Her youngest child was only three. I did not speak when we buried her. I did not know how.

In the immediate aftermath of death, life is undone. The world of the living persists but its existence is surreal. We long for our beloved; we are conscious only of our loss. Our mourning takes place in a ruin. No language suffices.

And yet, we must speak in order to heal. Centuries ago, when mourners appeared in synagogue, heads and faces covered, the service leader turned to congregants and insisted: “Demand the reason!” “Demand the reason!” Mourners were asked to speak, to explain.

It is easy to retreat from the face of pain. But this ritual made turning away an impossibility. We may not ignore those wrapped in grief.

Listening, we help a mourner open the heart. We honor longing and despair. We acknowledge denial and anguish. Demand the reason.

The rabbis knew that grief is many-faceted. All the behaviors of mourning are those, they say, of the ninth of Av. Mourners are directed to the Book of Lamentations, a book which records the horrific siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the First Temple, the exile. Are you grieving? The rabbis suggest reading a raw text of anguish.

Why? Encountering the pain Lamentations describes gives us permission to acknowledge our own. It is another way to demand the reason.

The rabbis added a text not of rage or defiance, nor of grief and sorrow to the rituals of mourning. Mourner’s Kaddish, inscribed into our practice in the Middle Ages, is a song, a musical text of pure, unmitigated praise for the Divine. At the time of loss, one says nothing about it. In the face of death, one praises the Source of Life.

Our texts do everything from indicting to praising the Holy One. Lamentations gives us longing and despair – but also resistance. Mourner’s Kaddish offers laudation. The central phrase y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorach l’alam ulal’mei almayya (may God’s great name be praised) is considered, so the rabbis, the very foundation of the world. Despite the ruin, affix and affirm the existence of the earth: y’hei sh’mei raba We remain in conversation with God, co-creating the world. We find our voices, we utter words.

“Weeping, she makes weep,” reads Lamentations Rabbah. She weeps and the Holy One weeps with her. The ministering angels, heaven and earth, mountains and hills weep with her. Everything in the created world joins together and laments. We communicate through tears. No one is alone.

A distressed people builds again, praises again. Such is a fact of Jewish life. No devastation – not even the Shoah – silences the survivors utterly. Read Lamentations, the rabbis say. Recite y’hei shemay raba. It is a paradox that sustains us.

It is a paradox that permits voicing all we feel. We mourn as our hearts must, in whatever way they must. To speak from our grief; to act on what we know: Deep and profound remembrance of those we have lost will lead us to sanctify and honor life.

In this year, with hearts and eyes turned to the terrors and the horrors unfolding in our own time, we must ourselves demand the reason. Recognizing lament, responding to the imperative of praise, we must find inspiration to act. For a more peaceful world – for a more loving world. For a world in which we may speak – gently, with compassion and understanding, and, in so doing, heal.

Paths of Silence

pathI have grown to expect silence when I visit Ellie.

But during one visit at hospice house, just after I went through her favorites – Shalom Aleychem, B’shem Hashem, Adon Olam, she looked at me intently and asked, with perfect diction: “Have you fixed my dress?”

“Yes, Ellie,” I replied. “I did. It looks fantastic. I think you will be very pleased when you see it.”

A prayer or two later, she spoke again.

“It’s almost time for lunch!”

It was about 10 a.m.

“What are you having?” I asked.

“Salmon salad,” she said firmly.

I smiled. But that was all she said that day.

Ellie is dying. Her way has been long and arduous. About a year ago, a brain tumor forced her into a wheelchair. Her speech became ever more irregular. It clearly exhausted her to say more than three or four words at a time. She would sit, with all her library books around her, living in a world dominated by her own silence.

At the beginning she tried to apologize. “I know…” Pause. “… what I want to say,” she would say. Long pause. “I just can’t…” Then, she would stop. Finishing the sentence was too much effort.

“Find the words,” I would whisper in my mind, completing the thought.

For months I told her that it was my job to read her eyes. They could do the talking for her.

A few months ago, she moved from the wheelchair to a hospital bed. I took her on walks with me. I’d narrate our stroll, ask her to do everything with me in her head. Sometimes I imagined every little thing we saw, every place we visited just as it unfolded in my own imagination.

Now and again, I asked her if there was anyone she knew with us. Once, she named her husband, Irving. I officiated Irving’s funeral in 2012.

I’d tell her when I could feel the presence of God – in the air, the sunlight, the green of trees. I’d tell her all the things I was sure of: How God loved her, how I loved her.

I saw Ellie last Friday. I don’t know if it is the tumor, but there is, now, a terrible, bulging lump on her forehead.

She mouthed a “yes” when I asked her if she wanted me to sing Shabbat prayers for her. So I sang. Suddenly, she burst out with a complete, utterly convincing sentence. “I hate having to turn my head,” she said.

So I got out of the chair, stood at the foot of the bed, held my guitar like a cello, and played “It’s a Wonderful World.” Ellie likes that song.

But I am wracked with doubt. Is this what she needs or wants? Do I speak of fear or blessing? Do I invoke God’s compassion and tenderness?

I can no longer read Ellie’s eyes. She looks at me most of the time, but not always. Sometimes she looks at paper she is crumpling in her hands. Sometimes, she stares across the room.

I drive home in my own silence, grieving.

Elie Wiesel – From Witness to Lobbyist

Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years.

When I knew her, university classes did not include semester-long studies of the Holocaust. Holocaust centers and museums were yet to become natural aspects to the way Americans memorialized twentieth-century history.

Hedy lived through the terrors of Nazi Germany. She escaped via the Kindertransport. She spoke often of the last moments with her parents – watching as their figures grew smaller and smaller as the train pulled away from the station.

They did not survive.

Hedy went back to Germany after World War II ended – to translate documents and records needed to prosecute the architects of medical experiments (read: crimes) at Dachau. Eventually, she moved to America.

During the mid 1980’s, she visited my classes on the Holocaust at the University of Missouri-Columbia, bringing small remnants of her past with her. I remember that she had a tin cup that relatives used while interned in a Vichy concentration camp.  The cup was used for all liquids, she explained. Eventually my students understood that the cup was used as a toilet as well as a drinking vessel.

She described each tormented aspect of her young life — being forced out of school, the breaking and plundering and torching of Jewish stores and synagogues during Kristallnacht, her father’s internment at Dachau, her parents’ justified fears for her survival, the finality of their murder.

A picture of Hedy Epstein was in The Charlotte Observer just days ago. She was one of hundreds of children of Holocaust victims and Holocaust survivors to sign an enraged condemnation of the ad Elie Wiesel took out in the New York Times on August 1.

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and a towering presence, a prolific author and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, began his ad by referring to the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The biblical narrative that rejected child sacrifice, he wrote, should be understood as the start of monotheism and western civilization.

This claim alone is deeply disturbing. It reflects a terrible and astonishing ignorance of the history of the Ancient Near East and Israel that I find hard to associate with Wiesel.

There is much, much worse here than clichés about the origins of civilization. Wiesel compares the deliberate annihilation of one million children by Nazi Germany to the use of children as human shields in the recent weeks of war between Israel and Hamas. But genocide is not the same thing as the long-standing and historical capacity of human beings to make civilians — especially children — pay the terrible costs of war.

I am not minimizing the latter. But equating all things violent with the Holocaust is a horror of our times. Wiesel should know better than to engage in the appropriation of the Holocaust to fight a political battle.

Further, one simply has to wonder how Wiesel manages to exonerate Israel from any guilt whatsoever in the death of Palestinian children. He writes that it is “the terrorists who have taken away all choice from the Palestinian children of Gaza.”

Wait, what? Nothing Israel has ever done has contributed to the debased conditions so many Palestinian children endure? Does Israel bear no responsibility whatsoever for the lack of access to anything from food to water to medical care that has been part and parcel of life for so many Palestinian children? Nothing about the wall or checkpoints influences the lives of Palestinian children and the choices they can make about their future?

Is nothing about the way Prime Minister Netanyahu parlayed the death of three Israeli teens to gain support to, as the Israeli military calls it, “mow the grass” relevant to the choices Palestinian children have?

Wiesel paints the conflict as a “battle of civilization versus barbarism.” Is every aspect of the terrible destruction we have witnessed the product of “civilization” at war with “barbarism”? How could Elie Wiesel produce this simple-minded sound bite?

Barbarism is not simply the product of uncivilized descendants of the ancient world. Ordained rabbis in Israel have openly called for the wholesale destruction of the Palestinian people.

I think of Hedy, describing that scene at the station, watching her parents faces as the train pulled away.

The sources of barbaric, brutal, evil behaviors and evil outcomes are many and varied. No one will be served by denying that Jews, too, are capable of them.

Gather Its Spoil

Gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil as a holocaust to the LORD your God. And it shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt (Deuteronomy 13:17).

Palestinians walk across the rubble of destroyed buildings and homes in the Shejaiya residential district.

Destroyed buildings and homes in the Palestinian Shejaiya residential district.

I am no longer so comfortable with my own claims.

A little over two years ago, in May of 2012, I posted a piece I called “Walk This Way.” In it, I celebrated the intelligence of a rabbinic tradition that used, I claimed, the halakhic process to extract the best possible interpretation from our texts. I wrote about difficult texts – the ones decreeing the death of a rebellious son (Exodus 21:17 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and the passage condemning an idolatrous city, one we read in this past week’s Parsha Re’eih (Deuteronomy 13:13-19).

I freely admit that I still admire how the rabbis manage to use the text against itself in both cases. In the end, they make sure that there is no possibility of stoning a rebellious son. They insist that there never was an idolatrous city.

My conclusion?

Let’s face it: There are verses in Torah that would be heartless and incomprehensible and impossible to accept otherwise; we cannot, and will not conceive of putting to death a misbehaving child, and for all we know, those who wrote such verses found themselves subject to immediate reinterpretation in their very own time…

Halakha is a source of ongoing revelation. It has the power to define and redefine Jewish thinking, Jewish practice, Jewish purpose. Because we know that halakha itself invites change for the better, we have, in recent decades, invited women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews to the bimah. We were able to reconsider what was presented to us as the law and to reread the texts in a way that offered new pathways, new halakha.

I would still make this claim: Jews are asked to visit and revisit our texts in order to reinscribe them on our hearts. The reinscription is not literal, nor is it automatic. You can’t be childish about Judaism; you have to take responsibility for what you decide it is and must become.

But in the past weeks, I have had to ask myself if the rabbis’ solution is good enough. Here is the truth: The mere existence of such texts in any time and in any tradition is a dangerous thing.

Vian Dakheel 2Recently, a Kurdish Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, Vian Dakheel, pleaded for her people. She begged her brothers, again and again, she included the slaughter of Christians, Shias, Sunnis, Turkmen and Shabak. She described the butchery, the starvation, the enslavement of Yazidi women and girls.

“Mr. Speaker,” she says, weeping, “We are being butchered under the banner of ‘There is no God but Allah.’”

This example is an “easy” one. We can identify the evil represented by the Islamic State without the slightest hesitation. We can see how the injunction to doom an idolatrous city might translate into the kind of thing we are witnessing now as ISIS slaughters and destroys innocents.

I could also take an easy way into present-day politics in Israel. There are those in that state who openly call for the complete destruction of the Palestinian people. There are extremists I can cite, tactics they advocate I can describe. I can remind you of the murder of 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir by Israelis apparently of that ilk.

But what if I were to make this a much more difficult post? What if I were to say that the text about the idolatrous city is a frightening echo not only the extremist positions to be found in Israel but mainstream ones?

Look more closely at this passage in Deuteronomy and the verses that precede it. You will see that one of the most important aspects of the injunctions therein are warning the Israelites against those in their midst that can be declared traitors to YHVH.

Jews who beg other Jews to recognize the rights of Palestinians are regularly, in this country, pilloried and attacked for “betraying” Israel. How many Jews are still afraid to express their doubts after seeing the cost of this latest war – on Palestinian homes and communities, on roads and hospitals, on the elderly, on children?

We cannot so neatly and easily put the blame on Hamas for every aspect of destruction the Palestinians have experienced this past summer, and we know it. Or we should.

We need to name dangerous points of view in Israel in the same way we need to name our dangerous texts. Both present a frightening intransigence and self-righteousness. Intransigence and self-righteousness are killing people.

Dangerous speech, dangerous texts – these things must be outed and condemned, not circumvented or explained away. As the founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has said, we have shit to shovel.

Let nothing that has been doomed stick to your hand, for you will be heeding the LORD your God, doing what is right in the sight of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 13:18).

What we write, we create. What we speak has power. What we excuse will haunt us.

What’s Your Workout Plan?

Lazy girlA woman goes to try on wedding dresses. The dress attendant asks: “So what’s your workout plan?”

No joke. Neither is the picture, at left, or the images you will get if you do a search for “workout plans.”  Try it, if you want to get inundated with images of what America thinks are healthy bodies.  Expect, if you have a feminist bone in your body, to find the experience upsetting.

It is, of course, incumbent upon all American brides to lose weight and turn into Kate Moss for the actual ceremony. But does a wedding dress attendant have any business asking such a question to anyone regardless of their proportions? Classify this under “rude” and “intrusive.”

Also: The question is predicated on the prevailing notion that a wedding is all about how the bride looks and that every last one wants – or needs – to lose weight.

Dress size is not relevant, heart-size is.

Just now, I am working with a mother whose child is approaching his bar mitzvah. Her anxieties about finding the right dress for her child’s bar mitzvah strike me as running along rather similar tracks. She has discussed these worries with both my husband and me. Why?

Wretched excess is par for the course at family simchas.

More than a decade ago, my then twelve-year-old son, Erik, and I attended a bar mitzvah that boasted a Caribbean theme. Little umbrellas were everywhere, along with tropical fruit decorations. The décor must have cost thousands of dollars. The family had hired a steel drum band that only knew the first part of Hava Nagila. This led to endless loops of the same opening verse, which led to dance step confusion. What about “uru.. uru achim…”?

I began to rant as soon as we left, listing all the absurd b’nai mitzvah “themes” I had seen in my life. Finally, I imploded.

“Why not the shtetl?” I asked Erik. “Let’s do something that belongs to our history. Poverty and potato soup!”

“Why not Siberia?” he asked. “Solitary confinement!”

“Why not the ghetto?” I rejoined. “Disease and dread!”

Suffice it to say that there was no theme at Erik’s bar mitzvah. There was no band. There was no catering. We had a pot luck.

We did mark the fact that Erik was reading from Parsha Noach by lining up little rubber animals we got from a dollar store on each table in rows of two. Adults played with tiny camels, anteaters, and a few dinosaurs that didn’t make it in time to the ark.

What is the purpose of such ritual celebrations?

A wedding is when two people stand publicly in holy space they have made with one another and for one another. They allow beloved family members and some friends to witness the existence of that space. Witnesses are given a window into a miracle: What (true) love looks like.

You can see the same kind of miracle at a baby naming. You can watch it unfold in the lined faces and graying hair of the couple celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. You can see it in the faces of parents watching their children leyn from a Torah scroll. You will find true love in abundance at funerals.

It is so simple for officiants and family alike: Offer the holy space of the couple’s love, the child’s miraculous (always) birth, the teen’s learning, the gifts the deceased gave to others during his or her life. Provide opportunities for tears and laughter. Understand the power of witnessing.

I interview all the couples I officiate for. During the interview I type about four or five pages of notes – single spaced, no less. I learn their story. They tell me about themselves, about sad and wonderful times, about who they want to be.

Various aspects of the ceremony come from these notes – most importantly, the message I deliver.

The message is meant to be a prose poem. Its theme is the holy and unique space that belongs to that couple. I describe the partnership they have created together, the marriage they will make.

Recently, a groom asked me for a copy of my notes. He didn’t care that they might not always be in perfect sentences and well-crafted paragraphs. He wanted the raw stuff of my message. He planned to frame each page and hang them before his wife’s desk. She would raise her eyes from her work and see the stories she had told me about the way he had become her friend, partner, lover, and husband.

I witnessed, from afar, what happened when he gave her this gift. She held up, ever so carefully and slowly, each frame. She scanned the section about her pumpkin sweater, about the way he had his grandmother’s ring resized for her.

What was her workout plan (or his)?

To create a wedding in which they could declare, with love all around them, what their love had become. To invite the small group that was present – to share and to witness the couple’s hope and to relive and revive their own.

You know, I think it worked out.

Torah of Many Gods – No One is Alone

kuntillet ajrud 02bIn the interests of fair disclosure, I am about to demonstrate that the authors of our Torah sometimes went to unusual lengths to cover up our polytheistic tendencies.

To some extent, you would not think the twisted maneuvers I am about to describe would be necessary. After all, if the Israelites hadn’t been wayward worshippers of Baal and the like, our prophets would have been out of a job.

It remains a fact that ancient scribes found various passages troubling, and they messed with them. We know this for a fact. We can identify insertions, deletions, and the like in the service of clarifying (for example) a confusing theological problem. It helps to have, in some cases, various examples of the same text to see what’s going down, but there are also other methods of discovery.

The following lesson will be based on textual comparison, though, just so you don’t think I am one of those people who will post anything that wanders into my dreams and nightmares. I know those people. My students keep quoting them.

The writers of Torah were mostly monolatrous. This is not some form of sexual deviance. Monolatry is a kind of polytheism in which one recognizes the existence of other deities for other people-groups. In the Ancient Near East, deities possess specific geographical territory. Chemosh holds sway in Moab. Marduk hangs out in Babylonia.

Here’s the important part: Your own deity is always the biggest and the bestest on the block.

The name of our national God-dude is YHVH. That’s the name. Not “Elohim” or “Adonai.” Our God has a name, and it is YHVH. To be certain, we are not exactly certain how to pronounce it, but that is the stuff of another blog (though really, you can find that information everywhere –rather like pictures of the humongous statue of Jesus in Brazil).

YHVH shows up in some rather unexpected places in the archeological record. Often, on pots. And not infrequently, given the sample sizes from the eighth century BCE, YHVH is paired with another deity whose name happens to be Asherah.

Long, long ago, in the Canaanite culture that helped give birth to Israelite culture (some historians say the Israelites were actually just Canaanites with a new look), the pantheon of deities was headed up by El Elyon, also known simply as “El.” He bossed around a number of lesser deities. Among them were Ba’al and Asherah and, it would seem, for some ancient Israelites, YHVH.

Check out Kuntillet Ajrud, an archeological site occupied between the ninth and eight centuries BCE. The site has yielded a number of inscriptions to El, Ba’al, Asherah, and YHVH. Here as elsewhere, YHVH is paired with “his” Asherah (in other texts, she is referred to as his “consort”). YHVH, for some ancient Israelites, had a wife.

Now, the text in question. Here it is, in three textual forms:

Deuteronomy 32:8-9

Masoretic Text (MT) Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) Septuagint (LXX)
 [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)apportioned the nations,when he divided the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.[9] For YHVH’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)apportioned the nations,when he divided the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the divine beings (literally, “sons of god[s]”).[9] For the YHVH’s portion is his people, Jacob his inherited portion. [8] When the Most High(El Elyon)divided the nations,when he separated the sons of men,he fixed the borders/boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.[9] And his people Jacob became the portion of the YHVH, Israel was the line of his Inheritance.

“Sons of men” are people groups. Who is “Jacob”? Jacob is not used just to refer to the character of our Torah, but to the whole people of Israel. Same thing for the Septuagint’s use of the name Israel. The names Jacob and Israel are used interchangeably for the Israelite nation in ancient texts. See, for example, the point at which the seer Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelite nation though he is hired to curse them:  How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:5).

Still, no matter how you shake it, the Masoretic Text is weird. El Elyon apparently fixes the boundaries of people according to the, um, sons of Israel. Wait, what?Torah names an awful lot of people groups – we don’t ALL descend from Jacob’s loins. Let’s see: Ishmaelites, Moabites, Kenites, and so on and so forth. Weirder: the text says YHVH is given Jacob as a people group, as a “portion” of all humankind. But all humankind is from Israel/Jacob.

Scholars have long since decided that the DSS is giving us the older version of this story, in which El Elyon (that Canaanite head honcho, remember?) divided up the peoples according to the subsidiary deities of his pantheon. El Elyon gave Israel/Jacob to YHVH.

The Septuagint is trying to get a more monotheistic read by insert angels for subsidiary deities. The MT is going one better and trying to get the reader to read as though El Elyon is actually the same deity as YHVH. But the rewrite is challenging – almost nonsensical.

The Israelites were not monotheistic. Actually, most Jews today aren’t monotheistic either – not strictly speaking. Neither are Muslims or Christians. All three of us insist that there are other supernatural beings inhabiting the divine world – whether angels or demons of some sort. God is not alone.

But then, no one is.

A Prayer for Eleanor

ElanorWhen I was young, I decided that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her Elanor, after the tiny, tender yellow flower described in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

As a middle-aged woman, I met an Eleanor. She reminded me of that little blossom, the small, star-shaped flower brought by the Elves to the earth, a blossom of grace and beauty.

The Eleanor I met was mostly called ‘Ellie.’ In our first meeting, at a Shavuot picnic, she sat on a park bench, spotlessly and elegantly dressed in summery whites and pastels. Her face spoke of composure, introspection.

In our early year, I accompanied Ellie through the death of her brilliant and gentlemanly husband, Dr. Irving Joffe, a man who held a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Irving Joffe held patents in his first profession and then went on to become a doctor of radiology at Tufts University, at the University of Rochester, at the Yale School of Medicine.

Ellie bore her loss with grace. And then, her own decline with like grace.

Ellie has struggled for years with a brain tumor. First, she could walk less and less. Then she was entirely confined to her wheelchair. In the past months, she has been unable to get out of bed.

She is a considerate, thoughtful woman. She loves to learn. Until very recently, I never visited her without seeing a stack of books nearby.

This past year, she lost more and more control over her speech. Now and again, I would see a tear of frustration as she struggled to speak, to find the words.

“I know what I want to say,” she said. “I can’t find the words.”

One day, as she fought for words, finally giving up with a gentle smile, I said: “Ellie, your eyes are trying to tell me what you are thinking. I will try to read your eyes.”

Over the past year, she would compose herself, I could tell, for every visit. I had to name the challenges she was facing before she would acknowledge them. Slowly, a little reluctantly, she would nod if I asked her if she was feeling sad.

I visited her this morning. Now, Ellie is having trouble swallowing. Her caretaker told me she was not communicating. She was sleeping, mostly. I expected her to sleep through the entire visit and decided to play soft prayers so she could rest.

I took out my guitar. “Shalom Aleychem,” I sang. “Peace be on you.” Then I sang a lullaby of angels, B’shem Hashem. “May Michael be on my right, and on my left Gavriel. Uriel before me and behind me, Rafael. And over me, Shekhinat El.” I sang the prayer of peace, Oseh Shalom.

But I did not sing Ellie to sleep. Her tender eyes were open, observing me the entire time. She twice wiped a tear from her right eye while I was singing “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Listen, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Finally, I sang Adon Olam.

I knew what I was doing, and it hurt.

Adon Olam is sung as a final prayer in Friday night services. But it is also recited in the room of a dying person. The last stanza reads “Into Your hand I entrust my soul both asleep and awake. And with my soul, my body too. You are with me; I am not afraid.”

“God’s palm,” I said, “is holding you tenderly, Ellie.”

I believe that. I believe that God knows Eleanor Joffe for the quiet, loving lady she is. I believe she is treasured and held. She is beloved.

After I sang, I blessed her. I asked God to give her ease and shalom. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me. I tried to read her eyes. But all I saw there was her exhaustion.

I kissed her head. “I bless your kepe,” I said.

I stood at the door, speaking softly with her caregiver, when I heard, suddenly, Ellie’s voice.

“I love you,” she called out hoarsely. “I love you. I love you.”

I turned. Her arms were outstretched.

I put down my guitar, my notebook. I went back to her hospital bed and wrapped my arms around her shoulders. “I love you, too, Ellie. I love you, too.”

And she said, again and again, “I love you. I love you.”

Ellie, tender, star-shaped, yellow flower of generosity and kindness, of beauty and grace. When the time comes, I pray that the Holy One of Blessing gathers you up like one would gather a flower. With the tenderness a fragile, elegant, lovely thing deserves.

Keyn y’hi ratzon. May it be so.