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.

Healthy Irreverence

Jesus in Brasil 1Everyone needs a dose of healthy irreverence now and again. Two such doses are found below. My advice: Avoid like a biblical plague, should you feel disinclined to laugh at religion. Including your own.

Part 1: In which I make fun of relatives and an excessively large statue of Jesus

I am not certain why, but I grew up with Jewish people who frequently called on Jesus. As in: “Jesus! I can’t believe that guy just ran that light. What in God’s name was he thinking?”

You could have all sorts of fun with this. Who would Jesus be in this formulation? Who is God?

Certain relatives of mine invoked Jesus’ name with middle initials included. Or they described his actual location. You can imagine.

For many decades, I have worked to purge myself of the remotest tendency to follow examples set by my relatives. Seriously, how would I feel if I overheard someone saying: “Adonai on Mt. Sinai, what the hell just happened here?”

I will admit it. I regressed last Sunday.

My husband, Ralf, and I were watching the World Cup finals between Germany and Argentina. It would take time to explain, but it happens that I am a die-hard fan of the German team.

The broadcast kept getting interrupted by shots of the second-largest statue of Jesus in the world (the other one is in Poland, as you might expect). The 98-foot tall soapstone and concrete statue in question is located at the top of the 2,300-foot Corcovado mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Jesus looks down at the city below, arms outstretched. A huge sun was burning over Jesus’ head. Very dramatic.

We have seen a good deal of this impressive statue during the tournament.

Naturally, the first time the statue appeared on the screen, I was annoyed. After all, pictures of this statue are everywhere. Just google “Jesus overlooking Rio de Janeiro” and you will get twenty-four million hits. (And now, for full effect in actual numerals: 24,000,000 hits.)

So why did we need to see it just then, I ask, when the Lionel Messi was very likely to make another crazy-beautiful run for the German goal?

The second time the image interrupted the game, I felt the ire rising.

“Crikey!” I said.

I used to think this was a harmless, meaningless expression. But I just discovered, whilst looking it up, that it is a 19th century euphemism for “Christ.” Um, sorry.

On Jesus’ third coming, I leapt up from my chair and shouted, “Jesus! Can we please watch the game?”

Yup, my bad.

Part 2: In which I make fun of my own people

Jews across the world, when citing the only creedal statement Judaism possesses, generally do not know that what they are saying actually contradicts what they are saying.

I shall explain. Jews possess one essential dogma: the Shema. The whole phrase goes like this: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.” Most translations say something to the effect of “Listen, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Jews think they are making a steadfast declaration of God’s oneness when they chant the Shema. No loose and irregular ideas about any family relationships or separate components. God is a unity.

Just say “one.”

I should first mention that the word “Lord” is not actually to be found in this text. Jews apply the vowels for the Hebrew word “lord” (adonai) over the letters that represent the personal, private name of the deity so they won’t try to pronounce said name. This was once the prerogative of the High Priest. Now, no one gets to try.

Some people add other vowels in to come up with the transliterated name “Yahweh,” but this is mere speculation. The letters in the scroll don’t have vowels. This is what you get, and that’s all (transliterated, of course): YHVH.

The second salient word for our purposes is “Eloheinu” which means “our God.” I will not get into the complex fact that the source for this word is “Elohim,” which can also mean “gods” and does sometimes mean exactly that in our scriptures (as in “other gods” – see Exodus 20:3 where you will find exactly this expression).

Once upon an ancient time, there was a Canaanite deity who went by the name of El, sometimes referred to as El Elyon. And if you look about in ancient texts and archeological evidence you will find that our forefathers of long ago knew quite a lot about the Canaanite pantheon in which El had subsidiary deities. One of these went by the name of YHVH.

I can go into all the detail in another blog post and when I do, we will hang out in Deuteronomy for an excellent illustration of what happened to biblical texts when their editors tried to cover up our messy theological history. The important facts in this particular blog are these: Long, long ago, in some parts of the Ancient Near East, El and YHVH were two different deities, one subordinate to the other. Eventually, our ancestors did the work of conflating names for those deities into varying appellations for the one god we worship.

We mean it when we say that God is one. But we use the names for two different ancient deities when we say so.

Religion is funny.

Given the many terrors in the world that religion produces, I like to take it tongue-in-cheek now and again. Only now and again, though.

Today is the 17th of Tamuz, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached in the 6th century BCE. The destruction of Jerusalem was just weeks away.

Here’s why I make sure my irreverence is a sometime thing.  Because I am, in fact, certain that divinity is both in all of us and ever around us, eternal and beautiful. I like to look for it, hope for it, and be thankful for it.

Given the world we are living in, that’s one thing I am never irreverent about.

Horror Upon Horror – And Hope?

Three Israeli Boys

Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel

There is never enough horror.

In the first week of July, we learned that Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar, the three Israeli boys kidnapped on June 12 were, in fact, murdered – within hours of their capture. Likely, the authorities were aware of that fact, given, among other things, the frantic cell phone call from one of the teens played at the burial.

Mohammad Abu Khdeir

Mohammad Abu Khdeir

Israel reacted with a massive round-up of over 400 Palestinians suspected of being Hamas operatives. Five Palestinians died in the crackdown, including another teen, 15-year-old teenager Mohammed Dudeen.

The burial of the three Israeli boys was followed, also within hours, by the brutal beating of a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was then set on fire.  He died sucking in the flames consuming him.

Terrors unfold so fast that there is no keeping up or holding back the bile.

Yesterday I read an eloquent analysis of the horror of acquiescence.  David Grossman’s essay “On hope and despair in the Middle East” was published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Today,” Grossman wrote, “in an Israel that has known so much disappointment, hope (if ever mentioned at all) is always hesitant, a bit timid, and apologetic. Despair, on the other hand, is utterly confident and self-assured, as if speaking on behalf of a law of nature, an axiom that states that between these two peoples there shall never be peace, that the war between them is a heavenly decree, and that altogether, it will always be bad here, nothing but bad. As despair sees it, anyone who still hopes, who still believes in the possibility of peace, is at best naïve, or a deluded dreamer, and at worst, a traitor who weakens Israel’s wherewithal by encouraging it to be seduced by false visions.

“In this sense, the Israeli right has won. The right, which adheres to this worldview – certainly over the last decades – has managed to instill it in a majority of Israelis. One could say that the right has not only vanquished the left: It has vanquished Israel.”

It is eloquent, impassioned reading.

For days I have remembered the nightmare years of the early 1980s, when I went on radio shows in Columbia, Missouri, as a local peace activist.  I was asked to speak about the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.  The Israelis were complicit, it had been discovered, in the Phalangist-perpetrated Sabra and Shatila massacres.  Palestinians were murdered en masse while Israeli Defense Forces surrounded both camps, stationing troops in order to stop any residents from escaping the slaughter.

And now, today in Israel?

Tens of thousands of “likes” on a Facebook page calling for “revenge” for the murder of the three teens.

Explicit calls from all directions to kill Arabs (or political leftists).

Members of the Knesset quoting Torah to prove that there is a God of revenge who backs their murderously inflammatory rhetoric.

And the like, as one would expect, from the “other side” is just as pernicious, just as hateful, just as ever-present.

This is not “mere” extremism.  None of this is spontaneously generated by the particular horror of the way those boys died.  It is the result of years of hope suppressed, perverted, dismissed.

In my lifetime, I have watched – yes, in horror – as Israel’s hope has been highjacked.

I was lucky to have been ordained by ALEPH – The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the same year as Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn, who was born and raised in America and has lived and worked in Israel on a kibbutz for decades.  Recently, he wrote: “I am very much aware that history is playing itself out on so many different levels and that recent events look very different from different vantage points… The more I read, the more I feel that the distinction is not between Jews and Arabs, but really between those who believe in using physical force, violence and fear, and those who believe in ‘live and let live,’ in using tools of peace and coexistence, in creating peace by de-escalating at EVERY OPPORTUNITY.”

He signed, as he always has as long as I have known him, “pray for peace.”

And so I shall.  Because there is enough horror.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – Jewish, With Feeling

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z"l

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l

My copy of Jewish With Feeling wasn’t on the shelf.

“Oh,” I said to my husband, Ralf, “I remember. I lent it to someone. Again.”

Jewish With Feeling is one of many books by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on my shelf. It is also a book I lend out more often than any other in our library. It is a book anyone can read – without fear of knowing too little; without fear of knowing too much.

It is a reflection of Zalman’s spirit: Light-filled, opening, welcoming, rich.

Reb Zalman died this morning, just weeks away from his ninetieth birthday celebration.

He was the founder of ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The ALEPH seminary has ordained over 80 religious leaders. I am among them. I learned, at this seminary, the difference between rebbe and rabbi; I learned to be the former even when I was called the latter.

He was friends with countless other religious leaders across the world. One was the Dalai Lama. Their encounters were described in Rodger Kamenetz’ book The Jew in the Lotus.

I read the book well before discovering Jewish Renewal. I very much liked the Reb Zalman I met there – years before I got to like him in person.

Reb Zalman reached out to the disaffected, to the secular Jew, the alienated Jew, to any Jew. You only needed to stop for a moment and he could hold you with a story – each blessed with an unforgettable punch line that always, inevitably, elicited a smile, outright laughter, a nod, or a tear.

This morning I told a friend, “He gave something to everyone.”

Wisdom, first and foremost. I learned from Zalman to put aside the siddur and listen for the prayer that needed to be voiced. I learned, from Reb Zalman, to recover the Jewish practice of spontaneous blessing, though I am certain he would have understood why I so closely observed Christian friends practicing their own take on that art.

I learned from Reb Zalman that it was the task of the rebbe to look into the soul of a congregant.

Zalman was a seer of souls. The first time I met him was after he attended a service I co-led in 2005. He remarked on my “singing smile.” Later, that very day, he dedicated one of his books to me, to one “who delights in tefillah.”

Of all the facts of my life, this is one that has never failed. Give me any opportunity to sing prayer and I will know God’s presence for the gift it is. Zalman (fore)saw that.

In his book, Wrapped in Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters, Zalman quotes his friend, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, z”l: “How do you know that you have met your true teacher? Whatever this person teaches you, you knew it all along.”

Reb Zalman taught people what they knew all along – that went for everyone, Jewish or not.

I teach his work. For me, his most gorgeous teachings were these: Look into the soul before you. Help make our texts speak. Tell our stories and live them in the telling.

Show others what it is to be Jewish with feeling.

The Whole Story

Pastor Steve and Rabbi Barbara  Photo by Ronald Hartsell

Pastor Steve and Rabbi Barbara
Photo by Ronald Hartsell

I don’t really know if anyone knows the whole story.

The whole story is painful. It is beautiful.

When my little congregation formed in January, 2004 as a havurah, our first meetings were held at a local church in Concord, North Carolina. One of our interfaith couples suggested that church; one of the two spouses was an active and happy member at that church.

So we met in their fellowship hall once a month or so for about a year.

None of us knew that there was a deep division in the community about our presence. None of us knew that the minister (who has long since moved away) was being visited each week by church members who believed Jews worshipping in the church was a real danger to the community.  She told me later what they had said.

“The Jews will destroy the church.”

I had a few other minister friends in Concord. One was Pastor Steve Ayers, of McGill Baptist Church. Wounded and shocked, I told him what had happened.

He said, “Come to McGill, Barbara.”

So we moved to a Baptist church in Concord.

We knew that some Jews would automatically assume that we were messianic and would not dare to come and find out otherwise. We knew that some people would call McGill and ask if Jews met there. We knew both congregations might take a hit for their conviction that they could worship in the same space with love, tenderness, and respect.

In the very first year we were at McGill we learned we would have to raise thousands of dollars to restore our first Torah. For twelve families, that was a daunting challenge. Steve told me that McGill Baptist would refuse to take any rent; whatever money we had should go to the restoration.

To this day, I remind congregants that some of the letters on our first Torah were put there by Baptist generosity.

Sometimes, despite all our busy schedules, we managed to do congregational things together – a joint Hanukkah-Christmas party, a trip to see the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit when it came to Charlotte. I visited the McGill Baptist Adult Education class every year and spoke on a range of different topics to a community of enthusiastic and loving learners.

I stood before the congregation yesterday to thank them. I cried through each word. I thought of the things that had happened to me in that sanctuary.

Before we made the move to McGill, the congregation had invited me to deliver a talk on Judaism. After a long and wonderfully enthusiastic conversation with congregants at a program that was supposed to last an hour and turned into almost three hours, I turned to my husband, Ralf, and said, “I think I better apply to rabbinical school – I need to know a lot more than I do to answer questions like those.”

Later, I joked that I got the “call” in a Baptist sanctuary.

I have sung Avinu Malkeynu with passion and power in that room. I have prostrated onto its floor. I have felt the souls of my ancestors attending to our prayers.

I have heard birds chirping at the window while we sang Elohai neshama, “my God, the soul you have given me is pure.”

I have seen my congregants dance across the sanctuary floor. Children have sung prayers and chanted from our Torahs. We have celebrated, and celebrated, and celebrated again.

God has flowed right through my bones.

How could I manage to tell those generous people at McGill that I became a better rabbi in their sanctuary, that I learned how to serve the Holy One there?

At yesterday’s service, Pastor Steve gave Temple Or Olam a blessing. He wished us well as we move closer to the university area, to another location and a different part of the way on our path. He reminded his congregation (and us) that living the love of God is our task. We are the face of the divine, he said. Sometimes we are the only messenger to others for that love.

He spoke about what it means to love others who are not always like you, who speak or look or act differently, but who need your outstretched arms, your heart and soul extended.

B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God were we created. Each of us is a face of the Divine.

To all of you at McGill Baptist Church: For your grace, your generosity, your open-heartedness, and your love, I say again, “thank you.”

God knows the whole story.

Late Reflections on Parsha Korach

Freedom Summer 1964I had just turned five that spring.

It was a murderous summer. That June 21 in 1964, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were investigating the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, which had been a site for a CORE Freedom School. Schwerner and Chaney had held voter registration rallies at the church. For that, the parishioners were punished by a number of white men – led, apparently, by Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price. Their deacons were pulled out of their cars, placed before the headlights, and beaten with rifle butts. Their church was set afire.

Price found a way to arrest the three men. They were released into a trap: Members of the KKK – also policemen – shot and killed Schwerner, then Goodman, and then Chaney, after chain-whipping him. It took forty-four days to find their bodies. It took forty-one years to convict just one of the men responsible for their deaths.

Last Saturday, it was exactly 50 years since the murders. Two of the men – Michael and Andrew were white, and Jewish. James Chaney was an African American.

Men. Human beings who fought for a heroic cause.

The night before that anniversary I asked my congregation: How could any of us respond to this horror but with silence? These are scenes of brutality and beating, of fear and fire, of terror and murder.

The darkness they elicit is complete. We can respond by going numb, to be sure, but we know it: What happened that day was an example of the human capacity to act evilly. There is hell in the world.

Last Shabbat we read Parsha Korach. There are scenes of fire and death in that parsha, scenes of terror. Our Torah does not make it easy for us; it presents us, repeatedly, with devastating scenes. Humanity goes aground, again and again. God hopes for better and doesn’t get it; Moses and Aaron alternately plead for humanity and find themselves appalled, angry, and depressed. Moses even asks God at one point to end his life; he can’t bear the weight of the responsibility he has shouldered.

And despite the many writers at work, the different time periods the Torah reflects, there is often a strangely linear sense to it all. God commands the Israelites to make tassels, to put these tzitzit on their clothing as a reminder to observe God’s commandments and so, be holy.

Immediately after this command is given at the end of one week’s reading, the next begins with Korach’s challenge: Together with Datan and Aviram and two hundred and fifty leaders of the Israelites, he confronts Moses and Aaron: “Too much is yours! The entirety of the community is holy; why do you exalt yourselves over them?”

Have Moses and Aaron presumed, controlled, become despotic?

Certainly, Moses responds with a test and invokes a cruel judgment for those who fail it. Korach and his followers will make an offering together with Aaron. May the earth swallow those who have rebelled without cause.

But perhaps Moses has second thoughts – he asks Datan and Aviram to come to speak with him, to forestall the conflict? They are intransigent. They refuse, launching yet more accusations. The contest is on.

And the conflagration is near. God is enraged by yet one more example of an ungrateful, recalcitrant people. But Moses and Aaron ask: “If one man sins, will you be furious with all?” Moses begs his community to separate themselves from the rebels – is he sensing that the glove he threw down will lead to utter destruction? Datan and Aviram are surrounded by their wives and children; Korach’s family, it seems, is with him. And just as Moses announced, the earth itself opens up and swallows the rebels. All Israel flees at the sound of their screaming and as they flee, fire comes from before God’s presence and consumes the two-hundred and fifty leaders who had stood with Korach.

The next day, in a state of shock, the people accuse Moses and Aaron of causing the deaths they witnessed. Moses can predict the outcome: A wrathful force will literally plague the people. Again, remorseful, aware that his own pride is part of what has led to this disaster, he says to Aaron, go, go quickly. Make expiation.

And Aaron does so. He stands, the Hebrew reads, between the living and the dead.

How on earth do we reconcile a rebellion with the aftermath endured and witnessed by the innocent? Children die in this rebellion. A plague descends on an entire people.

The three men who died a half century ago were not only innocent of any wrongdoing, but heroes. Their cause was just, righteous, moral in every respect. Their killers acted with a brutality that cannot be gainsaid.

In Korach’s story, there is no hero. Torah will not give us an easy answer. Everyone perpetrates; there are victims of pride, of selfishness, of mean-spiritedness.

Korach insists that all Israel is holy just after the Israelites have been told that becoming holy is a constant challenge, just after God insists that they must dress themselves, each and every day, in reminders of their tasks, their responsibilities, the things they must do in an effort to become holy human beings. Holiness is an aspiration; a call, a hope. Korach is no hero: He has forgotten humility, and that makes him willing to claim prerogative. Just wondering: Have we, as a nation, really earned our right to what we possess? Really?

Moses, embattled and exhausted, asks for doom and gets it: “If these men are guilty,” he says, “let the earth open its mouth and swallow them; let the earth itself speak judgment.” We judge harshly, we invoke punishment. Our words have power. In the movie Chocolat, the mayor remarks: “Someone ought to do something about those gypsies in town.” That night, someone sets their barges afire.

I imagine Aaron in the midst of the living and the dead. Where was our beloved peacemaker? He did not stop his younger brother from invoking judgment. He did not go to Korach and the others. He did not speak on behalf of peace; thus, he was left to stand in the midst of a war zone. The smell of fire must have been everywhere. The sounds of screaming must still have hung in the air. He stood between the living and the dead.

And God? God who read Moses’ judgment script and acted it out? God who threatens to destroy (again) the people he saved? God can be appeased by human beings, but God cannot be excused.

It is a story of hell in the world.

A few weeks ago, I was present when a colleague of mine asked her congregation: There is hell in the world: What does liberal theology have to say in response?

Hell has a spectrum – from the rebellions and discontents that build tension and anger and frustration in families, in communities, in church and synagogue. There is hell in our easy judgments.  We call for more time in prison for the murderer or even his death, and one day we read about an attempted execution so brutal that the victim suffers agonies for forty five minutes and dies later of a heart attack.

Our nation goes to war in faraway lands and the children who survive go to work clearing mines and losing limbs.

The spectrum is wide and deep. We have only our tassels. Most of us are not heroes.

But our tassels are signs of hope and commitment. We must strive for holiness in the world. This is how we can, as my colleague said, “love the hell out of the world.” We can create a spectrum of kindness of love, of generosity, of understanding. We can look for opportunities to wear our tassels, to make heaven on earth.

So we must.

Services Lived (And Lively)

Kids dancingIt’s been sitting on my desk for weeks – months, actually. The headline reads: “My Little Darling Goes to Church.”

The article is a first-person account . Most of the piece consisted of motherly anxiety: Would the child be able to sit still? Could he be quiet for an hour? What would she do if her child failed the church test?

I read parts of it out loud to my husband, Ralf, over breakfast. There were helpful tips in the sidebar for keeping small children quiet.

Bring snacks and water to keep “little mouths occupied.” Have books at the ready to distract the child. Make sure you sit in the aisle so you can make a getaway if a tantrum starts.

“I guess that’s what you learn at church,” Ralf said. “To be silent.”

Let’s confess, now. That’s what children are taught at a good many synagogues, too.

Not at mine.

Last Friday was an all-night extravaganza at Temple Or Olam. We began with dinner, announcements, and awarding certificates to two of my teens, who had spent six months studying cantillation with me. (Their long-term goal: Becoming conversant enough to function as gabbais. Why not prove that a bar/bat mitzvah is not a terminal degree?)

Our Annual Meeting followed dinner. New board members were voted in, policies, amendments, and the budget were approved. Our new twenty-something group, Derech Yisrael, was introduced to the congregation.

Then, it was almost Shabbat. Time for leading services.

Who did the leading? The rabbi (me) accompanied by her electric guitar, TOO’s amazing percussionist (Ralf), and the congregation’s kids. Ranging from four to fifteen, they sing everything with me. Everything.

Kids younger than four mostly dance.

We chanted the Shema to a sweet, slow melody. After a few minutes, I asked five-year-old Colin to sing alone.

“Shema Yisrael,” he sang, soft and high, his Ashkenazi accent full-on, “Adonoi Eloheynu, Adonoi-oi E-echad.”

Everyone breathed in the revelation of our time – of all time: Unity. All and everything one.

“Moses and Miriam,” sings John, a thirteen-year-old who has Asperger’s Syndrome. “They stood by the sea…”

But John is singing a different melody than I’ve planned on, so I break in.

“John,” I sing back, “they were singing a different me-lo-dy.”

“Stealing the show is not my special-ty!” he sings.

I turn to the congregation, and sing happily, “Well, you could have fooled me!”

Then I turn to Harrison, a red-headed ball of energy.

“Harr-i-son,” I sing, and point to the page number for Mi Chamocha.

He doesn’t miss a beat: “Page one-sixty-two,” he warbles beautifully.

Several of the kids begin dancing during the first verse. When our prayer of exaltation and revelation is done, I ask: “Now who really felt like dancing, but was afraid to do it? Raise your hands.”

About fifteen adult hands inch toward the ceiling.

“Now’s your chance,” I grin, and we start singing again. In the end, more than half the congregation is on their feet, wending their way all around the sanctuary.

None of this was planned. Neither was the moment when Colin said, after a rousing Adon Olam, “Let’s do it again!”

We did. Of course.

I long for these children to know Shabbat services in their fullness. Their Kabbalat Shabbat needs to be the spontaneous expression of gratitude, thankfulness, joy. Yes, they talk and ask questions I cannot prepare for. Sometimes a toddler will cry or make unexpected noises. One of them will hit a note that will squeak its way through the doors as it leaves the room. Then it will hang out in the lobby for another five minutes.

Anything can happen, really.

But this is lived prayer, for toddlers and twenty-somethings, for those entering middle age to those who have long since left it behind.

“Mission accomplished,” wrote the mother who so worried about her child interrupting services. He had behaved in church. He had stayed still.

Too bad.

Bamidbar: A Book of Failings, A Book of Truth

DesertThe Phoenicians and Philistines were sailing the Mediterranean, conquering coastlines. Semitic tribes traveled across Mesopotamia. Various empires fell (see under “Hittite” and “Kassite”). Troy was sacked in 1250 BCE.

It was a time of grand movements, critical conquests.

Narratives about the heroes of the time are still with us – think of the Illiad and the Odyssey. Egyptian and Assyrian annals glorified powerful kings and offered detailed descriptions of royal victories. Kings were great and powerful and their battles were epic.

What does Bamidbar offer?

The text references ancient texts now lost to us, like the Book of the Battles of YHVH. Fragments of ancient songs and poetry read like models for the Elvish poetry of The Lord of the Rings cycle. “Against Wahab in a whirlwind and the wadis of Amon / and the cascade of the wadis that turns down towards Ar’s dwelling / and clings to Moab’s border” (21:14-15). “Rise up, O Well! Sing out to it. / Well the captains dug, the people’s nobles delved it,/ with a scepter, with their walking stick” (21: 17-18).

On the one hand, we are given a continuation of Levitical and legal concerns, particularly around inheritance, organization of cultic activities, and tribal tasks. On the other, we learn how angry people can be, how frightened. At one point in the story the Israelites claim their relationship to YHVH is so tenuous that if they so much as go near the Tabernacle, they risk being destroyed. On the one hand, we learn how to walk together, how to march; on the other, divisiveness is part and parcel of the march.

The first ten chapters specify the tasks of the Levites and the laws around the Nazirites who become, for a time, lay priests of a sort. The tabernacle is, in an expanded recounting from Leviticus, dedicated and consecrated. It’s hanukkah! (It’s a word: It means “dedicate…”) There is much in the way of strictures to secure the Tabernacle from prying eyes and hands. The first Passover feast is celebrated. It is the beginning of the Israelites’ second year in the wilderness.

Silver trumpets are fashioned at YHVH’s command; these will announce the people’s get-up and go. The tenth chapter, and the first third of B’midbar, ends with a call to arms chanted during Torah services. Kuma Adonai: “Rise up, O Lord. May your enemies be scattered and your foes flee before you!” Now, it seems, all the Israelites have to do is head homeward.

But the next chapter introduces us to what one scholar has called “The Book of Failings.” Manna, which tastes of rich cream, is not good enough for the Israelites. They dream of melons, cucumbers, onions and fish. The people grumble and complain, YHVH is angry and lashes out, Moses intercedes. Places are named after conflict. Taberah, the first instance in the book of this oft-repeated cycle, is Hebrew for “conflagration.” Kibroth-Hattaavah, where the people get sick from gorging on God-given quail, means “Graves of Desire.”

Moses sends off scouts and they come back only to terrorize the people with descriptions of unbeatable giants. Again God is enraged, again YHVH lashes out, sentencing the fearful to wander so that only their descendants, born in freedom, may win the land for freedom.

YHVH tries to bless the people, to remind them to remember the law:

The LORD said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the LORD your God” (Numbers 15: 37-41).

And then, just after this restatement of relationship and hope, Korach’s desperate rebellion. The earth opens up to swallow pain and discontent, but it is not enough. The plague that follows is a horror: Aaron stops it by an emergency expiation, by standing, as the Torah tells us, “between the living and the dead” (17: 13).

A doctor without borders.

In one single chapter (Num. 20), Moses loses both his siblings. Israel’s dancing prophetess, Miriam, the girl who saved her younger brother so he could save his people, the mature, even elderly woman who brought water and life wherever she went, is buried in a parched wilderness. Moses and Aaron lose perspective and patience. God is prepared to give the kvetching Israelites water from a rock but the two leaders fail the test. They strike the stone instead of making it clear that any waterfall is and must always be God’s provenance and generosity.

One wonders. The sister whose presence guaranteed water is gone. No wonder Moses and Aaron hammer against the rock in their grief and rage. Do they strike out simply because they want their sister back? At the close of the same chapter which describes Miriam’s burial, we read of Aaron’s death. Moses himself must remove the priestly vestments from his elder brother’s shoulders and place them on his nephew.

Then, he watches Aaron die.

The last third of the book tells us about the machinations of war. A foreign seer is sent to curse the Israelites and blesses them instead. The Israelites engage in sexual transgressions with Moabite women and worship alongside the Moabites. There is yet another plague. A transfer of leadership is arranged and Moses stands on a mountain looking into a land he is not permitted to enter. The book ends by apportioning a land yet to be won.

What might we learn from Bamidbar?

Our Torah can be a humble record. Our leaders are not heroes with superhuman powers’s they are flawed, broken human beings. Our people is not a glorious nation, but a bickering, contentious one.

Moses pleads for his people, he defends them, he protects them. He mediates between a selfish, recalcitrant people and a jealous and impatient deity. Talk about the dangers of triangulation. Talk about standing between a rock and a hard place.
He fails, in the end, to find a way out.

Nowhere in our story is there an obvious answer, a clear way out. We live in a world of paradox. Chosen to stand for God’s law, we struggle to observe it. We struggle to interpret it. We are meant to be a nation of priests; most often, we are a nation of dissatisfied malcontents.

Our struggle is human. We are given the mandate to help God’s shefa flow into this world. We are to give, to love, to know and demonstrate compassion and understanding. This is godding, as Jewish Renewalists say. Yet, each and every day we are weighed down by our small-mindedness, by our egos, by the daily and even onerous tasks of living.

At the start of this book, Moses takes a census. We are counted. The book asks: Can YHVH count on us? Can we count on each other? What can we count on?

The Truth Shall Set Us Free

seder-plate-orange-150x150I believed it, too. I told that story, too.

Later, I found out I’d been lying. Or, if you want a softer, gentler conclusion, I can put it this way: I had unknowingly participated in hijacking the truth.

But the truth, as they say, can set you free.

The orange on the seder plate was not, contrary to popular mythology, put there as a protest against patriarchy. It is simply not true that some misogynistic dude told noted scholar and historian Susannah Heschel that a woman belonged on the bimah like an orange on the seder plate. You can find the story told in Heschel’s own words here: http://www.miriamscup.com/Heschel_orange.htm

Ask folks about the orange, though, and that’s what they will tell you. Just a few years back, I heard a group of about seventy very well-educated Jewish women make that claim. Once upon a time, I would have smiled and agreed.

It’s nice to acknowledge how far women have come, how much we have achieved. It’s a good moment when we have reason to congratulate ourselves.

When I found out how wrong I was, I was appalled.

Here’s the truth.

According to Susannah Heschel herself, the story begins back in the 1980’s, when she read a feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread to the seder plate as a way to demonstrate understanding for the status of lesbians in the Jewish world. The idea was obvious enough: There would be just as much room for chametz on the seder plate as there was for lesbians and gays in Jewish life and community.

Heschel wasn’t convinced that this was the best way to demonstrate solidarity. Associating Jewish lesbians and gays with chametz defined the former as forbidden. After all, before Passover we do everything we can to ferret out and dispose of the chametz in our midst. We burn the last crumbs before the holiday begins. We declare ourselves free of chametz, and then, during the next eight days, we eschew all contact with leavened bread.

Heschel decided to place an orange on the seder plate to symbolize the inclusion of gays and lesbians. The orange symbolized the life-giving, fruitful energy they could bring as involved participants in Jewish communities. The seeds of the orange could be spat out to repudiate the homophobia that had long plagued Jewish life.

Why couldn’t we transmit the actual history of the orange on the seder plate? Why transmute and transform Heschel’s experience into a story of women’s victory over patriarchy?

As Heschel herself has written, her words were put into the mouth of a man. We ended up with a self-congratulatory cliché. These days, Jewish women are busy owning that bimah.

I know that there are still plenty of concerns about the status of Jewish women in our communities and institutions. But it might be time for us not just to retell the story, and to do so accurately, but to look closely at the kind of comfort we gave ourselves when we altered it. The heterosexual gloss we gave to a story about homosexual pain is worth examining.

The stories we believe and the stories we tell will reveal a story about who we are.

Next year, at Passover, put an orange on the seder plate. Spit out the seeds of homophobia. These must become bitter relics of the past, of a time heterosexuals should atone for.

Let the truth set us free.

Killings in Kansas – One More Question at the Seder Table

He’s one of our’n. And while he lived in North Carolina, he was one of the most prolific producers of racial hatred and antisemitism in the U.S. of A.

Frazier Glenn Cross (known mostly as F. Glenn Miller Jr.) has a point scale for murder. One point for killing an African American. Twenty for a Jew.

I don’t think he had planned on awarding points for random Christians, though he is suspected of having killed three last Sunday.

It’s better than likely that he was after Jews. For one thing, he advocated killing them. For another, he is reported to have shown up at two Jewish institutions outside of Kansas City for a hunting trip.

Jews have been targeted so often and for so long that the hunt itself has become a national pastime (and not just in Germany under Adolf Hitler, either). When I teach courses on the history of European anti-Semitism, my students usually have some idea about the big-name persecutions (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust). During the semester they become witnesses to the forgettable smaller stuff – expulsions from this or that European town, a local slaughter of all the Jews. They look through timelines listing the incidents of forced conversions or pogroms, about laws sanctioning the enslavement of a local Jewish population or their enslavement, about their ghettoization. It’s pretty regular stuff. Every few years, somewhere in Europe, some Jews are being hunted.

Again.

So it is probably no wonder that I mentioned the KC killings at my first night seder.
But maybe it was a wonder: After all, six of the ten people at our seder were devout Christians (one an ordained Protestant minister). I also invited two agnostics to the meal. But Jews and non-believers were outnumbered that night, and for a reason.

I wanted to prove to myself (and to the others at my table) that there are universal messages in the Passover seder — messages about human cruelty and oppression, about the evils that emerge when we control and abuse others. I wanted us to sit around my round table without leaders or followers. I wanted everyone to see the face of every other. I wanted to remind myself that there is reason to believe in humanity.

I wanted to ask: Who is humanity, exactly?

In The Train of Life, a film about a small shtetl in France that attempts to deport itself in order to escape the Nazi wholesale destruction of European Jews, the town fool, Shlomo, offers wisdom a rabbi must pay heed to.

Shlomo: God created men in his image. Sounds nice. Shlomo is the image of God. But who wrote that sentence in the Torah? Man, not God. Man. With no modesty whatsoever he compared himself to God. God may have created man but man, son of God, created God in order to invent himself.
Rabbi’s wife: Can you repeat that?
Shlomo: Man wrote the Bible so he wouldn’t be forgotten. He didn’t care about God.
Rabbi: We have enough problems.
Shlomo: Rabbi, we neither love God nor pray to him. We beg him to help us get by down here. But we don’t care about him. We care only about ourselves. The real question is not whether God exists but whether we do.

To exist, what must we humanity become? Are we, on some level, yet to exist at all?
To control, to abuse – to murder and destroy – if we class these things as inhuman, then Shlomo is correct: The question is whether we exist, not whether God does.

I gathered eight loving people around my seder table.

To prove that we do.