Hope (in Humanity) in the Book of Ruth

Path_of_Israel_National_Trail_in_Hula_ValleyA family has been decimated.  Father and sons have died, leaving only their widows behind.  Naomi, the matriarch, cries out in her grief and rage. She comments sardonically: she is far too old to bear and raise children for her adult daughters-in-law to marry.  She has no more sons in her body.  The obvious solution is impossible.  She cannot imagine another.  Cut off from any foreseeable future, without children or grandchildren, Naomi is, on some level, dying.  God, she says, has stricken her; there is nothing more to hope for.

But the Holy One knows what we must learn again and again: Human beings are responsible for creating the perfect world on this earth, not God.

Even in the midst of her grief, Naomi reveals how deeply she cares for Orpah and Ruth, calling them “my daughters” rather than “daughters-in-law.”  Her own sorrow and bitterness does not prevent her from acting generously, wishing them renewed life and new hope: “Turn back, each of you, to her mother’s house.  May YHVH deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and me” (1:8).   Naomi can think about their future even when she believes she herself has none.

Ruth, in turn, braves new circumstances and a series of unknowns – sometimes dangerous ones – to make sure her mother-in-law survives.  According to Boaz, the entire community observes Ruth’s hesed: “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before” (Ruth 2:11).

In Pirkei Avot the rabbis say that one mitzvah leads inevitably to the wish to do another.  The Book of Ruth – despite its darker moments – suggests that human beings can rely on the kindness of others.

Shalom is what we, as spiritual leaders and congregants, wish for.  Yet, we know that all sorts of ills can be acted out in congregational settings – jealousies and projections lead to gossip and slander.  Most communities suffer from the pernicious effects of lashon hara.  Everything that can go wrong does – in any age and in any community.  We are the recipients of a plethora of biblical texts demonstrating how ancient our frailties are and how dangerously they can affect whole communities.  But in the Book of Ruth, things go well because individuals act well, and with higher purpose.

Not all, of course, and not always.  During most of the Book of Ruth, the townspeople do little more than note Naomi’s return and Ruth’s hard work.  They do not appear to take any action to help the two struggling widows.  It is Ruth who secures survival for her mother-in-law by accompanying her home and by going out to glean.  Boaz extends gleaning laws for Ruth’s benefit, even going beyond the requirements of halakha, and instructing his workers to pull stalks from the heaps to leave for Ruth to glean (2:15).  Boaz and Ruth both teach hesed by example.

In the Book of Ruth, vulnerable individuals have the hope of redemption.  Outsiders demonstrate the impact of ethical action and remind the insiders of their own commitments.

Irving Greenberg insists that “God’s self-restraint in not preventing the Holocaust was a divine cry to humans to step up and stop the evil.”  If the covenant indeed now relies on our recognition that God’s human partners are responsible for creating the perfect world on this earth, then the Book of Ruth is model enough for the tasks ahead.

Note: This post is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Kingberg, zichrona l‘vracha a Holocaust survivor who served my community as matriarch for a decade.  Ruth was a model of hesed.

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Taking Jewish Life In Hand: Medieval Jewish Women Circumcise, Slaughter, and Sing

Sarajevo_Haggadah_1Cheer? Laugh? Cry?

Sometimes, when it comes to the ways Jewish women have struggled to co-create their religious life, all three in quick succession. After all, for most of the last two millennia Jewish women have been subject to male authority, their access to education impeded, their roles sharply limited, their independence compromised.

And yet: During the Middle Ages, a period we generally imagine to be among the most repressive of times for women, some Jewish women had more privilege, more rights, and more power than many of our contemporaries.

Women of the earlier Middle Ages worked as mohels – at least in Germany. They functioned as ritual slaughterers. They took up  practices in part because their men were away – but also, in part, because they clearly wanted to engage with Jewish ritual and religious expression. They even had their own “synagogues,” where female cantors appear to have led them in prayer.

Rabbis legislated sharply against a number of female practices (the Maharil, for example, made no bones of the fact that he found a woman wearing tzitzit arrogant and bizarre), but the fact that the rabbis legislated against a practice demonstrates that women were eluding their control.

Isaac Halevi, rosh of the yeshiva in Worms and one of Rashi’s teachers, announced that women should not be prevented from reciting the blessing over lulav and sukkah. Clearly, women were already pronouncing the blessings. Halevi is simply sanctioning an existing practice.

This kind of trend runs all through the Middle Ages; one historian has noted that in the middle of the 12th century, Rabbeinu Tam justified his own ruling that women could pronounce blessings over time-bound positive mitzvoth by saying: “they were accustomed to do so and to fulfill them.”

Here, we can cheer – both for the women and for the male authorities that responded to their hopes to engage with ritual and practice.

Then laugh. In the 13th century, for example, the women of Ashkenaz seem to have started a veritable movement on behalf of declaring their independence, refusing to have sex with husbands and petitioning for divorce on perfectly legitimate grounds: Their husbands were repugnant to them. Payback for the popular trend of marrying off mere girls to men who were decades older?

Sometimes, the reading hurts: In the late 12th century, Jewish women began to impose increasingly severe restrictions on themselves where prayer and ritual practice were concerned. Menstruating women developed a whole set of strictures, from not touching the Torah scrolls to refusing even to recite blessings accorded women on Shabbat.

Maybe they sought to find some kind of equivalent to practices embraced by Christian women, who had embraced fasting – sometimes in extreme forms – as a sign of piety. But the effort to demonstrate religiosity through self-imposed restraints on participation in religious life had lasting repercussions. In my time as a rabbi, I’ve been asked by female congregants if they could touch the Torah while they were menstruating.

Sometimes, we read of historical moments that offer us a chance to cheer, laugh, and cry all at the same time.

Take the two grandmothers who appear to have fought over which would be allowed to be the sandek (godparent) at a grandson’s brit, a role which meant holding the child during the actual circumcision. Keep in mind, the dispute is occurring at a time when rabbis are doing their best to legislate women wholly out of the rite, refusing mothers or grandmothers the right to be present during the circumcision, much less hold the infant.

Obviously, the rabbis weren’t always winning the battle over women’s presence, or such a conversation would never have occurred. The ruling? The paternal grandmother won the right to be sandek. The grandmother who bucked the male control of the rite of circumcision won because she represented the male line.

We’re still negotiating because there is still work to be done on women’s place in Jewish life.

Thankfully, we are now negotiating beyond binaries: We must answer for rabbinic conversation and rulings which continue to affect LGBTQ+ individuals. We need to learn how to treat all Jews as equally valued members of the tribe.

When we get that right, there will be only cheers.

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Halakha as a Petaled Flower – Lessons from Rabbi Daniel Siegel

Hand crafting Jewish ritual wear is one of the ways I pray. This week, I am sewing angel tallitot.

When I designed my angel tallitot, I meant to solve specific problems faced by guitar-playing rabbis and cantors; rectangular tallitot often go askew or get caught in guitar straps. And I wanted to see if I could create a tallit with wings.

One night, after a deep conversation with Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel about All Things Jewish, I saw the tallit I would create. Those who know Rabbi Hanna Tiferet will understand why the tallit appeared to me in the form of angels’ wings.

tie-dyed tallit front small

I spent some months designing a pattern. But while I drew, cut, and drew again, it was mostly Rabbi Daniel Siegel who kept coming to mind.

When I first started rabbinic studies with ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a decade ago, I arrived with enormous enthusiasm, a pleasant singing voice, and modest guitar-playing skills. As someone who had grown up in fairly secular surroundings, I had little knowledge of Jewish ritual. I had next to no experience with liturgy. I knew, as my grandmother would say, “from absolutely nothing” when it came to halakhah, Jewish law.

So when a classmate told me that the tallit I had made back then for my guitar-playing self was not “halakhic,” I felt worse than awful. I felt humiliated by my own ignorance.

My first course with Reb Daniel was at an ALEPH Kallah. I knew from absolutely nothing then. Reb Daniel, on the other hand, was so steeped in all things Jewish that when he sang a niggun in his gravelly voice I felt I was listening to generations – centuries really – of Jewish longing for the Holy One of Blessing.

Reb Daniel never seemed to care about our ignorance and never tried to measure it. He simply wanted to offer us – with both heart and mind – the beauty of Jewish tradition, learning, and text. He wove Chassidic tradition and halakhic intention together with such tender care that the room would shine.

I went to Reb Daniel, who told me to get the tallit and meet him outside. When I returned, he was holding a number of books. He examined the tallit, which had been made with two shawls sewn together. He noted where I’d placed the tzitzit. He began reading, translating and explaining from his various volumes. We went over the issue of corners the student had addressed. Was there, in fact, a limit on the number of corners a tallit could have or was the only question I needed to be concerned with around making sure the tzitzit were placed on the corners farther from one another?

I will always remember the way Reb Daniel walked me through each of the rabbinic texts. I never felt small or ignorant. I felt, simply, like a beloved and respected student.

I have never, ever forgotten the way I experienced my first real encounter with halakhah and the halakhic process. I learned from Reb Daniel how humane and life-giving Jewish law can be; I learned how to recognize its thoughtful purpose.

But most of all, I learned how to teach those who are anxious and frightened because they think they aren’t Jewish enough, don’t know enough. Reb Daniel taught me: Open Judaism up like a petaled flower and your students will be glad to take in the beauty of their inheritance.

So now, Reb Daniel, ten years later, I thank you for doing just that. Yours has been beautiful learning I won’t forget.

P.S. Happy birthday!

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With a Bang and Not a Wimpel – Jewish Women Subvert the Rabbis

Wimpel 5Ritual acts may be fleeting. Ritual objects are not.

The Jewish women of Ashkenaz created the latter and, by doing so, shaped the former. They subverted the rabbis, created new liturgical practice, and left scholars a rich record of the culture of Ashkenaz. Rabbinic texts neither determined nor decreed their practice; a female laity creatively managed to call the shots.

It’s a story we should know.

Jewish tradition often relies on rabbinic texts to explain or justify a particular custom. The Torah binder, otherwise known as “wimple” or “mappah,” is no exception. According to the Sefer Hamaharil, published in 1556, the first connection between a boy’s circumcision and a holy object, the sacred Torah, occurred because, quite simply, a particular set of parents committed a faux pas.

It happened one time, Rabbi Ya’akov Segal Molin (Maharil) was sandek (godfather) and no cloth had been provided to wrap the baby’s legs. The rabbi ordered that a mappah (binder) be brought from the Torah scroll to be used for the child. He declared this permissible, citing “danger of life”; further, that the binder might be used again without impairing its holiness, provided it had been cleansed of blood, also, the family should give a donation to charity, so as not to enjoy the use of holy objects free of charge.

The historicity of this particular rabbinic tale may be doubted; the fact that Ashkenazi rabbis legislated the removal of women from brit milah, the rite of circumcision, cannot. In the thirteenth century, the Maharam, Rabbi Meier b. Barukh of Rothenburg, ruled that it was improper for a woman to sit among men at a circumcision. In the next century, the Maharil concurred. Confirming male status in the covenant required a celebration of maleness. Women were excluded.

Ashkenazic Jewish women, however, cleverly reinserted themselves in the ritual and related observances, creating customs and practices that gave them a significant – sometimes even a public – role. They cleaned and cut the cloth used either to bind the infant’s feet or to catch drops of blood, embroidered and decorated a blessing onto the fabric, and presented the wimple to their communities in a public, liturgically embedded ceremony. Cloth from a circumcision was repurposed to serve as a tool for a sacred task: binding and wrapping the Torah scroll.

Sixteenth-century Jewish women sidestepped their rabbis in an audacious act of spiritual ingenuity. Banned from the rite of brit milah, they used the wimpel to reestablish their presence by introducing a new liturgical practice. The custom of presenting the wimpel to the community during a synagogue service is first recorded in the 1530 Augsburg edition of Margaritha’s Der gantze jüdische Glaube. Customs varied: The wimple might be the child’s “first donation,” made while still an infant. Sometimes the wimple was presented at the time of the boy’s weaning, sometimes during his bar mitzvah. Women’s artistry, artistry created from the rite of brit milah, was on display for the entire congregation.

After the ceremony, came the commentary. In Germany, women congratulated the mother and made predictions: If the boy gave up his wimpel willingly to the men leading the service, he was clearly a Goldkind and he could be expected to grow into a loving, generous man. If the child cried or was loathe to give up his wimple, he was demonstrating that he was already deeply attached to Torah.

The cloth that caught drops of the baby’s blood was connected with the Torah that would, it was hoped, sustain the child’s life. But the wimpel also artistically rendered a record of contemporary culture. Embroidered animals and flowers and Judaica spoke of the child’s immediate surroundings, of the baby’s homeland, of a life lived in the presence of Jewish symbols and ritual objects.

A stork rises out of the lamed. A stag, a peacock, a fox, a monkey, and a unicorn run along the length of the cloth. One binder features a man in a boat, a small house, a cluster of rural buildings, a wedding scene, and Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit. Another features Judaica: a menorah, Torah scrolls, and the Star of David. Yet another ends with a Leviathan, evoking the Messiah’s arrival and the world-to-come. One generation’s wimpels are peppered with animals and flora. A half century later, zodiac signs and tribal symbols predominate. Lilith, the beast-goddess, the baby kidnapper, and Adam’s first, recalcitrant wife appears, as does Moses, the lawgiver. The wimpels of Central and Eastern Europe constitute a woman’s record of the way Ashkenazic Jewish communities interpreted the world around them over several centuries.

In many wimpels, the form and shape of the Hebrew letters include puns and jokes, even direct references to Scripture. When a woman embroidered a nun in the shape of a fish, she was punning; the name of the letter also means ‘fish’ in Hebrew. Women embroidered the lamed of the Hebrew word nolad (is born) into the shape of a stork. Do Torah wimpels suggest greater Hebrew literacy than historians commonly assume among Jewish women of the late Middle Ages?

Certainly, they demonstrate a sophisticated interface between liturgical text, pictoral representation, and cultural commentary. The rabbis could legislate the exclusion of women from Jewish ritual, liturgy, or practice. The women, in turn, could find their way right back in.

Jewish women subverted halakha. And everyone won.

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My Law is Better Than Your Law

Esther kippah
Esther’s High Holy Day Kippah in raw silk

Recently, I received an email from someone who looked over my website, www.notmybrotherskippah.com. I had made the point that I do not use leather when making my kippot.

Goyisherebbe (that was the author’s email address) wrote, “There is no problem wearing leather kippot on YK anymore (sic) than there is wearing a leather belt. The only prohibition of leather is in wearing shoes. Mishna, 8th perek of Tractate Yoma.”

There was neither salutation nor signature. A non-Jewish rabbi? Someone who thinks their rabbinate is a little “goyish”?

Whatever the appellation, the email deserved a response. I wrote:

Dear goyisherebbe,
Thanks so much for your comment! …[T]here are rabbinic authorities who have suggested a prohibition against wearing any garment that is made from a living creature on Yom Kippur, and it is minhag in some communities to think and act in that way. For those whose custom it is to abstain from all such garments, my kippot can support their practice. For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (quoted in Agnon’s Days of Awe, p. 201): “…how can a man put on a garment for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written, “And His tender mercies are over all His works”? [Siddur ha-Minhagim].

But I got the point goyisherebbe was making. I promised to go back to the website to clarify the leather matter as one of minhag rather than halakhah and thanked my correspondent. Goyisherebbe was right to make me rethink my language.

I did not get a response, but I didn’t expect one, either. Goyisherebbe had found an opportunity to correct and did so in summary fashion, without any special kindness, conviviality, or grace.

Halakhic one-upmanship can be a brutal sport in Jewish circles. During the time I was in rabbinical school, I twice observed students justifying reproofs by appealing to Leviticus 19:17, “you shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.” In both cases, the apparent offender had not violated any halakhah I know of. There were, as there often are, egos in play.

In fact, one student invoked levitical law while openly humiliating a colleague, violating a cardinal halakhic rule against embarrassing someone according to the Sixth Commandment. Our sages interpreted the prohibition against murder to include causing the blood to drain from someone’s face, thus “shedding blood.”

As a rule, Jews don’t tell other people whether they are going to end up in hell or not. Most of us don’t think there is such a thing.

But we are perfectly capable of judging each other’s knowledge, practice, and observance of Jewish law, despite the fact that most of us are not exactly experts on the subject.

In fact, sometimes I am astonished by the Jews who grant themselves permission to use halakhah as a spiritual cudgel – even when those self-same Jews don’t (for example) possess any Shabbat practice to speak of.

Jews, Jews. We must stop using one of the sweetest contributions of our tradition to intimidate each other. Halakhah is a thing of beauty (at least it’s meant to be so), not a means of belittling. Halakhah is meant to uplift and enoble us, not to limit and confine us.

It’s the first day of the secular new year, about a quarter of the way into 5775. So very much is wrong with this world. In the name of halakhah, we are to name things we find troubling. We must call for redress of injustice. We should pursue justice and love peace.

We can use our exploration of the ethical to act.  But humility is a prerequisite. Kindness is essential.

Halakhah tells us that.

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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….)

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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

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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.

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