Thoughts on Well-Meaning, Narrow-Minded People

Standing in line at Passport Control in Ben Gurion Airport, you’ve got nothing better to do than listen. It’s almost not worth talking.

When two nice ladies from England asked me why I was coming to Israel, I explained that I was here to learn about teaching Israel in progressive Jewish communities. One of them said “Are you Reform?” And I said, “Yes.” And she winced and shook her head.

Now, I could have just turned my attention back to the kiosks where all our hope lay.Or, I could have said, what’s the matter with being part of the Reform movement.

But I smiled back and waited to see what would happen next. 

I didn’t get the names of my new friends, so let’s call one Pippa and the other Peppa — we’ll see if I can keep them straight.

It will be tough. They looked alike, same hair color, same oddly wide mouth that I think is an indicator of advanced medical science, though I’m not sure. They had the same accents, the same tans, and the same eye makeup.

Peppa turned to her friend Pippa and said “She’s Reform. You know they teach their children to hate Israel.”

“Oh,” said Pippa, “BDS and all that?”

“No,” I said, quickly.

“Yes,” said Peppa, shaking her head. “They are lying to their young people. They don’t know anything.”

Pippa said nothing much more, but an older woman from New York, an educator, she said, in a Conservative community, though she was Orthodox, we’ll call her Ruth . . . where was I . . . Ruth said “I’m keeping my mouth shut.”

And thus ensued a good deal of no one but me keeping anyone’s mouth shut for quite some time while the Passport Control clerks abandoned kiosks for shift change, returned minus a clerk each time, whittling down the staff to three clerks while the lines held steady at nine long and tangled queues. It wasn’t their words that bothered me so much, it was their ears. I’m happy to listen, even to dogma. However, I’d like to be heard, too.

They smiled and shook their heads and assured me that this was just their opinion but Reform Judaism isn’t real Judaism, is cheating our young people, doesn’t love Israel, and so on. “It’s disgusting,” said Peppa.

I wasn’t completely quiet. I probably said, a few times, that they should look at what the Reform movement says about BDS; that I was here, specifically, to learn how to teach young people to forge meaningful, productive connections to Israel; that we teach our children to engage with tradition and law in meaningful ways.
Peppa said to me, “Look. Look at how we’re dressed. We’re not religious, but the Law is from God and you can’t change that. The Law is the law.”

These two women who openly disobey ‘God’s Law’ criticized a whole movement of people who aimed to align the law with history and hope and optimism. They have given up on ‘God’s Law,’ and, by their account, were leaving it to more pious people to pray for them.

I wanted to say that the rabbis taught us that God taught us that the Law was not in Heaven; that the Torah teaches us that the Law is not far away, but in your hearts; that Isaiah teaches us that God wants more from us than blind adherence to the Law. But it seemed way too complicated for them. I also wanted to say that the Law was clearly redacted by men intent on firmly seating power in their own hands. But that seemed to be outside the realm of impolite conversation.

In the end, I digressed. I asked Ruth’s pious husband how he knew when to say morning prayers on the plane. Interesting answer. Something to do with breaking the day up into 12 parts that expand and contract with the seasons. It reminds me of a Chelm story . . . But, thankfully, I digress.

Found Another Way to Grieve

Today, I read a beautiful piece by Virginia Avniel Spatz on the ReformJudaism.Org site. She talked about adding the names of victims of gun violence to our Kaddish list, and you should visit her blog, Say this Name, to learn more.

A few months ago, I wrote an essay opposing this practice of stretching the Kaddish to include people who might not be our first degree, Jewish relatives. Reading Spatz’s piece has changed my mind.

It wasn’t the p’shat of her piece – the surface meaning of the language – rather it was the sodthe inspired understanding, otherwise hidden. The p’shat, while stated beautifully, was no different, at its heart, than anything I had heard or read before. We ache, we grieve, we want to show solidarity, and we want to shed light on these preventable losses. However, that is not convincing to me.

The sod of her piece is another story, though. That inspired understanding arose from her headline: “These are our Neighbors.”

There are two pieces to this inspiration. First, in Leviticus 19:18, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Second, in the same chapter of Leviticus, verse 34, we are commanded to love the stranger as ourselves.

On its face – by its p’shat — and in its sod, this text from Leviticus explains why I will stand as a mourner for victims of gun violence. Even if they are strangers, they are neighbors, and neighbors are to be mourned as though we had lost our deepest loves, our own hearts.

In fact, I will probably stand for every recitation of the Kaddish, remembering victims of all kinds of violence, remembering those who die of preventable diseases, those who die alone.

In short, I will stand for the stranger, whom I love like my neighbor, whom I love like myself.

NOTE: With regard to flying the flag at half-staff, I still think we should reserve that practice for the specific uses it was intended. See this text for more. On the other hand, how much better would this country be if we all lived by the equivalencies so beautifully implied in Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34. The tug-o-war between universalism and particularism is daunting and fascinating at the same time. But . . . it took me this long . . . I digress.

Geulah — Redemption

With thanks to Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, Stacy Lubov, and Rabbi John Friedman for helping me create  a prayerbook for our Religious School. I’ve always wanted to see this prayer go farther, so I’m putting it here.

Through a sea, across a desert, over a river, and finally home:

God has been with us everywhere.

Guiding us, inspiring us, saving us, and encouraging us:

God has been with us all the time.

Out of slavery, over defeat, around obstacles, and with our million questions:

God has been here, for us, with us, and in us.

Everywhere.

All the time.

30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: The Dark Side

And here’s why I reject following halakhah (Jewish Law) simply for the sake of the law rather than for the sake of its intent:

I woke up at 4 am today, still reeling from an NPR story about the practice of metzitzah b’peh. I’ll ask you to refer to the article for yourself, along with this article from the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, a modern Orthodox organization, and this article from the Orthodox Union, a kind of governing organization for many Orthodox congregations in the United States. I hate to assign outside reading, but these articles will be far more reasonable than mine. Mine is a rant, so I beg you to educate yourselves before you wander too far into the workings of my impassioned ravings because this is a topic about which I cannot be reasonable.

And so it begins with something my father said after many a failed experiment with ketchup and tuna fish or the family car and a fish tank full of crickets or a bottle of root beer and a blender or . . . you get the picture  . . .

What in the world were youPeople thinking? Have lost your minds?

When I first heard the story on NPR, I thought for sure someone on staff had been hoodwinked at best. At worst, I thought those nutcases who keep bringing up The Elders of Zion were manipulating my beloved news source into spreading heinous lies that would launch pogroms and other violence against Jews. No exaggeration. A quick search on the Internet can transport you to a world of white supremacist hatred with one foot planted firmly on a soapbox labeled metzitzah b’peh. Heaven help us when Jon Stewart (my personal hero) gets his hands on this one: There will surely be a meeting at Camera Three – and I plan to be there.

Allow me to offer a quick understanding of metzitzah b’peh, in case it wasn’t clear from the articles I cited above. The B’rit Milah is a ritual circumcision that we perform in accordance with Abraham’s contract with God. We find this obligation in the Torah. Later commentaries, the Mishnah and the Gemara, add to this obligation, requiring us to perform the circumcision in a way that causes no risk to the baby. In keeping with this obligation, we postpone B’rit Milah rituals for infants who are sick or in situations that could spread illness. We also perform the necessary procedures to keep instruments sterile and the wound clean. The Torah knows bupkis about modern antiseptics and sterile fields, yet we use them in accordance with the Torah’s concern for our well-being. Maimonides explains that suctioning the circumcision site was part of the procedure because it allowed the blood to flow through the wound and clean the area.

Makes sense so far, right? However, somewhere between Maimonides and Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch, an authoritative codification of Jewish law, we find a reference to spitting the suctioned blood on to the ground. I, myself, cannot find the source; I can only find the text from Shulchan Aruch, which infers from the text that the suction was – and, seems to further infers, should be – suctioned with the mouth.

I’m just saying right here, right up front, there is so much that I can’t abide in this ruling that I am not the best person to comment on it reasonably, but I did warn you.

First of all, the practice has the appearance of child molestation; and even if it’s not child molestation, it provides a terrific cover for child molesters. I can’t get past this.

Okay, that’s out of the way, now lets be more rational.

The obligation is to protect the child’s well-being. If there’s another way, to protect the child’s well-being, it should permissible. And, if there’s a better way to protect the child’s well-being, the better way should replace the inferior way. If there is the chance for disease to be transmitted via metzitzah b’peh, the practice should be ceased and, since there are more effective ways to prevent infection, we ought to employ other means of disinfecting the wound.

And, by the way, the world is round-ish, you can go swimming minutes after eating and live to burp about it, and that transaction with that wealthy guy in Nigeria is not 100 percent safe for anyone but the out of work valet in Reno, Nevada, who sent you the email. On the other hand, if I can conjure up an urban myth to keep youPeople off the Internet, just say the word because I’m happy to oblige you.

The idea that the City of New York has to intervene – The City of New York – is not indicative of government tyranny or anti-semitism – The City of New York, for crying out loud. It demonstrates that the fundamentalist branches of my community – youPeople, as my Jewish father would say – have, it appears, lost your minds. You are stubbornly clinging to a practice that doesn’t accomplish your goals, and now that the city of New York is getting involved, you’re stomping your feet and crying you’re not the boss of me.

You’re right. The city of New York is not the boss of you, but you’re being irresponsible for the sake of some ancient, extrapolated practice that doesn’t meet Maimonides’ standard of care. Should your neighbors stand idly by while you stubbornly refuse to use more reliable practices?

The issue regarding metzitza b’peh is not about who gets to tell us what to do. It’s about the well-being of the baby. It is not the best way to protect the baby, anymore, even if it ever was before. So, no one should have to regulate the practice for us. We should be abandoning it for ourselves.

A good analog of this situation might be the period of the Black Death in Europe, mid 14th century. Jews were accused of poisoning public water sources in an effort to spread the Black Death and destroy Christendom on behalf of Satan. So, imagine how it looked when we participated in the ritual of tashlich during Rosh Hashanah, when we symbolically cast our sins into the water as part of our atonement. To avoid the appearance of poisoning municipal water sources, Jews practiced the ritual outside the city and at private wells. We didn’t stop the ritual because it caused no real harm. But what if the authorities could have demonstrated some real danger to the community? Wouldn’t we have found some other way to symbolize our atonement rather than endanger human life? Of course we would because saving a life is our highest Jewish value.

In the case of tashlich, it was correct to continue the practice because it did no real harm and it was an excellent spiritual exercise. In the case of metzitzah b’peh, it would be correct to discontinue the practice because it can do harm and there are better ways to accomplish our aim regarding the ritual of b’rit milah.

So, what does this have to do with the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge? Everything. The 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, for me, was about developing a sacred practice that reminds me of the highest Jewish values. It was also about standing up to Ultra-Orthodox leaders who oppose gender equality. However, a story like the one about the metzitzah v’peh practice, remind me not to rely too much on ritual when it comes to remembering what the Eternal doth require (See Micah 6:8).

I think I might change my tzitzit practice, starting today. I’m not sure how yet, but I’m thinking . . . I’m thinking . . . I’ll let you know.

30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: The Bright Side

Halfway through the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, the moon is full and white and crisp as tracing paper, and I have developed a practice I hope I will continue to cultivate after the challenge is over. Every morning when I affix my tzitzit to my make-shift tallit katan, I meditate on four ideals: Peace, Patience, Compassion, and Clarity.

Growing up, these where values that pervaded my Jewish education, formal and informal. As an adult, too, I find these values upheld in many of our sacred texts. Isaiah admonishes us not to fast if it’s only going to give us an excuse to abuse the people around us, Micah instructs us on what is good and what the Lord doth require: Only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. The book of Leviticus — that compendium of arguablly finicky  rules and regulations — obliges us not to speak insults to a deaf person. Hillel tells us that we must strive to be nothing more and nothing less than human. Into modernity, much of our theology and spiritual approach is related to repairing the world, remembering the stranger, and being kind to each other. And you can’t get very far in Jewish prayer without some heartfelt plea for peace.

As I gripe and moan about how the Ultra-Orthadox have hijacked Judaism in Israel, about how Chasidism and/or fundamentalism has hurled offenses at women, about how my tzitzit seem to bring the worst of Judaism into stark relief, I betray the gift of this practice.

I have started each day — for the last week or so — remembering these ideals that feel so keenly Jewish, so compelling, and so important. I have thought of them all day long. And I have fallen asleep with them on my bedside table, waiting for me to renew my commitment to them each morning.

Peace. Patience. Clarity. Compassion.

30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: Pious in Public

Today, I wore my tzitzit out in the open where anyone could see them, and no one asked about them – which is just fine with me since I am not comfortable with outward displays of piety. But this is the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, not the 30-Day Make Yourself Comfortable Challenge.

I chatted with some lovely folks waiting in line at Gugelhupf, our German bakery in Durham, North Carolina; and I shopped for groceries at Harris Teeter; and the only people who took note of my tzitzit were two toddlers. I don’t know if people were being polite, like when I dyed my gray roots red and almost no one mentioned it, or whether few people actually noticed my tzitzit – which might also have been the explanation for no one mentioning my fiery red roots, but I doubt it. It makes me wonder what I’m not noticing about others people.

I also left my tzitzit out while I helped my sister-in-law get ready for Thanksgiving at her house. She has been hosting the dinner for several years, ever since I woke up one Thanksgiving morning to find several inches of water on the ground floor of our home. A blessing on my sister-in-law’s head!

I was worried that the tassels would get in my way as I swept and vacuumed and such, but they were no trouble at all. They did seem to tug at my soul when Jesus Christ Superstar came on my iPod and I was reminded of how fanaticism can wreak havoc with society.

It’s only been a week now. The moon has filled out from the dark whisper that it was when I started this adventure to something more substantial, hanging in the midday sky today. I certainly find myself more attentive to many things: what I eat, the needs of the stranger in our midst, prayers for peace in Israel. However, I also find myself adhering to halakhic practices that I have consciously rejected. I’ve been avoiding pork, shellfish, and milk with meat. I slipped my hand into my purse with some shame on Shabbat when I wanted to buy a soda. I have not, however, cleaned up my language. I still swear like a sailor when I’m frustrated.

So, the value of this experience is that I’m learning that I can be more attentive and intentional, but that I resent the external reminder of the tzitzit. A week into this challenge, I think that I will be glad to stop wearing the tzitzit at the end of the month, but I will also be glad that I tried them because it has helped me to distill from my everyday life what it takes to be holy in ordinary time.

30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: Thanks for the Quandaries

From Pirke Avot 5:25 we learn that Ben Bag used to say: Turn it and turn it because everything is in it. Pore over it. Grow old with it. Stick with it. Nothing is better.

In the Torah passage about the tzitzit, the text never directs us to use a particular number of threads, nor a particular number of wraps and knots. It only tells us to make fringes on the corners of our garments, and it directs us to use one blue thread in each corner. How the rabbis got us from Numbers 15:38 to this awkward string of topological challenges, I don’t know. Seems like someone had to infer some facts. Someone had to extrapolate some findings. Seems like someone had to add to and subtract from this passage of the Torah in order to get us where we are today regarding tzitzit.

Humans are good at extrapolating. It’s our gift and our curse. It’s the source of storytelling and the source of propaganda. It’s the source of innovation and the source of repression. It’s the source of courage and the source of fear.

Before I began the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, what I extrapolated from seeing the tzitzit on other people was that the fringes made these people somehow more righteous. I couldn’t help it. Intellectually, I knew the fringes on a Chasidic man couldn’t automatically imbue a special righteousness not available to someone like Ruth Messinger, the president and executive director of American World Jewish Service. But, at an instinctive level, I ascribed something like magic to those tzitzit.

What I’m learning is that the tzitzit do only what they have been designed to do: they make me pay attention to my choices and measure those choices against the values taught in the Torah. And sometimes, the Torah has fallen short. The principles have prevailed, but not every mitzvah has measured up to the ideal of the whole body of 613 mitzvot.

Wearing these tzitzit convinces me that the Reform Jewish movement, a movement that my family has been part of for at least three generations, is the best religious movement for me. If I’m blessed with the ability to draw conclusions out of a morass of data, I’m also obligated to weigh the value of the mizvot, search earnestly for meaning in them, and reject those mitzvot that distract me from the larger commandment to live with compassion. Reform Judaism proposes that we can discern a meaningful and righteous path by engaging with the mitzvot, but not necessarily by following these ancient laws according to the letter of a people who were just starting to craft a new system of ethics for a new nation.

With that in mind, remembering that it is Thanksgiving week, and the week of my father’s Yahrzeit, I say, with great love:  מדה אני לפנך let us give thanks to God for the people who came before us. For my part, I give thanks to the people who participated and strengthened the Reform Movement: My grandparents, aunts and uncles, rabbis and teachers, and, especially, my parents taught me – sometimes by example, sometimes despite themselves – never to shy away from an idea just because it’s challenging. They taught me to turn it and turn it again, to stick with it because nothing is better.

I Know Why the Blue Thread Sings

Here’s another lesson from my adventure in tying my own tzitzit for the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge. First, I wish I had used a blue thread in my fringes just so I could keep up with which thread was which. I’m not sure the techelit (the blue thread in some tzitzit) is supposed to be the long thread that wraps around the rest of the fringes, but that would seem to be a wise choice.

Second, I’m glad I had not used a blue thread in my fringes — at least for the longest thread — because I was struck by the way the longest thread shrinks in length as you reach the end of the wrapping and tying process. The longest thread is long because it’s going to be manipulated in such a way that it will be used up faster as you go along — this happens in a lot of knotting processes, but we don’t always notice it. If one thread does all the twisting and wrapping and such, it will, at some point, run out of length.

Just like a human being: Even the strongest people in our lives can be ‘used up’ if we always rely on them to carry the burden of the hardest jobs. Everyone needs help; everyone needs cooperation; and everyone needs encouragement. Otherwise, they will soon become the shortest string, or, worse, disappear into the knots and wraps without you ever noticing.

I hope I remember this as I make demands on the leaders in my life, on the people who work for my well-being, and on the people who care for me. Sometimes we can share the burden, but sometimes the burden can’t be shared; sometimes we can ease up on our demands, but sometimes the burden can’t be lightened; sometimes we can simply give others the benefit of believing they are doing as much as they can in the time they have with the resources available — and there is no ‘but’ for this one.

30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: Each Tzitzit has its Place

From Pirke Avot 4:3
He [Ben Azzai] would also say: Do not scorn any person and do not discount any thing. For all of us have our hour, and all things have their place. 

Wednesday night, I sat down with a minyan’s worth of others to tie my tzitzit so that I could start the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge on my way home; but tying tzitzit is like knitting without the needles. So, I only finished one and half of the sacred fringes that night.

On Thursday morning, I began work again. I finished the second batch and moved on to the third. Each bundle of threads was supposed to have three threads of equal length and one longer thread – four threads, which, when folded over, gives you eight threads to tie into tzitzit for one corner of your garment.

When I got to that third batch of threads, Thursday morning, I realized I was missing one of the threads. So, what could I do?

  1. I could wait until I got another kosher thread from Rabbi Berkowitz.
  2. I could find a thread in my copious supply of needlework supplies – no sarcasm, I have an absurdly copious supply of yarn, embroidery yarn, quilting thread, twine, string, and so on; I could clothe an arctic expedition if I could knit fast enough . . . but I digress.
  3. I could create the third tzitzit bundle, one thread shy.

I chose that third option because it reminds me of the tension between ritual and meaning, between convention and creation, between enough and plenty, between what we think of as complete or acceptable or right and what really is. Are tzitzit defined by how well they fit the rabbis’ time-worn definition or are they defined by how well they remind us of God’s commandments? Are people defined by how well they blend in with what our society expects or are they defined by how well they express their individual gifts and strengths.

I realized that my third bundle of threads is as important as the rest of my tzitzit, that it is as whole and full as the rest, and that it has a sacred place in my practice along each other person and each other thing.

POSTSCRIPT: I translated Ben Azzai’s text faithfully, but not accurately, meaning the text says “there is no man without his hour, and there is no thing without its place.” With this text, most especially, I think it’s necessary to tease the sexist language away from the meaning.

Tzitzit Challenge: A Helpful Lesson

I’m still not done tying my tzitzit for the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, but I’ve learned much from these little knots and wraps, already. I’ll try to share the lessons as the month of Kislev proceeds.

My first lesson was this. Get some help.

I tied my first three tzitzit by myself, by gosh, by golly. And boy was I proud. But, there isn’t much in my life that I’ve done all by myself, the help I’ve received in my life has been a great blessing to me.

Sometimes it seems like the Jewish people have stood strong and alone through may hardships. But, is that really true? We are taught to remember the righteous gentiles who helped to preserve us at great, unnecessary, risk to themselves. We are taught that to pray alone, only, is not enough. We grieve in public, within reach of the people who can help us find our way back into the world. We do very little, fully alone.

So, I’ve decided to represent my reliance on my family, my friends, my community, and a world of people whom I’ve never met, by finding someone to help me finish my last tzitzit. That last tzitzit reminds me that we are a world of communities, and I can take pride in my place as a helper and as one who has been helped.