Yet and Still

A draft of a new poem I’ve written.

This year,

as many people died

as always do, give

or take a soul per thousand

souls; yet

some of those

souls gave and

took our breath

away, our will to gasp

and sigh, our memory

of light; yet,

but not yet, still sooner

than we’re ready and later

than we’d hope, because hope

is last, but truly still, these bits drift home

and describe the shape of loss

in peace.


Moral Mondays in North Carolina

If you squint your eyes really tightly and hold your head just so, you can almost see the white hoods and brown shirts on the hangers in the coatroom at the North Carolina State Legislature. Oh, yes, I know that’s harsh and hyperbolic, but to paraphrase Meredith Wilson’s Christmas song, it’s beginning to look a lot like the turn of the 19th Century . . . everywhere we go.

On June 3, 2013, I participated in a demonstration, organized by the NC NAACP, and an act of Civil Disobedience regarding the legislation passed and heading for passage in our Legislature. For example, one example among many, the plans to cut taxes on the rich and the corporations and make up for those cuts with an increase in sales tax – which means that the poorer you are, the heavier your tax burden.

I was arrested for my participation in the demonstration, and, while it was a difficult experience, my fear and pain and hunger was eased by two things. First, there were a lot of people with me, working with me to keep our spirits up, to remember our cause, and to cheer each other on as we progressed through the Wake County Detention Center. I am very grateful to the people who were arrested with me and to the people who greeted us with cheers as we boarded the bus to the detention center, several hours after the arrest, and greeted us with hugs and food when we were finally released pending our court date, several more hours later.

Second, my experience was nowhere near as difficult as the experiences of the people who came before me, the people who sat at lunch counters and sat at the front of the bus and marched across bridges into hostile towns and registered voters in the shadow of murderers. I cannot watch our Legislators erode the progress that was made at a much higher cost than I paid Monday night. I cannot ask people less privileged than I am to sacrifice what little they have to stand up for rights that should never have been challenged in the first place. I cannot gripe in the background and wonder why no one listens. I have to speak up in the light, stand with the people, and take the risks for myself.

As I said in the Legislature building on Monday: When I study the Torah, study the Bible, which I do a fair bit, and when I pray, which I do a little less, I always learn the same thing. Love your neighbor, be kind to the stranger, and pursue justice. So I have to act when I see that we are not caring for our neighbors when they need help, we are isolating the stranger, and we are stifling the voices of people who have every right to be heard.


Four Funny Questions

On all other nights, we get biscuits and rolls,
Fluffy and puffy and full of air holes.
Why on this night, why, tell me why,
Only this flat stuff that’s always so dry.

On all other nights, we eat all kinds of greens,
And I’m starting to like them – except lima beans.
Why on this night, I ask on my knees,
Do we eat stuff so bitter it makes grownups wheeze?

On all other nights, we dip vegies just once –
Just try dipping twice and they’ll call you a dunce.
Why on this night, why, tell me true,
Why double-dipping’s the right thing to do.

On all other nights, we sit up when we munch.
You’ll choke if you slump! You’ll croak if you hunch!
Why on this night, if anyone knows,
Do we get to recline on my mom’s good pillows.

Why is this night so different from most?
Why do we do things so odd and so gross?
Why do we tell the same stories and stuff?
Because when it’s Pesach, it’s never enough!

A Tale of Two Moocs: Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Simple Survival

When I started participating in my first MOOC experience, through Coursera, there were around 60,000 people in the class with me. Now there are around 4000. This is my Introduction to Mathematical Thinking course, in which Professor Keith Devlin tries to help us transition from High School Math (yes, that was back in the days before you could fit a computer on a desk, in my case) to University Math (yes, that was before Fermat’s Last Theorem was a twinkle in Andrew Wiles’ clever eye).

A few weeks after starting Professor Devlin’s course, I started Dan Ariely’s course, A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Thinking. Not sure how many people were in that class when it started, nor how many are still there; all I know is that I’m still there and I don’t have any time to do anything but the required work, so I’ve missed all the discussion forums. It’s still been a terrific experience, though.

Taken on their own, each class has been a joy — even though the math class has me howling at the imperfectly round moon. Taken together, the two classes are so beautifully entwined that I can’t imagine these two professors don’t require students to take them simultaneously. Of course the MOOC paradigm doesn’t really provide a way to require anything, but students who take only one of these two classes are missing something amazing.

The math class is about precise expression and clear processing of abstractions. The behavioral economics class is all about how we humans misunderstand, resist, ignore, defy, and strive to obscure precise expression and clear processing of real world data. One class helps me understand what ‘belongs’ in a set and what doesn’t; the other class helps me understand what happens when we fray the edges of these sets. One class helps me understand how to prove something abstract; the other class helps me understand how to obfuscate what can be clearly proved. One class helps me understand identity; the other helps me understand how confused we can be about identity.

These days, I can hardly choose between an apple and a cupcake at a meal, let alone between a policy and its negation at a board meeting, without thinking about what I know and what I don’t want to know. And that’s an extremely satisfying state to be in, from my point of view.

It’s MOOC, Son; I Say, a MOOC

. . . not a mook which can be best described by stealing’s quote from Terry Prachett — a man who can best describe anything . . . but I digress . . . this is a mook:

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to.

I’m taking a MOOC, a massively online open course (or maybe the ‘open’ comes second). I’m using Coursera; and the course I’ve chosen is Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, the thought of which should kill off any of my remaining math teachers left alive.

It’s been a rich and wonderful experience so far — learning math foundations with 20,000 people around the world. I’ll try to comment about it as I go. There have been no disadvantages yet, and I have benefitted greatly from the video lectures, which can be paused and replayed. AND, most especially, from the little quizzes embedded in the lectures to help track whether or not you’re attending to what the professor expects you to attend to.

Just as an interesting aside — indeed, a digression  there is a guy named David Hume in our class, and there is a guy in our class who randomly mentioned the philosopher David Hume in his profile. What are the chances? Maybe this class will help me figure out the chances. In a class of 20,000 people, maybe the chances are  pretty high.

Besides this MOOC, I recently took a live webinar  class to learn how to use a Content Management System for our website at Judea Reform. That was another wonderful learning experience for me because, while it was live and couldn’t be paused, I could mute my microphone and think out loud without bothering anyone else. Also, to pose a question, we could use a chat window, which meant I had to formulate my questions clearly, often answering my own questions in the process of clarifying them for the teacher.

Learning is so cool!

I’m sure that I’ll have more to say about the MOOC learning context, but for now,  I’ll just direct you to an article about it.

30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: Frayed

I am not wearing my tzitzit today. My previous blog, also posted today, will explain, in detail, why I am not wearing my tzitzit today.

But in case you want to skip the rant, I thought I’d post this shortened version.

I cannot pretend that these fringes are sacred when they represent so much that I think is corrupt and contemptible. Like the divided Kotel in Jerusalem, and the Chabad rabbis who won’t shake a woman’s hand, for me, the tzitzit represent blind adherence to halakhah. I can’t say what tzitzit represent for anyone else, on a personal level, but, for me, that’s what they represent.

And I reject blind adherence even when it is harmless. When it is harmful, degrading, or plain stupid, I condemn it. So, just like I refrained from approaching the Kotel, I think I’ll have to refrain from affixing the tzitzit to my clothes.

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: Tzitzit and the Joys of Family Life

During the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, I’m finding myself fretting over whether to wear the fringes or not when I’m working around the house. Starting the day before Thanksgiving, my tzitzit began to take on a whole new significance: Tzitzit are a real obstacle to many of the daily chores of running a family. That’s why women are exempt from the obligation. We have too much messy work to do at too many odd times.

However, this exemption seems unfair from at least two angles. First, the cynic in me objects to the idea that men are exempt from the messy work of parenting and housekeeping by virtue of those tzitzit and everything they stand for. Second, the simple optimist in me objects to the idea that men are excluded from the messy work of parenting and housekeeping on account of those tzitzit and everything they stand for.

I confess: given a choice between plucking my eyebrows or cleaning the bathroom, I’d probably burst into tears because I hate both. I’d gladly affix those tzitzit to every article of clothing I own if it meant I never had to clean the bathroom again. However, I also know that my husband delighted in caring for our children, especially the messy stuff. And my sons begged to mix casseroles, bake bread, and shape matzah balls. I can’t imagine limiting my sons’ nor my husband’s experience of family life to those things that wouldn’t sully the tzitzit dangling about their hips.

Surely, Chasidic Jewish fathers find ways to wrestle with their kids and still wear tzitzit; how could they be happy if they didn’t? Do they ever get a chance to turn a lumpy, sticky mass of flour, yeast, and water into a smooth, fragrant, spongy ball of dough, awaiting the oven? Do they ever splash through a creek, kneel in the mud, or roll in a pile of leaves? Do they explore thick jungles or climb into the canopies of rain forests? And – okay, I’m going there – do they ever get to survey the bathroom they just cleaned and sigh with relief and pride?

I’m just wondering.

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.