Friday, April 26, 2013

Parashat Emor – Eternal Light

            “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually. Outside the dividing curtain of the testimony in the Tent of Meeting, Aaron shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning continually. [This shall be] an eternal statute for your generations.” (Lev. 24:2). From here we get the commandment to hang the Ner Tamid, Eternal Light, which still hangs over every ark in every house of Jewish prayer and learning. There is not a lot of commentary readily available on this commandment, which gives us the opportunity to interpret it at length according to our own understandings.
            The imagery of light offers great symbolism for the radiance that emits from a loving community. At Chanukah, the menorah we light represents the Ner Tamid of the Temple that miraculously burned for 8 days despite having only enough olive oil to kindle the lamp for one. But when we sing, “Don’t Let the Light Go Out,” it’s more than just a reminder that Chanukah candles, unlike birthday candles, should not be blown out. We’re reminding ourselves, each other, and the greater world community that we, as Jews, will not let the light of Judaism be extinguished.
            By being here every Saturday, you are all helping to keep the Eternal Light kindled here. The Eternal Light burns not only by olive oil or, in our case now, electricity, but also by continuing to keep the radiant essence of Judaism alive. It burns when we pray together, lighting up this room with our voices in song. It burns when we study together. Most importantly, it burns when we look out for each other and take care of each other, when we show our love for on another. May we never let the light go out. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Parashat Acharei-Kedoshim – Boston Marathon Bombings

            Earlier this week, our country saw a terrible act of violence disrupting a great American tradition – the Boston Marathon bombings. Although suspects have not yet been apprehended and questioned, and we don't what their motive really was, this is a clear act of terrorism. Violence for the sake of violence, disrupting runners and spectators, attacking innocent people without a clear political agenda, these bombs seem to have been for the sole purpose of instilling fear and anger in the hearts of the American people. But they failed. What has amazed me most about the events of Monday was not just the absurdity of terrorism or how someone could be so cruel, but how immediately the rest of the city and country stepped up.
            The second portion of this week’s parasha, in Kedoshim (my favorite parasha), G-d tells Moses to speak to the people of Israel, saying “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your G-d am holy.” The outpouring of support for the people of Boston, those hurt, grieving, or traumatized, has shown the capacity for holiness that lies in each of us. The Torah says, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” When the bombs went off, spectators who were far enough to be physically safe, jumped the race’s barriers, and ran toward the sound of the explosions to start helping the injured. Once the ambulances had been called volunteers, spectators, and runners that had already finished all banded together to tear away all the volunteer booths and roadblocks to let the emergency vehicles through. Runners behind the explosions heard what had happened, changed courses and ran all the way to the nearest hospitals to give blood to the injured.  Kodoshim says, “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G-d.” Families of the injured rushed to the hospital and others who were stranded without a way home or a place to stay in Boston after the explosion found themselves overwhelmed with options as many people in and around the city opened up their homes on an open google doc offering guest beds, cots, and couches to whoever needed them. There were no strangers in Boston that day, only houseguests the hosts hadn’t met yet, embraced and loved as a fellow Bostonian. And all those Boston Irish Catholics weren’t even slaves in the land of Egypt.
            To look at the bright side, to be inspired at the love and support that came immediately to those who needed it in the aftermath of the violence does not mean that we are not also sad that four people have died and many injured or that we are not angry at the terrorists responsible. In our anger, though, it is important to hone it to a positive end. To help the police and the FBI with any information we might come across, to continue to follow the story and help out in any way they still need. Only a handful people remain in critical care, but it is never too late to give blood to the Red Cross, and although the hospitals are not as flooded with the sudden influx of patients that they were Monday, they might still enjoy the pizza donations many have been sending to the hungry, exhausted, overwhelmed first responders this week via Random Acts of Pizza on Reddit. We should not use our anger to hold onto hate, fear, or hopes for vengeance in our hearts. This week’s parasha says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account. You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people.” We can and should hope those responsible are caught and put to justice, but that does not mean we call for anything extreme. Maimonides says in the Mishneh Torah that if we have the chance to rebuke our fellow who has sinned against us, and we don’t do it, we incur some of the guilt, for if he acts again, we could have prevented it. But if we hate him, and hold grudges, and turn to vigilante justice, than we bear the sin of violence against him just the same. The Torah says to love your neighbor as yourself, not just the neighbors who are easy to love, and Rabbi Akiva says this is the cardinal rule of Judaism. The Baal Shem Tov reminds that we must love the lowliest of humans as much as the greatest Torah scholar. The Jerusalem Talmud explains we can avoid acting or feeling vengeful by remembering that if one hand, while chopping vegetables for dinner, slips and cuts the finger of the hand holding down the vegetables that hand should not rise up and cut the finger of the first hand in retaliation. As each of our hands are a part of our whole person and we would not harm one part of our bodies to avenge the other, so too should we view each other as a part of our whole community under G-d, and we should not harm one who has harmed us just for the sake of revenge.   
            As we continue to heal and search for those culpable in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings, let us all focus on the love and support that has come out in reaction to the horror, and only use our sadness and anger toward a productive end in the pursuit of justice. May a speedy r’fuah sh’eima – a complete recovery – come to those who need it, and may we all find peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Parashat Tazria-Metzora – Gossip

            This week’s Torah portion is among the least favorites of most modern day Jews. I’ve heard of B’nai Mitzvah being rescheduled to avoid it, others who have had to use this portion for their b’nai mitzvah bemoaning the misfortune of their birth dates, and students excited to have an excuse to miss services today, so as not to hear it. It’s an icky portion. With talk of body fluids, ancient discomfort with natural body functions, and strange gross sounding skin diseases, parts of this parsha are, as G-dcast declared, downright PG-13 (for those who don’t know is a great way for all ages to study Torah, with cartoon depictions of each parasha), and many in this room today are not yet 13. This makes it a difficult portion to talk about and really stay true to the text.
            Even the ancient rabbis felt this difficulty, and rather than talk at length about bodies and disease, much commentary on this Torah portion is about gossip. Later in the Torah, in the book of Numbers, Miriam is struck with the spots on her skin that are described at length in this week’s portion after bad-mouthing Moses’s wife. From this, the rabbis of ancient times decided that this disease must always be a punishment for gossip. Jewish tradition has a slew of sayings and stories condemning gossip, even calling it Lashon HaRa, the evil tongue or speech. But we all do it. Even if we try really hard to be conscious of what we say all the time, it is fairly impossible to never speak about other people sometimes. Judaism teaches that even talking about people in a positive way when they are not around is Lashon HaRa, because if you were to speak too highly of someone, others’ expectations of them might grow to a point where the real person could never actually live up to that, and still cause their embarrassment. And of course, it should go without saying to never speak ill of others, particularly if they are not around to defend themselves. Gossip hurts three people: the one who speaks the gossip, the one who hears the gossip, and the one who is being gossiped about. Although, obviously, we are not today struck with icky skin spots every time we gossip, it is still bad for the soul, and can cause damage to our friendships. Those we subject to listening to our gossip become complicit in the act, and thus we are damaging their relationships as well. And of course, when we spread information, whether truth or rumors, about others, we are potentially damaging their reputations, embarrassing them, or setting them up for future embarrassment, and none of that is any good for anyone.
            In this week’s Torah portion, the purification process to get rid of the disease and repent for the supposed gossip is to leave the Israelite camp and spend some time alone. Alone, it is not possible to gossip. Alone, one can considered the damage done, feel guilty, repent to G-d, and find the right words to apologize to the others affect by his or her gossip once he or she returns to the community. However, there’s no promise that others will forgive the gossiper, and there is really no way to undo the gossip. One old Jewish story goes that a man spread a rumor about his neighbor and wanted to repent. So his rabbi told him to get a feather pillow at the store, and cut it, dropping feathers out of the pillow the whole way home. The next day, the man goes back to the rabbi to ask what happens now that he’s done the pillow thing and the rabbi tells him, go back and collect the feathers and put them back in the pillow. Of course, the man cannot do this, because feathers blow in the wind and it would be impossible to collect them all and make the pillow at all usable again. So, the rabbi explains, this is what happens when you gossip. The words leave you and you can never retrieve them. Hopefully, you can be forgiven by those you may have hurt in your gossip, but you can never really take back the things you say. May we all find the wisdom to know when to be quiet, and may we never hurt others with our words.            

Friday, April 5, 2013

Parashat Shemini – Self-Sacrifice

            For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading in the Torah about the preparations for the Tabernacle and the sacrifices that will be made there. We didn’t have regular services for the last three weeks, so in case you didn’t have a chance to study the weekly parashiyot on your own, let me catch you up: there are about five parshiyot talking about the building of the Mishkan and the priest’s clothing. When last I stood before you like this, in fact, I spoke about why the Torah needs to spend so much time talking about building the Mishkan (as opposed to how little time is spent talking about building the whole universe). Then, in the week we had our model seder, the book of Vayikra (or Leviticus) began the detailing of the sacrifices, now that the Tabernacle is finished and the priests are ready to start working. The last week’s parasha talks some more about who should sacrifice what kind of animal for what kind of sin and how the priests (that is, Aaron and his sons) should go about doing the actual sacrificing for the people who have brought their animals as gifts for G-d.
            Now, we begin this week’s Torah portion with the first official sacrifice on the altar of the Mishkan. Aaron, with the help of his sons, does exactly as G-d, through Moses, commanded. And a great fire bursts forth from G-d, and consumes the offerings. But then Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, take an incense offering of their own, which G-d has not told them to do, and bring it to the altar. Then the great first bursts forth from G-d and consumes them. Similarly, in this week’s Haftarah portion, a man by the name of Uzzah is struck dead by G-d for touching the Holy Ark, which unlike our ark on our bima was not meant to be touched. To me, it seems Nadav and Avihu just wanted to bring their own gifts to G-d and Uzzah just meant to steady the ark as it was being brought to the new capital of Jerusalem after King David’s crowning. 
            It’s hard to talk about sacrifices in general. We don’t do them anymore in the way the Torah prescribes. We don’t bring physical gifts for G-d, and we certainly don’t kill animals. But we all still do have to make sacrifices in life. A while back, we were short one snack in the class, but two classmates offered to share with each other. Rather than fight over the last snack, they were both willing to sacrifice half, to make sure everyone got some. When I suggested that everyone in the class contribute one fruit snack to the pair sharing, so that they would have more to share, everyone did. It wasn’t a big sacrifice, but it made a difference to the two that had been sharing. Whenever you are charitable, it is a sacrifice, because you are giving up something of your own, even if it is a small something. In doing so, you are helping out another person. That makes the community grow closer, which can help everyone get closer to G-d, which was the point of the original sacrifices made on the alters of the Tabernacle and Temple.
            However, Nadav, Avihu, and Uzzah made the ultimate sacrifice: their lives. This is not something Judaism encourages. Judaism teaches to embrace life and to try to live by the ways of the land, to obey rules that are set for your own health and safety. The ancient rabbis speculated that Nadav and Avihu were drunk, arrogant, did not consult with each other or their teachers before acting, or even, according to the Moroccan Kabbalist rabbi Ohr HaChaim, that perhaps they knew this would be their consequence and were willing to sacrifice themselves for the “divine kiss.” It’s ok to feel excited about getting close to G-d and wanting to go above and beyond to show love sometimes, but please, remember: check yourself before you wreck yourself.
            As we go through life, it is important to walk a path of moderation. Get excited and show love and devotion to the people and things you care about, but follow the rules. If you don’t like a rule, investigate why it is the way it is and work to change it; don’t just break it. It is better to ask for permission, because sometimes you may not be able to ask for forgiveness. May we all find ways to get closer to G-d that are safe, healthy, and rule-abiding. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Intermarriage and Me: an Autobiographical Essay Explaining Why Intermarriage is OK and Other People Need to Mind Their Own Business

          As a product of interfaith marriage, I am well aware of the advantages and disadvantages of such a union. There are some generalizations about why intermarriage is good or bad, but, for the most part, these marriages are subject to the same individualities of every other marriage, and could easily go well or go poorly, based solely on the human beings involved, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. Today, intermarriage is certainly easier than it was one hundred or even fifty years ago, but that is not to say that intermarriage itself was a worse idea back then. It is simply that society as a whole has become more accepting and laws regarding intermarriage have changed. The marriages themselves have not.
            When my parents got married in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled that no states were allowed to have racially based marriage laws, and none had ever really had religion based marriage laws (since most weddings take place in a religious context, I suppose the state assumed the religions would govern that themselves). Although some people in the country continued to hold old fashioned ideas about segregation and keeping to endogamy, more people were realizing that who married who really didn’t matter. Between 1970 and 1979, the percentage of Jews marrying outside the faith jumped from 13% to 28%. Although that made my father still a part of a minority, it was a quickly growing minority, alongside a growing minority of Americans as a whole marrying outside their cultures of origin, as the percentage of interracial marriages in America in that time frame also doubled. They married at a peak in pluralist rhetoric and desegregation efforts, making their relationship surprisingly uncontroversial.
            However, resistance against interfaith couples persisted, and continues to persist today, at least within the religious communities. Although trends show that interfaith marriages are becoming more common at a much faster rate than interracial and interethnic marriage, strides toward complete equality and a post-racial society have made speaking out against interracial marriage completely unacceptable, whereas those who oppose interfaith marriages still seem very comfortable doing so. Jewish institutions worry about the future of the Jewish people if we continue to intermarry and neglect to teach our children properly about their Judaism. This is not without basis. Interfaith couples do have their work cut out for them in terms of raising children. Only about one-third of children born into interfaith marriages are raised Jewish.
Children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, such as myself, must be converted to be considered wholly Jewish, in addition to being part of the one-third raised with Jewish values and education. Although the Reconstructionist movement adopted a policy of accepting children of patrilineal descent into their Jewish communities in 1968, and the Reform movement followed suit in a much better-known resolution in 1983, the children born and raised in these movements may still grow up and one day find that their years of Hebrew school, Jewish camps, and internalized identity mean nothing to Jews from more traditional backgrounds. These grown children of interfaith couples may still find doors closed to them unless they are willing to “convert,” which undermines their Jewish upbringing, and the commitment their non-Jewish mothers made to raising Jewish children. It is a clear disadvantage to such interfaith families.
Even children of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers, whose status as Jews is not questioned in the same way as patrilineal Jews, may still find difficulties in connecting to Judaism and Jewish culture, knowing that there is more to their heritage. It is up to the parents and the Jewish community to be embracing and educational, to help the children of interfaith marriages feel wholly Jewish. Otherwise, we do indeed risk erasing our own heritage and tradition, as some vocal opponents to intermarriage suggest, more effectively than the anti-Semites who tried to wipe us out violently.
Keren McGinity’s book, Still Jewish, shows that there certainly are couples out there who are up for the challenge. In it, she shares the data and anecdotal evidence of 46 Jewish women who chose to intermarry, and most of them found that their intermarriages brought greatness into their lives. Many of them were secularized Jews, without strong commitments to everyday Jewish practices, until they married Gentiles, and suddenly felt the urge to work harder to preserve their identities and heritages within the intermarriage. For the most part, their husbands were incredibly supportive of this. The marriages that did fail did so because of irreconcilable differences in political worldviews, or due to infidelity, rarely because of anything relating to the fact of intermarriage. These women were able to raise their children Jewish, and some were even surprised to find that their children had even stronger Jewish identities and richer Jewish educations than they themselves had ever had.
Although the book only discussed the women who marry out, as a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, and as a student rabbi of a Reform congregation with a high population of interfaith families, I have seen that the women who marry in have it in them to raise great Jewish children as well. I mention the women who marry in rather than the Jewish men who married out, because when it comes to the home religion and child-rearing, all the gender equality we’ve established to date hasn’t managed to shift this still very feminine domain. When it comes time to choose the family religion for an interfaith family, often, the wife’s decision is canon. Although the Reform movement made its decision seven years after my parents’ marriage, it is a good thing they still managed to declare the children of Jewish fathers acceptable to their Hebrew schools before my parents had children. Otherwise, I might be arguing for interfaith marriages from a Unitarian Universalist perspective right now, because my father sure wasn’t going to try to take us to the mikveh. The decision came from my mother, so they needed a community that would accept her and who we were because of her.
When it comes to interfaith marriages, there are some added difficulties in child-rearing, and choosing a family religion to teach the children. But for intermarriage as a whole, the largest disadvantage comes from those within society who still hold old-fashioned prejudices and want to impose them upon those couples and families. The marriages themselves are subject to all the same advantages and disadvantages of all marriage: love and acceptance, differing worldviews and growing apart, honesty and loyalty, distrust and infidelity. These are not reasons to avoid intermarriage specifically, and they are not reasons to judge or try to stop others from intermarrying. My parents come from two different religions, and different ethnicities, but they have maintained a healthy marriage for 37 years (this August), and raised two healthy well-adjusted Jewish children, now grown and contributing to society, including specifically Jewish society. Anyone who thinks intermarriage cannot be sustainable need only look at our family to know that it can be, and then to butt out. We did just fine, and so can the future intermarried families.