Friday, December 2, 2016

Tol'dot: Nasty Women in the Torah

This is probably going to shock you, and I'm sure it's the first time you've heard ANYONE say it, but I actually think sometimes women are overlooked. I know, I know, a surprising revelation, isn't it? We would
like to think that we've advanced as a society. Sure, it was a Biblical malady, but surely we've solved this problem by now, no? Sadly, I think we all know the answer to that question. But you know, the first step towards addressing (and maybe even solving) a problem is acknowledging that it IS a problem to begin with. As I look back at my own writings on this blog over the years, I have not done a good enough job highlighting women in the Torah. So this week, let's start by acknowledging an incredibly central character in our Torah reading who, most of the time - you guessed it - gets entirely overlooked.

As we turn our attention to the well-known story of Isaac and his two sons, our focus is often centered on the father, his blessing, and a fierce battle between Esau and Jacob. Year after year, I've written about this story, but primarily examined the tragic struggle between twins, or a father's inability to love two children equally, or the moral justifications for deceit and trickery. And yet,
if we look behind the scenes, and really open our eyes to ALL that is going on, someone else is really directing this entire drama. It's Isaac's wife, Jacob and Esau's mother, Laban's sister, but really a woman and a person in her own right - Rebecca. If we go back to last week's reading, she was a primary player then to, yet still frequently overlooked. When we make the extra effort, however, we notice that in last week's parashah AND in this week's, Rebecca holds her own against any other character.

Last week, she outsmarted her cunning brother, Laban. This week, she orchestrates and successfully executes an ingenious plan to secure her husband's blessing for her own favored son, Jacob. At the same time, there is a lot more to her than just her wiliness. Often, when commentators DO see Rebecca, they blame her for the fighting in the
family, or they chastise her for being shrewd. But back in chapter 24, we saw how generous Rebecca was, when she offered water to Abraham's servant, or how hospitable she was for inviting him to her home. Also, how physically strong she was, for watering all his thirsty camels (while the servant himself stood and watched...). She was brave for leaving her home; loyal to her husband AND her son; incredibly protective of her child, when he risked being cursed instead of blessed; and then again shielded Jacob from the wrath of his brother. Let us also not forget that she casually speaks with God, which few other individuals anywhere in the Bible do, and is prophetically told what will become of her twin sons. A more multi-dimensional character you would be hard-pressed to find!

If we take a step back for a moment, it is interesting to acknowledge that the Torah, supposedly (though not irrefutably...) written entirely by men, is willing to portray a woman with such power. And she's not the only one. What is going on here? Is it possible that some of our Biblical stories were written by women? (Yes.)
Or, perhaps even more shockingly, could it be that some men were able to handle stories about strong women? Which brings us back to today. We can do better. Even the Torah knows that to be true! And with all the misogyny that is now bubbling to the surface in our society, it is all the more imperative that feminists - female AND male - stand up and refuse to put up with it. When any one group is oppressed, it demeans us all. We cannot continue to overlook the "Rebeccas" in our lives, and we certainly shouldn't reduce them to some one-dimensional caricature. We cannot solve discrimination in a moment, or individually on our own. But one step at a time - changing one perception of one (ancient) woman at a time - and working together, we can all start lifting ourselves up from the hateful language that festers around us. It is time to stand up.


Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of WolfD59 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Philip Medhurst on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Juggler2005 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Thyra on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Chayei Sarah: Fusing together Home and Heritage

This week, I want to talk to you about home, belonging, and heritage. Many of us are preparing to gather around the Thanksgiving table,
and I'm mindful of the fact that some are continuing generations-long family traditions, others are starting new rituals, and yet others are just throwing something in the microwave. Wherever you are, this holiday may still evoke nostalgic (or difficult) memories, and, good or bad, it often highlights feelings of "belonging." But it's not just a Turkey Day question; our Torah portion and our community seem to be focusing on these essential topics - and emotions - right now as well.

Our Jewish story begins with wandering. You can go all the way back to everyone's common ancestors, Adam and Eve, and see that THEY were nomads, thrown out of the Garden of Eden. A few chapters later,
Abraham and Sarah move from one place to another, searching for a place to call "home." In this week's reading, Abraham FINALLY sets down some roots, in the form of a burial plot for his wife (which will later also be used for himself, his children, and grandchildren). This plot, the Cave of Machpelah, doesn't just serve as a stake in the ground for Abraham, but thousands of years later, Jews still today point to it as justifying their return to the Land of Israel. We may have lived elsewhere for millenia, but that cave, that spot, PROVES that Israel is our home! And this, perhaps, is where home and heritage get conflated. Machpelah does indeed demonstrate our heritage and our history in Israel, but only with the formation of the Jewish State have Jews really rebuilt a home there as well. We are born into a heritage; but a home takes effort and hard work. And so does "belonging."

This past Sunday, Ohev Shalom hosted an event called the "4Ever Grateful concert." Houses of worship and community groups from around our area came together to celebrate our similarities and respect our differences. It was amazing
to see church choirs sharing the stage with rap artists, praise dances alongside a cappella groups. So often, we live siloed lives. We see, listen to, interact with, and live among people who look and act entirely like us. We do not create a sense of shared belonging, and our community and our country suffer as a result. When, in reality, we do actually share a home. And I recently learned something that I feel brings together these concepts of home, heritage, and belonging, right here in Southern Delaware County, in a fascinating new way.

Our synagogue, Ohev Shalom, began in the city of Chester, PA. Today, Chester is a struggling city, with high crime rates and tremendous obstacles to overcome. And yet, it is also a city with great pride, incredible spirit and tenacity, and a rich history and heritage that goes back centuries. The newspaper headlines may tell only of doom
and gloom in Chester, but there are many signs of hope, revitalization, and optimism. One such place is the MJ Freed Performing Arts Theater. It is an old furniture store, turned into an incredible hub of culture, music, and creativity. AND that furniture store was once owned by an Ohev Shalom congregant, M.J. Freed! In fact, his name adorns our Reception Room, and the Freed family is still active at Ohev. Like the Cave of Machpelah, it serves as a reminder that we were there! We are part of Chester, and Chester is part of us. And while today it feels more like a story of heritage, we DO still share a larger community, and we could do so much to improve one another's lives. Today in the State of Israel, people are working hard to build a home and a sense of belonging. We may not be looking to move our synagogue back to Chester, but our stories are, and should be, intertwined!

Sunday's concert reminded many of us that we are part of a rich, fascinating, diverse, and strong SHARED community. If we work
hard at it, we can create powerful connections right here between home, heritage, and belonging, and forge a better future for all our children... together. All the tools are here at our disposal, and for that, we truly should be 4Ever grateful.


Photos in this blogpost are all from the 4Ever Grateful concert on 11/20/16, taken by Crystal Burrell:
1. Crowd getting seated.
2. One of the groups that sang at the concert; the Youth Choir of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church.
3. Another group, performing a Praise Dance; Committed Vessels United Dance Ministries.
4. MCs for the concert, Rabbi Gerber and Tehran Freeman, invited their two (adorable) children to join them on stage, and together they sang "Twinkle, Twinkle." (It was unrehearsed...)
5. All our incredible performers.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Va-Yeira: Changing Your Mind About Religion

Last night, I participated in an interfaith panel at Widener University. Alongside me on the stage were representatives of Islam, various branches of Christianity, Buddhism, Baha'i, Unitarian Universalism,
and even a woman who practiced Witchcraft! It was a big panel... But one thing that really struck me about the experience, about the whole evening, was how serious and somber the students were. Even as panelists tried to joke and be a little self-deprecating or just vulnerable and real, our audience just nodded slightly and stared at us. It was unsettling. I thought to myself, this truly is how many people view religion. No laughing matter. No compassion, no kindness, no flexibility. Just grave and severe. I even tried to address the climate in the room directly, and encouraged people to smile and engage. How did they respond? They nodded slightly... and stared.

Right now, the whole world feels a little unsettled. People are nervous and stressed. Our Torah reading this week offers us a model that might help us move forward. It's not a comfortable or easy one, but helpful nonetheless. God and Abraham are friends. They talk a lot. They have a bond. Our text offers us insight into
God's internal monologue (imagine that!), where God decides to tell Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are soon to be destroyed. Abraham doesn't like this at all. Looking at the situation objectively, we might say that this poses a threat to their friendship, to their relationship. They fundamentally disagree. Abraham takes a deep breath, and decides to risk the friendship in the interest of standing up for his own beliefs. He challenges God, stating: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?" (Gen. 18:23) Incredibly, God listens. God's mind is even changed, and the annihilation of Gomorrah and Sodom is postponed. In this day and age, who among us has actually changed someone's mind in an argument?? Or allowed our opinion to be shifted??? Let's be honest; that NEVER happens!

Zari Sussman, a rabbinical student at the Ziegler Rabbinical School in California, wrote a commentary on our Torah portion, and noted, "In an argument, the Godly thing to do is listen, learn, and possibly change one's own opinion." How can we move past the gridlock and
divisiveness in society today? We have to listen. I didn't say it was easy, and I certainly didn't say it was comfortable. But we must. In her article, Sussman also stated, "When I avoid debates, situations, and people who make me uncomfortable, I cheat myself out of a gift life is sending my way. Every person contains a unique spark of God, a teaching that I need to learn." It is easy to see the Divine sparks in someone who agrees with us; who is compassionate, funny, wise, or clever. But what if that person (or Higher Being) starts to talk about destruction, people getting what they deserve, and the wickedness of "those" people? Abraham didn't walk away, tune out, or "unfriend." Should we?

Religion has certainly been the cause of a lot of pain and suffering in the world. I can't deny that. But stories like these also remind us that there's a lot of compassion and unity in the texts of our tradition, and that the Torah does TRY to model good communication, mutual understanding, and moral behavior.
Nevertheless, people often view religion as authoritarian, cold, and rigid. When I talk about Guilt-Free Judaism and the importance of seeing humor in the Bible, I often get looks of confusion and disbelief. At this very moment in our lives, I think the Bible can actually help us make sense of some of the chaos around us. Our ancestors understood what we, today, are going through! They too felt our insecurity, our uncertainty about the future, and our unwillingness to see the perspective of The Other. These things are not new, so let's learn from some of their successes AND their failures. And above all, please remember that there's more to religion than just somber nodding and staring, I promise.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. Image of bumper sticker created by Piotr Młodożeniec
2. CC image courtesy of Ephraim Moses Lilien on Wikimedia Commons
3. Screen shot of "unfriend" option on Facebook
4. CC image courtesy of ThomasRibeiro25 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 11, 2016

Lech Lecha: Change is Coming...

Imagine what would happen if one day everything changed. Overnight, your whole world was different; and without much emotional or physical preparation, you were given no choice but to begin a very long journey into an unknown and scary
future. Our Torah portion this week tells the tale of Abraham, and how God's unexpected command to "Lech Lecha" - "Go Forth" and leave his home left Abraham wandering off to an uncertain destiny. Whether Republican or Democrat (or neither), the results of this week's election have left us feeling a lot like Abraham; with lives full of tremendous change and upheaval. And, like Abraham, regardless of whether we're excited or fearful of what lies ahead, our only option is to start walking into it. The real question now is, what can and should we make of this experience? What can we learn, and how can we grow? Our country, and indeed our world, is very fractured; how can we try and heal together, and can Abraham give us some advice along the way?

Make no mistake, this was a terrifying moment for Abraham. In the ancient world, people just didn't DO things like this. They didn't leave home, family, tribe, and security to wander off into the desert with few
resources and no final destination. God said, "Start walking!" and eventually a goal would reveal itself. How can any of us follow Abraham's example? How do we close our eyes, give over control of self, family, and community, take that leap of faith, and trust that good things await on the other side? Sometimes it is hard - almost impossible - to feel that kind of trust. Eventually, however, Abraham arrived, and he became successful and prosperous. Even his nephew, Lot, did well. And then we read a fascinating incident in the story, which also speaks so powerfully to us at this very moment in our lives.

Abraham had flocks and herdsmen; Lot had flocks and herdsmen. And in a great nod to the classic Western movie, Abraham declared, "This town isn't big enough for the both of us!" He approached Lot and said, "Let there be no strife between
you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: If you go left, I'll go right; if you go right, I'll go left." (Gen. 13:8-9) Does this quote not speak to precisely where we are at right now? Some of us lean left, others lean right, and it sure does feel like this place cannot sustain all of us together. And yet, we are brethren! The text actually even goes further than that. The Hebrew for "brethren" in our text is "Anashim Achim." It's a strange formulation, which we might literally translate as "we are human beings; we are brothers." We MUST see the humanity in The Other, AND we also need to keep reminding ourselves and one another that we are sisters and brothers.

These were painful moments for Abraham; leaving his home and then separating from Lot. And these are painful, chaotic, uncertain times for us as well. The thing is, we do not have the option of Lot and Abraham.
We cannot draw a dividing line, a border or a wall, and split off to the right and the left. We are in this thing together, and we need to figure out how to move forward TOGETHER. One thing that Abraham's story certainly teaches us is that progress and discovery come from dramatic change. Would any of us be here if Abraham had stayed in Haran, maintaining the status quo? Chaos and upheaval also bring opportunity, bravery, and daring. I certainly pray that we can draw strength from the lessons of Genesis, and begin to heal the deep wounds of our country. The time has come to "go forth"; let us see what awaits on the other side.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Fordmadoxfraud on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Superscramble on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Howcheng on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Roger McLachlan on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 4, 2016

Noah: Heaven Doesn't Get a Vote

There is a wonderful rabbinic tale that I really love, and which I think is particularly appropriate today, both because of this week's Torah
portion AND because of our upcoming (impending?) election. In this story, a group of rabbis are arguing over a legal matter. One of them, Rabbi Eliezer, disagrees with all the others, and he is certain he is right. He calls on various supernatural signs to testify on his behalf against his colleagues, and a tree uproots, a river runs backwards, the walls of their study hall start to crack, and even a voice from heaven proclaims the law IS, indeed, on Eliezer's side. But the other rabbis refuse to be persuaded. Not even the heavenly declaration convinces them, as they yell defiantly back at the sky: "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee!" And Eliezer is defeated.

The rabbis' retort does not come from this week's Torah portion, if you thought that was going to be my connection. "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee" actually comes from Deuteronomy, 30:12, and it means "It is not in heaven." In our fable, the rabbis
use it to signify that the Torah was, at one point, God's possession, and God DID write all the rules and edicts expressly in the text... BUT, then God gave us the Torah. And now it's ours. It is our responsibility to apply it to our lives, and we have to be the ones to interpret new laws based on the Torah text. "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee" - "Your part is done, God! Thank you for the Torah; now let us handle this." A lot of Chutzpah, right? Pretty amazing that the rabbis could or would yell such a thing at God. And yet, if we continue to expect God to resolve our disputes, and we don't put our faith in human institutions and the need for us, for all humans, to take responsibility for our actions, our laws, and our planet; we are in trouble.

This week, we are once again reading about Noah and the Flood. It is, perhaps, the quintessential story of God stepping in and saving the day. Humans messed the place up - this is why we can't have nice things - and God pressed the "reset" button. At the end of the story, God says
something that is BOTH a great comfort and assurance, but also an ominous warning: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done" (Gen. 8:21). On the one hand, God is promising never to wipe us all out again, and surely that is a VERY good thing. But on the other hand, God is also reminding us, "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee," it is no longer God's problem to fix things when we mess them up. WE need to take responsibility! We need to interpret the laws, apply the Torah in our lives, and create a just society that will stand the test of time. We can't keep ruining things... because God won't bail us out again.

In just a few more days, we will be seeing a perfect example of this. "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee," God doesn't decide this election; heck, God doesn't even get a single vote! (Even though some fundamentalists DO seem to believe God resides in the United States of America alone, and WOULD therefore be able to vote...) People get
frustrated, disillusioned, and jaded, and they look around at the corruption, smear tactics, and voter suppression that we see all around us, and it might look like we're back in the evil world that Noah lived in pre-flood. But that's on us! It's OUR world, and yeah, it's got a whole myriad of flaws and problems. But no one else is bailing us out. Each and every one of us must cast a vote; there are no good excuses. We are NOT living in Noah's world, and hopefully reading about his problems can help put ours in perspective. Change is not impossible, and improvement CAN happen. If we grab hold of our fate, say "thanks, God, we'll take it from here," and work collectively to build a better future; change will happen. It starts with a single vote.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Apdency on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Adiel lo on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Russavia on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Asdefgaheckel on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bereisheet: Are We Asking Good Questions?

I am always amazed that in this day and age, in 2016, some people STILL insist on pitting science and religion against one another. A professor of mine, Neil Gillman, offered - what I consider - the best rebuke of this ludicrous debate.
The two are simply NOT in conflict, said Rabbi Gillman, because they are trying to answer different questions. Science wonders "How" the world was created. It then follows this up with questions like "When did it all happen?" and "What is everything made of?" Religion, on the other hand, asks entirely different queries, like "Why are we here?" and "What does it mean to live a good life?" And, quite frankly, one discipline isn't at all interested in the questions posed by the other. They are not at war with one another. This week, as we restart the reading of the Torah, back at the story of Creation, one single word shows us that we are dealing with a religious document and very much NOT a scientific one.

I suppose you COULD argue, as some do, that both science and religion examine the creation of everything... but almost immediately, they part ways. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, just four verses in, the Torah states: "God saw that the light was good." Good? How
unscientific to look at one's work and declare it "Good," or even "Bad," for that matter! It's unscientific, and it's irrelevant. But not to the Torah. From the very Beginning, we are invited to consider the qualitative, substantive, and moral aspects of our world. Are things good? Are we doing everything we can to MAKE them good, to enable them to help and not harm other people, animals, things, and even the planet itself? Perhaps not surprisingly, the Torah employs this (highly subjective and unprofessional) value judgment SEVEN times in its first chapter. The number seven mirrors, of course, the days of the week, and is considered in Judaism to be a number of wholeness and holiness. How very symbolic.

Our narrator applies the label "Good" to light on Day One; then nothing on Day Two (interesting in and of itself...); the separation of the Earth from the Sea AND later the creation of vegetation and fruit on Day Three ("good" is used twice); the sun, moon, and stars on Day Four;
sea creatures, creeping things (really?), and birds on Day Five; wild beasts and cattle on Day Six; and then, finally, as Day Six comes to a close, God looks back at all of God's creations and declares them "Tov Me'od," "VERY good" (1:31). Again, science would have no opinion on the question of whether things are "good" or not. But it is an essential, and central, concern for our Torah, for two important reasons.

First, it helps us see and feel that God cares about us and our world. God is invested in our success, and desperately wants this enterprise to succeed! Perhaps more importantly, however, we are meant to read the text as saying that all these things have THE POTENTIAL to be good. Especially in verse 31, we understand that anything and everything CAN BE "very good," but it won't happen all by itself. Are we helping
our world be "very good"? Are we, as human beings, living up to our potential to be "very good" for one another and for our planet? Sadly, the answer to a lot of these questions is "no." But our response cannot, and should not, be to therefore shut off, tune out, and become callous to the problems of the day. We don't have the luxury of looking at our planet through a microscope, or objectively analyzing the studies about species becoming extinct, temperatures rising, or pipelines destroying habitats. We live here too! And though science and religion diverge on origin stories, ultimately they do - and we should - converge back at realizing our planet needs help. We all need to be asking how we can do more, and reverse some troubling and alarming trends. We should stop pitting ourselves against one another, and instead get back to thinking about how to do good and BE good. Above all, we need to work on these issues together, or we might see the Creation story start working itself back in reverse. And that wouldn't be "very good" at all...

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Ydun on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Wakalani on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Namenlos.net on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dolovis on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 21, 2016

Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: An Exercise in Futility

Being misunderstood is very frustrating. Especially when it happens over and over again. You try and explain yourself, but it seems that no one gets what you're trying to say. Multiple people - multiple times -
keep getting the wrong impression, the wrong messages, and the wrong takeaways. It is truly maddening!! And yet, there is also an opportunity for self-reflection. If LOTS of people are indeed missing the point, and "simple" explanations aren't helping... maybe there's something wrong with the message? Maybe it isn't them; maybe it's me? This weekend, as we continue to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, we will also be chanting from the ancient Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet. And people KEEP misunderstanding what Kohelet is all about!! Why don't they get it??? Well, maybe it isn't the readers who are to blame...

Ecclesiastes is often described as a depressing book. It is cynical, jaded, and pessimistic. Perhaps that perception comes from sentiments like the one expressed in verse two of the entire book: "Utter futility! - said Kohelet - Utter futility!
All is futile!!" The author then goes on to elaborate on all the many pursuits he has engaged in throughout life, and again concludes: "All is futile!" So, not a very chipper fellow. But scholars and rabbis generally reject that categorization of Kohelet. I frequently read commentaries that state (something like): "... people often view Kohelet as pessimistic and downbeat. Nothing is further from the truth!" I struggle with this dichotomy. On the one hand, I too appreciate Kohelet (and I'll tell you why in a second); but on the other hand, if SO many people are misunderstanding the book, perhaps the problem lies with the text, not its readers?

On its surface, Ecclesiastes DOES come across as a downer. Let's just acknowledge that reality. What he is TRYING to convey, however, is more complex. He decries extremes - whether riches or poverty, self-aggrandizement or excessive humility, too much sadness or too much revelry. Kohelet likes the middle road. Moderation, self-discipline,
balance. What especially resonates with me is that the narrative isn't linear. It doesn't begin with tough questions and end with satisfying answers. It begins with an exclamation, and only LATER goes into his "research" about the meaning of life. And his conclusions, his main points, come at the end of chapters 2, 3, 5, and late in chapter 8 (among others). Each time, he then returns to his frustrations ("futility!!") and further searches for meaning and purpose. What I love about that is that it reflects REAL life. Our own "Aha!" moments of insight don't come in straight trajectories, or at predictable stages in life. Sometimes random, seemingly mundane situations produce the most important lessons of our entire lives. The same is true for Ecclesiastes.

I think Kohelet gets misunderstood because he gets written off. We look instead for upbeat messages and quick soundbites that don't require a lot of in-depth analysis. We like our information in 140 characters or (preferably) less. And while I think that's truly a shame, I also don't entirely fault the readers.
On Yom Kippur we talk about God meeting us halfway, eagerly "running" to accept our repentance and apologies. Shouldn't Ecclesiastes be doing the same? Appealing to US, rather than waiting for the reader to commit 100% before revealing important truths? In the spirit of moderation, perhaps it needs to be both. We need to focus our attention for longer than 30 seconds, but we do also have the right to expect Judaism and our age-old texts to make SOME effort to speak to us too. Instead of continuing to misunderstand one another, let's be open to truths and maxims both ancient and current. If we take just that little extra time, we may learn some wonderful things that help us navigate our world in healthier, more harmonious ways. And there's nothing futile about that at all.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Ysangkok on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Nikodem Nijaki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons