Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tazria: The Meaning of Pure Equality

I want to speak to you for a bit about something that bothers me, and it relates (in part) to this week's Torah portion. Our parasha is one of the most difficult to make relevant, because it deals entirely with ritual purity and impurity, skin diseases and inflammations, and "impurities" that affect clothing. But the challenge of finding meaning in our Torah portion is not what bothers me.

The concept of impurity, tumah, in and of itself is complicated. We find it jarring and (let's face it) creepy,
and we can't make sense of why God created it. The Etz Hayim Torah commentary tries to re-

frame it for us, stating, "We can see the notion of tum-ah, then, as growing out of a sense of reverence for the miraculous nature of birth, the awesome power of death, and the mysteries of illness and recuperation." Though I appreciate their attempt to redeem tumah, I remain unconvinced. I cannot help but feel that it is an ancient, outdated, and kind of gross facet of religion; one which I am happy to leave behind. Yet this also is NOT what bothers me this week.

Our first introduction to impurity in the parasha deals with childbirth. When a woman gives birth to a son, she remains impure for seven days, and then continues to be in a state of "blood purification" for an additional 33 days, during which she may not enter the sanctuary. When she gives birth to a daughter, however, she becomes impure for 14 days, and then remains impure for an ADDITIONAL 66 days before she can enter the sanctuary. And no, we are not given a reason why

the period of impurity is TWICE as long for a girl than for a boy. It seems terribly unfair, but we also have to keep in mind that theirs was not an egalitarian society. We no longer subscribe to these values, but we cannot deny that it was simply the reality of life in Biblical times that a son was more important than a daughter. I don't like this concept, but I recognize that priorities were different then. We are getting closer, much closer in fact, but this too is not what bothers me.

So let me tell you what IS bothering me. Today we are striving to create an equal society. Our

values differ greatly from those in the Torah, and we have reshaped our ritual life to reflect this reality. Women receive aliyot, they read Torah, they lead services, and our prayers have even been amended to mirror our evolved sensitivities. Yet many women in our synagogue, and throughout the Conservative movement, choose not to participate equally. Some women come to synagogue and do not put on a head covering, many do not wear a tallit, and at our synagogue's daily morning minyan not a single woman puts on tefillin. Though to be fair, many of the men aren't putting on tefillin either; which perhaps makes it more equal, but also equally troubling...

I look at this week's Torah portion, and I actually feel great pride that our religious community no longer treats women or newborn infant girls as second class citizens. But ritual life comes with BOTH rights and responsibilities. We say this to every one of our B'nai Mitzvah students: If you want the rights, you must also take on the responsibilities. You cannot pick and choose. And it's not just a generational issue; many of the young women who most recently celebrated a Bat Mitzvah come to synagogue without a tallit or head covering. I truly feel that it belittles egalitarianism when we do not all take on the same rights and responsibilities to observe Judaism as one people, with one standard, for all members of our community.

Next week we are celebrating Rosh Chodesh, the start of a new month. In Jerusalem the Women of the Wall will be struggling valiantly for the very same rights AND
responsibilities which we take for granted, and in a society

that sometimes seems no less advanced that the Ancient Israelites who observed the laws of tumah. We cannot be there to fight alongside them. But we can support their efforts by pushing for REAL equality in our own communities. We can lead by example, shed all traces of gender separation, and instead pray, celebrate, and live side by side with one another as Jews. Not male Jews and female Jews, not "true" Jews and "half" Jews; just Jews. Now that's getting rid of the tumah in our community!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of land_camera_land_camera on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of mbaylor on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of handmaidenbymaria on Flickr
4. Image courtesy of Deborah Gerber. Women of the Wall, Jerusalem, 1988.
5. CC image courtesy of sakocreative on Flickr

6. Image courtesy of Deborah Gerber. Women of the Wall, Jerusalem, 1988.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shemini: How Now, Brown Huh?

I want to start this week's blog with a quick disclaimer: Last week's post was not meant to be taken seriously, it was Purim Torah, meaning humorous, satirical material appropriate to the holiday of Purim. Some people asked why I didn't clarify that somewhere in the post itself, and unfortunately that's just not how I operate. Personally, I feel that a joke is inherently ruined if you have to say, "this is a joke." So beware, folks, more Purim Torah may appear here from time to time, and no, I will not warn you ahead of time. I will include this type of explanation after the fact, but that's as far as I'll go. Thank you to everyone who commented on it; I'm glad some people found it funny! :-)

Sometimes you have to wonder if the Torah is ALSO dabbling in satire, but without offering an explicit disclaimer. The closest thing we get to outright mockery was last week's holiday story, the Book of Esther. It's filled with spoofs, slapstick, and silliness; yet even that story is taken by some to be serious, factual material. If people can't find King Achashverosh funny, what hope is there for the rest of the Bible?!? This week, we are celebrating one of four special Shabbatot leading into Passover, namely Shabbat Parah - the Shabbat of the Cow. As if the name isn't strange enough, the story we are marking is even stranger.

In the Book of Numbers, 19:1-20, we read about the ritual of the Red Heifer, the proverbial Brown Cow. This special cow was to be taken out of the Israelite camp, slaughtered, and burned to ashes. When people became ritually impure in Biblical times, the only way to become "pure" again was to have water mixed with heifer-ashes sprinkled on you. Obviously. And if the ritual

wasn't peculiar enough, every person involved in the slaughtering, burning, or handling of the ashes would become IMPURE for the rest of the day; so the purifying agent itself renders the user impure. This ritual is SO strange that the ancient rabbis imagined King Solomon himself, one of the wisest men in history, saying, "I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the brown cow."

So what do we make of all this? We get so caught up in being dumbfounded by the specifics of this Ruddy Calf, we often forget to take a step back and think about it conceptually. Red Heifer? Sometimes it acts more like a Red Herring! One thing that the Burgundy Bovine teaches us is that faith is about acceptance, not understanding. In many ways, this ritual tests our devotion more than other, more famous, passages. It's isn't hard to believe in God when we read, "Love your neighbor as yourself." And most of us believe the challenging parts of the Torah, like "Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth," or "Whoever does work on the Sabbath shall be put to death," are opportunities for us to reinterpret law and evolve as a religion. But what do we do about the parts that are just weird? They don't offend us, but they also don't enrich our lives, or inspire us to action. Like fasting, waving a lulav and etrog, and some of our other peculiar rituals, some things we do because they make us feel Jewish. And in Biblical times, this was one of those things.

To me, the Red Heifer reminds us that we don't need to explain ourselves to anyone else. Yes,

being Jewish comes with some weird, wacky practices, but so what? Who ever said everything needs to be rational, logical, and low key? Certainly not the Bible! And even though we no longer have a Temple, I think the Torah is still speaking to us when talking about the Maroon Milking Machine. It's one part satire and one part challenge. It's showing us how we've evolved our tradition since then, while also demonstrating what people were willing to do to demonstrate their deep faith. We may not still have the ritual, but, asks the Torah, have we retained the sentiment? Which actions/customs/traditions do you observe that make you feel truly Jewish? Practices which make you feel connected to your ancestors... even as they embarrass you a little at the same time? Especially as we approach Passover, this is an interesting question for all of us to consider.

Sometimes we are swift to censure satire and silliness, simply because it isn't serious (say that five times fast...). But I can tell you from personal experience, humor is often very hard to write, and takes a great deal more ingenuity than most somber topics. Comedy is also intricately linked to culture and values. When learning a new language, one of the final indicators of true comprehension and proficiency is the ability to understand, and tell, jokes. Amidst all its peculiarity and irony, the Rosy Ruminator is still very much a part of what makes us Jews.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of wotashot (taking a break) on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Kristian D on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of geraintandkim on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of fczuardi on Flickr

6. CC image courtesy of Thunderchild7 on Flickr

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tzav: A "Burning" Desire for Change!

One of the great benefits of being part of a creative, dynamic, and forward-thinking entity like the Conservative Movement is having a front-row seat to the evolution and reshaping of Judaism. Our movement has played a critical part in redefining the role of women in Jewish worship, has developed rituals and practices for new holidays like Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israel's Independence Day) and Yom Ha-Shoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and has led the way with Hechsher Tzedek, a group seeking more ethical practices in the preparation and handling of Kosher food.

Well, the leaders of Conservative Judaism are at it again! And this time Ohev Shalom has been invited to be a pioneer congregation for a new revolution. What would you say is the one thing that we really need in our lives, something that could bring more people to synagogue, reengage our youth, and inspire new members to join?
You're probably thinking what I'm thinking: Sacrifice. Ever since the year 70 CE, Judaism has been missing something. I know you've all felt it. Praying is great, studying the Torah is terrific too, and we all love Social Action projects and trying to be good people as well as good Jews. But our ancient ancestors knew that the "real" way to connect to God was through ritual offerings, and the Conservative Movement is ready to bring them back.

A group of young rabbis has formed a coalition called the Jewish Organization for the Conservative (or Konservativ, for our European colleagues) Establishment of Sacrifices (it works better as an acronym...). They wrote a responsum on how to bring back ritual sacrifice, and it passed unanimously. Now obviously we aren't talking about real, live animal sacrifices; that would be crazy! No, we're going to start off with grain, meal, and oil offerings, and build from there. I know what you're thinking, how would this even work? The Ritual Committee and I discussed it, and the Cantor is on board; from now on, the Cantor will lead services from the middle aisle, and we will use the space in front of the Ark as the new spot for the altar. We will have vents installed above the altar to direct the fire and smoke out of the building, and if/when we get really serious about sacrifices later on, we can create a drainage system underneath the altar as well.
It'll certainly take some time to get used to; let's face it, we haven't done anything like this in 2,000 years! But

it's a very exciting time for our movement, and for Ohev Shalom. One of the things we are going to need, however, are priests to help run the altar. If you are a Kohen (or a Bat Kohen), please consider dedicating some time to our new, merged committee, the Priesthood-Ritual And New-sacrifice Committee. Now I'm certain the biggest question on your mind is: Who's going to be our new High Priest?
Well, if you'd like to apply, and you're a Kohen, please click here.
We're also going to need Levites to help wash the hands and feet of our priests, so if you're a Levite and want to apply, please click here.

I think this is really going to ring in a new era for Ohev Shalom; one that will get a lot of people "fired up" about coming to synagogue. The last hurdle we need to clear is the fire safety code, which our Executive Director, Josh Laster, is working on as we speak. In the weeks and months ahead, we will learn more together about priestly garb, the laws for when to bring which type of sacrifice, and how much God has been longing for us to bring this back. It'll probably be a good idea for us to go over emergency exit rules with everyone, and we should definitely learn about "strange fire" so we don't risk any mishaps... But at least we now know what the theme-word is going to be for the year ahead, right?
Happy Purim, everyone!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC Image courtesy of Living in Monrovia on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of viralbus on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of austinmcgee on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of David Blackwell on Flickr
5. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vayikra: You Don't Mess With Leviticus

What is the very first thing you teach a child on his or her first day of school? What do you want to start out with to show the children what they have to look forward to, to give them a sense of comfort, and to demonstrate that school can be fun and exciting? According to the ancient rabbis, children should begin their Jewish education by learning the Book of Leviticus. To some, this might sound surprising, considering that the book primarily contains laws of sacrifice, purity and impurity, and priestly regulations for how to maintain the Ancient Tabernacle. Ordinarily, that sort of thing doesn't go over too well with 6-year olds. Apparently, the rabbis disagree.

The rabbis tell us that children are pure, so it is appropriate to teach them about the laws of purity. I see their point, but I cannot possibly imagine that any child would find meaning, interest, or enjoyment

in learning about Leviticus. It's hard for an adult to read this book, how is a child supposed to make sense of it?! Personally, I think the rabbis took a lesson out of Frank Sinatra's playbook: "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere!" The problem is, this philosophy led a lot of people to tune out religious school... and even as adults they never tune back in.

So what's the deal with Leviticus? How do we find meaning in this book, and extract any relevant concepts for our lives today? Rabbi Abigail Treu, in a Torah commentary written for the Jewish Theological Seminary, talks about the "mega-values" that are laid out in Vayikra (Leviticus in Hebrew). In fact, we learn about laws like "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Proclaim liberty throughout the land";

amazing concepts which have inspired people and nations for millennia. So what are they doing hidden amidst the archaic, outdated laws of the sacrificial cult? (No offense to our ancient ancestors...) Rabbi Treu reminds us that religion is not just about individual choice and free will. Yes, these things are important, but we are also part of an organized religion, which values Shabbat, Kashrut, holidays, lifecycle events, and Jewish jokes. These things are crucial as well! If we only had the other books of the Torah, we would still learn about important role models like Abraham, Sarah, and Joseph, but we would not have our rituals. We would get history, but not practice. We would be a culture, a nation, even a people... but not a religion. Rabbi Treu writes, "It is in Leviticus that we come to understand that stories can shape the heart, but ritual shapes our days."

Having said all of that, I'm still not sure it's the best choice for a Kindergarten lesson plan. "Trial by fire" doesn't seem like a good philosophy for 1st grade. Luckily we don't do this

anymore. Young children learn Jewish songs, they make (and eat) Jewish food, and they
learn basic holiday observances like wearing costumes on Purim and getting presents on Chanukah. But we are not children. We are no longer looking for a religious tradition geared towards kids; we are ready for the grown-up version... or at least I hope we are.

With experience comes knowledge. We've learned that it takes time to learn a skill or a craft, that becoming an accomplished musician or athlete comes with hard work, dedication, passion, and determination. Religion is the same way. I'm not sure people always realize that (or want to realize it), but it's true. Leviticus forces us to react and ask questions. It comes with confusing, complicated, and sometimes upsetting laws which provoke us to think. It's time to engage the Torah on an adult level. It'll be worth it, I promise. It's a wonderfully rich tradition, and has a lot of amazing things to say and teach about our everyday lives. But it'll take work to get there. Genesis is behind us now, so is Exodus. It's time for Leviticus.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC Image courtesy of retinafunk on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of twm1340 on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of basykes on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Andrei! on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Ron Sombilon Gallery on Flickr

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pekudei: Feeling Commanded To Do A Good Job?

How hard is it to get a job done right??? I recently discovered that this is a very central question in this week's Torah portion. In this concluding section of the Book of Exodus, we learn about the final instructions to Moses to build the Tabernacle, and Moses gives an account of all the material that was collected from every Israelite for the project. As I was sitting in morning minyan this week, something in our parasha caught my eye.

We are told that Moses built such-and-such or commissioned so-and-so to create this or that doohickey (technical term in the Bible... obviously), and that he did so according to God's instructions. And then we hear the very logical statement, "[He built it] just as the Lord had commanded Moses." Makes sense, right? But what caught my eye is that we hear this exact same phrase NINETEEN times, in only 2 chapters! Over and over again, sometimes in every other verse, we keep hearing that Moses performed his duties just as God had commanded. Alright already! We get it! How hard is it to get a job done right?!?

Why doesn't the Torah just sum up our entire portion with one, final, all-encompassing statement? Why 19 repetitions? As with everything else in the Bible, there's a lesson to be learned here, and I'd like to offer one possibility. Moses takes great pride in his work. Completing each of his tasks, both to the best of his abilities and precisely in accordance with God's wishes, is a tremendous source of pride for him. Indeed, there are few things in life

that feel as fulfilling as a job well done. And I would even argue that it does not matter what that job consists of. Whether you are building a sanctuary to house the Divine Presence or putting together a piece of IKEA furniture; whether you are the CEO of a company or drive a garbage truck; whether you are the headliner of a Broadway smash hit or are throwing on a dress and makeup for the first time to perform in a synagogue play - take pride in what you do. It makes the work better, it makes you feel uplifted, and it can even affect those around you who are inspired by your example.

The strange thing is, it often feels difficult to view work this way. Most of it isn't fun, it isn't very glamorous, and we rarely see the fruits of our labor. How do you take pride in that stuff? We look at Moses talking about the Tabernacle, and we think, "Oh sure, he's feeling great. Who wouldn't feel that way doing God's work??" But if you read this section of the Bible, you see that Moses' job was VERY tedious, and he often took a lot of abuse for it! Everything positive was attributed to God, and everything negative was Moses' fault. Yet here we see Moses really feeling good about himself, and about the task at hand, and this can serve as a model to all of us. Not every job is wonderful, and even the good ones come with challenges and frustrations. But like Moses, we should seek out the parts we enjoy, or the tasks that are fulfilling.

One final thought: Moses felt that every aspect of his work was governed by God, so much so that he told us about it 19 times. For him, this enhanced the experience, and gave him the extra motivation he needed. How might this be true in our lives as well? How can you get to a place of feeling that God is a partner in the work that you do, that God cares about how well you perform

your tasks? Working with children, healing people who are sick, saving someone money on their taxes - all of this can be holy work. It may not seem that way at first, or all the time, but it becomes holy work if we experience it that way. So to answer the question we started out with, how hard is it to get a job done right? It all depends on how much you take pride in it, and how holy you make it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC Image courtesy of Jinx! on Flickr
2. CC image (of doohickey) courtesy of mikelehen on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of miss_rogue on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Claire L. Evans on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of isafmedia on Flickr