Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wisdom of the Mothers: Book Review of Chapters of the Heart

I became a rabbi twenty-seven years ago in 1987 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I was in a graduating class of four, two women and two men. Though I think of myself as a pioneer, the Jewish feminist movement was already well underway. By 1987, nearly 200 women had been ordained as rabbis by the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements. Beginning in the early 1970s in North America, Jewish feminism had fostered new books, new rituals, new theology, and new leaders.

A few years ago, I approached a colleague to collaborate on a book that would reflect on what women rabbis had learned over the past forty years. Knowing what it meant to be pioneers, we shared the feeling that we might gather the insights of our colleagues to shed new light on the changing role and life of the rabbi, as lived by women.

My friend was very ill at the time and we never got farther than that one conversation, but I am excited and proud to recommend a brand new book that captures the wisdom of learned Jewish women: Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of our Lives.

The co-editors, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a Reform leader, and Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, a Reconstructionist scholar, invited friends and colleagues to write a chapter. Many of the authors are rabbis, while others are scholars, teachers and activists. (Full disclosure: I have a personal relationship with both editors and several of the authors.) While I’ve read similar collections that tend to be uneven in content and quality, each chapter of this book is a polished gem, crafted using a Jewish text, idea or ritual as a metaphor for her personal story. I have savored this little book over the past month, taking in each like a full-course meal, hearing stories of married and family life, work and careers, illness and loss, identity and community all flavored with spices from the rich span of the Jewish textual tradition.

In addition to superb editing, Sue and Nancy added an ingredient that helped bring this collection together. They invited the writers to a working retreat in Philadelphia where they all shared their stories before capturing them in print. This struck me as a unique approach to the art of creating a book, echoing the ancient rabbis whose tales and teachings were transcribed in our sacred books: the Mishna, the Talmud and the Midrash.

The title “Chapters of the Heart” (in Hebrew Pirkei Levavot) intentionally mirrors one of those ancient Jewish texts, “Ethics of the Fathers” (Pirke Avot). If Pirke Avot provides lessons for life, Chapters of the Hearts offers lessons from love. Love of our children though they are different from us, love through pain and illness, love following loss. Learning to love ourselves and to be compassionate with our broken world.

This book is yet another link in the chain of tradition that goes back to Pirke Avot.  In the introduction, the editors express a sense of awe and gratitude for this role as the impetus for this new publication:

 “We feel blessed to be among the first generation of Jewish women who have been welcomed into the study of Torah with opportunities for formal Jewish learning (and titles!) our mothers and grandmothers barely imagined. We see ourselves as part of that great chain of tradition and connect ourselves to it, quoting Torah, the rabbis, and each other.”

As another member of that generation, I am also grateful for being part of this chain and for the opportunity to add new and unimagined links to it. This book should stand the test of time as a reflection of the mind and heart of Jewish women taking on the responsibility of transmitting that tradition to the next generation.

**I also want to express my gratitude to the generous HBT member who thoughtfully gave me this book as a birthday gift, and unknowingly, delivered it a day before I was planning to meet the contributors at a book launch in Boston. My copy is now inscribed by the two co-editors as well as my friend, a constant reminder of the constantly unfolding gifts of friendship.  


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Terumah: Creating a holy and welcoming place

Before synagogues existed, Jews worshiped at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And before the Temple, when the Children of Israel were traveling in the wilderness from Egypt to the Land of Israel, they worshipped at the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle. In this week’s portion, Terumah, we learn how the Mishkan was constructed, who helped by bringing the materials and who helped by crafting the tent and all its furnishings.

Later on we read that Moses, Aaron and the kohanim, priests, were the only ones who actually entered the sacred precincts of the Mishkan. No random Israelite was allowed to perform the duties of preparing sacrifices. The priests did not volunteer for this and they could not interview for the job. Priestly duties were hereditary, passed from father to son. Nevertheless, priests who had physical or moral blemishes were barred from offering sacrifices. Like the animals they offered, the priest had to be perceived as “whole” and without any disfigurement.  

The opposite is true of the Israelites who brought the offerings from their flocks and fields. No Israelite was barred from taking part in the sacrificial cult, either because of a physical disability or a moral defect. Indeed, the purpose of bringing an offering was to help individuals heal from moral failings or physical ailments, be relieved from guilt or give thanks.

Our portion, Terumah, appears before any discussion of the priestly duties. The first discussion of the Mishkan does not mention any restrictions on who may bring a gift to help build the holy space. The portion opens by stating the purpose of this holy place: veshachanti betocham, “that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). In creating this mikdash, the holy place designed for the divine presence to be close to the community, every individual was welcomed and included.

The medieval commentator Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, underscores this point in two places.  Commenting on the phrase “the whole Israelite community” (Ex. 35:1), Ramban explains that this language included both men and women, because everyone contributed to the construction of the Mishkan.  Anyone could bring the yarns and fabrics, gold and silver and copper, wood and oil and spices, and precious stones. Anyone could make the sanctuary and all of its furnishings, including the ark itself.

In fact, when the Torah gives instructions on crafting the aron hakodesh, the holy ark, which held the sacred stone tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai, Ramban finds another example of inclusion. Here, the verb is in the plural, va’asu – they shall make. In every other instance of building, ornamenting and assembling the Mishkan, the verb is in the singular, va’asita – you (singular) shall make. Ramban points this out, explaining that all Israel was to participate in the making of the ark.

In our portion, the Torah is making a statement of radical inclusion. After all, in creating something so lofty, one might be very selective. Only the very best craftspeople might have been admitted. Only the finest gifts might have been received. Unlike the priestly obligations which were restricted to a select few, no one was prevented from participating in this holy work. The inclusion of every Israelite in the community is central to creating a holy place where divinity can dwell.

The Torah gives only one requirement for those who contributed to building the Mishkan: that the gifts come “from every person whose heart so moves him” (Ex. 25:2). Does God want fine linens and gold and silver ornaments? Does God want only those who are the best at what they do? The Talmud puts it succinctly: God wants the heart (Sanhedrin 106b)

Today, when we have no priests, no sacrifices and no Temple, our synagogues and communal institutions can and should be holy places where anyone can bring their offerings, both material gifts and individual talents. What is entailed in becoming a welcoming community? Later in parashat Kedoshim, the portion instructing us how to live holy lives, the Torah gives the answer: v’ahavta lereyacha kamocha, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiva called this the most fundamental principle of the Torah. Find a way to relate to people who are different from you. When someone brings their heart, answer them as God would, with a joyous welcome.

Is it enough to proclaim that everyone is welcome? In the same portion in Leviticus, we also read “do not curse the deaf and do not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). In other words, we need to live our welcome by looking after the needs of others. To live as a welcoming, inclusive community requires attention and intention.

Welcoming communities have a dual responsibility: first, to state explicitly that everyone is welcome, regardless of their background, their living situation, who they are or how they look. And at the same time, a welcoming community needs to be aware of differences and willing to respond, or even be pro-active, in making people feel welcome. For example, saying that a community welcomes people with disabilities is not fulfilled without handicap access. Becoming a community that is welcoming to Jews of color cannot be accomplished if all the images of Jews on the walls or in the books are white. A community that asks families to list the “father” and the “mother” is not a welcoming community to a family with two mothers or two fathers.

If our goal is to be inclusive, then it’s not enough to consider what makes us feel like good hosts. We need to consider how the other feels. A welcoming community asks its members what makes you feel unwelcome and what makes you feel at home.

To create a mishkan, a holy space, we need to make room for each heart that is moved to be here. We each have a unique offering. From the Torah itself, the Jewish community is called to become a place where everyone is welcome so that God can dwell among us.

Published in The Jewish Advocate on January 29, 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Jewish identity: Jews of Color and Feminists Seeking a Home

For MLK Shabbat, I invited Miriam Messinger to speak to us about race. See her words and her daughter Amani's moving spoken word about being Jewish and black.

Amani: For me, the most daunting part of being Jewish is the beginning. The introduction. The double take. I will always have to repeat my religion twice. I have gotten used to this. Typically, after the initial shock, the questioner will accept my Judaism or admit defeat and give up on their interrogation. Sometimes I am not so lucky. Sometimes--even though I wear my Jewishness around my neck, literally, in the form of the Star of David or a hamsa, depending on the day--I am still required to defend my identity.

On a totally different topic, here's my take on how a Jewish feminist can read ancient Jewish (read: patriarchal) texts:

More to come! Check out this week's dvar Torah in The Jewish Advocate.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Keeping the Faith

Bread and water. That’s all that the Israelites really need. After all, they have been freed from Pharaoh’s tyranny, free to follow a higher purpose, a divine calling. They have witnessed one miracle after another. Ten plagues have ravaged the Egyptian countryside and afflicted the Israelites’ oppressors. The former slaves crossed a sea that turned to mud and then closed up again, trapping Pharaoh and his pursuing army. Certainly these wondrous events have assured the Israelites of divine protection. Their faith should be unshakeable, as the Torah tells us “And when Israel saw how God’s great power over the Egyptians, the people felt awe and they believed in God and in Moses, God’s servant.  (Exodus 14:31)

In this week’s portion, Beshallach, we read of the climactic moment when the Children of Israel cross the Red Sea to freedom. The narrative is so dramatic it is worth taking the time to read in the original (Ex. 13:17 -14:31), and even adding this section to your Passover seder.

This week is also known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. At the heart of the portion, Miriam and Moses lead the people in grateful song (Ex. 15:1-18, 20-21).  And then, just as we must return to our routines after a vacation or holiday, the Israelites leave behind the exultation and start to focus on daily life.

What is their first request? Bread and water. Only a few verses after all the singing and dancing, the people are already grumbling, “What shall we drink?”  (Ex.15:24) God instructs Moses how to sweeten the water so they can drink.

Just a few verses later, the people are complaining again, “If only we had died by God’s own hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat at pots of meat, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Ex.16:3) Immediately, God provides manna.

The commentators ask what has happened to the people’s faith? How can they be so forgetful of divine providence or so brazen as to complain against God? This critique arises from Moses’ own words, saying “Your grumbling is not against us, for it is against God!” (Ex.16:8) It appears that the people have lost faith, demanding further proof that God is with them or questioning God’s power. If God could part the Red Sea, why shouldn’t they expect God to provide bread and water? If the Israelites had faith, they would they have waited patiently, trusting God’s blessing to appear.

Commenting on a second occasion in this portion when the people demand water (Ex 17:2), the 15th century Spanish commentator, Abravanel, counters these arguments saying, “If they lacked drinking water, then they were justified in complaining….It was surely an absolutely legitimate and essential request.”

In each of these instances, God does not hesitate to respond to the people’s needs. When they ask for water, God instructs Moses to give them water. When they beg for food, God rains down manna, and provides quail as well.

While Moses takes affront at their lack of faith, God is concerned for their hunger. As the great 19th century Mussar teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter, famously taught, “We worry too much about other’s souls and our own bellies. We should be worrying more about our own souls and other’s bellies.” Likewise, when someone is begging for food or water, it is not a time to question their faith. It’s a time to feed them.

As annoyed as we might get when someone whines or complains, the godly response is to hear the pain behind their words. It’s not easy to do. Even our greatest teacher, Moses, was distracted by his own emotional response. If we truly listen, we can hear the grumble of the stomach beneath the grumbling words. Rather than react to the complaint, we can truly respond to the need.

Perhaps there is more to learn from God’s response to the hunger expressed by the Children of Israel.  God tells Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: in the evening you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I am your God.” (Ex. 16:12)

Like a loving parent, God tells the people that they have been heard and assures them that they will not starve. In the final phrase, “and you shall know that I am your God,” God is also gently teaching them, and us, about faith. When people’s basic needs are fulfilled, they will then have the capacity to seek a higher purpose. Knowing that the manna will fall every morning eases the people’s anxiety. Well-fed, they begin to notice more than their aching bellies. The manna that fills their physical desire also fills their spiritual hunger: to know God’s presence.

This faith is tested every seventh day, when the Israelites are instructed to collect an extra portion for Shabbat. On all other days, if they collect more than their share, the extra manna rots overnight. On this night alone, the extra manna will retain its freshness until the next day, when nothing will fall from the sky. On Shabbat, the six days of work and physical sustenance yield to one day of faith and spiritual renewal. Shabbat is a reminder of a higher purpose to life.

In the face of hunger and thirst, the Children of Israel quickly forget the fantastic events of the parting of the Red Sea. Who can blame them? Faith may arise in miraculous times, but it must be sustained in the everyday. We rarely experience an earth-shattering miracle; we know God in a loaf of bread. However, one day a week we are given the opportunity to stop “collecting” and give thanks for what we already have. Shabbat is the spiritual gift that awakens and renews everyday faith.  Shabbat shalom!

published in The Jewish Advocate,  January 10, 2014 

Protecting the Vision

On Monday, Boston inaugurated a new mayor. I had the great privilege to be one of the 8000 who attended the event, with all of the pomp and circumstance, uplifting music and inspiring words.  Like a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding, the ceremony makes us pay attention to a process that has already begun and will continue to evolve. Like many rites of passage, the rituals mark a liminal moment, that period of vulnerability and potential danger as a person or group moves through a transition.

The most memorable line of the new mayor’s speech was a kind of drash (commentary) on the oft-quoted image coined by John Winthrop, that Boston would be a City upon a hill. Mayor Walsh continued
“We are a City Upon a Hill, but it’s not just the shining light of Beacon Hill. It’s Savin Hill, where I live. It’s Bunker Hill, Bellevue Hill and Fort Hill. It’s Pope’s Hill, Jones Hill, and Telegraph Hill. It’s Copp’s Hill, Mission Hill and Eagle Hill.”

The import of those words, describing our diverse neighborhoods, was echoed by every detail of the carefully-orchestrated event. The city’s population and culture was reflected in the clergy -- the Cardinal and the African American preacher,  in the political leaders -- Senator Warren and Governor Patrick, and especially the music -- the pipe and drum band, complete with bagpipes, Yo-Yo Ma, students from the Boston Arts Academy and from Neighborhood House Charter School, and the student choir from Boston Renaissance Charter School singing a song written by former mayoral candidate Mel King. Even the new city council looked a lot more like the people of Boston they represent.

Mayor Walsh campaigned on a vision of diversity and inclusion, and spoke at the inaugural of his vision of City Hall serving all residents of the city. The fact that he chose a venue that could hold 8000 people demonstrated the mayor’s commitment to listen to as many voices as possible.

Another moment that struck me was when Governor Patrick turned to Marty Walsh and gave him a bit of advice: remember why you wanted this job in the first place. With years of personal experience of the urgent and often distracting demands of governing, the governor was reminding the mayor to hold onto his vision.

Recently, a professional coach asked me for the best advice I had ever given. After I responded, she explained that the advice we give is a very strong indicator of what’s important to us. Later that week I was reminded of that truth when I offered this advice about making change in an organization: you need to decide whether you are committed to the mission or not. And I realized that I need to remember that too, and not let petty disagreements or convenient excuses obscure the larger goal. In other words, “Keep your eyes on the prize!”

At the end of the inauguration ceremony, Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond asked for protection for our new mayor. In this liminal moment, a moment of transition that can be as fraught with danger as it is open to possibility, we also need to ask protection for the mayor’s vision. Just as we pray in the evening service that God protect us from harm in the darkness of night, so we should also pray that our dreams and goals be kept safe in the days ahead. As we say in the Hashkiveinu prayer, may we be sheltered beneath the wings of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence), let us all pray that our common vision of a city on many hills, with many different faces and cultures, keeps all of our leaders and elected officials and citizens working together through whatever dark nights may lie ahead.