Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rabbinette

In case you don't know it, I am a rabbi. Strange but true.

A number of years ago, I, realizing my own weakness in my understanding of Judaism, started looking for someone who would teach me what I needed to know to be a good and informed Jew. The program I found was part of a kollel, a religious learning program, and graduates are awarded rabbinic ordination. So I sort of stumbled into the title. It wasn't my goal -- the goal was simply to be better by knowing more stuff.

So I'm a rabbi. And amidst all the current hubbub about women rabbis, I have been trying to forge a position. Now, truth be told, I haven't read all the fancy position papers and responsa and articles in all the papers, and maybe that's why I'm struggling. Trying to make up my mind without knowing things is tough; but I've never let that stop me before, so why start now?

Here's the thing: I have no idea what a "rabbi" is or does so I can't figure out what all the fuss is about. And remember, I speak as someone considered a rabbi! So if I have no idea, odds are others have even less. What I'm going to present here is a collection of MY thoughts -- I represent no branch, institution or specific ideology other than the Congregation of Ignorance, of which I share the presidency with millions of others.

I was trying to figure out what a rabbi is and does because only then could I make an informed inference about the propriety of a woman's performing said function so I figured I would break down what I see rabbis do and ask for each thing, is it religiously OK for a woman to do that.

1. I studied a large collection of Jewish texts and sources on a variety of topics. Can a woman, according to Modern Orthodox Judaism, study what I studied? It seems that, yes, she can. I work in a school in which girls and boys study the same material.

2. I attended classes and discussions about aspects of Jewish law. Can a woman attend these classes? I think so. Even if the class were to be offered in a separate setting for a female audience, nothing in the content was secret or related to gender.

3. My ordination attests to my having passed a test about certain areas of Jewish law. Can a woman take a test? I don't know why a woman wouldn't be able to take a test.

4. Some rabbis teach classes in Jewish text or which review Jewish laws and ideas. Of course, some teachers of the same content are men who are NOT rabbis, just learned scholars, so it isn't specifically a function of a rabbi to teach texts. Can a woman teach texts? Many already do.

5. Some rabbis officiate at weddings. But, in fact, one does not need to be a rabbi to "officiate" a wedding. Very little is done by an officiant. The gender limitations related to saying prayers are not related to being ordained.

6. Leading a funeral? Same as #5. While a woman might be precluded from reciting certain prayers, it isn't about ordination.

7. In some synagogues, the rabbi leads services. But that isn't due to his having ordination. A layperson can lead services. If a woman cannot, it is because gender and leading prayers is a separate discussion. This is not about a rabbi.

8. Sometimes, a rabbi gives a sermon. But one need not be a rabbi to deliver a sermon. Is there a problem with a woman standing in front of a congregation at all? If so, that is a gender issue but not a rabbi one, as many who stand are not rabbis, and there are plenty of rabbis who never lead a congregation. Already young women in MO schools give speeches to all others on Torah topics and lead discussions. Can a woman be a synagogue president? The often cited problem of serarah, leading, has been discussed as it applies to Kosher supervision and being a shul president but that might not even be relevant! Is it immodest for a woman to be up on the bimah, talking? Is it wrong for a woman to make decisions which place her in a position of power over a man? Let's assume that to be the case -- not every rabbi is a congregational one, or one who supervises, or who makes eict and establishes law and practice for others. If one takes out any and all aspects of the position of rabbi which demand a public presence and persona, and boil "rabbi" down to a title reflecting learning, then all those objections go away.

9. Some rabbis visit the sick, or collect money for the poor. A woman can do that.

10. If I have a question of observance, sometimes I ask a rabbi and he reviews the literature and the sources and can explain an answer. However, this is often not done by a local rabbi -- instead, he asks a higher up rabbi (I recall the story of a co-worker who studied with his rabbi for 25 years before he was ordained. Afterwards, his instructing rabbi said "If I find out you ever tried to make a legal decision, I'll kill you.") Can a woman call a higher authority, explain a fact pattern and transmit the response to a lay person? I think so.

11. A rabbi sometimes looks up sources himself and points to texts which would answer a query. Can a woman read the same texts and refer the questioner to the source so he can learn it and apply it to his situation? I would think so. Already, women are approved as authorities in particular areas. Why would a woman be limited to certain areas of law? The books are the same for other topics.

12. A rabbi often establishes religious norms (in terms of liturgy or tradition) for his congregation. But a ritual committee can make decisions without a rabbi, simply aping the practices of other communities. If a rabbi is not necessary, then anyone on the committee, male or female is a viable voice.

The fact is, the title "rabbi" and the position of rabbi are not well defined these days. The proliferation of available texts and the incredible wealth of Torah law and writing on the internet, in religious schools and synagogue collections has empowered many more people to study and develop expertise so as to help others on the journey. Other than the title which proves that I passed a test, the position of rabbi, as it applies to me, is really vague.

So, again, I'm speaking out of ignorance here. Would someone please explain to me precisely what function which is exclusive to someone called "Rabbi" is not able to be carried out by a woman? Can the title as a reflection of learning be separated from (some or all of the facets of) the communal leadership role which seems to concern some people?

As a final note -- please do not take this as an approval, tacit or otherwise, of women being granted ordination under Jewish law. But it is likewise not a disapproval -- it is a cry for help in understanding the issue. I am too unlearned to have an opinion at this point.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Social me-dia

There is already a wall. Well, there has historically been a wall, but it is crumbling, and I'm not talking about the one between church and state. I mean the wall between our personas. Who we are behind closed doors, or within our heart of hearts, or with those we trust, vs. who we are in public.

Maybe I'm talking about the facade we adopt in certain situations and the code changing we engage in when presenting ourselves to different viewers. Maybe I'm talking about the lyrics to Billy Joel's The Stranger (or, to a lesser degree, The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby). But whatever it is, it is a sense that we draw a line between what the world sees and what we are. Is that a good thing? Yes and no -- I'm not advocating insincerity and dissimulation. I am encouraging a sense of privacy which helps distinguish between what is open for all and what is for a select few, or none.

I saw an article online today about a girl whose mother threw her a party for the onset of her menses. My concern there isn't that the family chose to celebrate a milestone, but that the family publicized their decision on Twitter and Facebook. [BTW, a quick google of "the death of shame" didn't bring up what I was thinking about, but I vaguely recall an article from years past about "isn't anyone ashamed anymore"] I am not saying that people need to feel embarrassed of their bodies or their bodily functions. I don't want people to feel vilified because of their physiology, but it just seems to me that not everything is automatically for public consumption. I don't need to know if your bowels are regular, or what color your phlegm is. I don't need to know your ovulation cycle or your sexual predilections. These things aren't bad, and, yes, they define who you are, but they are subjects to be shared with a select few -- not the whole world.

That wall protects us. It is bolstered by words like "overshare" and acronyms like TMI. That wall keeps us as private people and prevents us from overstepping bounds on a first date. Some things just aren't fodder for conversation in polite society -- SNL is satire, people, not a trendsetter deciding what makes for acceptable small talk. It points out what is wrong, not what should be right. It pushes boundaries so that we remember that they exist, not so that we abandon them.

Under the law there is an important distinction between public and private people. If we make it a practice to tell the world about every sneeze or the quality of every time we pass gas, how can we expect any right to privacy or to maintain our claim as a private person? We bemoan colleges' or prospective employers' practices of reviewing our online presence when making decisions about our fates. We tell our children not to post embarrassing or incriminating statements or pictures because "the internet is forever" (which, by the way, it isn't). But we put every selfie out there when troll for likes. We want public approbation and validation while still expecting that we have a right to be left alone.

I work hard to craft a public character. I have to decide what you will know about me and what you won't. You see what I want you to see and it may or may not be identical with the person I "really" am when I show myself off in various stages of real life. Different people who see me online from different angles will see a different person; at least that's my intent. And sometimes I fail at that. But I have not dropped all pretense and decided to publicize my every move, meal and mood. If it looks that way then I am doing a good job at shaping my own PR. But I get the sense that other people are not trying to be as wilfully crafty in their selection of detail to fly high for all to salute.

If and when I meet the girl for whom the menarche party was thrown, can I ask her about her period right off? She has chosen to make her privates public. When I see someone who has taken a selfie to promote her prominent backside, can I start the conversation with something focused on her appearance? She has chosen to make that what I see and how I should judge her, so I'm not the misogynistic pig, right?

The advent of social media has given us all a voice, and that's fabulous. I can rant about the trivia which annoys me. You can post a video of a goat saying "I love you" and another person can post news about his experiences in a totalitarian regime -- news that would be choked off by official news venues. But having a voice also means knowing when not to speak, or at least, when to whisper.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Separated at birthday

In the midst of a world rocked by the horrific and driven by the substantial issues of our day, I continue to focus on the trivia. So that you won't have to.

You're welcome.

In my local paper, right near the comics and he crossword puzzle there is a curious listing. Celebrity birthdays. The paper lists all the celebrities who have a birthday on a certain day. And I read it.

I don't like birthdays. I find them silly and useless. I'm sure I have ranted about them somewhere and if you see me in person, be assured, I will bring it up. And yet, I look at the list whenever I happen o read a local paper. I just don't know why.

And the same thing happens on Facebook -- celebrity birthdays are marked and become trending topics and I am too much of an idiot to ignore them. Today is Jimmy Page's birthday, by the way. But it gets worse.

Every year, when my birthday rolls around, I either find a newspaper or check a website to see who shares a birthday with me. Like it matters. like it will change one year to the next. I'm not getting a card from these people (and the ones I send don't seem to reach them, as each on is filled with reasons that they should call me, and yet none has), nor do I subscribe to any sort of zodiacal significance which would make me, in any real sense, similar to others who were born on the same day as I. Also, the odds that a new celebrity will emerge who shares my birthday is low, and even more meaningless, not just in part because I find the entire concept of celebrity to be a sham at best and a meaningless bit of idol worship at slightly less than best. So why do I check?

Does the shared birthday reflect some unspoken, unconscious, uncanny bond which makes us, in a room of strangers, more likely to speak, become friends and shower me with gifts? Does it confer some referred power (at least on one day a year)? Am I then to be judged for the positive or negative based on the behavior and successes of "my" celebrity? Are those celebrities (a meager bunch, might I add) judged by my behavior? Do they even know I exist? Why is my name not listed in the newspaper? Why does their birthday matter more than mine?

So many questions, all because we think that the day on which someone is born matters. Or because a newspaper had space to fill one day.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

On the Surface

My computer broke. I don't know how else to put it -- my computer broke. I was using it to write the wrongs of the world, it lost connectivity to the internet, I tried to restart it, and then did a hard reset. So hard, it seems, that the computer refuses to turn on. Broke.

I have been using a Surface Pro for about 3 and a half years now. I got it because I wanted a small computer that could use native Microsoft RDP technology so I could work from home. Geeky, but it all worked out. I love the Surface. I don't love that the Surface now refuses to turn on. I have been holding it together (it being my fragile mental state) but just barely because I realize now just how reliant I am on that computer. It isn't that I can't access my music without it -- most of the songs I have spent the last 20 years stealing are stored in a cloud site so I'm ok.

It isn't even about many of the pictures: many are on Snapfish and the like. True -- it is the uncertainty because I don't recall exactly which pictures I haven't uploaded so there is a fear that I will lose what I can't remember. It isn't about my online presence -- I am using my wife's laptop now and will be back at work in the morning, using the ol' Netbook running XP that RDP's just fine into the work system so I am pretty solid there as well. It might not even be about the miscellaneous data files that exist only on my Surface -- bits of writing and other work that I never felt the need to back up. Yes, those are the most serious losses, but it isn't really about that.

It is about a little file called "things I do."

I keep track of all the websites I have memberships to, ID's with and passwords for, so that when I go to a new computer or have to log in again and have forgotten the website or password (or security question, or PIN) I can go to this one file. I just never considered what would happen if the computer on which I have that file was inaccessible.

And with ye olde tyme computers, at least I knew that, worst comes to worst, the hard drive could be taken out and attached as a slave via a ribbon cable and the data exported that way. I know nothing about the inner workings of the Surface but I suspect that it has no hard drive so I don't know if the tech people will be able to perform any data transplant. It isn't even the passwords, but more, the websites that I don't frequent frequently -- their names. I try so many things and then I export the job of remembering to a computer. This way, I can keep my local brain cells focused on the task of remembering my name and how to tie my shoes. So now, I fear not losing vital information (yes, that is daunting) but losing trivial information that I can't reconstruct.

I can find other ways to pick fights with virtual strangers. I can utilize other technology to tell the world about every time I sneeze, or look at pictures of a tuna sammich. But once I have lost my electronic mind, I am afraid that I won't be able to be fully myself anymore. My identity is wrapped up in the second tier bits; they are the over-tones that give the vinyl of my life a richer sound than a simple CD copy of my brain has. So I'm going to go to the mall tomorrow and beg that some kid one third my age can perform electronic CPR and bring my Surface back to life, at least for long enough that he can zap all the information into a new host.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

In praise of Sophomores

First thing, they aren't freshmen. That's a huge plus.

But on another note, a bit of context. I have cold. I feel OK but my throat has been scratchy and in pain and I have pretty much lost my voice. That presents me with certain problems and limitations. I'm a teacher and speaking to classes is sort of the center of my daily activities. That doesn't mean that I don't know how to assign busy work to keep the students at their seats, or that I don't occasionally cancel class when I can't teach, but my stock in trade is conversation -- engaging with the young people and exploring ideas.

Without a voice that is more difficult. Not impossible, but more of a challenge. So I met that challenge for the first half of class and then I was beat. Straining my throat makes me tired so I told my students that they could use the balance of class to work on their group project which has them isolate a problem in the world, research charities which deal with that problem, judge the charities and make a recommendation as to which one should receive their donations.

In case you are wondering, this does 3 things:

1. Shows them the religiously important concept of charity as a driving force in their lives, even in an apparently secular studies class
2. Prepares them for the real world experience of identifying problems, analyzing data and making recommendations
3. Gives them practice in research and data collection and evaluation

It also gets them working in a group, distributing responsibilities and following a process, step-by-step to build ideas, so there's that.

But I let them work. And do you know what happened? They quietly moved to sit and chat with their group members. I didn't cajole or yell. I didn't have to remind them.

Again -- a bunch of 15 year-olds, under no penalty other than that a teacher might get annoyed, start doing work and, as of 10 minutes later, are still working, many quietly, some conferring with other class members. I did not teach them this. I can not claim credit for the fact that they are not yelling, running around, leaving the room or otherwise misbehaving. There is an undercurrent of morality, of conscience and of respect that they have that predates my class.

So I, publicly, thank them, their parents, their families, their communities and all the other influences who handed off to me a bunch of well behaved, hard working, god, good kids. You should all be proud. The next generation is not doomed if it is populated by people like this. I just wanted to tell someone, so I told you. Not enough people point out the good stuff and my class, right now, is the good stuff.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

This is Jew-based post. Skip if we aren't your cup o' tea

I am a Jew.

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, doorposts?


Yeah. That's a thing. Jews, traditionally, place a piece of parchment in/on the doorposts of our houses -- the outside door and many of the inside walkways between rooms. The current practice is usually to encase the hand-scribed parchment in a decorative case. We call the whole thing a "mezuzah." When we pass through an opening, we kiss the mezuzah (touch it and kiss the hand, usually, or kiss the hand then touch it). The mezuzah parchment is supposed to be a reminder of God's power and protection -- as he saved us from Egyptian slavery, he protects us from other challenges and difficulties in our lives. Kissing the holy item is a way to reinforce his presence and remember his importance.

The word mezuzah more properly refers to the doorpost, itself. The commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:9 (and 11:20)
9. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל מְזֻזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ

The interesting thing to me is the strange word "mezuzah." It doesn't seem connected to doors or door posts. So I looked it up.

I happen to have a copy (h/t Dad) of Ernest Klein's "A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language" around the house (what? you don't?). He points out the post-biblical use (the "small roll of parchment") but traces the word back to the sense of 'something standing' and the Akkadian (it's always the Akkadian with these people) "nazazu" which means "to stand" and "manzazu," door post. So there you have it -- mezuzah means "doorpost" because the language the word developed from has it mean doorpost.


I don't think that a word that has such an important place in daily religious practice can be dismissed with a simple historical connection. Something still irks me -- there had to be other ways to refer to the doorpost, other words to choose from. So why "mezuzah"? I'm going to put my own interpretation out there. Is it based in anything? No. Does it have scholarship on which to rely? Dunno. Don't care. Is it found in someone else's writing? Maybe -- I haven't checked. As far as I know, it is my idea. Take it for all in all (h/t Shakespeare).

In Hebrew, there is a word for "move" -- zuz (that's the imperative verb form). If you are taking notes, Klein connects it to the Aramaic za/tremble. There will be a test. Interestingly, one of the various derivatives is listed as tezuzah, a New Hebrew construction meaning "moving, motion." (Klein this guy is good)

It seems to me that this mezuzah is then not about standing, but about moving -- when we move from place to place, when we make transitions in our lives, we must remember that our success and safety is due to a higher power. The mezuzah is about being able to go from one room, state or condition to another and invoke and rely on God's power.

As if that is't enough, I see the construction of the word as adding another dimension -- the mem prefix on the "zuz" center. The mem often indicates "the one who" (b-q-sh is "request" -- the one who requests is the mevaqesh; mevaser is the one who gives news (besorot); the teacher/one who teaches is the melamed with l-m-d being a root for learn). So the "mezuzah" seems to hint to "the one who causes to move." We are not the ones in control of our futures -- the higher power is the one who allows our moving from place to place, not just who protects us once we move. The Exodus was through God's power (and is what we are remembering via the mezuzah -- and there were no doors into the desert), not through our decision to leave. We must acknowledge God's presence and participation in even our smallest transitions by remembering via kissing the mezuzah.

Friday, October 21, 2016

My body and me

I often torture myself by wondering about a single hypothetical – would I rather lose my sight or my hearing. It is a thought exercise which helps me appreciate each, get in touch with what I value, and fall asleep.

I thrive on my sight (not specifically my vision, which is only so-so). I am a visual learner and love reading and watching television. To not be able to see my family member’s faces or appreciate the stars at night would be horrible. As a teacher, being able to see my class (and drive to work) is vital. So there you have it – I don’t want to lose my sight.

But wait. I love music! I am a student of sound – acoustics and the sound of voices. I catch subtleties others miss by paying careful attention to what I hear, direction, distance. I am enamored of sound. As a teacher, being able to hear y students and their comments is essential. So that solves it…I don’t want to be unable to hear.

And it goes back and forth.

But as I age, I have come to realize that there is a new player, one more likely to come to pass. It isn’t my surgically fixed ankle with its tarsal tunnel or plantar fasciitis, and it isn’t my constantly-in-pain back which, even after the discectomy still aches and sometimes hurts so much that I can’t move. It isn’t even my knees which creak and click so often that I think they might be haunted by a whale. It is my fingers.

Thank God, I have fingers and I try to put them to good use. But I have found recently that the “default” position for my hands (when I am not consciously using them) is slightly curled. I have to force them to straighten out. Now, they don’t hurt as such but they are starting to force themselves into a semi-circular shape unless I work at flattening them. True, I don’t know if I would rather fingers that don’t bend or don’t straighten, and I don’t intend to play that scenario out, but having my hands seize up in either way would be really bad.

As of now (late 40’s) I have 2 messed up thumbs (one as a result of a football accident and the other as a result of overcompensating after a football accident) and an achy middle finger (I carried a laundry basket, resting on that finger and think I pulled/tore something. Let that be a lesson to you. No laundry baskets). So that’s 3 down, 7 to go. And the others curl up when I’m not paying attention. I fear not being able to type or grab a pen. I worry about not having fine motor skills which would allow me to open a drink, or eat with a fork and knife. I worry that I am making it worse either when I ignore it or when I force my hands flat. I like my hands as much as I like my eyes and ears.

Aging is not just about the particulars of what is not working as well as it used to, but about the awareness as each bit and piece slowly goes on the fritz, and the concomitant worry. So I feel like a teenager in certain ways, but I am feeling like an older man in others.