Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Purim Dvar Torah

Purim is, in certain ways, the absolute, unequivocal and unquestioned winner of “Most depressing holiday of the year.” The underlying facts surrounding it paint the bleakest possible picture. Consider other holidays

Channukah: the temple had earlier been destroyed and Antiochus is trying to finish the job, but a rag tag band of ne’er do wells rises up and, in the Cinderella story (well, the version where she kills all the bad people) they win and eat fatty food. Awesome. Today, we won’t let anyone “finish the job” because we really appreciate fatty food!

Passover: We were slaves in Egypt and things were bad, but then a charismatic leader inspires us and we, a rag tag band of ne’er do wells up and walk out so that we can complain for 40 years even though we get breakfast in bed EVERY SINGLE DAY! We aren’t slaves like that anymore so the story won’t happen again. And Chopstix delivers.

The two Tus: In Sh’vat we talk about how great plants are, and Av, where ladies, dressed in white, run around in the meadows with no fear of getting their clothes dirty, for lo, they are protected by God and an invisible barrier available now, in new and improved Dreft.

Purim is such a downer because of something that I have missed until this year – at one point, the king, Achashveirosh, enacts a rule that people have to bow to Haman. Mordy refuses and the rabbis explain in Esther Rabba 6:2 that Haman was wearing a symbol of idolatry around his neck so Mordechai didn’t want to bow to idols. Depressing fact one – Jews are put in no win situations.

But hey, he gets away with it. For a while.

Then, in chapter 3, verse 4, the servants who observed Mordechai’s refusal finally tell Haman. Wait – what? He had an idol around his neck. He would have to have been facing the people when they bowed to him so that they would see the idol. How could he not have known that Mordechai was not bowing? Maybe he was not paying attention. Maybe he had bad eyesight. Maybe his people were pointing out that even in the future, Mordechai didn’t intend to bow. Who knows; all I know is that we would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids! Depressing fact two – when Jews are getting away with living their lives according to their faith, others narc on us and get us in trouble. And later, when Haman sees Mordechai doesn’t even stand or move (5:9) he decides to hang the guy. It isn’t that Mordechai didn’t bow anymore – he didn’t even rise. All Mordy was doing was SITTING THERE. Depressing fact three, even when Jews try to lie low and avoid conflict, it finds us.

And finally, when things do turn around, Esther, and her trusted sidekick Mordechai approach the king and ask him to rescind his order. Things are looking up, right? The king sees the problem and will let people defend themselves, right? Not so much. He shrugs his shoulders and says “there’s nothing I can do.” Depressing fact four – the people in charge don’t really want to help us. Sure, he tells Esti that she can think of something, but he wants no active part in helping.

OK, so if this is a depressing holiday, marked by the randomness of a lottery and the unfairness of arbitrary anti-Semitism (all of which echoes in this day and age) then what is the celebration all about?

It isn’t about “God saved us” that I can tell you. But, underneath it all, Judaism has never been about “God did the saving.” We learn in Pesachim 64b, Lo Samchinin Anisa, more popularly said as “Ein somchin al haness”, we don’t rely on miracles. And Purim reminds us that we are partners in our own salvation.

At the sea, the Children of Israel saw the Egyptians behind them and the water in front of them. They could have just prayed. They were supposed to have faith that God would save them, right? But they learned a lesson from Yaacov, who, when faced with Eisav’s army didn’t just pray, he also took proactive steps, sending gifts and preparing for battle. Simple faith isn’t enough! We have to take action. And at the sea, the medrash reports that Nachshon, instead of waiting for a miracle, walked in to the water up to his neck. This act is what triggered the sea’s splitting. The Maccabbees were stirred by the rallying cry of Mi lahashem eylai – whoever is for God is with me. But that cry was a call to arms – faith was demonstrated through action, not a crutch.

Mordechai was a man of faith. He was really informed of all things Jewish, including prayer. But while he dons sackcloth and ashes and cries, he doesn’t stop there. He stirs people to pray and fast. But is that enough? He could have dropped it at that and just let God, you know, do his thang. Instead he tells Esther that she has to act, and act now. Wait, she says, I’m gonna get in so much trouble – can’t we just wait and let the big man in the sky take care of this so I don’t get dead? He says, “NO.” We have to initiate the action, even at personal risk. You have to walk into the sea to get it to split. Yes, you have to pray, just to make it today, but the song doesn’t say “you ONLY got to pray” -- you also have to send gifts and prepare for war. Esther understands this allusion thousands of years before MC Hammer is born (possibly the true Purim miracle) and says “I’ll fast, but I’ll also take action” and it is the action, the plan (the plan was rock solid) which leads to the salvation of the Jews.

So what is the message of this horrible, depressing holiday? Is it that we will always be victims and that when the world conspires against us, we can sit back, do some prayer and rely on God to bail us out.


No, the message is that we can bring about our own survival by being proactive. Give charity, be friendlier and don’t wait til things get horrible and then start praying, expecting miracles. And when things get bad, as they generally do, don’t sit back and cry. Get on up and do something about it.

Purim reaffirms not just that God is God and that he will save us, but that we have to be Jews, rising up and accepting our responsibility, and carrying the burden of acting, being involved like the Maccabbees instead of demanding others solve our problems for us.

Friday, March 10, 2017

To A T

Let me tell you about kid number 2.

Kid number 2 is a bright, pure light. When she walks into a room, not only does SHE smile, but everyone smiles. The pets smile. Heck, inanimate objects smile. Kid number 2 is a force of joy. And maybe that's why I worry so much.

OK, to be fair, I generally worry so much. It's a thing I do. Telling me not to worry about my kid would be like telling a zebra not to worry about its kid and we all know how much zebras worry about their kids. Worry is one of the primary job elements of a parent -- I once asked my parents (after I had "grown up") when they stopped worrying about me and the response was "We'll tell you when it happens." But there are different flavors of worry. My elder is in the army so I worry. She is barely 20 and she is walking around carrying a gun. I would prefer that she not walk with scissors so the whole gun thing makes me want to buy some Rogaine so I can grow some hair so I can lose my hair from worry. But that's the kind of worry that is prompted by the natural growing up. My worry about number 2 is a bit different.

First off, I worry because she is a happy soul in a sad and angry world. The world beats down happiness and I can't protect her from the "winds of heaven that would visit her face too roughly". And I see when the world dulls her shine. I see her when the girl drama that comes from having teen-aged girls interact with other teen-aged girls swallows her up with petty squabbles and political in-fighting. I see when school and life, with their incessant demands keep her from enjoying the process of living. I see her when she is most alone, sad and vulnerable, when her inner-joy, exhausted by the attempts to drown it, simply gives up, if only for a time. So I worry.

I worry because she takes the weight of it all onto her shoulders. She gives up what she has claim to so that others will be happy. She allows others to be put first because she cares more about their satisfaction than about some phantom dream of success. She takes all the anger, pain and sorrow and internalizes it. Now, maybe you will suggest that she is "too sensitive" and that things shouldn't get to her. But you know what, that sensitivity is her strength. She feels, for herself and for others and I wouldn't have her change that for anything. Does it mean that some things rise to the level of drama that others might be able to slough off? Maybe, but it means that she can read a situation with a precision that eludes those others because her various -pathy skills are more finely sharpened.

So when she comes to me saying that she doesn't feel good, or well for that matter, I worry even more. A headache here, a stomach ache there and I start worrying. Is she stressed out because of life, or because life is beating her down? Is she cracking under the strain of trying not to crack? Is there something real and physical which I need to catastrophize about (because I, naturally, do)? Is it because she watches too much television (that girl will grow up and go into television show development, just so she can greenlight shows so that she will have something to binge watch). Is it that such a pure, shining light is contraindicated in a world like this that has gone to seed so something bad is certainly to happen? And when she demands, I worry because she is calling out saying, "I never ask for anything so just give me this one!" But sometimes, even that one is a bad idea and I have to say "no" and be more reason for her to be sad. Yes, it is my job to say "no" as a parent, but it is tough to say "no" to someone who is so frequently willing to say, "no thanks."

But she is also my hope for the future. She is not angry and she is not giving up. She is why I believe that the next generation can turn this wreck of a planet around and make it sing, if one could imagine planets sing. I see her joy when she dances for no reason, and makes jokes with her dizzying intellect, and I see her insightfulness when she asks questions and wants to understand her world. I see her interact with adults and children with a practiced maturity which allows her to connect with all others. She laughs and the world can't but laugh with her and she dreams big and works to make dreams come true.

So I worry. I worry about her day-to-day existence, her future and prospects, her friendships and her challenges. Will she find a love worthy of her and will fortune allow her to be what she wants to be. I worry about each complaint and setback. I worry about how sad she is, even when she is happy, and I hope that maybe, in some magical way, my worrying will take some of the pressure off of her and put it on to me. Here's to my second kid -- the cause of, and solution to, much of my worrying.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Unnamed

There's a new baby boy on the block and my greatness has increased by the measure of one infant. Strangely, I don't get to append another "great" onto my title of "great uncle" even though my niece and her hubban have been blessed with another child. Nor does my title expand even though they now have a boy and a girl. But what is strangest is that, for the next week, the child will be he who has not been named.

In the Jewish tradition, a girl is named at the first Torah reading that the dad (or proxy...I've seen proxy) can make it to after the birth, so a girl need not go without a name for more than 3 days (assume a birth right after prayers on Monday morning). But a boy, barring medical delay, waits until the 8th day, at the circumcision to get a name. Girls, it seems, mature faster than boys even in this department. Why do we wait to confer a name (read: identity) on a boy? According to one site I found, the original bris was made in conjunction with a name so we commemorate that by delaying the naming until the bris. I guess that since Sarah was not "named" in connection to a mitzvah ritual, her name needs only to be announced in a public setting, like a Torah reading. But I've been mulling this over like a good cup of cider and have come to a strange conclusion -- the Jewish boy doesn't achieve a position of communal relevance until he has been ushered into the group by means of the circumcision and therefore his name, while the girl belongs to the community as soon as we can all get together and celebrate her arrival! This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be caring about the child until then, only that the boy lacks a certain innate spiritual position and needs to have his place physically marked, whereas a girl is automatically connected to our heritage and can have her name within the Jewish people practically immediately!

When God changed Avram's name to Avraham, at the time of circumcision, he changed Avraham's status from a local father (Av Aram) to a father of a multitude (Av hamon). Sarai ("my princess") became a princess to all. But nothing happened to her. She could have become that princess to all at any time -- she had to wait for Abraham to get his act together and achieve HIS new status. She was already there -- a princess and a princess in waiting, while he needed God to step in to make him into something proper via the circumcision. Her status as barren changed with a new name so her name was not allowed to be changed any earlier; she could not be the mother of Abraham's child until HE was Abraham, even though she, on her own merits, was spiritually where she needed to be.

So back to this baby, whatever his name will end up being. In one week he will be on his path to greatness, with a name which influences and reflects a strong family, a heritage worth commemorating and a destiny which will, God willing, have him become another pillar in the Jewish community.

Though I'm sure I should wait until the bris and for his official welcome into the community, I figure that with the time zone difference, it is already next week in Israel so I say Mazal Tov to the parents, grand and great grandparents, family, friends and other relatives.

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.