Monday, December 31, 2012

The Moonlit Glade: My 24th Birthday Masquerade

It is time for my yearly birthday masquerade. The song this time is "Black Masquerade" by Rainbow (lyrics here). Enjoy.

I am turning....24.

That time of year has come again...
It is my Birthday Masquerade!
That secret night of shadows
Where the hidden things parade
And twirl, and dance, and flit about
Like innumerable Pucks in merry rout

You are invited, one and all
and welcomed to my hidden ball.

To attend, just comment below
And enjoy the lightly scattered snow.
Is it starlight you fancy, or maybe red wine?
Allow me to welcome you and invite you to dine.

We have curious fancies and delicate mixtures
Of gilded candies and chocolate liqueurs.
Tonight we celebrate my birth...
With joy, gladness and much mirth.

Walk in the garden with me, I pray...
Delightful things occur when you lose your way.

Last year's entertainment can be found  here.

The rules, as always, require you to devise an anonymous handle for yourself (comment under an assumed name, not your real one and not that of your blog), create a costume and offer me a gift. The gift does not have to be tangible. Your costumes and gifts should be creative and expressive of various aspects of your personality.

Good Evening, Ladies & Gentlemen. This evening's entertainment takes place in a moonlit glen. The glade is blanketed with velvety grass, and there are little archways, garden walks and pavilions filled with curiosities from around the world. Enjoy your wanderings. The beverages served this evening consist of pressed starlight, raspberry cordial and sparkling pressed lantern-grapes (the kind that are lit with little silver lights from within). The food consists of delicious chocolate brownies, golden apples and a cake that is made out of sugar spun by none other than the Lady of Shallot. Enjoy yourselves...and collect the little golden baubles that sparkle as a souvenir.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Threatening Encounters With Angels

I was learning with my husband and I happened upon an interesting realization. Both Yaakov and Moshe encounter angels in threatening situations, but what transpires is obviously different.

First, let's look at the texts (because, as my husband correctly notes, this is a stretch- the wording is not similar).

Text 1- Jacob

כה  וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו  וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז  וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי.27 And he said: 'Let me go, for the day breaketh.' And he said: 'I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.'
כח  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב.28 And he said unto him: 'What is thy name?' And he said: 'Jacob.'
כט  וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ--כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל:  כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.29 And he said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.'
ל  וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם.30 And Jacob asked him, and said: 'Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.' And he said: 'Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?' And he blessed him there.

Text 2- Moshe

כד  וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ, בַּמָּלוֹן; וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ יְהוָה, וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ.24 And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
כה  וַתִּקַּח צִפֹּרָה צֹר, וַתִּכְרֹת אֶת-עָרְלַת בְּנָהּ, וַתַּגַּע, לְרַגְלָיו; וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי חֲתַן-דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי.25 Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: 'Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.'
כו  וַיִּרֶף, מִמֶּנּוּ; אָז, אָמְרָה, חֲתַן דָּמִים, לַמּוּלֹת.  {פ}26 So He let him alone. Then she said: 'A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.' {P}

This is very obviously not an exact match or parallel, because the wording is not the same. Elokim is the name of God (or the name that connotes the angel) by Yaakov, whereas Shem Havaya is used by Moshe. But if you look at it beyond the text, not as an exact literary parallel or even as an echo, but as an encounter with an angel that is threatening, it's still very interesting.

Similarities between the Encounters   Differences between the Encounters          
*Both Yaakov and Moshe are making their way back to the place they were born from a place where they have stayed-over and acquired a wife (Laban's house/ Yisro's house)

*Both Yaakov and Moshe have their wives and families with them

*In both scenarios, a threatening angel appears

*In both scenarios, the presence of the angel causes something transformative to occur (Yaakov to Yisrael, uncircumcised child to circumcised child)

*In both scenarios, the original object of the attack (Yaakov/ Moshe) departs with their life

*Per the commentaries, each encounter transpires because the protagonist failed to fulfill his responsibilities. Yaakov did not tithe appropriately and Moshe did not circumcise his child when he stopped over at the hotel.
*In Yaakov's case, he is left alone with his family safe on the other side of the river; in Moshe's case, his wife and child are with him

*In one scenario, the angel is only struggling with Yaakov; in the other, the angel desires to kill Moshe

* The first transformation takes place because Yaakov requests a blessing; the second transformation takes place because Tzipporah recognizes this angel can only be appeased by the milah taking place

*However, Yaakov's thigh is harmed (Gid HaNasheh)

What I find very interesting is that the major difference between the encounters seems to occur due to who is accompanying the protagonist. In Yaakov's case, where he is left alone, he struggles with the angel and prevails, but not totally unharmed. His thigh is touched; he is changed. From then on, he limps.

In contrast to this, because Moshe's wife was with him when this encounter occurred, he had someone else upon whom to rely, someone to help him face the foe. Tzipporah's quick-thinking and understanding of why the angel had come allowed her to save her husband's life. Moshe departs totally unscathed.

Perhaps this is the idea of an ezer k'negdo in action; when the wife appears with her husband, she is able to save him. When she is not with him, even if it is for a good reason (Yaakov wanted to protect his wives and children and therefore made sure they were all safely in camp before returning to the other side of the river), he does not have his quick-thinking other half to aid him in discerning what the angel wants and how to disarm it.

Why did the angel touch Yaakov's thigh vs any other part of his body?

I haven't researched this, but I wonder if perhaps it is an allusion to (as the commentators say) the promise that Yaakov had not fulfilled to tithe his property. In Genesis 24:9 we read:

ט  וַיָּשֶׂם הָעֶבֶד אֶת-יָדוֹ, תַּחַת יֶרֶךְ אַבְרָהָם אֲדֹנָיו; וַיִּשָּׁבַע לוֹ, עַל-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה.9 And the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and swore to him concerning this matter.

We generally understand this to mean that the servant swore on a sacred object (in the same way that we take oaths and swear on the Bible), Avraham's milah.

I wonder if perhaps the angel touching Yaakov's thigh was an allusion to promises made and not kept? (Obviously, this doesn't entirely work, because then it would be more appropriate for the angel to have touched Yaakov's milah rather than his thigh).

What I was thinking, though, was that perhaps if Yaakov's wife had been with him, she would have been able to discern the fact that the angel was there because Yaakov had not fulfilled the tithe, could have informed the angel that they would do it right then and perhaps Yaakov's thigh would not have to be harmed. I don't have textual support for this idea, but just thought it might be interesting.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Red & Cerulean Badge of Courage

Today's a DSBD (Damn Sexy Blood Donor) day! I've got a red badge with a cerulean bow gauzing up my arm.

Had an awesome phlebotomist named Nate and an equally awesome screener named Michael, both of whom were entertaining. Michael explained to me that you can't freeze blood because then the cells would burst. It sounded very interesting.

It was a good day.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Literary Foils: Pairs in Shmuel Aleph

Today I was learning Shmuel with a student when I came to a realization. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "Right in front of my nose."

Elkanah is married to Peninah and Chana.
Eli has two sons, Pinchas and Chofni.

Coincidence that the names start with the same letters? I don't think so! 

These two pairs are literary foils for one another.

This also answers the question asked by a particularly astute student of mine. She was confused as to why the following pasuk shows up in Perek Aleph, when we never hear about these two again until Perek Bet:

ג  וְעָלָה הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מֵעִירוֹ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת וְלִזְבֹּחַ לַיהוָה צְבָאוֹת בְּשִׁלֹה; וְשָׁם שְׁנֵי בְנֵי-עֵלִי, חָפְנִי וּפִנְחָס, כֹּהֲנִים, לַיהוָה.3 And this man went up out of his city from year to year to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there priests unto the LORD.

At the time, I just told her that this information is simply there as foreshadowing. It happens to be that Eli goes up to the Mishkan each year, and while he is there, interacts with the two sons of Eli, who are Kohanim. We will hear more about them in the following perek.

But if you understand these two pairs to serve as literary foils to one another, it all makes so much more sense.

To quote Wikipedia, simply for its accessibility, "in fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character. A foil's complementary role may be emphasized by physical characteristics. A foil usually either differs drastically or is extremely similar but with a key difference setting them apart."

In this case, the main distinction that is highlighted has to do with each one of these pairs' relationship to God. But let's look at them a bit more superficially first.

Peninah and Chana                                            Pinchas and Chofni                                 
* Each receives a portion of meat; Chana receives a double portion

*Elkanah does not seem to see what is going on in terms of Peninah's tormenting of Chana; he tries to comfort Chana by saying "Am I not better to you than ten sons?" but does not address the situation

*Elkanah does not rebuke Peninah for her behavior towards Chana, possibly because he does not know about it

*Chana tells Eli that he should not consider her to be a Bat Belial 

*Peninah is eventually punished for her behavior; "the many-sonned woman is bleak and/or childless while the barren woman bears seven"

*Per Midrash, Peninah recognizes that she is being punished and begs Chana to pray to save her last remaining two children
* Each receives a portion of meat; they instruct the Na'ar HaKohen to get them triple portions (and/or to take the meat with 3-pronged fork)

*Eli does not see the sins of his sons (whether they be the taking of the meat or  the 'sleeping' with the women assembled at the Tent of Meeting); he eventually hears about them

*Eli does not rebuke Pinchas & Chofni for their behavior towards Bnei Yisrael (he asks them why they are doing these things, but does not impose actual consequences)

*Chofni & Pinchas are considered to be Bnei Belial 

*Chofni & Pinchas are eventually punished for their behavior; they die in the same day

*Pinchas' wife recognizes they are being punished and names her child Ichabod to represent the fact that once the Aron was stolen, the "glory is departed from Israel" 

In these scenarios, the standout role is given to Chana. When Pinchas & Chofni feel like they are not being given their due in the Mishkan, their response is to ignore God (indeed, they are described as 'not knowing God') and to simply take what they want for themselves, whether that means taking more than they are permitted, taking too early or sleeping with women/ delaying the women's sacrifices. Similarly, when Peninah feels that Chana is not acting appropriately, rather than sitting her down and having a conversation with her to that effect, she decides to take matters into her own hands, flaunting her children in front of her and tormenting her, in order to get her to pray (per Midrash).

In contrast to all these people who are taking matters into their own hands, Chana does not take matters into her own hands. She does not start tormenting Peninah back, or play tattletale and tell on her to her husband. Rather, she goes to speak to God. She tells God about all the pain and suffering in her heart, makes Him a promise and implores that He hear her. She is misjudged by Eli, but rather than firing back with venom (as she could have done, having been tutored in this skill by Peninah), she responds by defending herself and explaining that she is not what he thinks, a Bat Belial. Despite all the suffering that she has experienced, she has kept her faith in God and trusts in Him to deliver her and to grant her the child she so desires.

In contrast to everyone else in the narrative, Chana is the one who surrenders to the Almighty. She does not say, as is stated in Deuteronomy 8:17-

יז  וְאָמַרְתָּ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ:  כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.17 and thou say in thy heart: 'My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.'

Chana understands that the source of children is ultimately not her, but God. Unlike Pinchas and Chofni, who do not understand that the source of their power as Kohanim ultimately stems from God, or Peninah, who does not understand that her children are not hers to keep but can be kept or taken away by God, Chana is the only one who truly understands the concept of the source. Hence her prayer-poem which directly addresses this concept, the concept of the source and the need to surrender to and to turn to that Source for all blessing.

Because Peninah tormented Chana by flaunting her children, she loses them (they die per the Midrash). Because Chofni and Pinchas abused their position as Kohanim, they lose their position (and ultimately die). But because Chana did not do any of this, did not decide to take matters into her own hands by sinking to her rival's level, by becoming a torturer, by giving up her faith in God, or by stealing someone else's child or otherwise doing something forbidden- because she recognized the source- she becomes mother to Shmuel.

It is interesting that both Peninah and Pinchas' wife are the ones mentioned as the ones who learn their lessons too late and who mourn. Peninah loses her children, and Pinchas' wife loses her husband and father-in-law. These two women are clearly meant to parallel one another.

I just think it's so interesting that despite having learned this perek many times, I never saw the fact that the names are deliberately similar until today.

The People Who Forgot Their Roots

It fascinates me that when it comes to fiction or literature, we love 'chosen' people. Harry Potter is 'The Chosen One.' Katniss Everdeen is the 'Mockingjay.' Tris Prior & Four are 'Divergent.' Clary and Jace are 'Shadowhunters.'

And yet, when it comes to real life, we do anything we can to try to suggest that we are not special, are not different, are not chosen.

I'm talking about us in terms of the Jewish people. The Jewish people is chosen by God. We are given a difficult, holy, incredible responsibility. We are chosen, not for what we innately are but for what we have the power to become. We have special talents and special responsibilities. That is what it means, what we mean, when we say we are chosen.

But so many people I know feel like they must apologize for being chosen. Moreover, they must apologize for caring for their family, for their people, for their nation. As Jews, we are one people, we are one nation; our hearts beat as one and we bleed together. Sanctified through the ashes of the crematoria, consecrated through our shared beliefs and the suffering our people has been dealt, all of us who are born as Jews are connected, in an intricate and multifaceted web.

It is shocking to me that gay people have a 'gay pride parade' where they stand up, loud and proud, and announce to the world that they love their identity, but we as Jews are ashamed, cowering and hiding, afraid to say that we either have an identity or that we are proud of it.

To believe I am chosen is not to say that you do not have an important role to play, an important place in this wonderful world. It is to believe that I have a responsibility to my nation, to my people, to God, that you do not necessarily share, a burden that is not yours. Frodo Baggins was the one who had to bear the ring, but in the end, it was Samwise Gamgee who carried Frodo. Those of you who are not Jewish, you are important in my life and I care deeply for you; I believe that you have your own unique role to play in this world, but it is not the same as mine.

And for this I do not apologize.

I do not apologize for caring deep, passionately, unashamedly about my brethren, my family, my nation, the Jews and the Israelis who are currently under fire.

I do not apologize for caring more for them and for their safety than for the evil Hamas terrorists or the people who support them.

And of course I am sorry for those Palestinians who have good hearts and who are caught up in this mess through no fault of their own. But do I feel equally for them? Are they the same to me as my family members, as my brothers and sisters, as my nation? Of course not. Of course I love my father and mother more than I love the average human on the street, even though I do love them. Of course I love Jews and Israelis more. They are my people. They are my nation.

The Palestinians are not.

So to suggest that everything I say must be laced through a carefully politically correct prism and spectrum where the struggling and suffering of Palestinians is equal to that of my Jewish brethren, that I must care equally about both of them- no, that is not my role. Yes, God made every man in His image, and so He cares equally for them all, and so do I, on some level. On some level, but not on the deepest level; if I saw my sister and a neighbor and both were about to be hit by a car, I would save my sister first and I don't apologize for that; she is my sister, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh and I love her most. Not only- but most.

God has called us and commanded us; He has told us over and over that we are His people, His treasure, His chosen ones, His nation. He has promised that He will comfort us, raise us up, rescue us.

As God says in Isaiah 51-

יב  אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא, מְנַחֶמְכֶם; מִי-אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת, וּמִבֶּן-אָדָם חָצִיר יִנָּתֵן.12 I, even I, am He that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou art afraid of man that shall die, and of the son of man that shall be made as grass;

What are you afraid of, o' Israel? Are you afraid of men, who will judge you because you are not politically correct and do not pretend to care for every Palestinian with the same degree of love that you feel towards your Jewish brethren?

Are you afraid of man, whose life is like "the wind that blows, like the flower that fades, like the passing shadow?"

What are you afraid of? Storm the heavenly gates! Cry out for your people, who are sitting in bomb shelters, who are running from rockets! Acknowledge that you are a Jew and that you care for your fellow Jews! Know who you are, know what you stand for and rise up, rise up and say, "I am a Jew and I stand with my fellow Jews; I will pray for them, stand with them and care for them with every breath in my body. I will live with them and die with them and I will not suffer to hear their names uttered in the same sentence with those who live to kill them. I will not have mercy for the murderers and for the victims; we have been baptized in rocket fire, and our cause is righteous. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, sayeth the Lord."

It is God who has designated us thus; it is God who made us chosen, made us family and it is our job to cry out for and support our family. Let us ensure that we know who we are, that we do not forget who we are, and that we work to protect those we love.

Anna Karenina

I just walked out of the theater, where I went to see the 2012 adaptation of "Anna Karenina" directed by Joe Wright.

This adaptation is extremely disappointing. In fact, it is terrible. It boasts beautiful cinematography, gorgeous costumes, and an overly clever, almost gimmicky storytelling device, but its characters lack depth or realism, and the person who draws me in the most is, of all people, Karenin!

To be fair, I am a purist. My mother brought me up with Russian literature from the time that I was a little girl, and I learned to love it, breathe it and find meaning in it. This film version renders one of Tolstoy's greatest works superficial, conventional and cliche. I would hardly find it possible to imagine it thus, except it was.

The greatest problem with this adaptation was the gimmicky story-telling device. The audience sees "Anna Karenina" as a drama performing at a theater, complete with dances and ballets, so there are curtains rising, falling, beginnings of scenes, ends of scenes, a section of the theater that reflects the stage, the wings and so forth. This serves to distance the audience from the feelings and emotions that should be rendered on the screen rather than bringing them closer. It continuously cut into my experience of the film, reminding me again that I am removed from it rather than peeking into the characters' lives as they are lived before me.

The time that this idea worked most advantageously was at the ball with Kitty & Anna. It was almost as though this scene was taken out of 'Swan Lake' with Kitty cast as Odette, Anna as Odile and Vronsky as the prince. The music, the dancing and the choreography worked brilliantly here, and it was one of the few places in the film where I felt compelled to sit up and pay attention. My heart fluttered; I was moved.

But after that, it disintegrates. The scene in which Karenin forgives Vronsky because Anna is on her deathbed is awfully maudlin. There needed to be a bit more gravity, a bit more severity, before that forgiveness came; it seemed almost like an interrupted menage a trois - the only problematic element was the tears. Levin & Kitty's love, at least, seems more authentic.

I think the problem is in the casting. Kiera Knightley, as much as I love her, does not make a believable Anna. She does not have the gravity, the seriousness; whenever she speaks of love, she seems only to be speaking of lust. She seems silly and playful, taken in by a young fop, and while that is one reading of the book, it is not my reading of it. Anna in my reading is deeply unhappy; Karenin is old and ugly and frigid; he does not understand her, and she reaches out to try to preserve her youth, in hope of love. She is not silly; she is a woman of deep feeling, a conflicted woman, and none of that came across.

In fact, I found myself far more captivated by Michelle Dockery's acting, during the few moments that she was onscreen. I think she would have made a much better Anna.

In short, this version is a disappointment; it has no feeling, only sentimentality, and the deep and enduring pain that it should cause the viewer to feel is lost. I felt little; in fact, I sympathized with Karenin. Where is the Anna that came to life in my mind when I read the book? That Anna is lost; she does not exist in this film.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Sated & the Hungry

My incredibly creative, incredibly talented student came up with the most fascinating idea in his essay on Perek Bet.

He was writing about the connections between the Tefillat Chana poem that starts off the perek and what actually ends up happening in the remainder of the Perek.

He made the following connection. In the poem, Chana says:

שְׂבֵעִים בַּלֶּחֶם נִשְׂכָּרוּ, וּרְעֵבִים חָדֵלּוּ

This means: "The sated have hired themselves out for bread, and they that were hungry have ceased."

My student came up with the following statement:

"This type of change is hinted at in Chana’s poem when it talks about how not by might will a man prevail, that not by force will Kohanim rule and that the common people who care about how the ritual takes place will rise, and when it says the sated will be hungry and the hungry will become fulfilled. That the Kohanim who are growing fat from all the meat that they are eating will be defied by people who do not care just about food, but about the word of God, and that that will fulfill them."

I immediately thought of Deuteronomy 8:3.

ג  וַיְעַנְּךָ, וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ, וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַעְתָּ, וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ:  לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-יְהוָה, יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם.3 And He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.

My student's realization here is that when it says "the sated have hired themselves out for bread/ and they that were hungry have ceased" it can have more than one meaning. The Kohanim who are fattening themselves on meat must, at the end of this chapter, beg for a mere loaf of bread, while the hungry have ceased. Which hungry have ceased? The ones who were hungry for the word of God, for as we know, man does not live by bread alone. He lives by the word of God. Once these Kohanim are demoted, those who were hungry for the word of God, such as the man who plaintively requests that he get the chance to offer up the Chelev first, will be sated. They will again be able to follow God's law.

A Reform Rabbi's Thoughts on Gender & Judaism

I had the pleasure of hearing a Reform rabbi speak to us at our school recently. She gave a presentation on Gender & Judaism, with a specific emphasis on feminism. I found her presentation interesting, first, because it explained to me why many people who are Jewish feminists think the way they do, and second, because it illuminated to me the differences in our starting premises that explain why I do not think this way.

She began her presentation by asking three questions, but I can only remember the first one, which was: "To what extent has your gender impacted your experience of Judaism, and your Judaism impacted your gender?" I liked this question very much, as there is no question that my experience of Judaism has been greatly impacted due to my being a woman.

After raising the three questions, she explained that per her point of view, there is no such thing as "just" Judaism. Judaism has been created through the lens of men, with rituals that work for men, and with a halakhic system that favors men. Thus, the Judaism that we have been practicing is not "just" Judaism; it is male-defined and created Judaism. She was careful not to place a value judgement on this- it is not necessarily good or bad, but simply, from her perspective, a fact.

Then she touched on the binary process in Judaism, which she referred to as "the sanctity of separation." In Judaism, objects, times or events are made holy via the "sanctity of separation." There is a binary process in which we have (and there is obviously a longer list than these provided):


She explained that current research explains that women favor connectivity in their relationships, living within shades of grey. This may be based on the difference in their very biology; they are the ones who are capable of birthing a child, a connective experience if ever there was one. Thus, this very binary separation between different items may not work for women; they may not experience it as holy. How can we (or should we) change Judaism in order to create holiness that works for women as well?

Gender issues in Judaism can run the gamut from our liturgy (in the Orthodox siddur, men thank God for not having created them female) to our Torah (notice that Sarah is not mentioned in the story of the Akedah; her absence is meaningful; had she been there, the story might have ended differently) to our very language. Hebrew is a gendered language; nouns, verbs and so on can be classified as either 'male' or 'female.' In her speech, our presenter brought up an anecdote about a woman named Norma who is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi and who told her husband she found it hurtful that every day he thanks God for not making him like his wife or his daughters. (Does anyone happen to know who this person is?)

In addition, our presenter challenged us to think about where women's mitzvot traditionally take place. Women's mitzvot generally take place within the home or in private places: consider mitzvot such as lighting Shabbat candles, going to the mikvah or counting days of niddah. She suggested that this might not be satisfying anymore.

She also noted that it is inappropriate to think of objects themselves as being gendered. A pink tallit, for instance, is thought of as a female tallit. But that is not ideal. The tallit itself ought not to have an identity as either female or male, or specifically feminine or masculine. Rather, it should simply be an object unto itself, and males or females or anyone of any gender identity should be able to purchase it without it being understood to be a "women's" tallit.

When it comes to feminism in Judaism, feminism has gone through various stages. It started out with the "language of permission," which refers to the use of the word can. It is almost as though women were knocking at the door, so to speak. Can we learn Talmud? Can we don a tallit? Can we wear tefillin? Can we count in a minyan? Women, per our presenter, were still asking permission of men to take on these rituals.

Then we got to the point where women determined that they did not need to ask, but could simply appropriate whichever rituals they felt comfortable with. Women decided they had the right to do this. Today, we can go further- women can create new rituals, should they so desire, for their needs, such as lactation, menopause and so forth. Today, we also have female rabbis and women who lead services in shul. Unfortunately, part of the pushback with that is that in services where women are very involved, male participants tend to flee. This is an issue that needs to be addressed/ discussed.

Our presenter did not like the idea of special "Women's Tefillah" group or "Women's Week," because if that one week in your synagogue is "Women's Week", then what were all the other weeks? Women ought to be a vibrant, participating part of the service every week, not only during special weeks.

To conclude, our presenter urged us to consider why gender is so important, anyway. Why is it that the moment a baby is born, the first thing parents want to know is "Is it a boy or a girl?" Why must we ascribe gender designations and labels to this little child when it is barely an hour old? Why is this our greatest concern?


I found this speech very interesting, particularly because it clarified to me some of the major places in which our premises differ.

1. I do not see Torah, Talmud or Halakha as a male-dominated system that privileges males. I believe that our Tannaim and Amoraim were vessels for the halakha rather than the creators of it; thus, they carried and passed on a tradition rather than creating it based on their own biases and prejudices. (See more on this by clicking this link).

2. I see Judaism as something that I strive to live up to, not something that I can change because it is not working for me. Thus, the idea that research points to women focusing more on connectivity and thus needing a type of holiness that doesn't center around separation doesn't hold weight for me. Judaism for me is the standard; I am not the standard. It's the same way that my father taught me to learn Rashi. I was never to say "Rashi is wrong," rather, I was to say "I do not yet understand Rashi."

3. Much of this presentation focuses on the idea of rights vs. obligations. The idea here is that women deserve rights. They deserve equal rights to participate in Judaism, and participation in this regard refers to their being able to count in a minyan, don tefillin, do public mitzvot, not only private mitzvot, etc. This reminds me of the sentence, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." The way in which I approach Judaism is "Ask not what your religion (Judaism) can do for you, but what you can do for your religion (Judaism)." Judaism for me obligates me in certain ideas and actions; it is not a system in which I can really speak about my rights so much as about my duties. This is a fundamental difference, not only in this regard, but in medical ethics as well. Secular society will talk about abortion within the framework of a woman's right to choose; religious Jews understand abortion as a question of what are my obligations to the fetus. (More on this if you click this link).

4. Longtime readers of this blog know that Heshy & I are huge fans of Heschel. Heschel writes about aggada & halakha and how/ why the two of them must remain in a symbiotic relationship, where we cannot detach one from the other. I think that dissolving traditional divides between the gender roles and discarding mitzvot that women do not find meaningful to them does away with the halakhic approach, to the aggadic approach's detriment. We are, in fact, doing away with the concept of making an effort to do something that is unfamiliar to us, and that is not ideal. (More on this if you click this link.)

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau: A Brand Plucked From the Fire

I finished reading Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last by Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau last week. I've been thinking about it since then, as reading the book was a spiritual experience. What struck me most was how deeply human Rabbi Lau is, and how his humanity came across in the book in a very beautiful way. I decided the best way to experience the book is simply to reproduce some excerpts below.


Excerpt 1

As we were boarding the train, the Gestapo commandant in charge fixed his eye on me, the little boy, although I tried to keep close to Naphtali. He thrust his stick into my face, grabbed me by the nape of my neck, and shouted, "Children with the mothers!" Then he threw me into a group of about fifty women and a few children. They had arrived from other camps near Czestochowa and were crowding into the first train car behind the engine. At a certain point, Naphtali realized, this car was to be detached from the other train cars, which held only men, and sent to another camp. Later, my brother told me that the last thing he saw, after I had already completely disappeared inside the car of women and children, was the loaf of bread. I grasped it determinedly, holding my two hands above my head, guarding with my life the precious food I had been entrusted with. This is how Naphtali saw our separation.

Of the train car into which I was thrown, I recall mainly horrible smells, screams, and the sound of children crying. We often hear about the victims of the Nazi Aktions, but rarely do we hear about the days and nights, the hours and seconds, in which people drew their last breaths inside suffocating cattle cars, without water or bathrooms. These trains were in no way suitable for human beings. The souls of many women and children in that car returned to their Maker as a result of the inhuman conditions.

As I was being thrown into the first car, Naphtali was pushed along with the other men into one of the last cars of the same train. Thus we were on the same train, but at a great distance from each other. Naphtali was worried; he had no idea how many cars separated us, and the promise he had made to Father echoed through his head. In the stairwell of our home in Piotrkow, he had sworn not to let me out of his sight, and to do anything in order to continue our family dynasty.

The train set out on its way, and Naphtali had an idea. He and two friends, who had been with him the whole way from Piotrkow, began to manipulate the handle of the door of their train car until they managed to open it. But the train continued on its journey, and the open door did not advance the effort to rescue me at all. At the train's first stop, Naphtali and his friends slowly opened the door and looked around. Then Naphtali lowered himself underneath the car, aligned himself between the tracks, and crawled forward on his elbows to the door of the next car. He pounded on it and shouted my name: "Lulek! Lulek!" Meanwhile, the train whistled and shrieked, signaling that it was just about to move. Naphtali quickly crawled back to the car he had just left. Because he had returned empty-handed, he repeated this operation at the next station, and the one after it, and so forth, four times, each time returning disappointed. He ignored those who complained of the freezing cold that penetrated the car through the open door, and insisted on continuing his mission to rescue me.

His next attempt was a success. When he reached the seventh car, the one just behind the engine, again he shouted my name. I was inside the car, wearing Mother's giant pillow and holding the bread, which had since hardened. One of the women had sprinkled a few fine sugar crystals on the bread, but they had slid off, scattering on the floor of the car, which was packed with bodies. I busied myself hunting for them, so longing to put something sweet into my mouth! Suddenly, as I was searching for the grains of sugar, I heard my name. I thought I was dreaming, but still, I moved in the direction of the voice. I climbed over and between the bodies, forging a path between the women and children, until I fell into the arms of my brother, Naphtali. He had managed to open the train car door using a pin he had modified.

I wanted to hug and kiss him, but he stopped me, demanding that I keep silent. He pulled me down under the car, and again signaled silence with his fingers over his mouth, in case a guard was posted on the roofs of the cars, or in case someone in the engine car noticed the movement on the tracks. It was night; thick darkness surrounded us and I could see only his eyes, but I understood the significance of what we were doing. behaving with extreme caution, I imitated Naphtali's movements, crawling rhythmically on my elbows and knees. He counted seven cars, then stuck out his head, pulling me after him. Two pairs of hands pulled him inside, and he pulled and lifted me into the car.

I remember his wisdom and common sense: a second before we squeezed into the car, he filled his hat with snow so that we could drink the pure water when it melted. Only after the two friends from Piotrkow had closed the door did we allow ourselves to embrace each other tightly, with heartbreaking cries. After a seemingly final separation that we had thought impossible to overcome, we were together again.

In a few hours, Naphtali's intuition proved justified. At a certain point along the way, the train cars separated. The women and children's car continued to Bergen-Belsen or to Ravensbruck, I am not sure which, while we continued on a very long trip with countless stops. Quite a few of the men died in those freight cars. Those who survived the long journey found themselves, three days later, at the entrance to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

-Pages 37-39


Excerpt 2

"Now I ask you," continued Rabbi Frankel, "really, why does the Torah emphasize the negative side of this- Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother? We understand the importance of the positive statement, and shall cleave to his wife- to establish a home and family. But why does the Torah use the verb to leave regarding the parents? For twenty years, the parents invest in their child. They can't sleep at night while he burns with fever, they work overtime in order to support him, they take care of his every need. And after twenty years, he leaves his father and mother. What is this- a divorce from the parents? What did they do to deserve this? Why does the Torah have to say, to leave?"

I listened carefully, and thought that this was indeed a fascinating question, but was this why I had come to the rabbi's house? I wanted to hear what he thought about my proposed marriage to his daughter! Was this, in fact, a parting meal? He wines and dines me, and then all of a sudden poses a question from the Torah, putting me on the spot? I had no answers.

Thinking quickly, I admitted to the rabbi that I had never thought about that verse. I told him that I had heard many homilies from my friends about engagement and the seven wedding blessings, but none of them had addressed his question. Rabbi Frankel was not surprised. When I finished, he said in a fatherly manner, "I tell you what I think. Sometimes I stand under the chuppah before a bride and a groom whom I don't know. Often, I ask myself whether this match will last. After all, these are two different worlds we're talking about. How can they possibly cleave to one another? I ask myself, 'Yitzchak Yedidya, what can you say at the wedding ceremony of these two worlds?' But on second thought, I think to myself that there, standing on either side of the couple, are the parents. Twenty or thirty years ago, they stood in the exact same position, excited brides and grooms at their own weddings. They also were not born in the same mold, but the connection between them has held. Now they're marrying off the next generation. In other words, when we look at the parents' home, when we see the father respecting the mother and vice versa, and we see that they live in a home of peace and love, this is a personal example for the chain of generations to follow."

At this point, Rabbi Frankel stopped speaking for a moment. Then he continued, "Israel, the verb to leave does not have to be understood literally. That same word, whose Hebrew root is ayin-zayin-bet, can also mean 'inheritance,' as in the word i-za-von, whose root is also ayin-zayin-bet. There is material inheritance, which parents bequeath to their children after a long life, and there is spiritual inheritance, which they grant their son or daughter the day the child leaves home and gets married. Leaving one's father and mother means one should inherit their example. The Torah presents this as a condition: only if a man leaves his father and mother will he have a true chance of cleaving to his wife. That is how they will succeed in raising a family."

He thought for a moment, giving me a chance to digest his words. Then he continued: "I have heard of you and your reputation for some time. My daughter has received marriage proposals from around the country and beyond, but your name has come up repeatedly." Rabbi Frankel named those who had suggested me for hsi daughter, including his friend from the yeshiva in Warsaw, Rabbi David Weissbrod-Halachmi, and my brother Shiko's brother-in-law, Israel Mintzer. "I have considered you and asked about you. I have heard of your talents and distinguished qualities, and I have no doubt about any of them. But one thing bothers me: where is your 'leaving'? You have no home, you have no parents to leave, as the verse says, and you have no spiritual inheritance."

I felt tears choking my throat. His words were like a eulogy for me and my destroyed family. Rabbi Frankel was telling me, in fact, that because of my personal history as a Holocaust survivor and orphan who had no home, because I did not grow up with a mother and father and had no example to follow, it would be difficult for me to build a Jewish home and family. He said, "I recall the speeches of your father, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau. But you did not grow up in his shadow and did not know what family life is like. You have spent almost your entire life in institutions, dormitories and yeshivas. This is what bothers me about placing my daughter in your hands. Still, after checking into your background, talking with all your rabbis and friends in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, I learned something about your brother."

At that time, Naphtali was an editor in the She'arim newspaper of Po'alei Agudath Israel, to which Rabbi Frankel contributed a column on halacha every Friday. Rabbi Frankel said, "I have noted the behavior of your brother, who came to the big city of Tel Aviv but remained an observant Jew. Of everything I have heard about you, I believe and hope that this one worry I have will prove unfounded. It doesn't interest me one bit," he added, "that you have no money, or that there is no father-in-law to share expenses with me. Believe me that my daughter has had offers from wealthy men, but they do not interest me. I also came to Eretz Israel with nothing, with two babies, one about a year, the other just two months old. I taught school and to this day, I live in a rented apartment. I am only interested in the groom's personality."

Rabbi Frankel lived in Tel Aviv for fifty-one years. He was chief rabbi of that city for fourteen of those years, but he never owned his own apartment or car, and the material side of life did not interest him at all. But he feared the scars I might have from lack of family. He was worried that I did not know the meaning of affection, generosity or compromise. That was why Rabbi Frankel made sure to have private conversations with my roommates at the yeshiva. He wanted to know how I got along with others, and whether orphanhood had taken its toll on my interpersonal relations.

At the end of that long, private conversation, Rabbi Frankel declared, 'if for your part you are willing, then we are willing to accept you as part of our family. Welcome." I felt overwhelming joy, along with a piercing sadness that my father and mother could not be with me at this happy moment. Meanwhile, Mrs. Frankel and her daughter had returned home, and Rabbi Frankel told them about our conversation. That week, in early June 1959, we invited my two brothers, Yehoshua and Naphtali, and my cousin Shmuel Yitzchak Lau, who had acted as matchmaker, to a meeting with Rabbi Frankel's four sons, and we toasted le-chaim at the vort, the signing of the engagement agreement. The engagement ceremony was held a few weeks later, on my birthday, 22 Sivan 5719 (June 28, 1959). Eight months later, in February 1960, we were married in Tel Aviv.

~Pages 215-218


Excerpt 3

By definition, a chief rabbi must fulfill two roles. For the first five years of his term, he serves as presiding judge of the supreme rabbinical court and president of the chief rabbinical council. In the latter position, he is responsible for the religious matters in the state: kashrut, Shabbat, religious councils, burials, and examinations for rabbinical ordination. In the second five years, he acts as president of the supreme rabbinic court and head of the religious judiciary system. But the law does not define what the chief rabbi does with the rest of his time- i.e., the events at which he appears or the audiences to whom he speaks. Every person who holds the job can use his time as he sees fit, after first implementing his role as a teacher of Torah and a halachic arbiter.

I decided to focus on an area that I considered of top importance, a mitzvah as well as a mission: social welfare activities related to illness and grief, especially visiting the sick and comforting mourners. My sensitivity to this matter and the special place it held in my world, both personally and as a chief rabbi, stemmed, I think, from the influence of the Holocaust on my life and how it remains with me in all I do. I often recalled the image of myself as a small child, sick with the measles and lying alone in isolation. At the time, Naphtali had typhus and was also in isolation in the Buchenwald hospital, so not a living soul came to visit me to ask how I was feeling or hold my hand. This childhood memory is deeply embedded in my consciousness. This is what compels me to visit hospitals all over Israel, offering words of encouragement to those suffering in pain. this is what leads me to houses of mourning, to comfort the grieving with the few words one can say in trying times.

I saw it as my responsibility to be present at the hospitals for every dedication of a wing or department, to say a few words to encourage and strengthen those doing the work. Another issue I took upon myself, as a rabbinical judge, was to visit the homes of battered women and the families of women murdered by their husbands, attempting to understand how a couple could descend to such an abyss in their relationship, and trying to learn from these tragedies how to help couples in distress.

-pages 264-265

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Gay Marriage

If you've ever studied CBT, you're familiar with the term all-or-nothing thinking (otherwise referred to as splitting or black-and-white thinking). It troubles me that when it comes to personal health, everyone agrees this is problematic, but when it comes to national health, our national discourse is filled with this. Either you are for gay marriage or you are automatically homophobic and hate all gays. Why can there not be a place for people who believe in God, believe God does not desire for people to be gay or act on their gay impulses, but who would still never do anything deliberately cruel or hurtful to people who identify as gay? Why is there no middle ground? Why am I consistently made to feel marginalized, being told that I must be an ally or I am an evil person? I do NOT support gay marriage; I will not support gay marriage; I do not think this makes me evil. Feel free to discuss.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

We Must Not Spurn God's Gifts

I am reading Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last by Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. The book is extremely moving, and I thank Marc, who recommended it to me. (Heshy says my parents also told me to read it, but clearly that fell on deaf ears at the time). I came across a passage in the book that really caught my imagination.


Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once spoke to Israel Meir and asked him about the story of King Ahab and Naboth. He questioned, "What happens to Elijah is clear, and what happens to Ahab is clear, but the question is, why did all this happen to Naboth? He has a vineyard in the Jezreel Valley that the king desires, but he refuses to sell it, because it is the heritage of his ancestors. Far be it from me before the Lord that I should give you my ancestors' heritage, Naboth protests. Why was he punished? Why was he condemned to death?"

In explanation, the rabbi told Israel Meir a midrash about Naboth's punishment:
God endowed Naboth with the most beautiful singing voice of his generation. Three times a year, when the Israelites would make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Naboth would sing on the Temple Mount, and all the pilgrims enjoyed the beauty of his son. Then one day, pride went to his head; he was swayed by the admiration of the crowds. The next time he went to Jerusalem, he refused to sing until the people begged and pleaded with him. He agreed only after the entreaties of ministers and leaders, and finally he stopped singing altogether. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Naboth, "You had a role in this world, and it was to bring joy to other living creatures. I gave you that talent. I placed this melodious bell in your throat, so that you would ring it and your voice would carry afar. But you are withholding from my creatures what they deserve to enjoy, not what you deserve to have. Do not withhold a good thing from its proper owner. I am bringing you back to me, because you have no more goal in life. You have not fulfilled the mission for which I designated you."
"Israel Meir," Rabbi Shlomo Zalman continued after a short pause, "God gave you the power of speech. You have a mission in life- you take after your father. We must not spurn God's gifts; we should not turn our backs on Him. I don't know whether this is what grabbed you by the hair and pulled you out of the piles of ashes in Europe. I won't try to understand the reckoning of the Master of the Universe. But one thing is clear to me; you must dedicate yourself to your studies, learning more an dmore, so that when the time comes, you will ring this bell and make it heard afar."

This was one of the most important conversations of my [Israel Meir's] life. At every moment of my life since then, it has shaped and influenced me.

(This is found on pages 164-165).

This passage reminded me of another I had read in Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. There, he says (on page xiii):

The imperative of teaching flows not just from hesed, but from true scholarship and knowledge of God:
To know God also means to have a desire to share one's knowledge with others, to have a longing to teach people, to bring the message to the ignorant and insensitive or to those unfortunate ones who have not had the opportunity to learn and to study. A man who is happy and does not want to teach others is not necessarily cruel and selfish. But he is not a scholar. A real scholar cannot contain what he knows within himself; he explodes. Knowledge entails a dynamic element; the knower becomes restless, the truth cries out from the inner recesses of his personality, and he must tell others. 

When God bequeaths a talent to a person, whether it is a talent for public speaking, for accumulating knowledge, for learning and so on, it is not there for the sake of the person, although it certainly enhances their life. It is there because with that talent, the person is meant to serve- to serve the world, his fellow man and God. As the motto of my high school went, "Live and Serve!" If one is so lucky as to be chosen, to be gifted, it is not ever solely a gift; it is always also a means to a path of service. The most beloved man of God was called His servant, and so too do we all aspire to be.

more thoughts on shmuel

I am now learning Perek Gimmel of Shmuel with my students. I noticed some interesting things.

1. Perek Gimmel opens with some gorgeous poetry.

; וּדְבַר-יְהוָה, הָיָה יָקָר בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם--אֵין חָזוֹן, נִפְרָץ
 וְעֵלִי שֹׁכֵב בִּמְקוֹמוֹ; וְעֵינָו הֵחֵלּוּ כֵהוֹת

Loosely translated, this means:
And the word of God was precious in those days/ There were no widespread visions
And Eli slept in his place/ And his eyes were dimmed

I realized that on the literal level, Eli is blind. But on the metaphorical level, the reason the word 'chazon' is used here rather than the word 'nevuah' is because of the poetry. "There were no widespread visions/ Eli's eyes were dimmed." The suggestion is that Eli used to have prophecy but now his eyes have dimmed; his prophecy is gone. This sets up the perek beautifully for Shmuel's induction as a prophet.

2. In Perek Bet, the sons of Eli are described in the following manner:

וּבְנֵי עֵלִי, בְּנֵי בְלִיָּעַל:  לֹא יָדְעוּ, אֶת-יְהוָה

Imagine my surprise when I saw Shmuel described in the following way in Perek Gimmel:

 וּשְׁמוּאֵל, טֶרֶם יָדַע אֶת-יְהוָה; וְטֶרֶם יִגָּלֶה אֵלָיו, דְּבַר-יְהוָה

There's the obvious distinction that the word 'terem' is used in context of Shmuel. Shmuel did not yet know the Lord, but he was soon to know him. Still, it seems odd language to echo. The sons of Eli did not know the Lord and Shmuel did not yet know the Lord.

Rashi must have seen this, because he immediately explains that this is referring to the fact that Shmuel had not yet experienced the phenomenon of prophecy, and this is what it refers to.

But I think this also speaks to a difference in attitude. The sons of Eli did not know the Lord in a sense that was utterly final. They had not encountered Him, despite their service, and they were not open to encountering Him. In contrast, Shmuel did not yet know the Lord. He too had not encountered God, but he was open to it. He would welcome God when he found Him, not push him away.

We too need to remember to be open to the hand of God in our lives. When we approach life with an attitude that things are not final, they are simply not yet, we are able to live with that sense of hope and wonder that characterized our greatest leaders.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

silver anniversary

When I was a child, I used to stare at the blue NCSY wedding bentchers,  looking at the inscription. It read 'Bella & Ira'/ 'November 1, 1987.' 

I wanted to be exactly like my parents, down to the wedding bentchers. When I was little, I could think of nothing better than to grow up and be like them. Now that I'm older, I still can't think of a greater compliment than to be told that I am like one of my parents.

Longtime readers of this blog already know that my mother and my father are extraordinary people. I have had living role models by my side all my life, pillars of tradition and Torah who gave me everything I needed and more. In my Bat Mitzvah speech on Shemos, I connected the two haftorahs to my two parents. I said that my father was my pillar of textual wisdom and my mother was the pillar of tradition. With the two of them supporting me, I was given an introduction to Judaism the likes of which I couldn't have found anywhere else, and for which I am still grateful.

Judaism to me is a living, breathing, beautiful, inherited spiritual tradition. When I wake up in the morning, I do not grapple with questions about existence. I know there is a God. I know it powerfully. I know it in every fiber of my being, and I know it because my father would tuck me in at night and say Shema with me, because my mother would have me repeat 'Thank You, Hashem' after her. I know it because my parents live a life that exemplifies Judaism. 

My mother polished and sharpened me like a jewel. My friend Carey wrote in my high-school yearbook, "Your combined mastery of martial arts and the entire canon of Western Literature terrifies me." He was joking, but there was some truth in it. When it comes to my literary prowess, that is entirely due to my mother. I will never be her match- in her literary exams, she ranked third in the country- but I do reasonably well, and that is because of her. 

When it comes to my Tanakh abilities, that harks back to my father. Many a Friday night I spent grumpily sitting at the table as my father leined through the Parsha, but whether I realized it or not, I picked up knowledge. I devoured The Little Midrash Says and I got excited about texts and I was commanded to say Divrei Torah by heart every Shabbat, and I did so. My father was the one who handed me the books by Rabbi Ari Kahn, who ensured that I would be enrolled at TI even when I stubbornly determined that I hated all Jews. It's my father who influenced me to go to Stern and it is solely due to my father that I have a Masters in Bible.

Ever since I was a little girl, the worst thing I could do to one of my parents would be to hurt the other in front of them. My father would not brook the slightest word of disrespect about my mother. He was a towering force, the voice of God on high. And my mother would certainly not allow me to malign my father. My parents are a team and in the end of the day, they will always be a team. They love each other, protect each other and defend each other. 

The only tears I have seen my parents cry have been for us, for others or for each other. My parents would cry when any of their children were suffering. It tore them up inside. They would cry when they would hear about horrible things happening in the world, like terrorist attacks in Israel. They would cry when they saw one another's pain. I never saw my parents cry for selfish reasons. It wouldn't occur to them. The most powerful moments in my mind, the times that my parents have cried, have been for us, for me, for each other. I can go back to those moments in my mind, and though they were moments of pain and sorrow, they were also beautiful. I knew that my parents shared a deep, profound love for each other, for their nation and for humanity as a whole. 

And that love is my inheritance. I have been incalculably impacted by watching the ways in which my parents interact with people. Whether it was my mother cooking  meals for women who had just given birth, crying after witnessing the death of a newborn or my father teaching countless young men how to lein, never asking for payment, it has been clear. My parents love not only one another, but the community they are a part of and the world that we live in. 

They have had their disappointments. There are things they have given up for us. There are privileges they have denied themselves. We have always been their first priority. Their lives have been about us, and about each other. 

So when I look to a couple that I want to model my life after, people that I strive to be like, I don't have to look far. I have been blessed, and I strive to deserve the blessing. 

Happy Silver Anniversary, Mommy & Daddy.
Hope you have many, many more.

Monday, October 29, 2012

the fear of vulnerability

I read The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine. The book didn't offer me anything particularly mind-shattering; I had heard most of the ideas she documented before now, but it was nice to see all of them in one place. In many ways, I actually found the last section of the book to be the most revolutionary.

After talking about the culture of affluence, child development and parenting styles, Madeline talks to the reader about the importance of being a serene and secure mother. Obviously, ideally both parents should be in that place, but it seems to have been proven that mothers make even more of an impact than fathers do on the family, and thus the best place to start when it comes to turning around the family culture is with the mother.

She writes a lot of really beautiful ideas in this last section of the book, but the one that spoke the most to me was the chapter entitled "The Fear of Vulnerability." An excerpt is reproduced below.


The Fear of Vulnerability

Affluent moms can be many things: bright, competitive, persistent, protective, interesting, and funny. They are not vulnerable- at least not publicly. Vulnerability is a kind of admission: an admission of hurt feelings, of neediness, of things not going well. This is not the territory affluent moms are comfortable in. We like the high ground, the places that feel secure and capable and accomplished. At PTA meetings, at the gas station, at the florist or the nail salon, even at our social events, our conversations tend to center on our children's accomplishments. There might be some passing comment, in hushed tones, about another mother's kid who was packed off to rehab or picked up for a DUI, but it's never our own kid. In public we shine, and so do our children.

Certainly, the fear of appearing vulnerable is not limited to affluent moms. Many people choose not to expose their emotionally tender spots. For many of us, being wary comes from repeated experience of not having our needs met when we were vulnerable, either as children or as adults. It makes sense to keep our guard up. It helps protect us from disappointment, anger, and sadness.

Somewhere back in our ancestral history it made perfect sense to hide our wounds from our enemies so we wouldn't be clubbed over the head and dragged off to a cave. For women who continue to fear that those around them will exhibit aggression rather than compassion, presenting a "perfect" and formidable front is the best insurance against being exploited and misunderstood. It is also an exhausting and ultimately empty performance. We are human exactly because we love and hate, because we excel and fail, because we are independent and needy. We cannot embrace only our strengths and disregard our weaknesses  Children need to see their mothers being competent, but they also need to see them struggling with challenges. How else does a child come to see that challenges, even failures, are a part of life? Moms who appropriately share some of their difficulties can help model resilience, active approaches to problem solving, and compassion for oneself.

Try to remember a time in your own childhood when you felt afraid and unprotected. Perhaps it was the first time you were left alone in your house and every noise and creak made you jump. Remember the sound of your parents' key in the door and the relief that flooded you when you knew you were safe. Or perhaps you remember your first broken heart when you were young, and how everyone made light of it, except for one dear person who took your grief and your heartache seriously and quietly stroked your hair while you sobbed into your pillow. We were all once very vulnerable, just as our children are now. Mothers who reflexively put up a "good front," who deny the hurt or sadness or depression that is so clearly seen by their children miss the opportunity to teach that while life isn't always fair, pain is always eased by love and connection.


This mother, like many of the women I see, had decided that the cost of vulnerability was too great. Not having a mother she could rely on, she came to the logical but unfortunate conclusion that she was better off not relying on anyone. Bright and capable, she developed the hardworking, organized parts of herself that allowed her to stay busy in the world, while shutting down her emotional life. Little by little, she came to see that while she did not have control over her early traumas, she did have choices as an adult, and that by choosing to be "strong" over vulnerable she had simply papered over the fragile walls of her childhood. 

~Pages 207-210


This section of the book resonated so much with me because I am coming to discover, of course, that this is one of my struggles. I'm not an affluent mom, but I am a person, and I have learned to associate vulnerability with either (verbal) aggression or rejection. And it's that last sentence that is repeating in my head- that by choosing to be "strong" over vulnerable one simply papers over one's fragility. I have valued this strength, and I am not entirely sure that I am wrong to value it, but I wonder if it should have expressed itself in a different way.

I'm intrigued by Levine's argument that when the mother takes care of herself and her marriage, that makes her do a better job of raising her children. She noted that many mothers make the time to attend their children's soccer games or other events, but can't find the time to meet up with friends. Here, these women put their children's needs first, but don't want to make time for their own needs for stimulation, relaxation, conversation, possibly because they worry these needs will be perceived as trivial. Part of what Levine argues is that in fact, when the woman puts her own needs first, she is making herself healthier, which means she is able to be a better mom to her kids.

I am curious as to whether this can be seen as analogous to teachers. Perhaps, when teachers make sure that they are doing things that are fulfilling and happy and solely for them- book clubs, seeing movies, hanging out with friends- that makes them better able to interact with their kids as well.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

I Am Forbidden: Anouk's Misleading Book

After having heard Anouk and Judy speak at the recent 'Hasidic Worlds in Fiction' event at the DC JCC, I read I Am Forbidden, Anouk's book, this past Shabbat. I was very disturbed by the book, mostly because I find it to be misleading. Just warning you now that my explanation of what is misleading will spoil the book for you, so if you want to read it, come back later.

In this book, a Satmar woman finds herself married to a Satmar man. The two of them try to have children but fail. The doctor examines the wife and doesn't seem to find anything wrong with her, so he then asks to examine the husband. In order to do this, he would need a semen sample. Alack! Shichvas Zera L'Vatala! The husband declares the Satmar Rebbe would never permit this. The woman then decides to have an affair and gets pregnant by the man she had the affair with, who was Jewish. At the same time, the man who loves her decides to give the semen sample and realizes that in fact, he is unable to sire children. He realizes that his wife's child cannot be his. Alas and alack- a mamzer!

Here are some excerpts from the book:
The fifth year of their marriage, Mila told Josef that her physician insisted on a semen sample before prescribing fertility drugs.
"But it is a grievous sin," Josef replied. "The Torah forbids it."
"Even for medical purposes? The doctor says some of his orthodox patients did do the test."
"Our Rebbe would never permit it."
"Even for couples who cannot have children?"
"Mila, how would the doctor help if the problem lies with me?"
"But if the problem doesn't lie with you, then the doctor will prescribe fertility drugs."
"The Torah itself forbids it, not just rabbinic law. No God-fearing rabbi would permit it." He hesitated. "Many women have been helped by the Rebbe's blessing."
"You ask him. I won't go to the Rebbe."
-pages 174-175 
"I'm not angry with the Rebbe for surviving; I'm angry because when it came to his life, he allowed himself to compromise, but when it comes to our lives, we cannot do the one test that would permit me to start a fertility treatment."
"It's the test you're talking about? I told you, this isn't about the Rebbe. No God-fearing rabbi would permit what is expressly forbidden in the Torah."
-page 179 
Josef reached for a Talmud treatise, searched for a clause that might permit a semen analysis, and once more failed to find it:
If his hand touches his penis, let his hand be cut off on his belly.Would not his belly be split? It is preferable that his belly be split...If a thorn stuck in his belly, should he not remove it? No...But all such, why?To emit seed in vain is akin to murder. 
-page 181
Anouk is very sneaky here. Notice that Josef never actually goes to talk to the Rebbe. He just assumes that the Rebbe would certainly forbid the semen analysis. This is very misleading. First off, the Rebbe would not forbid a semen analysis due to medical necessity. I can't speak for the Satmar Rebbe since I haven't asked him, but I know for a fact that the Bobover Rebbe permitted it and that rabbis in these communities take infertility issues extremely seriously. (True, that doesn't mean that they permit it instantly, but after one or two years of trying to have children, they do permit it.)

Secondly, Josef supposedly fails to find a clause that might permit semen analysis. There are very clear sources that permit it under certain circumstances (click here). Moreover, the fact is that this would not be shichvas zerah l'vatala. It's clearly not l'vatala since the whole point is that you are doing this for a purpose, for the purpose of analyzing the semen to see whether you can have children, thus for the mitzvah of pru u'rvu. You are not doing it to avoid pregnancy, like Onan did.

It bothers me immensely when authors mislead their (mainly secular or unaffiliated Jewish) audiences in this way. It leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth, assuming that Chasidic communities are invariably fanatical, and it's inaccurate.

Addendum: Ezra points out that this may be a historical matter, and that perhaps the situation that is recorded in the book is correct based on the time period in which it occurred. Thus, the book is only misleading if the reader applies what happened at that point in time to what would happen today, in 2012.


I haven't concluded the second chapter of Shmuel with my kids yet, but I noticed something last class that I am planning to point out to them.

In Chapter 1, we learn about Chana's nemesis, Peninah. Our text reads:

ו  וְכִעֲסַתָּה צָרָתָהּ גַּם-כַּעַס, בַּעֲבוּר הַרְּעִמָהּ:  כִּי-סָגַר יְהוָה, בְּעַד רַחְמָהּ.6 And her rival vexed her sore, to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb.

I do not think it is a coincidence that when it comes to the prophecy about what will happen to Eli's family, the same word appears:

לב  וְהִבַּטְתָּ צַר מָעוֹן, בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יֵיטִיב אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה זָקֵן בְּבֵיתְךָ, כָּל-הַיָּמִים.32 And thou shalt behold a rival in My habitation, in all the good which shall be done to Israel; and there shall not be an old man in thy house for ever.

Here's what's fascinating: our conventional reading of the doom of Eli and his sons suggests that Eli is responsible for his sons wayward behavior. And indeed, that may well be true. But the similarity of language attests to another possibility- Eli is being punished for his lack of compassion for Chana. Chana was a woman of broken spirit, in part because she did not have a child, but in greater part due to the cruelty of Peninah. Eli did not recognize this and instead saw her as a drunkard. Now, Eli and his family will experience what Chana has already experienced- the pain of having a rival installed in what should be his proper place. Another Kohen will serve God; he will be replaced. Thus he will learn what the pain that Chana experienced was like.

Given this reading, Chana's prayer-poem is particularly applicable here. As she says:
  יְהוָה, מוֹרִישׁ וּמַעֲשִׁיר; מַשְׁפִּיל, אַף-מְרוֹמֵם

God has raised her up and set her above her rival; now, He shall bring Eli low and let him experience the pain there is in watching a rival serve.

The Role of the Mother

I am studying Shmuel with my students. We have almost completed learning Perek Bet, which focuses on the sins of Chafni and Pinchas. 

I pointed out to my students that in Perek Aleph, there is so much emphasis on Chana. We hear about Chana and the way that Peninah treats her, Chana in relation to Elkanah, Chana's desire for a child, Elkanah misjudging Chana and so forth. In Perek Bet, Chana speaks a beautiful prayer-poem asserting God's glory and rulership. We also hear that she would come every year and bring Shmuel a little coat that she had made for him.

I asked my students: When you contrast the story of Chofni, Pinchas and Eli as opposed to the story of Chana and Shmuel, what's missing?

The mother! my students immediately recognized. Where is Chofni and Pinchas' mother?

Where is she, indeed?

This brings to light a passage on the role of the mother as written about by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in "A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne" which was published in Tradition Magazine, and republished in Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff's book The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

People are mistaken in thinking that there is only one masorah, and only one masorah community, the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two masorot, two traditions, two communities, two shalshalot ha-kabbalah [chains of tradition]- the masorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. "Thus shalt thou say to the House of Jacob [=the women] and tell the children of Israel [=the men]" [Exodus 19:3], "Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father [mussar avikha], and forsake not the teaching of thy mother [torat imekha]" [Proverbs 1:8], counseled the old king. What is the difference between these two masorot, these two traditions? What is the distinction between mussar avikha and torat imekha? Let us explore what one learns from one's father and what one learns from one's mother. 
From one's father one learns how to read a text- the Bible or the Talmud, how to comprehend, how to analyze, how to conceptualize  how to classify, how to infer, how to apply, etc. One also learns what to do and what not to do, what is morally right and what is morally wrong. Father teaches son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action. Father's tradition is an intellectual-moral one. That is why it is identified with musar, the biblical term for discipline. 
What is torat imekha? What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of a mother. Only by circumscription may I hope to explain it. Permit me to draw upon my own experiences. I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, they were monologues rather than a dialogue. She talked and I "happened" to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use a halakhic term in order to answer this question. She spoke of inyana de-yoma [the affairs of the day]. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers. I used to watch her recite the sidra [weekly Torah portion] every Friday night; I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned much from her. 
Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in living experience. She taught me that there is flavor, a scent, and a warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life- to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.  
The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are part of musar avikha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother; it is a part of torat imekha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mother lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor. 
The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; the mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four-hour presence.  
~pages 183-184 in Volume 2
Many of the meforshim state that Chofni and Pinchas did not actually sin. In fact, they were entitled to portions of meat from the families; the problem was in their timing. They demanded these portions of meat too early, at an inappropriate time. According to this interpretation, they kept the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.

This impairment on their part relates directly back to the absence of their mother. Where was she? Who is she? Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps she was emotionally distant. What is clear is that her sons suffered due to her lack of guidance. Although they learned the language of ritual, of offering the sacrifices, they did not understand the beauty in it. They did not appreciate the great privilege that they had. They knew the law, but not the joy with which they were to approach the keeping of the law.

In contrast to these boys, Shmuel always had the influence of his mother. This is made clear in the description of him- at all times, he is described as wearing that me'il, that beautiful coat that his mother made him. When he rises from the dead, he is still wearing that cloak. What Chana gave her son was not just a physical garment, but a way of life, a way of looking at the world. She gave her son part of the deep spiritual passion with which she was blessed. What she gave him ensured that he was protected and that he would not fall prey to the behavior that Chofni and Pinchas modeled.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

i lost a friend/ somewhere along in the bitterness

I'm teaching my students about Onaat Devarim, hurtful language. Part of this topic includes a discussion on bullying and cyberbullying, which, of course, brought back a lot of memories for me.

I've been talking to some wise people, and they had some interesting insights that I've been pondering. Back when I was a kid, all I really wanted was to have the ability to openly like to read, to openly get to use my high vocabulary and to have friends (or at least a friend) with whom I could be completely myself. I wanted someone who would see my sensitivity as an asset, or at least not a flaw, someone who would understand that my penchant to cry came along with my ability to be moved.  The word I used to categorize these wants was 'understanding.' "I just want to be completely understood," is what I would say. Aside from being understood, I wanted to be liked, and I desperately wanted to fit in.

At some point, I gave up on being completely understood. I recreated myself into a fun, enthusiastic, entertaining, somewhat wild person. I decided that if I were going to be called "weird" then I would own that word, and would proudly proclaim that I was weird. I did this, and it caused my mother to cringe. I don't think it really fixed the situation I found myself in.

Luckily for me, a new person arrived at my school in 8th grade. "She doesn't know me," I thought, "and doesn't know about my outcast status." Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say 'loser,' but that was never a word I applied to myself. The way I saw it, outcasts were still very valuable members of society. In fact, it's generally the outcasts, the different ones, who were and are the heroes of the books that I read. Anyway, I figured that I would recreate myself as a more fun, exciting, participatory version of myself.

And on some level, that decision worked for me. I had friends. Even when I switched schools, I was able to find myself a group of girls to socialize with. And even if I wasn't participating in that school, I was admiring from the sidelines. I loved Kit & Mullery's antics. I found Rooney hilarious. A lot of what I saw was new and shiny to me, wrapped in tinsel. I was respected (especially in AP English class), even if I wasn't invited to the parties.

When I got to college, I felt like I was finally able to be more myself. In this forum, my love of books was respected and admired, as was my vocabulary. I fit in a lot better, but just in case I didn't, I worked hard to be very others-focused. I tried to be available to others in person, online or on chat. I tried to get others to tell me their stories, issues or woes so that I could either simply listen to them or actually aid them in resolving them. If anyone criticized me, I took it to heart and did my best to surgically remove the offending character trait or attribute. I created myself in my brother's image, and indeed, my brother was my keeper.

But now I have been let loose. And while I like who I am, I feel like pieces of me got lost along the way. I became so incredibly sensitive to social feedback and to carefully cutting, pasting and excising the (visible) pieces of me that might place me in danger of not being liked. I watch other people and their flamboyant presentation of self, and I am amazed. I'm shocked, because the thought that comes to mind is that what they are doing is not freeing, but dangerous. I would not dare to risk myself in such a way.

Maybe it's time, however, to search out what I originally wanted, and see how much of it I am better able to risk today. Maybe now's the time to wear my soul on my sleeve, to be the person who speaks her words instead of shuttering her thoughts. Maybe it's time to take the way I relate to the world in writing and shift it so that it is also the way I relate to others in person. To be the version of myself in public that I am in private.

I have to say, though, that even contemplating the possibility feels very dangerous.

The Rabbi's Daughter

There's a film going around the Internet that focuses on three different women who are the daughters of rabbis. In contrast to the majority of films that talk about the way that members of the community leave, this one is not angry, it is not filled with vitriol; in fact, it is the opposite. It shows three free-spirited women, two of whom appear to be very artistic, and the chasms that divide them from their parents. But what I loved, and what I found deeply affecting, was the love that their parents show to them. Their fathers speak and walk with them; their mothers embrace them. These are parents who love their children despite the difference in their paths. I found the film very moving. It made me cry.

The most beautiful quote, for me, was the one where Rabbi Aviner's daughter says, "I like to imagine that, after we die, and become only our souls, that I'll meet my Dad and we'll have only 'Daddyness' between us, without strain, without embarrassment and without distance, and with just the most essential feelings between us." But so much of the film was poetic that I am hard-pressed to choose only one.

Watch the film at this link (just click here).