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  • The Ten Commandments: What’s The Point?

    Posted on May 13th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Often times I see the “Ten Commandments” displayed on boards in synagogues, above the Parochet, on walls of praying spaces, in religious school classes- each commandment followed by an exclamation mark, for example:
    You shall not kill! ! לא תרצח
    You shall not Still! לא תגנוב!
    Even in places where the exclamation mark is not actually printed, it could be heard in the tone of the imperative form, as we are traditionally accustomed to read it.
    Could it be read differently?

    Author: Rabbi Oshrat Morag

    Placing a question mark
    In her poem “We All Stood Together” , Merle Feld describes how in Sinai, men and women have witnessed the revelation and received the Torah together. However, as the poem continues, a voice of frustration arises; due to lack of time and availability (staying home and taking care of babies) women’s interpretations throughout Jewish history were not documented. This poem represents the first stage of what feminist theologians such as Rachel Adler and Judith Plaskow (among others) describe as the realization of inequality which leads to critic. In the second stage, feminist readings of traditional texts try to reconstruct the lost voices; as readers of texts as well as writers of texts, giving voice to women in texts along with suggesting new ways of reading texts, or listening to them.
    The first stage includes the realization that traditional texts are the product of male interpretation; reflecting their theological, social, cultural understandings. Feminist approach to those texts often places question marks on what is considered “facts” or the “truth” in order to create possibilities for different interpretations which represent women’s experiences. The interpretation of עשרת הדיברות as I would like to suggest here, puts such a question mark.
    The “Ten Commandments”, and for that matter all commandments, are named in English “commandments”- meaning, orders that come from a hierarchal status, in this case from God. In Hebrew the word מצווה comes from the root צ.ו.ה meaning to order, however the use of the word mitzvah refers explicitly to God’s orders . The notion of commandment might be expected in a patriarchal theology where God is hierarchal; He is a Ruler, a King, Lord of Hosts. A God in those images can only speak to us in orders, in commandments. The power of figures such as kings and rulers lies in the ability to put sanctions and punishments on us, should we not follow the commandments.
    Language is limiting human expressions of theological experience, as it is a representation of human experiences and knowledge and a reflection of those on the image of God. Jewish feminists, motivated to add women’s experiences and knowledge to the Jewish conversation , produced other images of God , suggesting mostly non-hierarchal ones. When viewing God as non-hierarchal I would like to place a question mark on the terminology of “commandments” and ask which word might be most fitting to replace it.

    Taking away the exclamation mark
    The “Ten Commandments” are not named “mitzvoth” in Hebrew but rather are called: דברים (in Shmot 20:1) or דיברות (for example in Bavli Shvuot 39a), meaning some form of speaking. God is speaking to all the people in Sinai and sets ten basic points to what might be considered ground rules for the affirmation of the covenant between us. These words are followed by Parashat Mishpatim, in which the words, that are very general, turn into more elaborating sentences- describing the ideal moral behavior.
    In that light, God could be imagined more as a Guide, or as an Educator who is trying to teach us how to create a just and moral society, and how to become good-doing individuals of that society, rather than a Tyrant who orders us how to behave. The image of an Educator or Guide bears somewhat of the authority that I find easier to accept, since it suggests an authority that is based on experience or knowledge that I don’t share or understand, as well as the good intention for my well-being and that of society . God sets before us many more teachings throughout the Torah, and towards the end, in Parashat Re’eh, we are given the Choice ; we have learned what is right and what is wrong, we are aware of the consequences for following each path, but at end it is our choice to make and we are held responsible for it.
    Using the terminology of “teachings” for “commandments” does not come to devalue their meaning or content. I used to say that as a religious person I feel commanded to follow God’s commandments. By changing the terminology I do not feel any less committed to follow the teachings; if anything it enhances my sense of partnership in the Covenant. Changing the terminology is simply asking to take away the exclamation marks that we supposedly have at their end. By doing so, we open new possibilities for reading the “Ten Teachings”.

    Moving toward the point
    In formal and informal education, we assume, or more accurately, hope that the seeds of values that we plant in the minds of children grow with them along the years. We sometimes see the results specifically in difficult situations; should the right choice be made we know the values have been well implemented and correctly applied.
    Viewing God’s teachings in that light, a point takes the place of the exclamation mark, which enables us to read the “Ten teachings” not as orders but rather as a prophecy of our behavior. It may be perceived as if God shares with us our future selves, as if God says to us :

    I am your God. (I took you out of Egypt as salves and now you are the People of Israel)
    If you follow my teachings (and not the teachings and values of [American] Idols)
    You will remember Shabbat. (that it is a sacred day as well as a social one).
    You will honor your parents. (they are your Guides as well and want the best for you)
    You will not kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet. (Because whenever an instinct or a drive to do wrong appears, you will make the right choice).
    With a point at the end.

    We All Stood Together/ Merle Feld

    My brother and I were at Sinai
    He kept a journal
    of what he saw
    of what he heard
    of what it all meant to him

    I wish I had such a record
    of what happened to me there

    It seems like every time I want to write
    I can’t
    I’m always holding a baby
    one of my own
    or one for a friend
    always holding a baby
    so my hands are never free
    to write things down

    And then
    as time passes
    the particulars
    the hard data
    the who what when where why
    slip away from me
    and all I’m left with is
    the feeling

    But feelings are just sounds
    the vowel barking of a mute

    My brother is so sure of what he heard
    after all he’s got a record of it
    consonant after consonant after consonant
    If we remembered it together
    we could recreate holy time
    sparks flying

     

    Rabbi Oshrat Morag currently lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina and is pursuing a doctorate in Feminist Theology at HUC-JIR.

     

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  • Sacred Stories: History as Torah

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Septima Collis courtesy of National Museum American Jewish History

    The study of Jewish history  is the study of Torah.

    For decades I struggled with the theological and textual core of Judaism and so I took refuge in the study of Jewish history. I assumed that this form of Jewish study would allow me to engage while avoiding the pesky textual and theological questions that troubled me so. I was of course mistaken.

    In delving into the lives of women and men from the 19th century, I read their letters and diaries, wedding invitations, accounts of birthday celebrations. These were the stuff of daily life, sometimes seemingly inconsequential but more often poignant and powerful. Quite unexpectedly, I came to see in history a way to work my way back into the world of rabbinic text. These lives that I was studying, Jewish to the core, were their own form of commentary. As I began to read them as a dialogue with the theological and textual issues that concerned me, new avenues of understanding unfolded. Each Jewish life individually and also collectively gave me insight that helped me unpack complexities and renew a connection to Torah.

     

    Yet too often there is a chasm that divides the study of Jewish history and the study of Torah. The former is meant of course to be a study in fact while the latter one of spirit, a significant difference that does challenge us when bringing them together for the purpose of making meaning.

     

    But the Sacred Stories project, a joint collaboration between CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders program and the National Museum of American Jewish History, is showing how bridging that chasm enriches us all. Sacred Stories is a weekly Torah commentary that engages the core artifacts of the American Jewish historical experience. Each week a rabbi connects an element of the Torah portion with a particular artifact found in the museum. Working with the museum professionals to edit the pieces ahead of publication, I have been amazed at how drawing connections between items as mundane as report cards or muffin tins can shift the way I understand a familiar text. I have been equally astonished by the way a piece of biblical text can shift the way I see sometime as familiar as the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell.

     

    In many ways the project is an experiment. I know of no other such historical Torah commentary. It is a collaboration that is pushing expectations and established norms by bringing together the history of the Jewish experience with the text of the Jewish experience. And yet anyone who has ever sat with someone in a dark moment and invoked the experiences of the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, or delivered a sermon that draws from the parsha to illuminate a contemporary struggle knows that the living experience of the Jews is never apart from Torah. And all that separates our studied attention to here and now from the study of history is the passage of time.

     

    Jumping from ancient textual past to the present bypasses and disregards the value and potential wisdom of thousands of years of lived Jewish experiences. The Sacred Stories historical Torah commentary shows us the value and potential of taking the opportunity to see the study of Jewish history as Torah.

     

    Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, the editor of this blog, is currently working with Clal and the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Sacred Stories Torah commentary.

     

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  • Be the Eighth Candle: A Teaching for Hannukah

    Posted on November 28th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments
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    Desmond Howard, The Pose

    I write to you from the football-crazed city of Houston.  (The Texans are currently ranked number one. Just saying.)  So please excuse the following sports analogies.  When the player reaches the end zone, he may make a gesture of celebration (e.g., “the pose” of Desmond Howard in 1991, look it up).  Or it is common for climbers who reach Mount Everest’s summit to raise their hands in victory.  So what does this have to do with Hannukkah?

     

    The Jewish equivalent of “spiking the ball”, doing a touchdown dance or raising one’s hands in victory is to…light some lights, sing and give to charity.  And “our” Hannukkah is only one of many such moments of triumph.  Pesikta Rabbati contains an extensive midrashic examination of Hanukkah’s meaning, one of which enumerates seven different Hannukkahs:

     

    1. The Hanukkah of finishing creating the heaven and earth, which God observed by “turning on” the two great lights (the sun and moon) in the sky (Genesis 2:1, 1:17).
    2. The Hanukkah of completing the wall enclosing Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27), observed with lots of singing.
    3. The Hanukkah of the successful return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:17), observed with lots of singing and offerings.
    4. The Hanukkah of the Hasmonean priests, for which we kindle the Hannukkah lamps, symbolizing their complete victory. The original menorah in this case was probably fashioned from spearheads turned into torches, since the original menorah had been taken away.  (See Daniel Sperber, Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature, “An Early Meaning of the Word Shapud”, Bar Ilan, 1994, pp. 34-39.)
    5. The Hanukkah of the World to Come (Zephaniah 1:12-1), in which the wealthy and unjust are utterly annihilated by God, accompanied with the sound of crying, this time cries of sorrow, not joy.
    6. The Hanukkah of the princes’ anointing the altar (Numbers 7:84-89).  After all twelve princes finished bringing their offerings of silver and gold items, the whole array, clanging mightily, we might suppose, accompanied by the bellowing of the sacrificial oxen, was followed with what one might call, “the still, small voice” that Moses hears from beyond the ark’s cover.
    7. And the Hanukkah of the First Temple’s dedication (Psalm 30:1), celebrated with this psalm. (Pesikta Rabbati 2:3)

     

    So these seven Hannukkahs are logical:  each celebrates the finishing of some important work.  But why didn’t the midrash name eight Hanukkahs?  There are certainly enough occasions in Jewish history to have made for “8 great finishings”, e.g., the rededication of the first Temple after King Josiah’s reforms were completed (II Kings, chapter 23).  So why did the midrash stop at seven?

     

    Author Rabbi Judith Abrams

    Perhaps the midrash is allowing us to supply our own, personal Hannukkahs.  The hallmark of a Hannukkah is that it marks the finishing of a large project. So one way to observe Hanukkah would be to make a commitment to a project that can be finished in a year, so that, next year, it will become the eighth Hanukkah. We can personally dedicate ourselves to enrich our practice of Judaism, to lead healthier lives, to pay off debt, to wrestle addictions to the ground and so forth.  Or perhaps you have recently finished a large effort.  If you have made it to the end zone, the summit, make your own personal triumph the eighth Hannukkah.

     

    May your Hanukkah be filled with light and may your own dedicatory candle burn with joy this year, next year and in every year!

    Author Rabbi Judith Abrams is a Talmud scholar whose writing and teaching for all levels of knowledge can be found at Maqom.com

     

     

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  • Lance Armstrong – Can Good Spring from Evil?

    Posted on November 4th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    From all the available evidence in front of us, there is only one logical conclusion – Lance Armstrong is a dirty cheater.  Armstrong, who won cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, seven consecutive times, is accused of using performance enhancing drugs in order to achieve his amazing athletic successes. Recently, the Anti-Doping Agency released an over 1,000 page document detailing the vast orchestrated cheating campaign run by Armstrong’s US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. According to a press release, the agency claims that “the evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.”  In addition, and perhaps most damning, the report contains detailed testimony from his former teammates, who paint a picture of rampant drug use within US cycling.  His former friends and colleagues claim they were bullied into doping, told that they either needed to be injected with dangerous and illegal drugs or they would be kicked off the team.  And those who attempted to expose Armstrong as a fraud faced threats, intimidation, and denigration if they tried to go public with their knowledge of his use of performance enhancing drugs.

    Lance Armstrong’s goose is pretty well cooked.  He has been stripped of his titles and banned from the sport that he loves.  Due to the scandal, he stepped down as the chairman of Livestrong, the charity Armstrong established dedicated to fighting cancer and to helping those afflicted cope with their disease.  His most prominent sponsor, Nike, has terminated its relationship with this disgraced athlete.  Armstrong has become a pariah.  But before we condemn him to sports purgatory with other drug cheats like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, et al, I think it is only fitting to take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Lance Armstrong, for there is more to his story than cycling.

    Lance Armstrong

    For millions of people, Lance Armstrong was an inspirational figure.  He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which, as in the case of many men, went undetected for far too long.  Had it been caught earlier, it would have been easier to treat. Unfortunately for Armstrong, the cancer spread into his abdomen, into his brain. His prognosis was not good.  But he aggressively fought the disease and, amazingly, resumed his cycling career.  Armstrong became a symbol of hope when, just three years later, he won his first Tour De France title.  Those struggling with cancer looked at what he accomplished and said to themselves, “If he can do this, why not me?” Over the years, his “LiveStrong” foundation has raised almost $500 million dollars for the fight against cancer and has raised awareness about this disease.  Armstrong was not merely a figurehead, a celebrity spokesperson – he has worked tirelessly to advocate for greater government funding for cancer research and treatment. I encourage you to visit www.livestrong.org to learn about this organization’s many programs and all the good it does for people living with cancer.

    But now the very people he has inspired face a difficult question – knowing what we know now about Lance Armstrong, can they still find meaning in their fallen hero?  Can anything good still be taken from his story?

    The Talmud teaches that one day, Rabbah bar Rabbi Shila once met the prophet Elijah and asked him, “What is the Holy One doing?” Elijah replied, “God is reciting traditions concerning the law in the name of all the sages, but God is not reciting them in the name of Rabbi Meir.”  Why not? Because Rabbi Meir was a student of Elisha ben Abuyah, also known as Acher!  Elisha ben Abuyah was a sage and Torah scholar, but, later in life, he turned to a life of heresy.  So according to Elijah, God does not quote Rabbi Meir because he was once a student of this wicked man.  But Rabbah argued on Meir’s behalf, saying, “What does that matter? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, ate the seeds within it, and threw away the rind!”  Rabbah maintained that Meir was able to learn matters of Jewish law and tradition from Acher while discarding the sacrilegious attitudes and profane actions of his former teacher.  He kept all that was good within his teacher and rejected all that was bad.

    Author, Rabbi Joshua Lobel

    When it comes to how we view Lance Armstrong, I suggest we need to emulate Rabbi Meir’s attitude toward his teacher.  There is no doubt that Armstrong leaves behind a tarnished legacy.  He has done irreparable damage to his reputation. He cheated his sport, his country, and himself.  But this does not wipe out the tremendous good he has done for those battling cancer.  His titles have been erased from the record books, but his work towards creating a world without cancer cannot be erased.  Lance Armstrong, the athlete, may have been a phony. But there is nothing fake about the hope and inspiration Lance Armstrong has provided cancer patients all over the world.

    Lance Armstrong’s autobiography is titled, “It’s Not About the Bike”, which, ironically enough, is still true, just not in the way he intended.  For now when we think of him, we cannot think of his accomplishments in the world of cycling, for they were an illusion, a doped- up scam.  But, despite it all, we can still remember the man in the yellow bracelet, who reminded us, in the face of cancer, of our obligation to “Livestrong.”

    Rabbi Joshua Lobel is the associate rabbi at Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.

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  • Serious or Silly: Making Meaning from Jewish Superstitions

    Posted on August 6th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 7 comments
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    By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov

    Do you spit three times when you see a funeral procession go by or even when you hear good news? Or do you feel compelled to pull on your ears if you sneeze while speaking about someone who is dead? And do you tie a red string on a baby’s crib to keep the evil eye away?

    Most likely, you’re either thinking- “Oh my goodness, I thought I was the ONLY one who did that,” or you may be thinking, “that is ridiculous and just some crazy superstitions.”

    Author: Emily Losben-Ostrov

    Well, despite the fact that one of our central prayers- the Aleinu reminds us to strive for the day when, “superstition no longer blinds the mind,” we, as Jews, have many, many superstitions. For some of us, the superstitions can be seen as mere customs, such as “throwing salt over your shoulder if you knock over the salt shaker, or uttering certain words to prevent something bad from happening like saying, “Ken-eyin-o’hara.”

     

    Personally, I’ve been interested in Jewish superstitions and Jewish magic for as long as I can remember, but it even became part of my rabbinical world when I took Dr. Susan Einbinder’s class “Magic and Popular Belief in Medieval Ashkenaz” in the Spring of 2007 while a student on the Cincinnati Campus. In this incredibly interesting course we studied all kinds of texts and learned about Jewish traditions on the “power” of amulets, reciting various psalms, and eating “magic foods” and much more.

    A few months ago this course became a practical issue at my congregation when a debate ensued over an upcoming meal. A recent widow had donated some of her untouched leftovers from when she had been sitting Shiva. Two other women wanted to use that food for a synagogue function and two different women couldn’t possibly dream of eating that food, holding fast to the idea that “you never take food from a Shiva House.” Was this a real custom or simply a ridiculous superstition? Was it even food from a Shiva House if the widow was no longer sitting Shiva? As you can imagine, there were more opinions than people involved in this debate. The particulars aside, the bigger issue was, how do we, as Jews look at superstitions?

    What I learned was that, it didn’t matter what the superstition is, because to one person it is a custom, an important tradition that ties them to their Judaism and to another person it was simply “ridiculous” or antiquated act or belief. In many ways, some of what we do for certain holidays or dealing with death may now be considered custom, but could have at sometime been considered mere superstition. And just as we liberal Jews decide which mitzvot have meaning, for many of us, we decide which superstitions or customs also have meaning. When I pull on my ears after sneezing while speaking of someone who passed away, I do it because my grandmother used to tell me to do it- it connects me to my traditions my history. I don’t know that I believe in any repercussions from not doing it, but I am just compelled to do it and it makes me smile and think of my beloved grandmother.

    To deal with the debate from the women in my congregation, I began doing some research, posed a question on Facebook and then even offered a class entitled- “What’s a Jew to do- A look at the differences between superstitions, customs and laws.” The class afforded us the opportunity to get to the real meanings behind what we do. Not only was the class fun and really successful, but I also learned about more Jewish superstitions than I could ever have imagined!

    So let me know what you think, do superstitions help highten your sense of Jewish tradition? Or do they take away from the real business of Jewish life? I’d love to hear your opinions and add your superstitions to my growing list. In the meantime, here is a list of 10 more of my “favorites:”

    1. You should never have a baby shower or buy anything for a baby before it’s born. (In fact, we don’t even say “Mazel Tov, but rather B’sha’ah Tovah to a pregnant woman.)
    2. If a child is laying on the floor and you step over him, you must walk back over him or he won’t grow anymore (my mother was a strict enforcer of this one!)
    3. A pregnant woman is not supposed to go to a cemetery.
    4. Don’t open an umbrella in the house (or it will rain at your wedding).
    5. Don’t put a hat on the bed or there will be a death.
    6. IF you eat an olive, you have to have at least two (a lone olive is only eaten as part of the meal after a funeral).
    7. Don’t put shoes on a dresser or a table or bad luck will ensue.
    8. Never sew clothes while someone is wearing them and if you must, tell the person wearing the clothes to chew on a string.
    9. When you move into a new house you must make sure to have a broom, salt, sugar, loaf of bread (or flour) and of course a mezzuzah, and it’s even more good luck to move in right before Shabbat.
    10. Give Tzekadakah to someone embarking on a trip (especially to Israel) to ensure his safety as he becomes a “Shaliach Mitzvah” and donate the money while away. (Though this could be up for debate as for being a superstition, or a custom.)

    When it comes to Jewish superstitions, these are just the tip of the iceberg. What other superstitions do you know and even hold by? Or do you think these are all just “bubbe-meizas” (old wives tales) that no longer hold a place in our Jewish tradtion? While I don’t need to become any more superstitious, God-Forbid; I’d love, God-willing, to hear what you have to say!

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  • How to Teach Moral Wisdom

    Posted on August 1st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן

    עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה

    מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג

    Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said:  Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations

    -Midrash Rabbah Vayikra

     

    Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.

    Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.

    Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.

    This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.

    Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,

    “רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז

     

    Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17

    Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.

    When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase,  תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.

    For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.

    Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.

    Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.

     

    Moral Wisdom, Torah, Limits of Rules

     

     

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  • A Consideration of Food Stamps for Shavuot

    Posted on April 30th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A grapefruit.

    Usually it is candy that is the source of friction between children and parents at the grocery checkout. This time it was a grapefruit. Not even a good looking one at that. It was a somewhat wrinkled grapefruit that had come from the seconds bin. It had been part of the basket of goods the mother had gathered, but now paying for the groceries, she had put the sad grapefruit aside.

     

    The child pleaded, the cashier looked pained, so did the mother. But there was no room for giving in. The family had reached capacity on their food stamps.

     

    This scene, which I witnessed nearly twenty years ago, has been playing on a loop in my head lately. As I prepare for Shavuot, I have been thinking about leket, peyah, and shichicha, our obligations to leave the gleanings, the corners and the forgot fruits of our fields. That grapefruit in its sad wrinkly state would definitely have fallen into the category of a forgotten fruit, and yet there it was holding out promise for this child.

     

    On that day, I did not know what to do. I could have easily have spared something from my own heavy basket for the child, or paid for the grapefruit. After all the Mishna on Pe’ah (1:2) says that a sixtieth of the field is the minimum amount and as a portion of my purchases it would not have much more than that. But I hesitated and did not act; worried my interference would have caused shame or embarrassment. The following Shabbat I dined at the home of friends and when the girl and her mother showed up, I was even less sure what the right course of action ought to have been.

     

    According to Rashi, the concept of Pe’ah, the practice of leaving the corners of your field uncut, is really about placing part of your harvest in every corner of every field. Building on the Sifra (Kedoshim 1:10) Rashi stresses that we cannot choose who gets the support that is given in the form of Pe’ah, it must be available to everyone so they can reach it with ease it should be placed where it is most easily accessed on the corners.

     

    Food stamps, it strikes me, are our modern American form of the ancient agrarian Jewish traditions for caring for the poor. In line with Rashi’s stress on access, in recent years, policies by the Bush and Obama governments have made it easier for people to qualify for food stamps. But there is also greater need. 1 out of 7 Americans, 43 million people, rely on the program each month.

     

    But it is likely that the extravagance of a sad grapefruit would still be out of reach for most food stamp recipients. The average payout of the benefit is $133/month. This stands in comparison to the USDA assessment that the average family of four spends between $771 and $916/month on food. There is now talk in Washington of cutting significantly reducing the eligibility and benefits of the food stamp program. Not only would that mean the end of grapefruits, but for many the rest of the shopping basket all together.

     

    If there is meaning in the confluence of the two strands of Shavuot, that of the harvest holiday and the celebration of revelation, it may be found in the link between the equality of revelation and the need to share our bounty with everyone.

     

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  • Who is Free?

    Posted on March 28th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    As we look towards Pessach and the S’darim, Rabbi Larry Bach asks us to think about the meaning of freedom.

    At Kiddush time at our Seders, we will proclaim the days of Passover z’man cheruteinu, the “season of our freedom.” And the question is, who belongs to that collective “our?” Who is becoming free?

    At the most obvious level, the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.

    Author - Rabbi Larry Bach

    Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies that there are two entities involved, and they turn out to be us and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom, ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. Pesach is our celebration of freedom from enslavement to habit, anger, and small-mindedness, all of which are the very opposite of liberation. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”

    Another “member of the club” may be at work as we celebrate “our” freedom: everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story. Our children’s prayerbook says it well in the reading that introduces Mi Chamocha, the Song of the Sea: “When we sing it we say, ‘Let everyone be free.’”

    Ultimately, I believe, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is only from a place of physical security that I can develop the habits that connect me to God within me, and everyone else around me.

    It is my hope that each of us will be challenged by the words of the haggadah and the symbols of the seder to expand our sense of belonging this year. May the Seder work its ancient magic, bringing us — all of us — from slavery to freedom, from darkness to great light.

     

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  • Trees, Roots and Spirituality: Tu B’shvat Torah

    Posted on January 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    An elm on our street the morning after Hurricane Ike

     

    On February 8th, 2012 we will celebrate Tu B’shvat. This week Talmudist, Rabbi Judith Abrams of Maqom shares some personal and textual teachings about this holiday.

    B”H

    This past year, Texas suffered through an extreme drought.  Roads melted and cracked and water mains fractured under the stress.  But perhaps the worst of the drought was what it did to the trees.  Thousands and thousands of them died and now the city workers go through our neighborhoods marking trees that are definitively dead with spray paint so crews will know which trees to cut down.  We all understand why these elms, pines, magnolia and others need to be cut down:  they need to come down in an orderly way or they will fall down and cut off power and traffic.  But still, we see those sprayed painted markings and fell a sense of loss.  

    The “tree deaths” aren’t randomly distributed.  We found this out during Hurricane Ike in 2008.  Elms, which have a very shallow root system, were simply blown over because their ratio of canopy to roots was too small.

    The Same Tree a Few Days Later

    You can see the shallow ball of roots that tipped up as the elm fell, uprooting the sidewalk.

    Interestingly enough, we have a live oak tree in our front yard and it scarcely lost any foliage at all:  some leaves and twigs blew off but that was about it.  That oak’s roots go down about 20 feet and the tree itself is probably only 30 feet high.

    During the drought, I worried about the elms, but not about the oak.  I knew the oak’s roots would be able to reach downward toward the water table.

    The lesson, I’m sure, is clear.  What is it, who is it, that survives?  The one with the deepest root system.  Those who composed the Torah, and those who wrote rabbinic literature knew how much wisdom we can gain from observing trees.  Important events happen with trees (e.g., the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the terebinths of Mamre, Genesis 12:6).  The menorah in the Tabernacle is a stylized almond tree.  Trees are not to be cut down in a war (Deuteronomy 20:19), nor are permitted to exploit trees while they are still saplings (i.e., the rules in tractate Orlah).  They can even teach us some interpersonal lessons, as it is said, “A person should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar (B. Taanit 20a).”

    So with all this as background, how might we best celebrate Tu Bishvat this year? We could Study one tree and its place in the local ecology.  We could make a plan to make a “local lulav” of branches in the fall and mentally mark four trees for that purpose.  For example, if you live in Vermont, you might include maple leaves and apples in your “local lulav.”  And, of course, plant trees here and in Israel.

    See the trees everywhere you look, for they are there…even where you might least expect them to be.  If you look closely at what a scribe did to this Torah scroll, you can tell that he saw the trees and plants everywhere, everywhere

     

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  • A Rich and Critical Resource for all Matters Jewish

    Posted on April 26th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Golda Meir, Bella Abzug and So Much More: The Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia

    Golda

    Golda

    Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia is a welcome addition to the landscape of great Jewish resources. Hosted by the Jewish Women’s Archive and launched recently on March 1st in honor of Women’s History Month, this encyclopedia represents a rich and critical resource for those interested in all matters Jewish. Publishers Alice and Moshe Shalvi together with editors Paula Hyman and Dalia Ofer, have gathered critical information about Jewish women in an extensive collection of topical and biographical essays.

    Abzug at Feminist Seder

    Abzug at Feminist Seder

    At their best encyclopedias take the world of scholarship and distill forth the key ideas providing lay and scholarly readers alike with the ability to easily access information and to move easily from topic to topic. In the era of the internet, on some level, this seems superfluous, after all if you want to explore a topic one need only enter a few words into a search engine and “entries” immediately appear. Indeed, fewer and fewer people these days are willing to wade into the library, find the right encyclopedia, look up the topic under consideration and follow cross references across articles or volumes. Yet in “googling” we often fall prey to the most popular rather than the most authoritative information and miss out on the organizational and editorial benefit of the traditional encyclopedia. The Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia works well to focus and direct our looking, creating a rich and enriching resource for Jewish learning.

    By placing this work, which has been available previously as a CD-ROM, on the web, the Jewish Women’s Archive has made a critical contribution to our study of Jewish history. The search features make it easy to find material specific in any number of ways; one can look for Mary Antin or scroll through the list of writers to find her among other great and lesser known women of the pen. Browse features ensure that the serendipitous pleasures of the print format are preserved. A global search allows for one to look for the appearance of a term or name in any entry. Borrowing from the best practice of collaborative knowledge, readers are encouraged to add comments, insights or more information.

    Jewish Girls at Summer Camp

    Jewish Girls at Summer Camp

    In addition to providing a good place to check facts, such as those about midrashic representations of Batsheva, it is also the perfect source for inspiration for sermons or charges to the board. It is a great resource for our own learning; with references to rabbinic texts cited and bibliographies. The quality of the writing is high but accessible. B’nai mitzvah students would feel quite comfortable in these pages.

    For the sake of full disclosure, I contributed to one of the entries. But my interest in this resource is far from personal. One of the great joys of this encyclopedia is the journey that it provides far beyond our own areas of knowledge and understanding. Looking around on the day it first appeared on the web, I learned about Lane Bryant Malsin the Jewish pioneer of maternity wear and niche marketing, gaining new insights and appreciation for this hard working innovative immigrant; I deepened my understanding of wife beating in Jewish tradition thanks to the scholarship of Naomi Graetz and I got some sense of the breadth and depth of those who might be called Jewish writers. The online Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia has the potential to take us all far beyond the obvious with ease.

    Pioneer Women

    Pioneer Women

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