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  • Be the Eighth Candle: A Teaching for Hannukah

    Posted on November 28th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments

    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



  • Who is Free?

    Posted on March 28th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    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.


  • Is Pride Really a Deadly Sin?

    Posted on February 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    “Pride is, in the Jewish tradition, among the most serious of the vices, as humility is among the highest of the virtues. The Talmudic Rabbis, perhaps because of their awareness that scholars are easily tempted to lord it over the ignorant, denigrate pride in the most caustic terms.”

    –Rabbi Louis Jacobs  The Jewish Religion: A Companion

    How ought Jewish leaders think about pride? In Christianity pride is viewed along with wrath, greed, sloth, lust, envy and gluttony to be the seven deadly sins. These sins, stand in a category of their own because, among other reasons, their tendency to cause more sin. True Judaism does not buy into the framework of original sin, but if we take Rabbi Jacobs and the sources he sights, it would seem that we ought to leave pride alone all together.

    At first, I was completely comfortable with this approach. My chevruta and I have recently began making our way through Alan Moranis’s Everyday Holiness which uses the traditional Jewish approach to self examination mussar to lead readers to self improvement. The starting point for this work? Humility. The polar opposite of pride.

    Getting rid of pride is no easy task, no less a persona than Moses struggled to do so. According to our tradition, his understanding of the divine was greater than anyone before or after him. And yet, when it came to preparing for his death, he was not easy to accept his immiment passing. According to the Midrash Tanchuma VaEtkhanan, upon understanding that the authority of interpreting the Torah and receiving prophecy had passed from him to Joshua, Moses cried out and said “Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy. Master of the universes, until now I sought life. But now my soul is surrendered to You.” And yet, when the angel was sent to bring him to God, Moses fought back claiming greater authority and power.

    Pride makes us take up too much space, makes us inflate our importance in comparison to that of other people. As leaders, it can trip us up as we step too far forward, expect too much recognition, or put our own needs ahead of the tasks that need completing. It can cloud our judgment. Pride can lead to a fall sense of importance. As a rabbinic mentor once told me, half the bad stuff they attribute to you is not your fault but at the same time, half the good stuff they attribute to you is not your accomplishment either.

    Yet as Moranis points out, false humility is just as bad as pride. We need to own our strengths and capabilities. Real humility demands stepping up and working to accomplish what we are capable of doing.

    Nonetheless, I was left wondering whether pride, like other elements of the evil impulse, ought to be managed but not entirely eradicated. Is it wrong to find joy in the hard work we do, in the skills we learn and use well? Sometimes, the desire for recognition pushes us to do the right thing. Sometimes our inflated sense of self gets us through what might otherwise be an impossible situation. Describing Sephardi Jews of Turkey, Rabbi Marc Angel explains that no matter how poor these Jews were, they held on to the memory of having once been part of the prosperous Spanish Jewish community. Generations had passed, still pride helped them cope with what were often difficult lives.

    Manage it, contain it. But in my humble opinion, pride is far from entirely negative.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder


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

    Posted on January 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    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.


    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


  • Sources on Repentance and Forgiveness for Yom Kippur

    Posted on October 3rd, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    Today I got a request from a listserve to which I subscribe, asking that I forgive them for any wrong they may have done in the last year.

    Clearly in this era of social media it was only a matter of time before repentance and forgiveness went online. But while the format of the request was somewhat surprising and sent me off to reflect on the nature of virtual community, it was the broad nature of the request that really caused me to think more generally about the nature of apologies and mehkilah. I neither know the manager of the listserv personally nor do I feel aggrieved by this individual, so in this case it is easy to be big hearted and forgiving. But most of the work we do during this season is more complex than that.

    Our tradition has much to say and this is a case where I think it best to let the sources speak for themselves. As many of us prepare to teach over Yom Kippur and all of us are hopefully taking some time to take stock individually, it is my hope that these will serve as either a resource or a reminder of some of what our tradition says.

    G’mar Hatimah Tovah,

    Ruth Abusch-Magder


    Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. (Micah 7:18)


    One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend. (Proverbs 17:9)


    “One who has sinned against another must say to him or her, ‘I’ve acted wrongly against you’.” (Talmud; Yoma 45c)

    “If you’ve done another a small wrong, let it be great in your eyes…” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)
    “If another has done you a great wrong, let it be small in your eyes.” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)


    “If one has received an injury, then, even if the wrongdoer has not asked for forgiveness, the receiver of the injury must nevertheless ask God to show the wrongdoer compassion, even as Avraham prayed to God for Avimelech, and Job for his friends. Rabbi Gamliel said, ‘Let this be a sign to you, that whenever you are compassionate, the Compassionate One will have compassion on you.” (Mishnah; Baba Kamma 9:29-30).


    A bad tempered person gains nothing but the ill effects of anger; a good tempered person is fed with the fruit of the deeds. (Kiddushin, 40b – 41)


    “All who overlook what’s owed to them, Heaven overlooks their sins in return.” (Talmud; Rosh HaShanah 17a)


    Forgive your neighbors [their] transgressions, and then when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. (Ben Sira 28:2)


    No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra



    “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: “I am Adonai.” – “You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find Me; not in his love for you but in your love for him.” He who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you. For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world. –Martin Buber



  • Remember, Forget, Live: Thoughts for Elul

    Posted on September 12th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Forget-Me-Not Flowers


    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder


    Remember Amalek.

    Blot out the memory of Amalek.

    We are to remember and to forget. Remembering and forgetting are linked in an eternal paradox. Without remembering there would be no need to forget but if we truly forget we will not know that we have done so.

    At Purim we remember and then we forget. We return twice over to the words of the megillah, listening to each. We do not miss a word. The memory is made fresh, bold with repetition. And then we drink, we make merry. We forget the serious dangers, the threat to our very existence. It is too much. It is too easy for us to become Haman. When we focus on the remembering it can be easy to overlook our own potential to do evil, to remember that we too can be destructive. It is easy to forget our own power and potential –for good and for evil.

    Jewish sociologist Shaul Kelner marks tzom Rabbin yearly, fasting to commemorate the Rabin’s assasignation. It is his modern tzom Gedaliah. He worries about forgetting. He values the remembering and the lessons it brings to mind.

    There was a very small notice in the Jewish press this morning. The rally remembering the assasignation of Yitzhak Rabin has been cancelled for this year. In the 16 years that have passed the numbers attending this memorial event have dwindled. The memory and the lessons are fading.

    This week Americans are remembering the events of a decade ago, on the 11th of September, 2001. For some there has been no forgetting. Not a day goes by without memories, fear and loss. For others the rituals of the day shaped not only the remembering but also the forgetting. It is our national Tisha B’Av and we are still working to create a meaningful way to both remember and forget.

    The hassidic rabbi of Slonimer, Rabbi Shalom Noach Bereovsky z”l, reflected on Tisha B’Av in his commentary Netivot Shalom. Playing with one of his favorite themes he writes:

    Now, we have taught that there are two paths to teshuvah: the way of “turn from evil” and that of “do good”….But there is a superior path, as the righteous have taught: turn from evil by means of doing good. …we were created to delight in God and bask in the light of the Shekhinah, and this is the objective of our lives of service. When we merit to delight in God, all other fineries and delights pale to nothing in comparison, and evil flees in turn. (translation Rabbi Jonathan Slater)

    Furthermore, as Rabbi Jonathan Slater explains, the Netivot Shalom is playing with the themes found in the prophecies of doom that are read ahead of Tisha B’Av. “R. Shalom Noach, following in the tradition of his forebears and hasidism in general, inverts the sensibility of the season, and the meaning of Isaiah’s vision. Mourning the past is meaningless and ineffective; grieving our own failures and coming into a relationship with our own lives in this moment is liberating – even on the Ninth of Av.”

    We are still too close to know how the remembering and forgetting with regards to the events from 9-11 will shake out. Six years from now, ten years from now, fifty or a thousand years from now, how will we remember, how will we forget? Yet so many of those who were not directly traumatized directly by the events of 9-11 have spoken of one of the lasting effects of that day, the ability to live  -as R. Shalom Noach would have us do -more fully in the moment.

    It is Elul and soon the Yamim Noraim will be upon us. The Shofar calls us daily to remember. We look back over our own lives and remember our own worst moments. The Shofar calls us daily to forget. In order to turn away from evil and turn towards good we need to let go of our own patterns of behavior, we must forget our memorized patterns of behavior. In order to be truly forgiving we must forget the slights and injustices that we have experienced. We cannot afford to be paralyzed by our memory nor set adrift without any sense of the past. Rather we must work to be liberated by the paradox of both remembering and forgetting so that we may live most fully.


  • Blue Women and Biblical Tales: The Work of Siona Benjamin

    Posted on May 23rd, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Esther is blue. So is Vashti. And it is hard to take your eyes off of them. Born and raised in Bombay in a Bene Israel Jewish family and educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian Schools, artist Siona Benjamin brings many influences and cultural understandings into the bold art she creates –much of it based on Jewish stories. Her current exhibition at the HUC-JIR Museum – New York, The Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, is an illustrated Esther Megillah and is on display until the end of June.

    Benjamin recently returned from a spending four months as a Fulbright scholar in India. She is thoughtful and passionate about the work she does and her desire to express the complexity of contemporary Jewish life. I sat down with her to talk about her art.

    Siona Benjamin

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Much of your art revolves around Jewish themes, especially those of Jewish women, how did you come to this focus?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is about issues of identity and social and political identity and my role as a woman and a Jew and as an Indian.  When I was studying in art school, my professors said only big abstract bold paintings will sell and will make you lots of money. But that was not really me. My paintings are small, decorative, feminine, mythology based. Why is myth not high art? Why is decorative art not high art? When you speak in your true voice people really start seeing it.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: How do you engage Jewish content in your work?

    Sonia Benjamin: I study midrash with Rabbi Burt Visotsky. The whole process of studying midrash is the starting point. Then I have to make it my own. If I just drew Ruth walking with Naomi or Rebecca by the well, it would be redundant. People would say, how skillful or how beautiful, but it would not be compelling. It would be redundant. But midrash is about having a take on the story. I am making visual midrash that will affect not just Jewish people, but all kinds of people. They can connect in their own way. I’m striving for that.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: The Esther Megillah was a commission, so how did you decide what to illustrate and how to do the drawings?

    Sonia Benjamin: The person who commissioned me had a lot to say, and so did Rabbi Visotsky. I also did historical research. Haman’s hat, for example, was it supposed to be three cornered like a hamantashen? There were no hamantashen in Persia. So I asked what could he have been wearing? Then I exaggerated it to show his character.

    There is a scene where Achashverosh is receiving Esther and Modechai is presenting her.  I was doing sketches, and I went back and forth with the rabbi and the guy about the throne. I wondered if I should go back to the Persian miniature and copy Moghul miniature painting which showed King Akbar or Gihangi sitting on thrones. But there is actually there is a midrash about the throne that Achashverosh sat on. There is a contemplation that he sat on the looted throne of King Solomon. Now, what does that look like? It is said in the midrash that it had a lion, a falcon, a bull and human face on it. According to the midrash Solomon’s throne was looted by the Persian kings and this is what Achashverosh sat on. So I used this as the basis in my painting. It is a hidden secret, no one will know unless it is pointed out but it will make it more interesting.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Which is your favorite character? Who do you identify with in the megillah?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is feminist, I like marginal characters Vashti, Lilith, dina, tziporah. So I was disappointed that Vashti disappears [from the story]. She is like the ex-wife who wants to come back. So in the scroll painting in one of the scenes when the King is married to Esther and she is planning to save the Jewish people and she is pouring wine in the background there are arch ways and the marriage bed. In the background I painted the shadow of Vashti, she is watching, maybe approving, saying this king is finally getting what he deserves.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Why are the women in your paintings blue?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my characters are blue because a lot of times people don’t recognize what I am, I get asked if I am Moroccan, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, Persia. If I say Indian then they say Hindu, Muslim? Then what are you. When I explain that I am Jewish, they often want to touch me –I’m exotic. There have been Jews in India for thousands of years. When I was painting self portraits I tried all these brown colors but none seemed right. But blue is the color of the ocean and sky it could belong anywhere. It is the color of Israel all the synagogues in India are painted this blue, and Krishna is a God who is blue. It became a symbol for me of being a Jewish woman of color. It became a joke that I could play. Feminist writers have said, that I am the other 3x removed, Jewish, woman and in a foreign land, so your blueness gets amplified, you get bluer and bluer.


  • Ancient Exodus, Modern Democracy: Lessons from Egypt at Passover

    Posted on April 12th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    This year, the story of liberation from Egypt is being told on the back drop of a contemporary story of liberation in that same country. In 2006, Rabbi Ruth Sohn who is the  Director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Programas well as the Rabbi of the Lainer Beit Midrash at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, spent 6 months living in Egypt with her husband Reuven Firestone. Sohn is currently working on a book about that experience and took some time to share some thoughts on how the ancient story and the modern reality come together.  -Ruth Abusch-Magder


    The bitter and the sweet

    Everyone loves charoset and I have always been intrigued by the tradition of dipping the maror in charoset before we offer the blessing and ingest the bitterness of slavery. Only in the presence of something sweet can we fully take in the bitterness of the maror. Only when hope glimmers can we allow ourselves to feel the full force of the bitterness of our suffering.

    Rabbi Ruth Sohn

    While we now know that some of the young Egyptian activists had been preparing for months and even years for a moment such as this, when the time would be ripe for mass protests against the regime, what made this moment the time? More than the sad, desperate self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-vender in Tunisia, it was the success of Tunisian protestors in overthrowing their ruler of 23 years sparked hopes in Egypt. Suddenly, people could taste the sweet hope, that the freedoms that had for so long seemed unattainable, might now be within grasp. And suddenly, thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets in Cairo and other cities and towns in Egypt,  ready to risk beatings and arrest and worse,  to  stand up and say No More.

    Freedom from… Freedom for…?

    In calling for the end of the regime of their modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptians were able to come together in inspiring and moving ways, across lines of religion, gender, class, and education. Their ability to stand together against forces that sought to divide them, even in the face of violent attack, and their success in ousting Mubarak stands as an enormous achievement. And yet, there is no time to lose celebrating. Freedom from the oppressive regime has not yet been fully accomplished. The military, first celebrated by the Egyptians as supportive of the revolution, is now increasingly coming under attack as Egypt’s reviled Emergency Law is still in place, allowing for the continuing arrests and imprisonments, sexual harassment, and torture.

    And even as the Egyptians continue to push for freedom from the oppressions of the past, the next question is already upon them, and will shape the formation of political parties going forward. What should this freedom be for? What kind of society do they want to build? What is the vision of a modern Egypt that calls them forward?  For many, the idea that Islam should play some kind of role in their society is appealing. But what kind of Islam? And what kind of influence? And at the same time, for many, the experience of protest in Tahrir Square holds an important piece of the vision: a celebration of the diversity of the Egyptian people, and the dignity of every human being. But the vision needs to be given fuller shape and expression, which will include but not be limited to the establishment of new laws. Moving toward Freedom For involves even harder work and is a lot  messier than fighting for Freedom From. The Egyptians and the rest of the world need to be prepared for a sometimes slow and circuitous journey.

    Freedom from… freedom for…? The experience of the Egyptians points us back to one of the great challenges of our own Exodus. We relive and celebrate our own humble beginnings as slaves with a transformative journey from slavery to freedom, but we are reminded that this freedom is only the first step of a long journey through the wilderness, toward a fuller freedom that still needed to be defined. From our first steps into freedom from slavery, we had to begin to chart that journey, a journey that took us to Sinai and beyond, that included far-reaching laws and teachings, toward a fuller redemption for us and the world. If our journey had not included Sinai, (or Shabbat, or Israel, or a few other things listed in Dayenu?) would we still be around to tell the tale of the Exodus?

    So the journey continues, and in every generation, every year, we ask ourselves at Pesach, how, this year, are we enslaved? What is the liberation that calls to us most deeply? What do we need freedom from?  What do we need freedom for? And what is the path to this liberation? What is our maror, and our charoset? What is the bitterness for us, and what offers the sweetness of hope that can wake us up to the full bitterness of our current oppression, and galvanize us forward to seek liberation?  We are invited to look inward and outward in asking these questions, to consider the broadest political landscape as well as the deepest inner spiritual terrain, and to realize that we do not need to choose between them, but rather can seek new connections between the two realms we too often see as separate.

    Our seder tables may hold the best possibility for exploring these questions together, so we can all experience again the promise of the holiday, and perhaps, be able to take a few real steps forward on our journeys.

    Chag Pesach sameach.




  • In Praise of Grandma, Bubbe and Nona Superstitions

    Posted on January 24th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.

    Bubbe Meises, literally, grandmother tales, have come to be synonymous with superstition. And superstitions are by modern standards ridiculous, right?

    Maybe. Or on the other hand. Maybe Not.

    A few years ago when my family moved into a new house in a suburb of Chicago, Rabbi Michael Weinberg and his wife Jody brought us a house warming gift, a basket with bread, salt, and honey. The bread and salt, they explained, were traditional while the honey was in honor of the quickly approaching New Year. I have since learned that the tradition of bread and salt seems to likely draw on historic Russian customs of presenting honored guests or new brides with bread and salt as a sign of hospitality and welcome signifying the prosperity of a full larder.

    Calling this practice a bubbe meise is not necessarily out of place. While we cannot know exactly how Jews came to adopt this general Russian custom it is not hard to imagine it being passed down in the doing from mother to daughter. As modern Jews, we are unlikely to believe that the bread and salt will be the cause of prosperity, so it is possible to understand it as a superstition.

    But that need not mean dismissing this or other similar grandmother tales as valuable to our contemporary Jewish lives.

    Instead of rejecting bubbe meise (and by implication the women who believed in them) might we not learn from the process by which Reform Judaism has grappled with the Torah passed through the generations of men? The stories that our grandmothers told one generation to another resonated for them. They held kernels of wisdom and understanding. Distancing ourselves from those truths and those understandings closes off paths to engaging and meaning. In other words, can we look at the specific grandmotherly tales and belief, examine the ways in which they do and do not resonate for us today? Can we reengage and reinterpret with them as we do with tallit or standing for Torah reading?

    I believe very strongly that we can and should.

    Recently I was asked to bring a spiritual presence to a housewarming for a woman who had moved into a new home after a difficult divorce. While our modern Reform liturgy offers pieces borrowed from other places to contextualize the hanging of a mezuzah, the grandmother tales offered inspiration that not only spoke directly to the situation but also drew from similar contexts in different times and places. Drawing on the North African and Yeminite traditions involving the making of candle, we lit and broke candles to symbolize from which this home represented a break.  Considering the salt and bread, we not only connected to the historic hopes for prosperity but also delved into the ways in which bread and salt represented to transfer of holiness from one centralized fixed place, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, to the multiple homes that it has lived since.

    Before we dismiss the bubbe meise, consider what might be lost if you do.

  • What the Bible Teaches about Modern Media

    Posted on December 13th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    News Feed:

    Erev Rav: God, this dessert is awful, there is ABSOLUTELY NOOOOOO food worth eating

    Moses ben Amram: Wondering, yet again, why I ever took this job…..

    God “the one and only”: You are such a kvetch. Meet up in 30. Bring 70 of your closest with you.

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

    The world of online social networks is complex and persuasive. The fluid nature of the medium makes it both compelling and problematic. Even as governments struggle with how to navigate the open platforms that allow national secrets to be shared world wide, the traditional challenges of adolescence and identity formation are amplified in an era that blurs the boundaries between public and private. Things that might have, only a few years back, remained knowledge between a close group of friends, such as a first kiss now become the news of thousands of ‘friends.’ A misspoken remark or bullying in the playground, now gains permanency creating havoc for the victim and the perpetrator. Young people, parents and educators are increasingly concerned about how to help children navigate the complexities of this new social and media reality.

    While it is impossible to inoculate children against all the challenges of modern media consumption, clergy and Jewish educators have an important tool in our box that is often overlooked in the complex discussions about living on-line. The Bible, though clearly very much “old media,” is a great tool for helping young people consider the value and weight of their words.

    Overwhelmed by the sheer volume and content of what they are exposed to in the media, and still developmentally grappling with the concept of consequences, the permanence of the online world can be hard for young people to grasp. The Bible shows us some of the enduring impact of writing down our every action. What is it that we know about Avraham Avinu at this distance? Yes, we know he was chosen by God but we also know that he passed his wife off to the King of Egypt and that he tied his son up and prepared him for sacrifice. When working with young people I ask them if they think that Abraham would be happy with the record we have of his actions. How would he like to be remembered? How would they like to be known in the world?

    While it may seem flip, it is not hard –as I did above -to read much of the narrative element of the Tanakh as a series of facebook or twitter posts. Frequently, the biblical narratives come not in long flowing prose but in short burst – often, dare I say of less than 140 characters a passuk. One of the great joys of the brevity of the biblical narrative is that it leaves much room for commentary. We are left to guess at the motivations at the contexts. And we do.

    David ben Jessie: Just saw the most beautiful woman bathing on her roof

    Commentator one: Seriously man, you’re married.

    David “father of the Messiah” ben Jessie: I’m just looking…

    Commentator two: Go for it Dave, after all you’re the King, whatever you do is cool

    The short pieces we see in the Bible regarding events, such as David’s sighting of Batsheva, make it possible for us to layer meanings onto the text. While that has provided many generations of learned Jews with much to work with, I’m sure that the “reality” of the original events was lost long ago. Today, such commentaries on the short bursts of information that we put out about our daily lives accrue with lightening speed. We don’t wait generations between Rambam’s and Rashi’s thought but seconds between Susan’s and Deryck’s responses. Reality can get lost quite quickly as can our control over the perception of events.

    Gone are the days of the long meaningful missive. Short texts with a series of Roshei Tevot communicate volumes in an economy of space and leave much to the imagination. Going back to biblical commentaries is not going to change the mode of communication but it can be a means by which we help young people unpack their use of modern media.