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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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  • Proud to be Out and Jewish: Celebrating Pride Month

    Posted on June 12th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Gay Pride in Jerusalem 2003

    This week we hear from Rabbi Ruth Adar who reminds us why we should all be proud this June. -ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder

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    Author, Rabbi Ruth Adar

    It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.

    Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mother. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
    1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome.  An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.

    1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977.  I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.

    Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot from Ben Gurion and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really?  How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.

    I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, first of its kind in the Jewish world.  There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.

    I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.

    To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories.  And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.

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  • A Mother’s Day Tribute to Mothers and Jewish Values

    Posted on May 8th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Sara Goren with her granddaughter, Seth's daughter

    Jewish mothers often get a bad rap. Comedians, movies, books portray Jewish moms as the biggest impediment to the development of healthy Jews. Yet, when I started to ask around, there are lots of us out there who see our mothers -Jewish or not- as essential to our growth into the proud Jews we are today. What follows are three moving tributes to three wonderful moms.

    We would love to hear more, feel free to share your comments on what values or teaching that you learned from your mom and how they made you into the person you are today.  -Ruth Abusch-Magder, editor

     

    Lessons from Estelle

    One of the biggest lessons I learned from my mother, Estelle or Essie as every one called her, was really a lesson in feminism although she wouldn’t characterize it that way, but it really was.  My Mom had me later in life.  She was already in her forties.  My older sister was in college and she felt her child bearing days was over.  She grew up in an era before the Great Depression and got married soon after high school.  She worked as bookkeeper from the age of 16 out of necessity not having the luxury of a college education.  Even after she married, she worked in the family business, was active in the life of the community, as Hadassah president, Sisterhood president, temple fundraiser and took care of her parents as well. She raised my sister and ran a household.

    Bernie and Estelle Eger 50th Anniversary

    She was active in National Council of Jewish Women and so she taught me by example to be involved Jewishly.  But my mom would also say to me, “Don’t be any man’s schmatta.”  By that she was trying to tell me to be my own person.  Go to School. Find a career. Be self supporting.  It wasn’t a dig at men or marriage (My parents were happily married 58 years until my father’s death!).  But it was her way of conveying the importance of being your own independent woman!  And she taught me well. I was the first to graduate college in my family and then of course to go on to seminary and the blessings of a Rabbinic calling!  I am no one’s shmatta today. I am my own person and I treasure my mom’s advice and encouragement to grow and learn and embrace the world. –Denise Eger

     

    Learning to be a “mom”

    I came out to my mother as gay when I was 27.  While I’d like to say that this particular step out of the closet took superhuman levels of courage on my parts, that’s not exactly (or even remotely) true.  More accurately, my comfort sharing who I am flowed from many of my mother’s attributes; because of her nurturing love, her subtle kindness and her perseverance in the face of challenge,  it was far more natural to share than to withhold.

    Getting older, I find that I, too, carry these qualities that allowed me to be open with my mother.  They enable and strengthen my rabbinical life, from pastoral conversations to community building.  For this reason, perhaps my mother’s greatest ability was how she was able to mold me into the kind of person she is.

    About a year ago, I became a father to a daughter.  Since then, I’ve been struck by how many people have asked me, “Since you’re a single man, how are you going to make sure she has good female role models?”  I suppress my urge to give a snarky response, smile politely and say, “I think we have that covered.”   -Seth Goren

     

    What I Learned From My Mom

     

    One of the most important things I learned from my mom was to tune into and value feelings.  My mom would always say to me,  “Don’t keep it in, it will fester.”  Even though I didn’t know what “fester” meant, I understood by her statement that she not only saw me, but felt me.  I was always a little surprised that she was aware, often before I was, that I was hurt or concerned about something.  (She’d also say “mother’s always know…”) She intuitively knew that experience was layered and that there was more going on than what appeared on the surface. She taught me pay attention to what lies below. This skill has profoundly influenced

    Marlene Berkson Kornick -Jill's Mother

    my work as a rabbi.  I’m not afraid of feelings and teach that becoming aware is a first step toward wisdom and change.  Also, this was probably why my love and enthusiasm for Torah study has been so deep. I teach that the surface layer is only one part of reality and by delving deeper into the nuances and multiple meanings of the text, we can learn more and more about our own souls. –Jill Zimmerman

     

     

     

     

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  • International Women’s Day and Purim Collide

    Posted on March 8th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Rabbi Stanley Davids and Dr. Michael Marmur

    A brief report by Dr. Michael Marmur:

    In honor of International Women’s Day and Purim, a group of about 200 people congregated in Ben Yehuda to hear women read the Megilla (it’s the day before Purim in Jerusalem). The Megillah was read by a group of women including Rabbi Ada Zavidov of Har El Congregation, Rabbi Ma’ayan Turner, and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, among other Jerusalem women. Men attending were asked to come dressed as women, and some of us obliged.

    The background to this is the struggle over the role of women in public spaces in Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh and elsewhere. In recent weeks the question of whether women will be seen and heard in our streets in the spirit of open societies has been raised, following some high-profile examples of intolerance, most of which originate in the Ultra-Orthodox community.

    Kol Haneshamah Congregation and other liberal forces in Jerusalem are engaged in a series of symbolic acts designed to emphasize the need to stand up for the kind of society we want our kids to grow up in, and your kids to feel at home in.

    Our colleague Rabbi Darah Lerner was spotted in the crowd, along with HUC-JIR students and others.

     

    To see a video of the event shot by the talented HUC-JIR first year Rabbinic Student Jeremy Gimbel who was also responsible for the Purim spoof on the Book of Mormon musical click on the link below

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ed46ucSUuVk

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  • Martha Stewart, Feminism and Purim

    Posted on March 2nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Lina Morgenstern

    Is writing a cookbook a feminist act?

    As women’s history month begins there is much to debate. I for one would struggle to make the argument that Martha Stewart is a feminist, though in 2004 Elaine Lafferty, the editor of Ms. magazine at the time of Stewart’s sentencing for insider trading, suggested that there are some reasons to think otherwise.

    And yet, when I read Lina Morgenstern’s Illustriertes Universal-Kochbuch für Gefunde und Kranke, The Illustrated Universal Cookbook, I read it as a feminist tome. Containing thousands of recipes, Morgenstern’s opus was literally a work of art. Under her tutelage, even simple dishes, such as mayonnaise, are plated on platters and adorned with edible carvings that would make Martha green with envy. Pages upon pages of exquisite drawings portray not only the dishes but the variety of food stuff and kitchen tools. Morgenstern spares us no detail, there is a drawing of a pea splitting knife and a recipe for reindeer meat – though not native to Germany she did not want anyone to be unprepared. Like Stewart does today, Morgenstern presented an impossible vision of womanhood and set unattainable standards.

    Morgenstern wrote her cookbook in1886. She wrote it as part of a broader vision and mission of pushing the boundaries of women’s roles. Born in 1830, she was one of five daughters born to wealthy Jewishly observant family that stressed g’millut hassadim, good works. Her first public act, at age 18, was to establish a charity that would provide school supplies for children in need.

    Much like those who argued for women’s suffrage, she parlayed the limits placed on women –their caretaking capacity, their compassion –into reasons to enter new areas of activity and create new and varied instructions. Women were responsible for child care, so she opened the first Kindergartens in Berlin. Women were responsible for food preparation, so she open a cooking school to ensure true mastery. Women were responsible for the ill and poor, so she opened a soup kitchen. Women were meant to be patriotic but not fight in wars, so she cared for wounded soldiers. Women were expected to be proper managers of middle and upper class households, so she established Housewives associations at a time when the idea of women gathering in public was pushing the boundaries. Women were peaceful by nature so she became political activist.

    Morgenstern's Cookbook, cover, cover page, and example of illustrations

    Her cookbook was over the top. The very act of creating a larger than life book, which in hindsight I cannot help read with a touch of irony, highlighted the weightiness of the work women did in the home, the attention to detail and thought they put into something that might seem as simple as a meal. Additionally, at time when all the other cookbooks written by German Jewish women were committed to upholding kashrut, Morgenstern, who came from a traditionally family, broke with the rabbis and set forth a broader vision. She was willing to break traditional expectations.

    In many ways, Morgenstern’s life connects closely to that of ancient heroine of the Purim story. Esther used her very traditional role as a beauty queen & wife to change the course of history and so did Lina. So in my not so humble and outspoken opinion, Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts is not feminist, but Lina Morgenstern’s The Illustrated Universal Cookbook certainly is!

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

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  • In Praise of Grandma, Bubbe and Nona Superstitions

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

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