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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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  • Gilad Shalit vs. Pessimism

    Posted on September 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I find this time of year hard, really hard –as I feel I should. Returning year on year to the same list of sins and faults, taking account of what I have done and more likely not done in the last year, and wondering about my own mortality weighs heavily on my heart. They are powerful and potent, not entered into lightly. Last year I was able to get behind the idea of real change, seeing possibilities and renewal. This year, less so. My communities have been struck by too much cancer, too much financial hardship, too many broken relationships for me to truly believe as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

    This pessimistic view lingered through the rabbi’s sermons –which were both hopeful, and through the family time, and the joyful communal meals into the first days of the New Year. I was not happy with this state of affairs but no amount of meditation, prayer or spiritual conversation was bringing about a change.

    But one never knows from where strength will come.

    Gilad Shalit

    Gilad Shalit

    On Wednesday, I chanced on a tweet by Reuven Werber, recommending Gilad Shalit’s message for the New Year. Like so many who followed Shalit’s ordeal and reveled in his release, I was curious to know what Shalit would share. He describes this past year, one which has been truly one of renewal. He writes about the exceptional moments like being a guest at the NBA and the mundane moments walking the streets and being recognized or even occasionally anonymously. His optimism is profound.

     

    “During the past year and the previous years in I have learned to look at things from a different perspective. In general, I try to see the glass as half full, and this is also what I wish for the people and the State of Israel. People can suddenly find themselves in extreme situations or unexpected crises. I believe people should prepare themselves mentally for the possibility that such situations may arise. Even if they are not certain what they are preparing for, they should be aware that things can change dramatically at any given moment. This awareness helps people cope with such changes.

    If and when such an extreme situation arises, you must deal with it as calmly as possible and avoid doing things you will regret later. You must overcome.”

    The cynic in me wanted to dismiss this as naïveté, but the reality of Shalit’s survival and his strength suggest something significantly more profound. If the liturgy is remote and abstract Shalit’s words are embodied in the particular and the clearly horrific. The context and experience that frames these words gives them exceptional meaning and power. Shalit’s words resonate with the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s research that suggests that optimism is essential for longevity and the ability to flourish in life. Shalit’s words resonate with the wisdom of Rabbi Nachman.

    But Nachman battled to find the joy and meaning in life, it did not always come readily to him. It is easy to be an optimist when times are good, the economy strong, the sun shining, our bodies healthy, our communities strong. Much harder to achieve is the ability to hope in face of difficulty, to see possibilities even when the world seems closed off.

    But Shalit’s optimism is no blind vision. As he explains, “Faith can help of course, but it must be accompanied by an awareness of reality.”

    As I enter into Yom Kippur I will bring with me Shalit’s words. They are my prayer for myself, for all of us, that we may remain optimistic in face of our realities that may not be changeable in discernable ways, for that is the place from which renewal is possible.

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  • Educating the Modern Rabbi: A Conversation with Michael Marmur

    Posted on August 29th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    The New Year is nearly upon us and this means that the new school year is also beginning. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting with Michael Marmur, Vice President from Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College to talk about educating the modern rabbi. -your editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Pictured from left to right: Tonya, trip translator; Sarah Fishman, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; Jaqui McCabe, HUC-JIR education student; Yael Rooks-Rapport, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; and Rabbi Misha Kapustin, leading Seder in Simferopol, in the Crimea region of the Ukraine.

    RAM: One of your main roles as Vice President for Academic Affairs is overseeing the training of rabbis. When the College opened in 1873, the goal was to train leaders for the realities of a new kind of Jewish community that was emerging in the United States. How does the College-Institute today envision the role it plays in educating rabbis?

     

    MM: The Rabbinical school curriculum is poised between different and sometimes competing desiderata. One, of course, is providing a basis of knowledge and the skills necessary to access the texts and concepts that a rabbi needs in every situation. These skills are essential to whatever a rabbi does and provide a critical foundation. Another element of the curriculum is the acquisition of practical tools that the rabbis need to survive and thrive. Yet another is the development of spiritual sensitivity and the inner life. From yet another angle, we want our rabbis to be engaged in the great moral and social issues of the day, and to be acquainted with the changing face of the Jewish community. Trying to balance these and other considerations is both complicated and exciting work.

     

    RAM: It is fair to say that we are currently experience a period of significant change in the Jewish world. Is this new reality changing the way the College-Institute educates its students?

     

    MM: First off, it is important to note that curriculum is always a few years behind the world it serves, and this is not accidental. If we were to teach our students just based on current trends or predictions it would be laughable. If we took a look at the predictions made over the years we know that many of them turned out to be quite wrong. That having been said, there is always a need for change. The days when you could assume (if it was ever right to assume)  that you would be ordained and start off as an assistant in a congregation, then graduate to become the senior rabbi in another larger congregations are over. It will be the story for some of our graduates but by no means for all of them. We can’t even assume that those who do get to the big pulpits will do so by following this path. Take Andy Bachman whose work with Brooklyn Jews and on campus was outside the congregation and now leads a congregation, or Rachael Bregman in Atlanta who works for The Temple but whose rabbinate is outside the walls of the Temple.

     

    RAM: So how is the College-Institute helping address this shift?

     

    MM: We are trying to educate ourselves about the changes which are taking place “out there” on the field.  We are in conversations with Hillel, for example, about what needs to happen in the consciousness and expectations of our students which will make them the kind of Hillel rabbis that they want to be. We are looking at changes taking place within the traditional congregations where the majority of our alumni still serve, and outside those traditional frameworks too. While continuing to fulfill our traditional role, we want to broaden our self-understanding. Our job is to serve Jews where they are while building models of where they yet might be.

     

    RAM: Does this mean changing the curriculum?

    Dr. Michael Marmur Vice President for Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

    MM: Yes and no. We are now offering classes in areas which were not prominent in our curriculum – there are good examples to be found on each of our campuses. If you look at new possibilities in service learning, spirituality, management and leadership training at the College-Institute happening right now, I think you will be surprised and impressed.Our students spend time reflecting on their roles as leaders and grappling with issues such as intermarriage,  so that they have given the issue significant thought before they are faced with real decisions to be made. More and more students are given the opportunity to integrate their learning with the lives waiting for them “out there”. But at the same time, the more uncertain the scene the prospects becomes the greater the need to shore up core competencies. The where and why people want a rabbi might be changing a great deal but they still need the rabbi to know Jewish texts, to be a tradent of Jewish tradition. Without real knowledge and understanding of that core material the rabbi is ill equipped to be flexible as the settings demand. Folks need rabbis who are equipped with timely tools, but also rabbis who relate to timeless truths. And the very finest examples of people involved in congregational transformation and community engagement model this blend of capacities and passions.

     

    RAM: Are there limits to what can and should be taught?

     

    MM: Of course. There is a strong core of knowledge that one needs to become a rabbi but there are things that just need to be learned in the field and one only knows what those are going to be when you encounter them. For example, we want every graduate to know how to hold a balance sheet and read a budget but a specific course in new trends in bookkeeping is only going to be of use to a certain subset of experienced professionals.

     

    There has always been a range of opinions in the school about the personal and spiritual dimensions of being a rabbi. The founders of the school may have wondered if we are willing and able to tackle these aspects. Many of us now are aware that we cannot ignore them. There are interesting initiatives in the College-Institute which relate to these dimensions too.

     

    We have recently generated an interesting document listing the learning outcomes our faculty is looking for in our students. It is a challenging and stimulating list, and yet I am sure we have left many of the intangible things off the list. If our students come away with a sense of privilege at the opportunity to spend a life of service and Torah, and a wish to use and improve the tools they have been provided with, our work has not been in vain.

     

    RAM: Any final words going into the new school year?

     

    MM: To all our students, faculty, staff and of course our alumni, may it be a year of learning and growth. Shannah Tovah.

     

     

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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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  • The Power of Gratitude

    Posted on July 9th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    By: Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A simple street scene glimpsed on the early morning commute. A woman in her forties dressed in a sari, a gentleman in jeans and a collared shirt pressed up by her side. A rolling suitcase stood on the sidewalk nearby. A few feet away two young women in western dress milled about one of them fiddling with a camera, reading to capture the scene.

    Stopped at a red light, I watched for a moment. Driving off I knew that while it was just one of thousands of mundane moments that I had already experienced that morning, there was no denying that something important had happened.

    The concept of gratitude is fundamental to Jewish life and practice. The miracle of opening the eyes deserves a prayer of thanksgiving, as does our ability to put our feet on the floor and going to the bathroom. Following the structures of our liturgy, much of life becomes worthy of gratitude. Gratitude is powerful stuff.

    When I was in 9th grade, my mother went back to school, I moved from a tiny Jewish school to large public school, and my family prepared to move to a different city. I was miserable. Each night, my mother would make me make a list of the things that had gone well that day- my sandwich was not soggy, I finished my math homework with ease, walking home before the rain started. My mother is not a religious woman but she was studying psychology. Positive psychology knows the power of gratitude. As Martin Seligman writes in Flourish, “gratitude will raise your well being and lower your depression.”

    I know this power. Three years ago, I arrived with my family in San Francisco after two challenging years in the Midwest. The sea air, extraordinary vistas and mild climate could not change the difficulties of the past, but the appreciation of the miracles around me made it possible for me to heal some of the scars. I can tell the difference between the mornings when I wake my children with urgent cries to hurry and those I when I wake them with the prayer of thanksgiving followed by a personalized appreciation of my child. On the former, there is tension, on the latter there is harmony –and either way we manage to get out in time.

    There is much in our lives that we often fail to appreciate – and for the most part my gratitude practice helps me noticing those things. But the lady in the sari was different. With the exception of the sari, which was a bold contrast of gold and maroon, there was nothing remarkable about what I saw that morning. Yet throughout the day my mind returned to that moment, to the wonder I had felt in witnessing that moment. Having seen those people standing there, doing nothing that demanded my attention, somehow opened me. The rest of my day was similarly unremarkable and yet throughout I felt profound awareness and sense of awe.

    Both my spiritual study partner and my husband, having heard my story, sought a meaning in what I had seen. But I could uncover none intrinsic to what I had seen. For all I know this was a sad moment in the life of these people a moment of departure. Likewise it could have been a positive moment. But the meaning it had to them was not apparent to me. For me I simply felt blessed to have be able to witness what I did, where I did, for no reason in particular.

    Skeptics often wonder why God needs so much praise. In my experience, it is not about God’s need but rather our own. Most of the prayers of thanksgiving are directed at things that we simply take for granted. Likewise for most of the things on the lists I used to make with my mother. But it is daily noticing that which often is left unenjoyed that I credit for enabling me to be grateful for that scene. There was nothing that I ought to have been grateful at that moment nor was it remarkable in any way. Yet I was profoundly glad for having noticed and taken it in –just because it was. Witnessing and valuing the scene created a sense of openness in me, equanimity that allowed me to be present in an extraordinary way for the rest of the day. And for that too, I am grateful

    This post originally appeared on MyJewishLearning.com

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  • God and the Holocaust

    Posted on June 26th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    The Holocaust poses particular challenges when it comes to theology. For this week’s guest author, Rabbi Phil Cohen, these questions have been on his mind for a long time. – editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Back in my days in the New York school I gave a presentation on the subject of post-Holocaust theology in Eugene Borowitz’s Jewish thought class.  It was 1980, and the subject had been on the table for perhaps a bit more than a decade and a half, with many serious voices weighing in on the subject of God and the Six Million.

    My study of the topic brought me to the provisional conclusion that the Shoah was caused by people, that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their many fellow travelers in both East and West Europe was just that, evil perpetrated by human beings.  My theology, I thought, did not include the question of God’s failure to intervene in the violence, because my image of God did not allow for God to intervene into our affairs at all.  God “does” other things, but not that.

    Author: Rabbi Phil Cohen

    But in a low level way the subject persisted to enter my thinking from time to time.  Then I read an essay by Michael Wyschogrod in which he said, “There has crept into our consciousness a profound anger at God, and this  anger is shared by all Jews even those who will not permit this anger to become  conscious.”  (Contemporary Jewish Theology: a reader, p.247)  I took this anger as being related to the Shoah.  So I called Prof. Wyschogrod and inquired of him if a) the statement was directed at the Holocaust, and b) if he still held to the statement.  The answer to both was “yes”.  “How could a Jew think about the Holocaust and not wonder why the Kodosh Baruch hu didn’t do something?”

    His statement and our brief conversation prodded me to think anew about what is at stake with the dilemma of God and the Shoah.  If we are to deny God’s ability to redeem in Auschwitz, then the liberation paradigm of the rescue at the Sea, which informs so much of our Jewish religious culture, loses meaning. We lose the dynamism of covenant, which, however interpreted, always entails a mutuality of relationship between God and the Jewish people.   We lose chosenness, a idea partnered with covenant, the belief that, somehow, the Jews and God have historically had, one might say, a privileged relationship. But perhaps most was encased in the sentiment voiced by Michael Wyschogrod, that asks how God could have not stopped the brutality.

    Now, this is not to say that these historic features of Jewish belief about God ought to be maintained at all costs simply because they have a role in Jewish thought. Indeed, Richard Rubenstein, who is to be credited with bringing this topic to public discussion in 1966 with his famous work After Auschwitz, loudly declared the death of the God of history.  On the other hand, the continuity of Jewish theology could be maintained by Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, who blamed Liberal Judaism and Zionism for bringing God’s wrath upon the Jewish People.  Similarly, the English Reform Rabbi, Ignaz Maybaum, saw in the Shoah God’s hand bringing the entire world into a new and better phase of human existence through the suffering of the Jews.

    I find myself caught on the horns of this dilemma.  I cannot for various reasons accept Rubenstein’s blanket declaration, nor can I see a divine purpose, punitive (Teitelbaum) or otherwise (Maybaum), in the Shoah.  However, I do like Irving Greenberg’s dialectical thinking that post-Holocaust Jewry’s consciousness sways between two poles.  On the one pole rests absolute evil and through it we viscerally experience the absence of the divine.  On the other side lies the state of Israel, no compensation for the events of 1933-45, nonetheless an experience of deep meaning for Jewish existence, in which religious people see God’s presence.  Negativity and positivity with the Jewish people swinging back and forth between them, occasionally perilously.

    And then there’s Wyschogrod’s statement that all Jews bear an anger toward God.  I’m less interested in whether the statement is true than that is carries in it some truth: many people knowingly or unknowingly bear an animus toward God.  That’s important and interesting enough.

    I have no satisfactory conclusion here except to say that just as the Shoah hangs over us in so many other ways, the predicament of God and Auschwitz, for me, will likely never be resolved.


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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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  • Freedom Rides: From Atlanta to Jerusalem

    Posted on March 15th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Freedom Ride -taken with hidden camera from the IRAC

    This week we have the honor of Rabbi Leigh Lerner’s experience riding the buses for civil rights in Israel. Rabbi Lerner is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth-Shalom in Montreal. He is on sabbatical in Jerusalem and volunteering time with the IRAC on their Freedom Ride project.

    “Git to the front of the bus, bwah, or else!”  That was the end of my first freedom ride, but I was only 13, just a kid boarding the bus from downtown Atlanta to Buckhead.  Segregation reigned in 1958 Atlanta, and having arrived from the integrated north, I just knew it was wrong and wanted to make a statement, so I sat in the “colored” section on that Peachtree St. trolley.  The driver would have none of it and threatened to throw me bodily off the vehicle.

    Author Rabbi Leigh Lerner

    Author- Rabbi Leigh Lerner

    Now flash to Jerusalem, 2012 – 5772, and a different kind of freedom ride.  Come aboard an Egged bus in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox section dotted with yeshivot and a perfect copy of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s home in Brooklyn.  Buses in this area of Jerusalem and in many other areas of Israel had, over the last 12 years, become segregated: women in the back and bidden to enter by the back door, and men in the front.  “Mehadrin” bus lines grew to 50 in number, despite the ill-feeling they engendered.

    Anat Hoffman

    Anat Hoffman

    Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, brought the law suit that re-integrated Israel’s buses, but on January 12, Anat, James Cherney, a URJ board member from Chicago, and I took a short ride to make sure the law was being obeyed and to open the front of the bus to Haredi women.Anat sat in one of 4 seats facing each other in the front of the bus.  Except for three women, every female either boarded from the back and remained there, or boarded from the front and went to the back.  Both ends of the bus became quite full, but not a single Haredi man would occupy any of the 3 seats in the vicinity of Anat Hoffman.
    One woman boarded the bus and sat by Anat, who exchanged a hello with her.  She stayed in that seat for one precious minute, then went to the back.  Why?  Did she sit there to make a statement momentarily?  Or did she lose courage and resign herself to the back, as all the men around her expected her to do?
    Another woman rode but three stops.  She stayed near the back door, which is just before the women’s section, then left with her heavy case.  A third woman boarded with a stroller and stood in a space at the back of the “men’s” section, where Egged provides extra space.  It was a double stroller, and she needed the room.
    When Anat, Jim Cherney and I left the bus, the area where Anat had been seated filled quickly with black hatted men.
    Segregation exists in Jerusalem.  Until IRAC won its case, it existed with the assent of the government, the very government that subsidizes the bus companies.  Now it is sustained by social pressure.  Still, many Haredi women bless IRAC for opening the front of the bus to them again.  Only by sitting where we please will Jerusalemites and other Israelis keep their buses integrated.  Separate can never be equal.
    Be a freedom rider yourself.  When you visit Jerusalem, take 2 hours of a morning to hear IRAC’s story and ride a Jerusalem bus as an observer.  Your eyes will open not only to parts of Jerusalem the tour buses never go, but to people, issues, and struggles that too often remain hidden from our view of the Jewish State of Israel.

     

    Postscript: For those interested in support the IRAC effort, Rabbi Lerner adds the following note -Commitment is really just for the time period — takes about 2 hours to 2.5 hours, which involves prep talk, getting to bus stop in one of the outer ring Haredi neighborhoods, riding the bus into the city, taking a cab back to IRAC, meeting for 30 minutes to debrief and get further legal background.  Cost is 6.30 shekels, about $1.50, for the bus ride, and usually IRAC takes care of everything, including cab back. It is very safe.  If there’s a problem on the bus, the IRAC person will handle it, and problems do not involve actual physical threats, but sometimes shaking of seats, being told to go to back of bus, several individuals standing over a woman and glaring at her.  Of course they don’t sit near her themselves.  These things do happen, but not that often, and IRAC personnel know what to do.  We’re hoping that people will talk/write about their experience in their congregational blogs or bulletins, etc., and tell what IRAC is doing to keep buses integrated and make sure that “unser yidn,” liberal Jews, secular Israelis, etc. can sit wherever they please in public transport and at public meetings.

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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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  • Is Pride Really a Deadly Sin?

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

     

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