Tragedy and Community

May 7, 2013

The Friday after the Boston Marathon bombing, Cambridge was in lockdown. The official term was “shelter in place” – which means everyone stayed home, pretended to do work, but really just stared at the TV waiting for someone to tell us we could go outside.

Shabbat plans were in flux all day. I had invited people for Shabbat dinner, we had no idea if the “shelter in place” would end in time for them to come over, or if public transportation would start again, or if the shul would be open. Finally, after everyone had pretty much backed out of dinner, an hour before Shabbat they released the lockdown and my dinner plans were saved. As I sat by the front door of my building waiting for my guests to arrive, I read my new(ish) Rambam book, starting the section on Laws of Fast Days, which I thought would be boring. It started with:

It is a positive commandment of the Torah to publicly cry out [in prayer] and to sound the trumpets when any tragedy strikes the community, as it says “When you go to war in your land against an enemy who oppresses you, you shall sound the trumpets” (Bamidbar 10:9). [This commandment is not limited to war alone,] but whenever disaster strikes – including famine, plague, locusts or the like – we should cry out, praying to God, and sounding the trumpets. This is done to bring the people to do teshuvah. For when a tragedy occurs and people cry out to God, sounding trumpets, everyone understands that  [the tragedy] came about because of their sins, as it says “Your sins have withheld the bounty from you” (Yirmeyah 5:25). This will help to remove the calamity. If people don’t cry out and sound the trumpets, considering this calamity to be a natural occurrence, they are callous. [Their outlook] prompts them to keep up their sinful ways, thus bringing on themselves more tragedy.

As you can imagine this hit pretty close to home. But it seems to differ a lot from our actual practice. Where were the trumpets during this community tragedy?

The wording of this commandment seems to dictate a response like the one we saw from the Westboro Baptist Church, blaming the bombing on our sins. But I’m certainly not suggesting we as Jews should respond that way. What place does this commandment have in a world where we feel like we have a good understanding of cause and effect? We’re pretty sure that our sins don’t cause other people to bomb marathons.

But that’s not to say we can’t look at this as an opportunity to better ourselves, even if we don’t think this tragedy was caused by our sins. We all have room for improvement, room for teshuvah, and we’re all busy with our lives and forget about it. But maybe we still need the trumpets and need to see the tragedy as a reminder that we have work to do, on ourselves and on the world around us.


Seeing the Big Picture

May 5, 2013

On Friday I read this article about a woman suing Lancome because their 24 hour makeup didn’t last her through Shabbat. Here’s the gist:

The 24-hour claim was central to plaintiff’s purchase decision, as a long-lasting makeup assists with her dual objectives of compliance with religious law and enhancement to her natural appearance.

Court papers say Weisberg:

Is an Orthodox Jew and abides by Jewish law by not applying makeup from sundown on Friday until nighttime on Saturday. This means the makeup would have been crucial to helping her keep Jewish law, especially at major family occasions.

Specifically, plaintiff’s eldest son is having his bar mitzvah celebration in June and plaintiff was looking for a long-lasting foundation that would achieve the foregoing dual objectives over the bar mitzvah Sabbath.

My response:

  1. I can’t understand why this requires a lawsuit. I feel like any reasonable person would buy the makeup, try it, see it didn’t last 24 hours, and AT MOST ask for a refund.
  2. I don’t know why she had to publicly make this about Shabbat. It’s about a false advertising claim, not about Shabbat. All she’s done by bringing Judaism into it is made us all look like idiots (maybe she needs to take some tips from Chaya on xojane – just the tagline is enough).
  3. To me this is just an example of people focusing too much on the details of the prohibitions of Shabbat instead of just enjoying Shabbat. I find that on Shabbat when I’m around people who don’t keep Shabbat, it becomes this painful experience of thinking of things we can do that don’t violate Shabbat. But when I’m in my community with people who do keep Shabbat, we can enjoy Shabbat for what it is – a nice opportunity to take a break from all of the garbage on the internet and on TV and have some real meaningful interactions with friends and family. Maybe this woman needs to take a step back and think about the bigger picture of her son’s bar mitzvah – is it really about whether her makeup is going to last all day?

Does Tradition Make Judaism Illogical?

April 7, 2013

I have always been proud of the fact that Judaism seems to be a logical religion. By that I mean, once you’ve accepted some of the basic tenets   everything else kind of follows as a logical line of thought. As if talmudic rabbis were just mathematicians writing proofs. For example, I’ve been reading these excerpts from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, and I found all of the reasoning comfortingly logical. When there was a hole, I started to get frustrated only to realize Rambam addressed it in the next sentence. No holes in Rambam’s proofs.

But then we add this tradition element into the mix. Two day yom tov and kitniyot are good examples of this. There was definitely a good reason for two day yom tov back in the day – we couldn’t get messengers to far away places quickly enough for people to know which day the holiday should be, so they celebrated both days. But the reasoning doesn’t apply today (as I’ve talked about in previous posts). So what happened to the logical arguments of people like Rambam? Why can’t we just apply some logic to the two day yom tov problem and only celebrate the first day? The answer: tradition. We do all sorts of stuff that doesn’t make sense today, in the name of tradition. What does this say about our logical religion?


Reform Judaism is not Orthodox Judaism

January 6, 2013

The other day I read this post on Cross-currents and was just angry. To summarize, it’s about the fact that one can relatively quickly and cheaply become a rabbi online and what the implications of this are. The author describes the online rabbi process:

All you have to do is commit two or three hours a week (and $8000), and write a 2000 word paper at the end on “any Jewish topic” to prove you’ve learned something, and that’s it, you’re ready to be called Rabbi. And some of those rabbis are, says the Forward, claiming Conservative and Reform pulpits.

Then the author goes on to describe the point I was angry about:

Of course, what I find most intriguing about this article is the opening line: “Rabbi Eli Kavon’s colleagues don’t consider him a Rabbi.” All of a sudden, the liberal movements claim to have a standard! For over 200 years, they have insisted that their clergy should be recognized by Orthodox Rabbis as valid equals, despite the Orthodox carping about their piddling “standards” — items such as knowledge of Talmud and Jewish Law, or the belief that things like the Exodus actually took place. But now that the poor fellow who invested $100,000 in his JTS diploma can be replaced by a, wait for it, “nontraditional” Rabbi from Rabbinical Seminary International, Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, or even Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk — well now, that can’t be tolerated.

Now I have to take a step back and say some things about this. After spending a lot of time thinking about it, I think the Reform movement and the Orthodox movement just don’t understand each other. To start with, the author if this post on Cross-currents has already oversimplified by referring to “the liberal movements,” which just demonstrates to me that he doesn’t get what they are. In the past I’ve argued that Reform Judaism and the liberal end of Conservative Judaism are pretty much the same thing with a different style of services. I still think that’s largely true, but there’s one really big difference: treatment of halacha. With respect to halacha, the Reform experience is very different from the liberal end of Conservative, and even from liberal non-denominational.

I had a pretty involved Reform Jewish education as a kid, up until 10th grade. And still, I think I didn’t even hear the word halacha until after my bat mitzvah. Halacha is Just Not on the Radar in Reform Judaism. I capitalized “Just Not on the Radar” because I think this is an important concept that is at the crux of why the Reform movement and the Orthodox movement don’t understand each other. Sure, conceptually we all know that Reform Judaism doesn’t accept halacha as binding. But I don’t think people get what that actually means. Recently someone came to me with the question “if someone lights a menorah after Shabbat starts, do you say amen to the blessing?” Someone else answered “I would encourage them to do it before Shabbat starts.” In my opinion, that answer is just an example of how people don’t understand Reform Judaism. In Reform Judaism, keeping Shabbat in that manner is Just Not on the Radar. Reform Jews who haven’t had exposure to Judaism outside of the Reform movement don’t know what you’re talking about. They might light Shabbat candles every week, when they sit down to Shabbat dinner, and have no concept about not lighting fires after Shabbat “starts.” There is no concept of Shabbat “starts” at a particular minute. It’s not that they’ve been told about the laws of Shabbat and don’t care – those laws don’t exist in their world of Judaism. They have been taught to light Shabbat candles with dinner and no one has ever even introduced them to the idea that there could be anything wrong with that. If you “encourage” them to light candles earlier, they won’t understand why you want this. It’s Just Not on the Radar.

Admittedly I don’t have a lot of experience with Conservative Judaism. My impression is that halacha is at least somewhat taught even when it’s not stressed very much, but I could be wrong.

The other side is that I don’t think Reform Jews necessarily fully understand what it means to accept halacha. Orthodox Judaism isn’t just Reform Judaism where everyone chooses to practice in a more traditional manner. When I first came to be part of a more traditional community, I was frustrated when I would Google some question and see people posting on message boards where the conclusion was just “ask your local Orthodox rabbi.” I thought Orthodox Jews were all sheeple – why couldn’t they do some research and decide something for themselves? Why did they always have to consult their rabbis? I had no idea that the texts that halacha is based on were so immense. I had no concept of the size of the Talmud and the Mishna and how much intense study it takes to digest everything. I always wanted to go look everything up – in Reform Judaism, if you’re going to look something up, it’s Torah. And people can own copies of the entire text of the Torah. I had no idea about anything beyond the Torah. And I certainly didn’t understand that the way the Orthodox practice was based on interpreting hundreds of years worth of texts, not just a snap decision made by the Orthodox movement to keep it more traditional.

So I think the big miscommunication here is that both sides just don’t get it about the role of halacha. Reform Jews get upset when their conversions aren’t recognized by Orthodox Jews – but why would they be, if they’re not halachic? Reform Jews want their rabbis recognized by the Orthodox movement – but their rabbis don’t study halacha! I think the Orthodox don’t want Reform rabbis just as much as Reform Jews wouldn’t want Orthodox rabbis – Reform Jews don’t want a rabbi to tell them what they have to do or can’t do. On the other hand, it seems like some Orthodox Jews (like the one who wrote this post in Cross-currents) think that just because the liberal movements don’t use halacha as their standard, they don’t have any standards at all. Which also doesn’t make sense, if you understand that halacha has a completely different role in liberal Judaism.


Adam, Eve, and Gender Inequality

October 20, 2012

Last week we read parshat bereisheet, where God creates the world. We also hear the story of Adam and Eve – God creates Adam and Eve and puts them in the Garden of Eden with the Tree of Knowledge, which they are instructed not to eat from. The snake then persuades Eve to eat from the tree, and she gives some of the fruit to Adam. In response, God  first speaks to the snake, saying “Because you have done this, accursed are you beyond all the cattle and beyond all the beasts of the field; upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14). I guess we are to assume that previously, the snake had legs, and its punishment is having to slither around. God then speaks to Eve, saying “I will greatly increase your suffering and your childbearing; in pain shall you bear children. Yet your craving shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). I find the last sentence somewhat perplexing. One interpretation is that “he shall rule over you” is only in the scope of craving and sexual desire, not life in general. Particularly as a response to painful childbirth – women may want to avoid having children because childbirth is painful, but they are doomed to still be interested in men.

But if we look at the world today – a world where women are just starting to make progress in terms of equal footing with men – it makes me think “he shall rule over you” is intended to be more general. Maybe God is saying “it didn’t have to be this way.” Maybe God intended that men and women would be equal, and then the plan changed when Eve ate from the tree.

So this begs the question – where did gender inequality come from? Is this verse a curse or a command? In other words, did God curse us with gender inequality or does God command it (note that when I say gender inequality I mean more along the lines of “binders full of women” – male domination, discrimination, unequal pay, things like that)? What will this curse or command mean if our society reaches a point where women really are treated with as much respect as men?


Bad Jews

September 4, 2012

I’ve for awhile been wanting to write a post about bad Jews. I was reminded of this when I mentioned to my manager that we are approaching the season with all of the Jewish holidays. He responded “I love this season, because it reminds me of how bad of a Jew I am.” (I in turn responded with a mini version of this post)

My existence tends to make people at work claim they feel like bad Jews (I don’t think they actually mean this – I think they say this as some sort of quick way to explain to me that they are not as traditionally observant as I am). I for the most part don’t believe in the “bad Jew” concept, especially as non-observant Jews apply it to themselves. I think that you’re only a “bad Jew” if there is a large discrepancy between how it’s meaningful for you to practice Judaism and how you actually practice Judaism. This tends to not be true for a lot of people – most people do things that are meaningful for them. If traditional observance isn’t meaningful for you, I don’t think you should do it and I don’t think you should feel bad about it.

My view on Judaism (and religion in general) is that Judaism is one of many possible paths to the things that really matter – repairing the world, morality, righteousness, etc. Even within Judaism there are so many paths to get to those things. Moral people who contribute positively to the world shouldn’t have to feel like “bad Jews” because they aren’t traditionally observant.

On the other hand, in some ways everyone is a  bad Jew. There’s always room for improvement, and now (as we approach the high holidays) is the time to think about it.


Women in Orthodox Judaism

July 7, 2012

I recently read an article about feminism and Orthodox Judaism: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-shmuel-herzfeld/feminism-and-orthodoxy_b_1637494.html. The part that stuck out to me is the following:

A recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in Atlantic Monthly, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” has provoked much commentary as it questions whether it is really possible for women to have it all, and by that she means an uncompromisingly ambitious professional career and a full family life.

Orthodox Judaism reflects this point by teaching that there is a difference between the ritual obligations of men and of women. Thus, women are exempt from some positive commandments that are time-bound (like, for example, sitting in a Sukkah on the holiday of Sukkot) and are obligatory only for men. Many have understood this exemption to be reflective of the fact that women should not be forced to do it all and can choose whether to be in synagogue more often or with their family, whereas men have a greater obligation to participate in religious rituals.

I’m ok with the part about women not being forced to do it all. There seem to be parts of raising a family that naturally fall on the woman despite feminist objections (breastfeeding, etc) and it’s nice to know that maybe I’m allowed a break from going to shul because I have other responsibilities. But it seems like in practice that’s not really how it works. In practice, men have to go to shul and the women don’t necessarily get a choice – they’re stuck at home doing whatever needs to be done. For example, while you can cook on Yom Tov, you can only cook for the current day. So should you celebrate a second day of Yom Tov, you can’t cook for the second day until the second day. So let’s think about a typical schedule for two days of Yom Tov:

Day 1:

Evening (starting at maybe 8pm for a holiday like Shavuot): Eat dinner

Morning: Go to shul

Afternoon: Eat lunch, free time until dinner

Day 2:

Evening (starting at 9, until 9ish it’s still day 1): Eat dinner

Morning: Go to shul

Afternoon: Eat lunch

When do you cook for lunch on the  second day? It seems natural to do it during your free time in the afternoon on the first day. But you can’t! So that leaves three options: 1) Cook before Yom Tov, 2-3 days ahead. 2) Raw food for lunch. 3) Man goes to shul in the morning, woman stays home and cooks.

This annoyance dawned on me during Shavuot this year, so I asked some friends how they get around this (specifically couples where both parties want to go to shul). Common answers: “It’s a problem” and “We don’t host lunch on the 2nd day.”

So really it seems to me like the fact that women are not obligated for positive time bound mitzvot just ends up throwing more work on them instead of less.

The article goes on to describe two types of feminism:

She explains that there are two primary models of feminism today that women feel strongly about. There is difference feminism and there is equality feminism. Those women who pursue equality feminism are trying to say that men and women need to be equal in every aspect of their lives. Whatever men do, women can and should do. The rallying cry for this approach is “equal opportunity and equal access.” In contrast, difference feminism argues that men and women have different roles and women should not try to mimic the roles of men. It argues that a woman who does not desire to live like a man is no less a feminist.

The author then describes how Orthodox Judaism has used both of these approaches, citing Torah study as an example of equality feminism and prayer services as an example of difference feminism, and adds

I believe that a rabbinic consensus is emerging in the Orthodox world that Orthodox congregations should follow a third path, which is to use halakhah as the guide for understanding when it is appropriate to follow difference feminism versus equality feminism.

I personally don’t always hugely care about halacha. I am interested in being able to practice traditional Judaism to the point / in the ways that seem appropriate to me. In terms of the gender issue, I am most interested in people respecting me regardless of gender, which I generally feel is the case in my community, whether or not people are completely egalitarian. I’m not all that interested in stepping on people’s toes about gender and halacha. For example, I have friends who won’t daven anywhere with a mechitza. While I’m not sure about making a shul with a mechitza the place where I regularly daven, I don’t find it objectionable. However I will not daven in a place where I feel like I’m not respected or taken seriously because I’m a woman. So from that perspective I can go along with this mix of difference feminism and equality feminism.

However sometimes I feel like Judaism is working against me when I follow the equality feminism approach, even when it’s not in violation of halacha.  I work full time, and intend to do so when I get married and start a family. But the kosher grocery store here is only open until 6pm on Mondays and Tuesdays. To me the hours of that grocery store are like a slap in the face, the grocery store saying to me “You’re not supposed to have a job! You’re supposed to stay home with the kids and be able to go to the grocery store during the day!”

In this post I’ve jumped to some conclusions about the way gender works in practice, but that’s just from my perspective / experience (which is pretty limited). Feel free to comment / argue with me about anything I said that sounds ridiculous given your experience.