Listen up!

I’m happy to announce (after recovering from Thanksgiving) that rabbi school is done and I’ve been officially installed as the rabbi at Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

As part of the graduation/ordination process, which occurred during Shabbat services on November 10, 2017 at the Birmingham Temple (the founding congregation of Humanistic Judaism), I gave a talk, which you can watch below:

The talks of three madrikhim/ot (a lay leadership/para-rabbinic leadership program) graduates, another rabbinical ordination, and a posthumous honorary ordination, can also be viewed.

The following weekend, I was installed at Machar. I gave a talk there, too, and if the video worked as planned, hopefully I’ll be able to post that, too.

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Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

A Stumbling Block

So, there’s a joke that’s funny to rabbis and cantors (and almost no one else!) that their favorite day is Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new month) Cheshvan, the first day of the second month of the Jewish calendar year. Why? Because Cheshvan has no holidays–finally, a break!

Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan is on Saturday. 🙂 Not that I haven’t been or won’t be busy. Just that, you know, it’s a little bit lighter of a schedule in theory.

More seriously: presently the US social and political system is in a state of ongoing chaos, and it’s definitely the case that there are so many serious issues to address in an urgent manner that you can experience decision fatigue just trying to figure out where to place your efforts, or you can spend your time jumping from issue to issue and gaining little traction. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I have another issue for you to be aware of.

Let’s talk about stumbling blocks.

Leviticus 19:14 conveys as a law for Israelites, “and before the blind (Heb. v’lifnei ivver) do not put a stumbling block.” Thus, in Jewish tradition, this principle is called lifnei ivver. The rabbinic tradition takes this principle and expands it beyond its literal meaning to include cases of deception based on bad information. Rashi explains lifnei ivver to mean that one should not put a stumbling block “before the person who is blind with respect to the [particular] matter: do not give him improper advice. Do not say, sell me your land and take for yourself an ass: for you are skirting around him and taking it [the field] from him.” In a sense, then, the rabbinic tradition regarded the plain sense of lifnei ivver as being completely obvious. Of course you don’t put a stumbling block before someone who is actually blind; the Torah doesn’t bother with the completely obvious stuff. It must, they thought, mean something deeper.

And now, let’s talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Enacted during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the law placed affirmative obligations upon (among others) places of public accommodation to ensure that their premises and services were accessible to individuals with various forms of disability. This was to be done by means of “reasonable accommodation.” Heaven and earth need not be moved, but reasonable steps must be taken to ensure access.

How does one make sure this happens, since the federal government wasn’t going to send out inspectors to measure ramps, assess sound levels, test gas pumps, etc.? One of the enforcement mechanisms in the ADA permits lawsuits by individuals affected by the failure to provide reasonable accommodation. The fact of inaccessibility, together with proof that there were no reasonable accommodations made, is enough to succeed in many of these cases. The ADA permits the payment of attorney fees for the plaintiff who succeeds in such cases, but otherwise no damages are assessed; instead, the business is required by the court to remedy the situation.

But that was 1990, and this is 2017.

This year, Representative Poe (TX), with several others, has introduced H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. (See bill details here.) I’ve read it so that you don’t have to. It would amend the ADA to bar a lawsuit unless notice has been provided and a fixed period of time (60 days after notice for a reply, plus another 60 days for implementation of an accommodation) has passed without compliance by the possible defendant.

Understand precisely what this does. This kills an enforcement mechanism of the 1990 law.

“Why?,” one might ask. “After all, it’s giving the business a chance to fix the problem.”

Here is what the notice must be: “written notice specific enough to allow such owner or operator to identify the barrier.” And from the date of the notice, the owner or operator can’t be sued unless they “fail to provide [within 60 days of the notice] … a written description outlining improvements that will be made to remove the barrier,” or “fail[] to remove the barrier or to make substantial progress in removing the barrier” within 120 days after the notice.

Questions to ask:

  • How specific is specific enough? What does “identify” mean? What does “barrier” mean? (In case you’re wondering, the law doesn’t actually define “barrier,” and ordinarily uses “barrier” in conjunction with physical or institutional features of premises.)
  • What kind of description outlines improvements? Is a written statement of, “Yeah, we’ll take care of that” enough? What does “outlining” mean?
  • What is “substantial progress”? And if you start, do you have to finish? Or can you point to your progress and stop there?

So, let’s sum up: your average person is not going to be able to meet a lot of these requirements. They need a lawyer to make that happen in many cases.

Lawyers usually want to get paid so they and their families can eat. Under the ADA, the lawyer gets paid in a successful suit or – only if the client has money – because the client pays out of pocket.

And now, here are hundreds, and maybe thousands of dollars of legal work that has to be done on spec, because lots of persons with disabilities don’t have money to pay a lawyer.

So, we have 1) delays, 2) inability to hire lawyers, and 3) a law drafted so poorly that maybe nothing ever really has to be fixed.

In any case, I think Sen. Tammy Duckworth has it right:

This offensive legislation would segregate the disability community, making it the only protected class under civil rights law that must rely on “education” — rather than strong enforcement — to guarantee access to public spaces.

Take the time to read her op-ed, as she explains how unnoticeable differences become stumbling blocks that she didn’t recognize and never would have – until she herself became a person with a disability.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and legislators who no doubt parade their adherence to “biblical principles” are sponsors of this bill. Rep. Poe, the principal sponsor, “is a student of the Bible, and loves the Old Testament.”

Leviticus 19:14 is in “the Old Testament.” Perhaps Rep. Poe forgot? Or perhaps Rep. Poe and others care more about business’s desires than individual persons’ needs.

What can you do? You can contact your representatives and the members of the House Judiciary Committee and, if you oppose this bill, let them know.

And there you go: no break for Cheshvan.

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons"

“Give Us an Inheritance”: Patriarchy and the Five Daughters of Zelophehad

I had reason recently to read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Number 27 and 35, and…

I lost you right there, didn’t I? Because you’re thinking, “Zelo…who? I can’t even say that.” (Ze-lof-e-had. Now you can say it.)

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from

The Daughters of Zelophehad from “The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons”

Right, so, back to his daughters.

In Numbers 27, we find a story in which Zelophehad has died without any sons, but with five daughters–Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. No surviving sons poses a problem for inheritance purposes: who gets the land if there are no sons but there are daughters? Israelite law is constructed around inheritance through sons, after all.

Zelophehad’s daughters go to the tent of meeting (we’re still in the wilderness here–this is before the story of crossing the Jordan River in the book of Joshua) and, we are told, say to Moses and Elazar (this is also after Aaron’s death, and Elazar is his son and successor), “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the group that rebelled against Yahweh–among Korach’s group. He died on account of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from among his family [i.e., his specific tribe] because he didn’t have a son?! Give us an inheritance among our father’s brothers.” In other words: our father died, but our family shouldn’t disappear–so give us the portion of land our father would have received.

Continue reading

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

Finding Hope, a Rosh Hashanah Sermon

(Written as a Rosh Hashanah sermon at Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism; delivery slightly different from the written product. Who doesn’t improvise a little?!)

I’ve become convinced that there’s a Leonard Cohen lyric that can work in almost any situation—especially for a pessimist like me. One of Cohen’s last songs—the title track to his last album—speaks to an absent god through the words of the Kaddish and at each chorus asks, “You want it darker? We kill the flame.”

The last year took it upon itself to act out those words.

Charlottesville reminded us that antisemitism never really went away.

Racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and nearly every other prejudice we can name have found new strength. Even as ocean levels rise, understanding and acceptance of climate science continue to fall. Public discourse on almost any issue is as hostile as many of us ever remember it.

Charlottesville reminded us that antisemitism never really went away. A recent data set from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, shows hate crimes nationwide rose about 5 percent from 2015 to 2016—with Washington, D.C., alone seeing a rise of 62%. 2017 looks to be as bad or worse. White supremacism is alive and is doing far too well.

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

Capitol at Dusk by Martin Farbisoner – CC BY-SA 3.0

And now here we are, only a little more than a month after Charlottesville at the High Holidays. These days are called, in Hebrew, Yamim Nora’im—the days of awe. The nora part of that means awe, but it also means fear. And fear is a pretty good description of how many of us feel about the current state of affairs.

“You want it darker? We kill the flame.”

I told you I’m a pessimist!

Continue reading

Photo of a page of the Worms Machzor, with the Aramaic word "Kol" very large and the rest of the Kol Nidre text below

Where Will You Be in 5778?

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will soon be upon us. Where are you spending your holidays?

Photo of a page of the Worms Machzor, with the Aramaic word "Kol" very large and the rest of the Kol Nidre text below

Kol Nidre in the Worms Machzor

If you’re in the Washington, D.C., area, you have options. One of them is to spend them with me at Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Tickets (right-click or tap-and-hold to open in a new window or tab) are affordable compared to many other congregations, and if you’re a secular Jew, you can say what you believe and believe what you say! There are family-oriented services for families with children, and Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur day will each feature a different speaker. We also will be conducting a Tashlikh service on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah.

If you live elsewhere and are interested in a secular or humanistic way to celebrate the High Holidays, stop by the websites for the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations to find a community near you.

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

Name Change

Yesterday, the question was, “What’s in a Name?” Today, I settled on an at-least-for-now name: A Humanistic Jew Goes to Washington.

Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s that famous movie, and what am I playing at? I thought it was cute.

But now I need to change the background away from the cornfields.

What’s in a Name?

Well, now is as good a time as any, no?

I’m no longer a Humanistic Jew in Indianapolis. Mrs. HJ, HJ, Jr., and I have made the trek from Indianapolis to our new home in the Columbia, Maryland area. Why?

Because this is me. Up at the top, under “Rabbi.” So, now you know what I’m doing–in November, I’ll be ordained a rabbi (I better get all those papers done, then…), and I’ve already taken on the role at Machar, a Humanistic Jewish congregation in the Washington, D.C., area.

I haven’t quite figured out what this blog will be called–but, hopefully, I’ll have more time to blog than I have in quite some time. Hopefully.

We’ll see, then, I guess.

Photograph of a long wall, at least three times as tall as the people walking next to it, trailing as far as the eye can see, with Jerusalem on one side and the Palestinian town of Abu Dis on the other.

Marking the Boundaries

Maverick Rabbi Breaks Ranks Over Intermarriage” shouts a Times of Israel title. “The Problem With Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Intermarriage Proposal,” teases the op-ed in the Forward. “On Marriage and Covenant” comes forth from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Yet again, the Conservative movement thrashes about, trying to figure out what to do about…well, any number of things. Continue reading

Photograph of painting of Gerbrand van den Eeckhout portraying Hannah presenting the biblical judge, Samuel, to Eli the priest

Be Like Eli…A Little Bit

Humanistic Jew, Jr., when I return from an outing, often greets me with, “Dad! You’re back!” And I’m not your dad, but I’m back!

Where have I been? My teaching load exploded last year on top of regular work and rabbi school, so my opportunities to write non-work things and stay sane have been few and far between. Stacked on top of regular work, editing work, and all the other stuff, well…Alexander Hamilton’s example to the contrary, we can’t all “write like [we’re] running out of time.” But I’m still kind of non-stop.

(And there’s my little Easter Egg for “Hamilton” fans.)

Okay, now, part of what I have been doing is working on term papers and projects. Among the things I’m working on is some lifecycle ceremonial material for individuals with chronic–not critical, but ongoing and life-affecting–illness. And that’s what this post is really about.

In rabbinic Jewish practice, there’s a commandment to visit the sick, biqqur cholim. The oft-identified basis for biqqur cholim is the story of Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18, part of a Talmudic discussion on imitatio dei: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, visited the sick, as it is written, ‘And Yahweh appeared to him at the oaks [sometimes, “plains”] of Mamre’ (Gen. 18:1)–so should you visit the sick.” b. Sotah 14a. Abraham is considered by the rabbis of the Talmud to be sick because Genesis 18 follows immediately upon the narrative in which the Torah portrays Abraham circumcising himself and all the males traveling with him. Abraham is thus sick–i.e., in pain from having recently been circumcised–and, shunting aside the plain text of the narrative in which Abraham and Sarah end up doing work for their visitors as rabbinic textual interpretation is wont to do, the rabbis portray the appearance of messengers as a visit by God to the ill Abraham.

And, I guess, we could interpret it that way. But in working on the question of a lifecycle ceremony, this narrative is far from satisfying as an example. It doesn’t take free interpretation of a text to know that visiting the sick is a good thing to do, after all. And if we take the rabbis’ premise in Sotah 14a about Abraham at face value, Abraham and Sarah scrambling to play host so that the messengers can tell Abraham about the imminent conception of Isaac isn’t exactly the ideal paradigm for visiting a sick person.

And so, looking for a better example, I remembered the story of Hannah and Eli in I Samuel 1. (It is, as it happens, another of the Bible’s numerous conception stories. Genesis 18 is one; Judges 13, the beginning of the story of Samson, is another; and so, too, is I Samuel 1.) As the story goes, Hannah has not born her husband, Elkanah, any children, and she is much aggrieved by this–particularly because Elkanah’s other wife mocks Hannah as a result of her childlessness. And so, on a trip to the temple of Yahweh at Shiloh, Hannah prays silently, her lips moving, requesting that she bear a male child for Elkanah.

The priest at the temple, Eli, sees Hannah, concludes that she must be drunk, and tells her to stop drinking. (Literally, “set aside from yourself your wine”; the New JPS translation more artistically translates this as “Sober up!,” which I actually kind of like.) Hannah explains that she has been praying and is aggrieved, but doesn’t tell Eli why that is so. Eli then tells Hannah to go in peace and that he hopes the God of Israel grants her prayer.

Photograph of painting of Gerbrand van den Eeckhout portraying Hannah presenting the biblical judge, Samuel, to Eli the priest

Hannah presenting Samuel to Eli by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (ca. 1665)

Why this story as a model, rather than the story of Abraham at Mamre? Well, if you’re looking for a lifecycle ceremony, there is often a communal dimension to such ceremonies, and the Hannah/Eli interaction comes in a public context: at the temple in Shiloh. It holds additional communal dimension because it’s an interaction with the closest thing to clergy: a temple priest. And it involves the kind of final blessing that often has to come along with illness: a hope that the thing desired comes to pass, without guaranteeing it or suggesting that one’s merit will determine whether the problem will be corrected.

This story also illustrates a no-no. Eli’s assumption that Hannah is drunk is a bad example of what to do in this kind of interaction. As it happens, the term biqqur cholim is well chosen: it’s visiting the sick, not chastising the sick.

So, as the title of this post says: be like Eli…a little bit.