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.

Interior photo of the synagogue in Oni, Georia; facing wooden pews in multiple rows, ornate columns, and a raised dais.

Everyone Belongs Here

Though he published it a couple of years ago now, for some reason I only recently encountered Rabbi Menahem Creditor’s article at Huffington Post entitled “Children in the Sanctuary.” Rabbi Creditor’s article reflects on occasions when he observed a child crying or making noise in a synagogue service. On several occasions, Rabbi Creditor observed a congregant telling a child’s parent that the child should be removed and saying, “‘perhaps your child doesn’t belong in synagogue.'” He calls these “the least synagogue-ish” words he has ever heard.

He’s right. But it’s not only children.

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Two boards of matzah

What Makes This Night…

…Different from all other nights?

Two boards of matzahAnswer: You can spend it with us at a Humanistic Jewish second-night Seder in Indianapolis! The Seder will focus on participation rather than being led, and will include discussion and singing. Come out participate in a human-centered, ethically-based approach to Pesach!

The cost for attendance is $10 per person, and dinner will be included. Please let us know if you have dietary requirements, including vegetarian, gluten-free, nut-free, or other dietary needs.

Kids are welcome!

RSVP on Meetup.com.

(Tapping) Testing. Sibilants.

Is this thing on?

Hey! I’m back! Again.

Seriously, I’ve been very, very busy. Sorry about that, but job, other job, editing, weddings (including officiating a Star Wars-themed wedding!)–I’m a busy person.

I came across something on Tablet that I thought was interesting. Mark Oppenheimer, who has written at some length on religious issues, particularly on Judaism and on the secular movement’s apparent issues with sexism, has a review of the late Edgar Bronfman’s book, Why Be Jewish?. The review is interesting in its way–it compares Bronfman’s book with two others bearing the same title, one by Meir Kahane and the other by David Wolpe. I suppose if you were looking for a study of the “Why should I be Jewish?” genre it would be a good place to start. (Spoiler: there really aren’t any books in this genre that I would give to someone who asked, “Why be Jewish?,” and I get the sense Oppenheimer wouldn’t, either.)

But what I found particularly useful is Oppenheimer’s characterization of what it means to be a Jew–that it’s a sort of family status.

But the Jew, as opposed to the Jewish person, is simply a member of this family that was, according to Kahane, chosen by God and given the Torah at Sinai—the family that, according to Bronfman, somehow kept its identity over millennia and developed a rich heritage worth perpetuating. Neither understanding of my family story satisfies me perfectly, but I think they are onto something. They’re mishpochah. Not Jewish, but fellow Jews.

What Bronfman feared, Oppenheimer suggests, was that Jews would become “Jew-ish” rather than “Jewish”: someone who is a Jew and is perhaps peripherally associated with the family, but not involved in or with it.

It strikes me that there’s something to this family analogy that I like better than others.

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Photograph of face of Lenny Bruce, an American Jewish comedian

…And I Feel Fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it!

Oh, so many things in the Jewish communal world to think about over the past week. Let’s tick them off, one at a time:

All the panic makes my heart just go pitter-pat. I don’t even know where to start. (The section titles here are from REM’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It),” so now you can learn some of the lyrics!)

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Blintzes - crepes filled with cheese and other items - in a frying pan.

A Shavuot Hand-Down

Today is day…wait, I’m not supposed to tell you what day it is in the counting of the omer, the sheafs of grain that were traditionally counted in the lead up from Passover to Shavuot. At least, if you ask, I’m not supposed to give you the precise answer. Though I could give you the answer for yesterday, so that you could do the math from there.

And I’m sure there’s an app for that.

In any case, since we’re fast approach Shavuot, it’s time for a quick look at Shavuot for Humanistic Jews.

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James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

What Can We Do with the Holiness Code? A Humanistic Jewish Reading

James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

James Tissot’s “Two Priests Destroyed,” depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

(Warning: this is a long read.) The Torah has lots of laws. Lots of them. And in the traditional Torah-reading cycle, we’re neck-deep in them.

These laws make using the Bible today more than a little problematic.

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Yom Ha-Shoah

Yehuda Bauer and others have observed that genocide, while inhumane, is not foreign to humanity at large. Humans are remarkably good at ignoring the prospect of punishment for their misdeeds–they were long before Hitler, and they have continued to be so–assuming, of course, that they viewed their murders as misdeeds. The field of genocide studies suggests some perpetrators did not view their actions as moral wrongs. And humans are remarkably able through cognitive dissonance to ameliorate or obliterate their own personal senses of guilt.

Specific genocides are special. But genocide, no matter where it occurs, though evil, is also thoroughly human. It is up to us to prevent and stop it, though we may never see its end.

Thoughts this Yom Ha-Shoah, the 70th anniversary year of the end of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.

A Few Seder Updates

We’re fast approaching Passover–it starts a bit before sunset this Friday, April 3. (If you’re concerned about precise times, there are plenty of places to check. I use the Crowded Road Shabbat Shalom app on my iPhone and iPad, but there are other choices.)

It’s not too Late to Roll Your Own

Don’t have a Hagaddah of your own? If you’re a traditional-text type of person–or have a lot of free time right now to edit something to make it humanistic–maybe visit Sefaria and check out their Haggadah. They’ve got the whole traditional text online, ready for you to pick some or all of its parts, create source sheets, etc.

I’m rolling our Haggadah for this year, because I’ve got lots of challenges to address. First, my goal is to keep things short because Secular Jew, Jr., is tough to engage in this kind of environment. Yes, of course, the Seder is a great sensory experience. But when the sensory experiences aren’t ones that work for your autistic child, you’ve got to make the experience as low-stress as possible in hopes that some of the story makes it in and so that we can be flexible and respond to any demonstrated interests, and that means leaving things a bit more fluid.

Second, I want to start from this prepared text to make a couple of different, interesting formats that we can come back to over the years with short supplements, and maybe mix up the pattern of the Seder a bit each year. At the moment, I’m thinking of doing an infographic format, a “board game” format, and maybe a “Cards Against Humanity”-type format to allow some flexibility and graphic interest. I imagine I’ll make some of this available online at some point, but this year is a dry run of the first stab at a text and reflections. I’ve mentioned this idea before. I’m really focused on keeping things relatively flexible so that as everyone changes around the table each year, we can make the experience interesting and meaningful each year. I don’t imagine having a permanently fixed text in a specific order in each respect, though some of the steps along the way will be the same (which maybe undoes some of the notion of seder, which in Hebrew means “order”).

I imagine after this is all over, I’ll debrief with Mrs. Secular Jew and Secular Jew’s Sister (we’re all about uncreative pseudonyms around here!) and tell you what did or didn’t work.

Remember to Take Your Supplements

If you already have a fixed text, Seder supplements can help keep things fresh. There are two I would draw your attention to. One–again, probably better for those who aren’t strictly humanist in orientation, but its god language is really quite minimal–is from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and is called the Black Lives Matter Haggadah (this goes to a Google Doc). So for those with a strong social justice orientation, you might want to consider this as your supplement this year. (I know one of the contributors to this personally–hi, Sarah!)

Another option is from Rabbi Jeffrey Falick (his blog is The Atheist Rabbi) at the Birmingham Temple for Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, MI. His Passover greeting for this year is here, and he provides a link to a Google Doc that is a more “what does the archaeology tell us”-focused approach to the Maggid (story-telling) part of the Seder. (I also know Jeff, so, hi, Jeff!)

This Year in Indianapolis; Next Year, too, I Bet

In case you’re wondering what the menu is, I’ve only got three things determined:

  1. Alton Brown’s no-pot pot roast from his show, Good Eats
  2. Matzo ball soup with chicken and mandlen (you know, those little soup nuts)
  3. Kosher-for-Passover chocolate truffles with hazelnut or cappuccino filling

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure we need more, but I’ll probably feel guilty and make some kind of vegetable in addition to all the stuff that goes with the Seder. Though for my money, a bowl of haroset really ought to have me covered without any of this other stuff.

And I’d invite you to our Seder, but since I couldn’t guarantee what you’d find, maybe you’d be best to drop a line if you plan on trying to find us. (Also, we’re only doing second night Seder on Saturday, and we’re not kosher. And, of course, it’s a humanistic set of texts, so if you’re observant I promise you will not be yotzei if you come to our Seder.) I know, kol dikhfin yeitei v’yeikhol (“let all who are hungry come and eat”) and all that; but really, I’m not sure we’re your best bet.

If we don’t “see” each other before then, Hag Pesah Sameah to you and yours.

A plate of hamantashen

A Purim Potpourri – Humanistic Resources for Purim

It’s mid-February, and time to start thinking about Purim! Purim starts March 4, 2015. (Don’t worry–if you’re here for Jewish Disability Awareness Month resources, I’ll be posting later this week about Purim in particular!)

If you’re a secular or humanistic Jew, what’s in it (and out there) for you?

As always–see if you can’t find a community to celebrate with. The Society for Humanistic Judaism and Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations both have pages on their websites to help you find communities that might be near you. Many of these groups hold Megillah readings, Purim carnivals, costume parties, and other events, which are for many the most fun Jewish celebrations of the year.

Both organizations maintain pages about the holidays and, again, Purim is no exception. Here’s SHJ’s page; this is CSJO’s page.

But wait–there’s more!  Continue reading