A quick note: I’ve recently had an article that was printed in the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents published online. Entitled “Inclusion and the Soul of a Synagogue,” you can read it here.
(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.
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!
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.
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.
Tish’a B’Av (or Tisha B’Av, or Tisha Bov, or…) will soon be upon us, on the evening of August 13. I’ve previously discussed the holiday a bit, and so I won’t revisit the basics here. (Revisiting the basics, especially how the holiday is viewed from a Humanistic Jewish perspective, is what the first of those two links is for. The second link is sort of connected to how the rabbis of the Talmudic period understood the causes for the destruction of the Second Temple, which to some degree plays into their understanding of Tish’a B’Av.) And perhaps the word “truther” in the title of this post isn’t the best description for what I’m about to say, but hey, we all need a little clickbait in our lives.
So, here’s the thing. We continue, into the 21st century, to commemorate with some form of lamentation (pun intended) the destruction of a building that literally enshrined a view of the Jewish people and, for that matter, the entire universe that clashes with our modern conceptions of these things. We don’t generally think that the large-scale slaughtering of animals, scattering their blood on a stone altar, burning some of them whole and only parts of others, and pouring wine or meal or honey on an altar effect atonement.
And yet we mourn the loss of that sacrificial cult.
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.
…Different from all other nights?
Answer: 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!
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.
I’m back! Did you miss me!? 😉
Despite the purported break that comes with the new year, it’s been busy in these parts. I have a longer post coming out later today, but in the meantime, I’ve got a shorter comment on this week’s regularly scheduled Torah portion, Parshat Va’era.
Where are we in the story in this portion? Moses, we are told, has encountered Yahweh in the desert and made some initial forays into Egypt to try to free the Israelites. We are also told that these efforts have failed. And then we come to this passage, at the very beginning of the portion:
And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Yahweh; I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai–but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them” (Ex. 6:2-3).
(“Hey, Humanistic Jew,” you’re thinking, “why uppercase ‘God'”? Because it’s used as a proper noun in this context.)
Now, there’s a problem here. The statement in verse 3–“but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them”–isn’t true!
It’s been a while since I posted! It has been busy around here: between regular work, days off from work running around with Humanistic Jew, Jr., prepping for the two classes I teach at a local university, leading a Hanukkah celebration, being a rabbinical student, co-editing Humanistic Judaism, and trying to generally spend time with my family, I just haven’t had a ton of time to write.
And then, as I was falling asleep last night or waking up this morning (it’s all a blur), I thought of this goofy idea for a blog post. And so, without further ado:
I’ve not mentioned it on the blog, but I’m a big Star Wars fan. I don’t do cosplay (dressing up as characters), go to conventions, etc., but in many other respects, you know, yeah, I’m a fan. (I’m even officiating a Star Wars-themed wedding in March of this year. Can you say that your work required you to read comic books?!)
(SPOILER ALERT for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the “Star Wars: Vader Down” comics from Marvel)
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.