Thursday, July 17, 2014

Revenge, Anger and the End of Wisdom

Thinking about Parashat Mattot - July 17, 2014   

Revenge and more revenge.

The widening spiral of pain, anger and retribution broke new ground today, as a passenger plane holding 295 travelers was shot down over Ukrainian airspace by a country or faction still to be identified. The downed flight, covered on the TV news as luridly as one would expect, was instantly triggering for me, as I imagine it was for many of us - transporting us back to our 9/11 horror, watching repeating footage of explosion, irresistibly pressing us to imagine a horrible death, in an act of terror, at altitude. All this getting mixed up with actual sorrow for actual people who actually lost their lives today.

The attack against the plane was the latest volley in a long history of Ukrainian-Russian tension that bores straight back through the Soviet Union and out the other end, for hundreds of years preceding.

If this had been the only new, violent escalation, dayenu, it would have been more than enough. But as we watch this out of one eye, the other remains fixed upon Israel, and the dance of revenge playing out in there. Today Israeli forces are launching ground attacks along the borders of Gaza, in response, of course, to the Palestinian missiles flying toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, those in retaliation for offensives that were themselves in response to the murder of three Jewish boys. Which, in someone's mind, was revenge for something before that, which was itself revenge, and back and back and back. Ping pong ping pong ping.

The failure of diplomacy to be of any meaning in either of these conflicts launches me, personally, into a state of despair I haven't felt in a while.

Of course I was also primed for it. Just last weekend, the husband and I rented and watched, by poorly timed recommendation, the chilling Cold War drama, Fail-Safe, starring Henry Fonda as the President of the United States, in a bunker, on the hotline with the Soviet premier, trying to keep the world from coming apart as an American military jet inadvertently and irretrievably heads to Moscow to drop its nuclear payload. The hopelessness and powerlessness seared into the celluloid of this film, and the image of a world where not even good intentions can save the day, much less bad ones, have haunted my sleep for days, before any actual plane got shot out of the sky. Not that I need fiction to enhance my experience of these very real events, but learning that the plane crash was revealed to Putin while he was on the phone with Obama felt like a bit of mocking deja vu.

So I did what I do. I turned to this week's Torah, which often serves for me as a kind of Tarot - what is the insight that this week's cards can bring to the silently articulated question of escalation, revenge, and hopelessness?

Alas, it is a really bad week for this exercise. Our Torah portion, Mattot, is itself about revenge. God commands Moshe to exact a full revenge on the Midianites for having participated with the Moabites in luring the Israelites into sexual misconduct and idolatry. This is meant to be Moshe's last task before he can at long last be gathered to his ancestors. The Israelite soldiers - our soldiers - go and deliver the Midianites a complete defeat. They kill the five Midianite kings, who are specifically named, much as the five daughters of Tzelafchad were repeatedly named in last week's portion and again later in the Book of Joshua.

The kings are killed at swordpoint, and so is Bil'am ben Be'or. You might recall him as the donkey guy, the prophet through whom came the beautiful paean to the Children of Israel, Mah tovu ohaleycha Ya'akov, mishk'noteycha Yisrael: how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel. He delivered that blessing, but apparently only as a puppet for the ventriloquist God of Israel. Because those words do not seem to mitigate what is considered by Torah and by rabbinic literature to be his irredeemable wickedness - the whole seduction/idolatry thing seems to have been Bil'am's idea. Torah makes a point of saying Bil'am was killed by the sword. Rashi explains that Israel and the other nations swapped strategies in this; while other nations lived by the sword, Israel lived by the word - prayer and praise. When Bil'am gave his mah tovu blessing, he had intended words of curse, and was willing to use the Israelite toolbox - words of power - to do so. And so in punishing him, Israel used the toolbox of his nation, exacting vengeance with the sword's sharp edge.

In any event, the Israelite soldiers get back to the camp having killed every last Midianite man under the rule of the five kings, and bringing back as prisoners the women and children. Moshe, accompanied by Elazar the High Priest, goes out to meet the returning warriors. Moshe is incensed that the soldiers left the women alive, particularly since seduction of Israelite men by Midianite women was the mechanism by which Israel was led astray, according to the story, having brought both moral compromise and outbreak of some disease into the Israelite camp. And while I'd prefer to stop the retelling right here, with Moshe's anger, where really it's bad enough, it did not stop here. Moshe cajoles the soldiers into killing the women, as well as their sons and many of their daughters.

Now, you and I were not there. Sinai maybe, but this moment no. I have not lived in a war zone. I have not been the victim of military attacks. I'm not a Holocaust survivor nor the child of survivors. My inability to imagine what such a complete desire for revenge feels like is a blessing, it truly is, and, alas, a rare privilege on this earth. But still, even we lucky ones might have some wisdom to impart to those who are spinning in the gyre of hatred and revenge. But what?

At last, a breath of air is provided by Rabbi Yehudah Löwe in his Torah commentary, Netivot Olam. Löwe is the Maharal of Prague, the 16th Century commentator known folklorically for creating a golem to protect the Jews. He is no stranger to the threat of violence. Here he retells a piece of midrash to explain why, Moshe having scolded the returning soldiers and pressing them to complete the revenge, it is Elazar the priest, not Moshe, who then begins to articulate Torah to the soldiers regarding how to divide spoils of war and how to purify themselves after having engaged in warfare. This is puzzling to the sages, because it is Moshe who is the archetypal lawgiver, the primary conduit for Torah.

The midrash brought by the Maharal is that in his anger, Moshe is able to give commands of destruction, of violence. But he is unable to articulate law, or wisdom, or prophecy. The Maharal quotes the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in Talmud (Pesachim 66b):
Resh Lakish said: As to every man who becomes angry, if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. If he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him: [we learn this] from Moses. For it is written, And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host etc. (Numbers 31:14); and it is written, And Eleazar the Priest said unto the men of war that went to the battle: This is the statute of the law which the Lord hath commanded Moses etc. (Numbers 31:21), whence it follows that [the wisdom/laws] had been forgotten by Moses.
There is nothing surprising or new here. But it is nice to have it articulated not just as world wisdom, not just as common sense, but as Torah. In anger, the wise lose their wisdom, prophets lose their vision. We all know this and are grateful to Talmud, and then Rabbi Löwe, for articulating it. This is the price of anger, even if the anger feels justified.

And this is what we are seeing all around us. Anger begetting anger, revenge begetting revenge. So that wisdom and vision are displaced.

I am not a politician. Or a historian. Or a diplomat. I can't stop wars or reduce tensions, nor can anyone that I know. But we can all feel supported by our own tradition, including even the bloodiest moments of Torah, when we say to leaders on all sides, that revenge is revenge. You may choose to engage in it or, we pray you may choose not to. But do not try to pass it off as wisdom. Do not try to pass it off as prophecy. It is neither.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Prayer for Healing

For Ner Shalom Shabbat of Healing, June 20, 2014

Dear God, heal our bodies. Heal our spirits. Heal us.

God, we ask this, not always knowing what healing means. We ask this, often - usually - confusing healing with cure. We want cures. We understand cures better. Even though we know that cures can hurt us too. Sometimes we still need healing long after the cure has worked. And sometimes we can be healed even when we're not cured. But in any event, God, we will just ask for refuah, for healing, and leave it to you to fill in the details.

Dear God, help us to feel that we are divine sparks, even when we are tired and dragging. Help us to feel like we are created in your image, even as our bodies become sick or frail or otherwise hint that they might not have your particular staying power.

Dear God, you have made these bodies of ours so complicated, and sometimes we wonder if that was so necessary. N'kavim n'kavim, chalulim chalulim, we say each morning. Channels and orifices. That is what we're made of. We know that if what is supposed to flow freely gets stopped up or if what is supposed to be contained springs a leak, we are in trouble. You have made our bodies as complicated as the cosmos. And we are grateful for every moment we have in them. Especially the moments when we feel so good, so normal, that we don't even notice their complexity at all. Give us more of those moments, God, please, more of those.

God, you have made our minds, our spirits, equally complex and easily damaged, even though we can't see that kind of frailty on an X-ray. It might have been nicer just to make us all happy and functional, God, but that obviously was not quite the plan. Maybe it has something to do with that free will thing. We each have our own obstacles to overcome. We each have to find our own path to wholeness, to you. Maybe we have to earn our happiness somehow, although I daresay there are many people who deserve happiness and don't have it. And, when put to it, I can't really think of anyone who doesn't deserve happiness, so there goes that idea altogether. Maybe we just have to create our own meaning for it all as we go, even if the good and the bad are unequally distributed, which frankly kinda stinks. Or maybe I shouldn't be dwelling in these details; maybe life is a test, and you just haven't yet sent the angel who will say Avraham, Avraham and call it all off.

Dear God, keep me from ingratitude. Because despite all my complaints, life is precious, and the delicacy of these bodies we live in makes it only more so. And if I feel the difficulty of it sometimes more than I feel the wonder of it, well, we are creatures of earth and our clay concerns us. But really, I am - we are - so grateful to be here in these bodies that have been really much trustier than not. I am grateful for lungs that have breathed through this day, and for this heart that has beaten so many times a minute, over a thousand minutes a day, nearly 20,000 days of my life and counting. I have owned cars both American and foreign, and have seen many finely made appliances and Apple products too and nothing made by man or machine can compare to what you set in motion on this planet.

Dear God, our Torah calls you the rofei. The healer. You healed Miriam at Moshe's request. You healed the women of Avimelech's kingdom at Avraham's. We are aware that it doesn't work quite that way anymore. You are still rofei kol basar umafli la'asot - the wondrous healer of the body. But we know that for a bunch of years now, you have pulled back from the retail end of the healing business. Thankfully, you have allowed our human intuition and compassion and curiosity to give rise to healers, responding to your call, doing your work. Nurses, doctors, chiropractors, Reiki practitioners, therapists - every manner of professional channeling the regenerative power of this universe through their hands and heads and hearts.

So Dear God, about these human healers. Please give them confidence in their abilities. And along with that, give them humility as well. Let them harden themselves as much as they need in order to be around so much suffering all the time, because we need them to be able to be there. And still, keep them vulnerable enough that they can still hear your voice in their instincts, and so they can still feel compassion for their patients, even at the end of a long day, even after a 48-hour shift, even if the patient is difficult, even if the prognosis is not good.

Dear God, take good care of our healers. May they be nimble and perceptive and loving. May they be well taken care of by their partners and friends, even if it means that said partners and friends have to hear a few too many emergency room stories for their tastes. It is the least we can do.

Dear God, help us to see illness not as our enemy, but as an inevitable element of life in these vessels. Help us celebrate our lives in these bodies and on this planet. Let us all be Psalmists singing your praise with every breath, and every heartbeat, and with every ache and pain too, for as long as we can, and may it be long, and may it end gently.

And dear God, Gotenyu, I think that's kinda at the heart of what we all want, and we're sometimes too unclear or maybe superstitious even to say it. It has to do with death. We're not fond of it. Of death. It's freaky and it scares us and we know it's natural but we can't see beyond it and that's really your fault more than ours, I have to say. But in any event we want to live. We want to live a long time. And then we want it to end gently. Sometimes we might be willing to suffer in order to be here longer. And sometimes we might be willing to let go a little earlier if suffering is the price of life. So God, it's hard to know specifically what to ask for here, but let's just say this: if it's possible, let us make those decisions, each of us for ourselves. No pressure, but I think as a rule, all other things being equal, it would be our preference.

El na r'fa no lah. God send healing. R'fa'enu Adonai v'nirapei. Heal us and we will, gratefully, be healed. Hin'ni noteh eleyha k'nahar shalom. May we be open to you like a riverbed, and may your peace, your wholeness, your healing, pour in like a river.

Dear God, heal our bodies. Heal our spirits. Heal us.

I'm grateful to my friend, Rabbi Dorothy Richman, and to my husband, Oren Slozberg, for some important insights that helped me along on this. And to Dezi Gallegos and his performance of "God Fights the Plague" for lots of recent inspiration, including some particulars of wording, content, rhythm and pacing, that are clearly part of this.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Parashat Kedoshim: Generation Sandwich

For Congregation Ner Shalom, in anticipation of Ari's Bar Mitzvah tomorrow.

I am speaking to you tonight from behind a fog of giddiness and fatigue. Excited about Ari's Bar Mitzvah tomorrow; exhausted from the run-up to it.

My husband said to me the other day, "I'll bet now you'll have a lot more empathy for the Bar Mitzvah parents you deal with." I immediately defended my ongoing and admirably high level of empathy, and re-asserted how cool and on top of things I was. Unlike others I have witnessed, whom I shall not name, I was relaxed, breezy. Big picture all the way. Keeping it simple and meaningful. Then, once I'd made my point and was convinced that my reputation was safe, I turned back to the important tasks at hand: badgering Ari to practice his Torah one more time and impatiently micromanaging other people's contributions to tomorrow's blessed event.

Exhibit A: Modern Bar Mitzvah Boy
Yes, I confess, I was becoming the bridezilla of Bar Mitzvah parents, or so I feared. And yes, I now have much more empathy about the emotional tenor of this rite of passage. And I don't mean Ari's rite of passage. I mean ours.

Of course I knew that Bar Mitzvah was important to parents. But mostly, I thought, as a requisite achievement for their children. And it is a tremendous achievement! It is hard work, and a great growing moment. There is thinking and interpreting and writing and showmanship involved. But what I hadn't appreciated was Bar Mitzvah's organic importance for the parents. Our young person might be stepping into the shoes of an adult, but we are becoming the parents of an adult, and, with all due respect to the 13-year-olds of our people, that is a very, very big deal.

It is a moment of reckoning where we assess how we've been doing. And it comes at a moment of great change. At this age our children are an uneven mix of the child they've been and the adult they're becoming. And the adult they're becoming is like a new and sometimes problematic house guest. Odd habits. Unexpected opinions. Refusal to leave.

Beloved strangers, our growing young people are. I explained this to my teen class recently. I said that when you're born, you obviously can't express who you are. You are helpless and wordless. And so it is your parents' job to project onto you, so that they can make good guesses at your needs. So we project our ideas and our beliefs and our fantasies. We have to. It's survival. And then, I told them, it is your job to provide the contradictory data, chipping away at our image of you bit by bit. And here I have to pause and remark on what an evolutionary stroke of luck it is that we are exposed to who our children really are so very gradually! Because if they popped out with fully formed personalities, full of opinions and criticism of our parenting, would any of us ever have fed them?

But no. Luckily they arrive just cute and then go about the business of becoming. And we, re-meeting them over and over as the constant strangers that they are, scramble to keep up, always running some number of steps behind. It often feels like a lost cause. Ari's mom, Anne, sometimes remarks that the best we can hope to do is just to see our children safely to adulthood, or at least to an age where they can be tried as adults.

But still, despite our fears of futility, we struggle to be of use; to guide, to teach. (The Hebrew word for parent and teacher, and Torah for that matter, all come from the same root.) You youngins, we try to help you develop good habits, deep compassion, impeccable manners. And true, we don't always know when to stop. We don't always know the difference between you and a developmental stage. (And, I hasten to add, neither do you.) So all we can do is give it our best shot; give you our best advice; hope we can spare you some of the mistakes we made (as if any of us ever managed to avoid our parents' mistakes, and as if somehow we actually could keep you from all harm).

So have pity on your parents, kids. Your becoming you might just be easier for you than it is for us, even if it is a blessed and holy and inevitable process for everyone. Have pity on your parents.

This is not just a plea, it's a requirement. This week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, which we'll read tomorrow, says:
איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואת שבתתי תשמרו אני יי אלהיכם
Ish imo v'aviv tira'u v'et shabtotai tishmoru ani Adonai eloheychem.
Hold your parents in awe and keep Shabbat. I am Adonai your God. 

Respect both parents and Shabbat. Both are your inheritance. Both are gifts to you. Even though it might take some perspective to appreciate that.

I have been very aware of the gift that a parent can be as this weekend has drawn near. Aware that Bar Mitzvah usually comes at a time in our lives when we, the parents, are a generation sandwiched between two other generations. When we feel astonished at our changing parenting role; when we feel relief or even surprise at our successes and frustration at our failures, we can look back over our shoulders and there is someone there to give us insight, someone into whom we can now have deeper insight as well. 

Certainly if my mother were here, I would be plying her for some idea of what it was like for her to parent teenagers, twice. I'd be asking her for some new stories I hadn't heard before and I'd be looking for the encouragement that might come from them. And of course that very impulse saddens me; my mother should by all rights have been here, she so looked forward to it, knowing, I think, what it would mean for all the generations involved. Instead, she's gone and my own generational sandwich is unexpectedly open faced.

Her absence is one of the great facts of this weekend of celebration; at the forefront of everyone's minds. I have had my moments of misery over it. In anticipation of this weekend, people have rightly used the word "bittersweet." But here's the good thing about bittersweet. It's still chocolate. Sweet, rich, packing a good buzz. Ari, our family, this community, this Bar Mitzvah and the celebration around it are all chocolate, artisan chocolate, as far as I'm concerned.

But while Kedoshim talks explicitly about honoring parents, I think turning that back around is called for. After all, as Wordsworth said, "The child is the father of the man." Our children are parents too, beautifully, brutally, bafflingly raising their future selves. And, as is suggested by the Torah portion, we should hold them in awe.

Ari has awed me through this process. He has made himself known to me in new ways. Demonstrating mastery in some areas where I expected it and some areas where I didn't. Having strong opinions about content, about interpretation. I feel a new kind of naches, a pride not just in what I always saw in him, but in what I didn't see coming at all. Ari is busy raising a great adult.

"The child is the father of the man." Some of us have parented children; some of us have taught young people or been mentors. But all of us have parented ourselves and produced remarkable and surprising children. So I'd like to ask each of you to honor the you that made you you. Feel some real gratitude to your younger self for taking care of you and getting you this far. And I want to invite you to experience some parental naches over the you that has emerged and continues to emerge. The you that is still forming, trying new things, and making you proud even when she won't take your advice.

Thank you all for joining our family for this weekend of celebration. I hold you all in awe.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Parashat Shemini: Now, Yes, Now

For Congregation Ner Shalom, March 21, 2014
[Sorry for the long delay in posting.] 

There is a moment in this week's parashah that caught my attention this year for the first time. It has to do with Aharon, whom we really don't speak very much about. Moshe is the star of our desert epic and religion-formation narrative, of course, and Miriam has been reclaimed and placed centrally by many of us in order to slake our desperate thirst for female leadership in Torah.

But Aharon? Who is he? We don't get much sense. His character is wooden. He is usually doing or saying something with Moshe or with Miriam. We don't get much of him alone. He is also a prophet, by all standards. He gets spoken to by God, but it's not like the love affair God has with Moshe. When God speaks to Aharon, it is business talk. Aharon is the High Priest Elect, and Moshe's second in command. But still, somehow, he manages to be both central and peripheral. Face it, people used to write songs about Moshe. Now people write songs about Miriam. But no one sings about Aharon.

But now, in the Book of Leviticus, the Priestly Code, is when Aharon comes into his own. He becomes ritually relevant. He is no longer just a spare Moses; he begins his priestly work.

Over the past two weeks, since the launching of Leviticus, we have covered 8 full chapters of ritual instructions. Instructions for the priests, all about accepting offerings, doing sacrifices, managing the public matters of sin, guilt, forgiveness, and worship. This is the job of the priests, of the High Priest in particular. And if it is all done correctly, then God will appear right there, in the Tent of Meeting. If it is not done correctly, terrible things could happen, as in fact they do just a few verses down the road.

But here in Parashat Shemini, shemini meaning "the eighth," it being the eighth day of Aharon's consecration as a priest along with his family; and the completion of the eighth chapter of instructions, now at last the priestly practice is ready to begin. Moshe tells Aharon & Sons to gather their bulls and goats and rams and meal and oil and all the items and ingredients that had been laid out by God through Moshe, so that they can atone for their own sins and begin their holy service for the people. The Cohanim collect all these things and they, and the entire people, draw near to the Tent of Meeting.

And then, although Torah doesn't say it explicitly, you know that all eyes turn to Aharon. A silence falls, punctuated only by bleats of sheep. This is the moment when the Children of Israel will move at last from theory to practice. From being a people receiving the law to a people fulfilling the law. This is a moment where preparation and action are in equipoise, like two sides of teeter-tauter. And no one moves.

Moshe then says - krav: go, approach.

קרב על המזבח ועשה את חטאתך ואת עולתך וכפר בעדך ובעד העם 
ועשה את קרבן העם וכפר בעדם כאשר צוה יי

"Go, draw near to the altar and do your sin offering and your olah-offering and make atonement for yourself and for the people; make the people's sacrifice and provide atonement for them as Adonai commands."

These words are the Cohen's job description. Which Aharon knew. He'd been there also for the delivery of all of the laws and rituals. So why did Moshe need to say it? Perhaps the words are formulaic, for the sake of ceremony. Aharon takes on the mantle of priesthood in this moment, and the prophet articulates his duty. "Go now," says the Prophet, "and be the Priest. Do these things for yourself and for the people, as God commands."

Ceremonial rhetoric, like oaths spoken at an inauguration. Because sure enough, as soon as he says them, the text reports, vayikrav Aharon el hamizbeach, Aharon approached the altar.

But even though it sounds like it could be official language, it's not clear that it is. Rashi, the great Medieval French commentator, thinks that Moshe needed to say this in fact to get Aharon moving. Rashi imagines Aharon to be in discomfort. He says, shehayah Aharon bosh v'yarei lageshet - Aharon was embarrassed and afraid to approach. Yarei, afraid, perhaps in the sense of plain fear, perhaps in the sense of awe and overwhelm. Rashi then imagines a conversation right there between the brothers, just out of the people's hearing. Moshe asks, "Why are you embarrassed? This is what you were selected for."

In Rashi's fantasy, Moshe makes an argument for destiny. Of course Aharon can do his appointed task; he was chosen for just this purpose. The very fact is testimony enough. And how reminiscent that is of the the story of Esther that we read this week (the two stories only collide on Jewish leap years like this). Esther hesitates when called upon to act on behalf of the people. Mordecai says to her, "Who knows if you didn't come to the throne for just such a moment as this?" And, reassured that great wheels of destiny are in motion, she acts.

In any event, Rashi's midrash arises out of this puzzling moment of pause between the completion of the instructions, and Aharon moving to follow them, a pause that could have lasted into infinity if Moshe had not said, "Krav, go, approach..."

Now, I'm not a big believer in destiny, as you all know. But I do believe that we're all better prepared to handle what comes next than we think. Aharon was ready, not necessarily because God selected him, but because he prepared as if God had.

Two weeks ago I talked about the idea that we each have inside of us a pintele Kohen, a tiny priest, that manages those great personal priestly functions - atonement, forgiveness, praise, remembering, honoring, redeeming, reclaiming, caring, soothing. All of our priestly functions that perhaps no one else even sees.

But thinking about Aharon in this verse makes me wonder if sometimes, despite knowing what we have to do, despite knowing that we are fully prepared to do it, we just need someone to say to us, "Now, start."

Yael Raff Peskin and I got together last week. We got into one of those conversations that people who have lost their parents get into. The "so how's your grieving going?" kinds of conversations that would sound shocking to others but are sometimes a big relief to have. She asked how my kaddishing was going. And I reported back that when my father died 14 years ago, I found a minyan every week, even while I was on the road, so that I could say kaddish publicly. But that this time it feels so different, and I haven't really been able to say kaddish, even in private.

And even though she wasn't telling me to do anything in particular, Yael's words had the effect that Moshe's words to Aharon did. They gave me permission to start enacting my duty; to start doing the thing that I'd wanted to do, but somehow couldn't start without a voice saying, "Yes, now, it's okay to start now." Her words empowered me in some ways to start grieving, a kind of grieving I couldn't quite start without someone saying, "Yes, now, it's okay to start now."

How many of our priestly functions - whether it's doing some mitzvot or repairing a relationship or just taking care of ourselves - are we holding back on, knowing what we need to do, but still too embarrassed or overwhelmed or frightened to start. In which case maybe Aharon's story here can serve as the voice that says, "krav, approach the altar, yes, now, start now."

I can't talk about Aharon's moment of hesitation without pointing out one last thing about the Hebrew. Moshe doesn't say to him bo, come, or lech, go. He says krav, approach. Draw near. The word krav shares the same roots as the word korban, which appears later in the very same verse. Korban is translated as "sacrifice" or "offering" but it literally means "drawing near." The offerings to Adonai are for the purpose of our drawing close to something of the Divine. It is a drawing near through sacrifice. Through giving something up of this world. And Aharon knows this. There is something he sacrifices in taking on the kehunah, the priesthood. Perhaps what he gives up is his ability to only represent himself, to just be a guy called Aharon. He lets go of his freedom not to feel responsible for the people and for the world. He accepts a limitation on his ego, he takes on his shoulders the weight of the need of the Children of Israel. He might oversee the offering of the sheep and cattle and unleavened cakes. But he foresees in this moment that he is offering up himself as well, offering up the Aharon that could've been.

And so who can blame him for his moment of hesitation, a moment on the other side of which nothing will ever be quite the same?

And - who can blame any of us for our hesitations? This life, this journey, this wilderness. Who knows where it will lead us? Who knows which choices are reversible and which are not? Who knows the ramifications of anything that our inner priest demands of us?

But still, we're prepared for kehunah, for priesthood. We have received, we have discerned, we have written the instructions. As God said back at Mt. Sinai, "you are a nation of priests." We are prepared. Even prepared to make some sacrifices for the sake of our own holiness and that of our world. We stand in the moment of pause, listening for the voice that will say, krav, draw near, now, yes, now.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Rabbi's Dress (Or Why I Wear a Skirt on the Bimah)

The author, in a favorite shabbos skirt.

Purim seems to be the time when suddenly Jews of all stripes are busy cross-dressing, men showing up in shul in tiaras and boas, tottering on their high heels. And women show up in a variety of costumes, but probably only make a splash themselves if they are in tiaras and boas, tottering on their high heels.

What makes the skirts on the guys work on Purim is that it is a transgression. In fact, Purim drag is such a commonly accepted transgression in the Jewish world that one wonders if it can actually count as transgression any more.

I also, from time to time, find myself in shul and even on the bimah in a skirt. Not often, but not never either.

Very few people in my own community are surprised by this, or at least give voice to their surprise. After all, they’ve opted to be part of the shul whose unordained rabbi moonlights as a performer in a 20-year-and-counting drag a cappella troupe called The Kinsey Sicks. And that turns out to be a draw in this outpost in Sonoma County, California. For Jews who have felt excluded from the tradition, joining up here is a vote for doing things differently. It is an opportunity to reconnect with tradition, but without feeling the pressure (or having the appearance) of buying in unquestioningly to elements of the tradition that have been troublesome.

Interestingly - well, at least to me - is the fact that my wearing of a shabbos skirt is not an outgrowth of my life as a drag performer. The shabbos skirt was an element of my personal practice before I ever set foot on stage as "Winnie," the awkward, marmish character whom I play (and love) on stage. Many people smarter than I have written about drag in theory and practice; what can I add? Except that my experience tells me that drag relies on its naughtiness, on its transgression, or even just on irony, to pack its punch. But my shabbos skirt? It has a reason; it has a history; it certainly communicates something about me and how I see the world. But it is not draping my body for a naughty or transgressive or comedic purpose. Wearing it is just as meaningful to me when I'm alone or with my family as it is when I'm at shul.

Because it is meaningful for me, period. In the way that wearing a tallit or kippah might be for others. It has become ritual garb; something that moves me into my shabbat consciousness. It represents a shabbat - a rest - from a world in which I'm always aware of the pressures of gender. On shabbat I like to feel, to imagine, the world as a kinder place. A friendly place even for the sissy boys.

My, that was a jump!

So let me back up. I should tell a little bit about how I came to be a shabbos skirt wearer. And then maybe what it means to bring that into shul with me, in a community where I serve a rabbinic function. And maybe ask the overall important question: is my shabbos skirt good for the Jews?

Becoming a Boy

When I was growing up, I had a remarkably keen awareness of gender codes in our culture, like a little gender-role prodigy. I never felt terribly boyish, and so the way that the world was poking and prodding me toward a set of male behaviors, affects and preferences always felt artificial to me. Boys had to act and dress and behave in specific ways, and mostly these ways made no sense to me. Aggression? Athleticism? Taunting girls? These values were alien and distasteful to me; my experience of them was something like what a Jew feels observing an activity that our people curtly dismiss with the term goyim naches.

And the goyim naches comparison is not ill-founded. Much of what constitutes masculinity in American Jewish culture involves activities and values absorbed from the mainstream, and tends to displace an earlier, softer, less aggressive vision of masculinity that has been prized in Judaism both in antiquity and in our Ashkenazic shtetl roots.

Maybe that's why I was also drawn so young to Judaism, and especially to the rabbi stories of both the Talmudic era and from Chasidism. These were heroes honored for brain not brawn. They weren't fast-shooting cowboys or men of steel or suave James Bonds. No matter how much they dominated the texts that they learned to the letter, they were submissive to God. (I am grateful to Jay Michaelson for this insight about Jewish male heroism.) They provided a model of manhood that was not all about asserting mastery over others, and that was very welcome to me as a non-mastery kind of kid.

Yes, gender convention was very visible to me. I knew very young that the punishment for non-compliance with the male set of behaviors was being teased (if you were lucky) or physical violence (if you weren’t). So I studied and mimicked how other boys walked, sat, crossed their legs, carried their books, etc., in the hopes that I would somehow fit in enough and that these efforts would keep me safe. (Spoiler alert: efforts unsuccessful.)

I didn't ever think that through practice, walking like other boys would become natural. I always understood it to be a pose. I always understood that my own walking, my own sitting, my own crossing of legs, would get me beaten up.

But I was lucky. While my parents also half-heartedly pushed me toward traditional male behaviors and interests, it clearly stemmed from their concern for my safety, not as clearly out of any belief that those behaviors were inherently right. Certainly they had traditional understandings of gender roles; they were post-War American suburbanites after all. But on the other hand, as Jews, they were accustomed to a softer masculinity. Men who kissed and who cried. So their pressure was always ambivalent.

In any event they loved me enthusiastically, despite my obviously being a sissy, and I felt and internalized that love. So deep down I felt that I was okay.  And I am aware that not all queer people of my era grew up feeling either okay or loved, and I am grateful to my parents beyond words.

But maleness was, for me, not a fact, but a project. Rules to learn, like a second language. If you speak it well enough, you might even pass as a native. But unlike when you learn your Mother Tongue, a second language makes you keenly aware of the arbitrariness of grammar. Your first language is just talking. You don't need to know what a verb is. But for your second language you do.

So I, nebech, studied the verb charts of masculinity. I never got terribly fluent; but I got good enough. And I hung out with other non-native speakers: brainy girls, nerdy boys (although, I’m ashamed to say, hanging with other sissies was too risky), Jewish boys who, like me, were studious and had un-rugged fathers. Even the Jewish jocks, though not my friends, would protect me from bullies.

So blessed (or cursed) with this awareness of the clunky, conventional nature of gender, life went on. I grew up. I came out, supposing that the gay world would be a less rigid place. And it largely was. It was hugely liberating. And still, the gay world had internalized the language and values of traditional gender. Conventionally masculine men were prized. Sissies were honored as sources of wit and commentary. But they were not sought out as boyfriends.

AIDS, Radical Faeries & Reclaiming the Sissy

Something shifted for me in 1987. It was October, and I was at the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. I was a law student, serving as a legal observer for a mass civil disobedience at the Supreme Court. This was the 5th year of the AIDS epidemic. 20,000 Americans, almost all of them gay men, had died, quickly and horribly, leaving the gay community shocked, traumatized, decimated. The Names Project AIDS Quilt had been unrolled for the very first time the day before on the Capitol Mall, looking like a vast military graveyard. President Reagan had only that year for the first time mentioned AIDS publicly. He then announced an AIDS commission that included the likes of New York's Cardinal O'Connor, whose only qualification for the appointment was his public condemnation of homosexuality.

Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court had, the previous year, handed down a ruling in the now infamous case of Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), which upheld the the right of the states to criminalize gay sex. The ruling was a referendum on gay people’s right to full personhood and much of the country was shocked by it. In fact, 18 years later, when it was finally reversed in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), the Court apologized for the earlier ruling. In Justice Kennedy’s words: “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today."

So at the March in 1987, many hundreds of queer Americans and allies asserted their full personhood by participating in civil disobedience at the Supreme Court. The activists wanted the Court - and all of America - to see our pain and desperation and determination.

Protestors organized themselves into "affinity groups." Wave after wave would wash up onto the steps of the hall of justice, and wave after wave would be carted off in police wagons. I suddenly saw an affinity group made up of members of the Radical Faeries - a group founded by the visionary activist Harry Hay. Back in the 1950s Hay had founded the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the US. Mattachine was dedicated to equal rights for gay people in society. But over the intervening years, Hay’s philosophy had evolved. With Mattachine, Hay had fought for gay people’s right to be like everyone else. In founding the Radical Faeries, his objective was to nurture gay people’s right and ability not to be like everyone else. In today’s language, you might say his goal was to locate and honor the productive difference that gay people represented. Instead of trying to assimilate into an oppressive culture, gay men, in his view, had a different experience of the world, from which perspective they could live and teach and perhaps change the culture in the process.

Harry Hay
I don’t recall if I had heard of the Radical Faeries before that day, I think I had, but I had certainly never seen them in person. And there they were marching up the steps of the courthouse. All these men who had never felt quite in the mold, who - like me - felt like frauds in suits and ties, were there to do civil disobedience, wearing t-shirts and army boots and camouflage pants and skirts over them. I had never seen such a thing. This marvelous mix of masculine and feminine elements, expressing so clearly how they saw themselves in the world. They undid the assumption that skirts were just for women, or for men imitating women. Instead, they seemed to say, everyone had a right to express on the surface the feminine and masculine of their nature. Or maybe they were saying that the concepts of “feminine” and “masculine” were altogether too narrow to capture the complexity of human experience, or at least of theirs.

I looked at these beautiful men in their skirts and boots and beards and glitter, these brave and rugged sissies, doing what was clearly, palpably, holy work, as they locked arms and were dragged off for arrest. I looked at them and a world opened up for me. They were not just speaking but wearing my own experience; they were making space for my personhood in a world where no space was given. Skirts were suddenly liberation.

In the Habit of Ritual Garb

I confess that I have always loved ritual garb, in the same way that I love sacred space. I love the simple magic that can wrench a place or a moment out of the ordinary flow and heighten or deepen it. There is a Talmudic meme addressing how something out-of-the-ordinary in the physical world can affect you in a spiritual way. It goes: im tashiv mishabbat raglecha. The idea of this principle is that whatever you set aside for Shabbat will eventually become a strong, almost Pavlovian entry point for you into a Shabbat consciousness.

As a kid in Jewish summer camp, on Erev Shabbat, we would replace our shorts and t-shirts with long pants and white, buttoned shirts. This was Shabbat's dress code, and it made us (or me) feel different, elevated. I still have a preference for a white, buttoned shirt for Shabbat (even with a skirt!), dating undoubtedly from those Wisconsin summers.

It is common among religious traditions for ritual garb to differ not only from everyday clothing but even from typical formal clothing. More fabric, more flow, unsuited to the wear and tear of daily life. Sufism offers the beautiful spinning skirts of the dervishes. Traditional Judaism offers the kittel that is worn by men on Yom Kippur and Pesach, and even the large tallit, the great flowing and fringed shawl that creates a nearly angelic silhouette. These are examples of garments designed and intended to take one out of the mundane and into a ritual awareness

After moving to San Francisco, I began to find myself on the fringes of Radical Faerie community. The Jewish Renewal chavurah I joined, called Queer Minyan, was influenced by the  Faeries, as well as other feminist and pagan groups. Queer Minyan included a number of men, myself included, who began to wear skirts for Shabbat and Yontiff ritual. Im tashiv mishabbat raglecha. This personal custom became habit, and when I most wanted to be myself, to honor who I was inside, with a ritual intention, the skirt could bring me there in an instant. In a skirt I’d feel Jewish, I’d feel beautiful, I’d feel a little freer from the constant hum of gender rules that form so much of the world’s background noise.

And so I would wear a skirt at Queer Minyan. Or at home for Shabbat evening. Or on High Holy Days at Berkeley’s Aquarian Minyan. I wore a shabbos skirt for an intimate Jewish Renewal Shabbaton with movement founder Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I was nervous about it, but he loved the skirt and thanked me for bringing gender fluidity into the shared ritual space of the weekend. When I sit to meditate (which I should do more, I know, I know), it is often in a skirt. And in 2008, after being a couple for 15 years, Oren and I stood at last together under a chupah, both of us in skirts.

Our wedding; our chupah; our skirts.
Invisibility on the Bimah

I've only worn the skirt on the bimah in my Northern California community a few times. I tend to hesitate, because I don't want the lovely shift of consciousness I feel in the skirt to be jeopardized or drowned out by my anxiety about what other people will think.

I worry about it because the skirt's being meaningful for me doesn’t mean it is without impact on others. Especially in religious environments, those in leadership are “symbolic exemplars.” In addition to what they intentionally bring to the experience, rabbis are also the repositories of congregants' expectations. Their personal choices are inevitably seen as symbolic. It is very hard ever to be on the bimah without a self-consciousness or anxiety about what people are seeing in you, and whether it is the you that you intend people to see.

When I'm in front of that room, I want people to have an experience. I want them to feel connection with tradition and each other, a bunch of belonging, a lot of uplift and maybe some transformation. So how do I negotiate being present enough to cook this up and also make sure I, as a visible presence in the room, don't get in the way.

Rabbis are typically taught in rabbinical school to try to make themselves invisible on the bimah so that they do not distract the congregation from its spiritual process. But for some people invisibility is easier said than done. And for some people invisibility can have a painful edge.

Invisibility hasn't always been the custom for religious leaders in Judaism. In antiquity the priestly caste would wear special garb described in Torah – robes, a choshen, or jeweled breastplate; I seem to remember of headdress of some sort. This would set the priests apart from the people. After the destruction of the Temple, the practicing priesthood disappeared. Cantors, or chazzanim, became the day-to-day ritual leaders. They were not of a divinely chosen hereditary clan but were sh’lichey tzibur, emissaries of the community. That is, they were of the people. Rabbis also were teachers before we came to see them as ritual leaders; their origins are also from among the people. And so rabbis and cantors would typically dress like the congregation because they were the congregation.

With the rise of Classical Reform Judaism in the late 18th Century, rabbis came to wear robes in the modern style -- that is, in the style of Protestant ministers. And so would the cantor and the choir. These robes would likely be more ample and pleated than the traditional kittel. They would achieve uniformity among the clergy, but press a sharp distinction between clergy and laity.

So “invisibility” really would mean different things depending on the context. In a community where the rabbi dresses in robes, it would mean, “wear robes.” In a community where the rabbi dresses like the laity, it might mean something like “dress conventionally.”

This kind of invisibility is, though, not as obvious as it looks. I canvassed some rabbi friends (in a statistically irrelevant kind of way) about their experience of how to dress on the bimah. While the men I asked told me they dress invisibly by wearing jackets and ties, the women rabbis did not seem to have the luxury of invisibility no matter what they wore. Almost every single female rabbi I asked had a story to share about her appearance being publicly or privately criticized or commented on. They'd been told by congregants or board committees or sisterhood groups that they should wear more jewelry, less jewelry, more makeup, less makeup, some nail polish please, higher hems, lower hems, higher heels, lower heels, skirts not pants, nothing too flashy, nothing too butch, no color orange, no cleavage, and even that they should consider electrolysis. The men had virtually no parallel experience.

This suggests to me that invisibility is a perk that comes with being part of the dominant class. It is pretty much impossible for a Black person to achieve invisibility in white-dominated environment; it is impossible for women to achieve invisibility in male-dominated environment. (In these cases I don't mean "invisibility" in the sense of "being ignored" but in the sense of "blending in.") And Judaism – and the bimah in particular – continue to be marked as male space even as we strive for it not to be. Despite our protestations of egalitarianism, the bimah reflects a sexist double standard around clothing and appearance.

Must Men and Women Dress Differently?

Okay, maybe it's time for a quick tangent. A pet peeve of mine. Although reflecting, obviously, a big social inequity that's relevant here. The double standard in how men and women are required to dress bugs me, and our being so used to it that we don't notice it, bugs me even more.

This is an issue I’ve taken up before in a drash about Torah's prohibition on cross-dressing. And I could talk forever about how women in the modern world are dismissed for dressing too girly and disdained for dressing too butch and are constantly negotiating appearance in a way that men never have to.

But I'll skip the discussion and go right to an illustration. This is a picture I snapped in Washington, DC last year:

This bus advertisement promotes the meteorology team for a local TV station. Four meteorologists appear. Presumably all have similar meteorological education and meteorological expertise. Three are dressed identically. But look at poor Veronica Johnson who, because she's a woman, has to reveal more than twice as much skin as her colleagues do. And wear jewels and lipstick and false eyelashes and long, very styled hair – all in order to be successful in their shared profession. Maybe she likes dressing that way! But I think we all know, that if it were her preference to just dress like a meteorologist, and not like a weather girl, she wouldn’t be in this photo and on this team. Her professional success relies on her willingness to abide by the tremendous disparity in how men and women are expected to look.

The point is that clothes and personal appearance are one of the places where our culture remains most invested in keeping a clear divide between men and women, a line that in general causes men no big inconvenience, but costs women time and money and lifelong anxiety about their appearance.

And so me in a skirt, crossing that divide, is inevitably going to bring up some deep reactions from people, especially (but not exclusively) when I'm on the bimah. And that is why usually I don't do it. Because I want people thinking about the Shema or the Shechinah and not about my skirt.

Rabbi as Teacher, and the Problem of Discomfort

So I usually decline to wear a skirt to shul. But on the other hand, don't I have something here to teach with my skirt? Some Torah of my own? Most rabbis teach with their words. But many go beyond their words and teach with their actions too. Heschel famously marching next to Martin Luther King, saying that his feet were praying. This is very important Torah, expressed not just through the black flame of the words but through the white flame of example.

So at what point do I judge that what I have to offer through my actions is worth violating the elusive principle of invisibility on the bimah? (A principle which, thanks to not having gone to rabbinical school, doesn't really bind me.)

Invisibility is not neutral. What makes my male rabbi friends look invisible makes me feel conspicuous. In a suit, I feel like I'm in someone else's clothes. I wobble from foot to foot like an awkward kid. I may be leading a prayer, but some part of my mind is wondering if my pant cuff is caught on the tongue of my shoe. So what looks like invisibility is not without cost or consequence.

On the other hand I know I can't be invisible in my skirt either. Still, when I wear it, I feel more like myself. Which holds within it the possibility of being a better, more authentic leader.

So I'm doomed. But that is also the nature of being an instrument of change. It means sometimes being conspicuous. It means living in the discomfort. And living with causing discomfort. Anyone who's been part of a social change movement knows this. Anyone who's ever come out of the closet knows this. That causing discomfort is sometimes the only thing you can do with integrity.

And what is discomfort anyway? I think it's for the most part a reaction to the new. An anticipation of change. Our goal as thinking, evolving people is to never to feel uncomfortable, but rather to change through our discomfort.

One of the colleagues I’d surveyed about clothing was Rabbi Shefa Gold, ordained in both the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, and a pioneer in using new modalities to bring Jews into a deeper connection with spirit. In response to my inquiry, she related this personal experience:
There is a tendency to take whatever we are used to, and make it right. I remember when I used to be at Elat Chayyim [an East Coast Jewish retreat center], there was a wonderful guy that worked there. He liked to wear skirts, and at first it did make me feel uncomfortable . . . because I just wasn't used to it. After a while I did get used to it . . and I enjoyed being in a community that embraced different styles of expression. So why was I uncomfortable? My guess is that I was conditioned by gender rules of what's right, and I had never confronted that conditioning, which soon dissolved in the light of Reality.
I've also learned not to presume that people will necessarily be uncomfortable just because I'm doing something new or different or challenging to a certain kind of status quo. The most recent time I wore a skirt to shul, the oldest member of our congregation, an 85-year old lesbian activist, bounded up to me and took me by both my hands to tell me how snazzy I looked. My skirt, in all its unorthodoxy, had created more room for her and who she is. And the comfort of those who have felt excluded in the Jewish world is of huge importance. So it's important for me to remember that I'm not alone. And that when I do something that is out of the box, there are others who feel more embraced than they had before. And that has got to be good for the Jews.

Tradition! Tradition!

One of the things that I love about Judaism and that I think is frequently misunderstood, is its dynamic nature. Judaism changes all the time. Through a variety of mechanisms. Sometimes the change is gradual and incremental. Sometimes it happens all at once. For instance the inclusion of women in synagogue ritual, including through Bat Mitzvah. This sea change waited for its time, it waited till it could not be contained, it waited until there was the right leadership and the right milieu, and then it exploded into existence.

On March 18, 1922, everything changed for women in Judaism, thanks to the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Mordecai Kaplan, and his daughter, Judith Kaplan, who that day not long ago by Jewish standards celebrated the first Bat Mitzvah.

The reason I like to think about this change is that it came from a great shared impulse for justice. It might be even described as a Jewish impulse for justice. Unlike, say, a rule about kashrut, it did not come from a rabbinic process of pilpul - of debate and slow consideration. Undoubtedly the progressive movements had been having debate on this topic - we'll let the historians fill us in on those details. But at some point doing became more important than debating. Kaplan faced the prospect of excommunication for having called his daughter to the Torah. But it was too late. Women's equality in American Judaism could not be rolled back.

So here's the question: was sex equality an incursion of non-Jewish ideology into Judaism? Arguably it was. But Judaism has always grown and changed as a result of exposure to new values and understandings.

Rabbi Benay Lappe writes about the powerful concept of svara – the strong moral instinct that permits or even requires us, according to Talmud, to nullify words of Torah if they result in an injustice.

The inclusion of women despite threats of excommunication and cries of heresy comes from a deep place of svara. And maybe my own particular svara, my own deep impulse for justice, has to do with questioning the orthodoxy of gender codes. I have a Torah that is about gender, and I have a lifelong desire to create the Judaism that I want to be part of.

The Torah of the Skirt

I guess when it boils down to it, my Torah, my teaching, is this: that unless men can wear skirts -- not for a laugh, not to make a clever social commentary, not to work the Esther look on Purim, but stam, just because -- then we're not serious when we say women are equal. As long as a man is diminished by wearing an article of women's clothing, then we have to own that we as a culture continue to hold women in lesser esteem.

My brilliant friend Emily Doskow said to me more than 20 years ago that we won't have true gender equality until we start dressing our little boys in skirts. At the time I understood the point but the idea still felt outlandish to me, as it might feel to you right now. But finding it outlandish is in fact proof of the problem. Why is it outlandish? It is only outlandish to put a boy in a skirt if it is an insult to the boy to be mistaken for a girl. It is only outlandish if being thought a girl is a serious problem. That being incorrectly thought a girl is wrong, or harmful, or confusing, or any one of a number of well-meaning but probably just-not-true adjectives you could put in that spot.

We might say we protect our little boys from skirts to keep them out of harm's way; to protect them from bullies and detractors (most of whom are probably adults). But they are only in harm's way because we believe, or we go along with the idea that gender is a line not to be crossed. And that it somehow lessens a boy's capital to be too closely associated with common signifiers of femalenss.

So maybe this is a piece of my Torah too. A reminder that we are all equal. That men and women are not opposites. That our species holds endless variation. That we should question our investments in a sharp distinction between male and female - in our laws, our entertainments, our rituals and even our metaphors (including our beloved Kabbalistic symbolism, which is fueled by the supposed yinny-yanginess of male and female).

In any event, I am not at this moment proposing that we put skirts on our boys (although it's worth considering). And I confess I am in awe of the growing numbers of little boys who insist on skirts and the growing ranks of parents who support them in their choice. But that's not what I'm proposing.

I don't need to wear a skirt to shul every week. But I want to be able to. I want to be able to express who I am, wear what makes me feel comfortable and beautiful and soulful and Jewish. I want to wear what makes me feel solid in my very unsolid gender. And I want everyone else to feel that same freedom to express who they are even when they're in the confines of synagogue or other Jewish space.

Discomfort as an Invitation to Change

So where does this leave me? I can wear a skirt, and other men can too, and people can continue to try to work through the pitfalls of gender duality using whatever creative means are at hand.

But what about other people's discomfort? Well, where there is discomfort, there is also an invitation for change, for liberation, for an opening up.

To know for certain that working through discomfort can open a door to wonderful things, I have only to look at my mother, Marilyn Keller, z"l, who was the greatest example of this quality I have ever known. Life threw her a variety of uncomfortable curves. She had two queer children. One became a performer in drag. She came into proximity with many gay people and many transgendered people too. And she came to be a grandmother in a very alternative family structure.

In each instance, there was initial discomfort. And she would push through it, armed only with love. She would in short order dispatch her discomfort as an unuseful thing. Her old ideas held no nostalgia for her. Instead she would become proud - of what she'd learned, who she'd become, who we'd become. She went from discomfort right to pride, without pausing at "tolerance," which her honest heart quickly told her was just discomfort with a smile.

This is how my mother grew and how we all grow. It's how we change for the better. As individuals, as communities, as Jews, as a species that longs so very much to be bigger than its biology. It is how we become holy.

Purim Time is Here

So here it is Purim again. A time for masquerading and for unmasking. I've done a little unmasking right here. And for all you Jewish guys trying out the Esther look this year, I have a suggestion. When you're done working your costume for laughs, stay in it a while longer. Quietly. Without an agenda. See how it feels. See what you learn about the world, and the pressures on women. See what you unmask about yourself and who you are inside. If you're going to transgress this Purim, don't just do it with clothes. Transgress your own beliefs, your own presumptions, your own comfort zone.

That willingness to look, to listen, not to be so certain of what we know, is how we make a world that's richer, deeper and safer for every one of us.

And to my mind, anything that enriches our spirits and our love for and appreciation of this tremendous and complex creation in which we live is, ultimately -- no, immediately! -- good for the Jews.

So I'll keep wearing my skirt. Maybe not so much on Purim. But on shabbos, for sure. For me, there's nothing better.


I had so many wonderful conversations whose insights and flavor I tried to capture, but undoubtedly failed. I am grateful to Rabbi Marla Subeck Spanjer, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Rabbi Eli Cohen, Rabbi Chaya Gusfield, Rabbi Shefa Gold, Rabbi Ted Feldman, Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman, Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow, Rabbi Deb Kolodny, my chevruta partner Eli Herb, Atzilah Solot, Anne Tamar-Mattis, Shari Brenner, Alan Ziff and Shira Hadditt. I am thankful to have you all in my life.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Priest, Have a Little Priest!

For Congregation Ner Shalom

So, big news this week. Very big news. No, not the Russians mobilizing on the borders of Crimea. Not jobs. No, the big news, at least in certain circles, is John Travolta and his public mangling of the name of Idina Menzel at the Oscars. Idina Menzel, a Jewish daughter-made-good, who originated famous roles in Rent and in Wicked, playing respectively, the arguably Jewish roles of pushy creative type and green-skinned outcast. She is part of Broadway history and yet is someone still unknown to the masses who are not Broadway buffs, including Travolta. (In fact, the hip, Jewish online Tablet Magazine today speculated that the fact that Travolta didn't know who Idina Menzel was should now dispel all rumors that he's gay.)

But Idina walked out and sang her song, gorgeously of course, despite having just been introduced as Adele Nazeem, which made her sound something like a mix of British pop star and Turkish poet. And a lot of people learned in the process that you have to look a bit beyond name, to just let it go, and you'll be ready to discover something truly beautiful.

Which brings us around to the new book of Torah we begin reading this week, in Hebrew called Vayikra, a beautiful name meaning, "And God called." Because it opens with God calling out to Moshe, and arguably to all of us. A call, a question, awaiting our answer.

But before we get to that, we've got to deal with the other name of this book: Leviticus, a label that has come to symbolize so many things both related and unrelated to the book's actual contents, a handle that sets many a tooth on edge, a word that is used with equal facility as punishment and punchline. A book that challenges, for sure, but is typically dismissed too soon.

You see, even though we've come to associate Leviticus with sexual taboos and suspiciously fixated Bible-thumpers, it is meant to be something different. A holiness code, a ritual system, a guide for moving cleanly through the human world and for bumping shoulders respectfully with the Divine. In this tome are sensible and easily supportable laws of human-human conduct: caring for the poor, loving your fellow, resisting  the allure of hatred. And it contains business ethics as relevant today as 3000 years ago: paying your workers on time, using honest weights and measures, judging fairly. And yes, there's sex stuff too - a sexual ethic that addresses, in the thinking and language of the time, proper and improper relations - many of which we would still consider improper. It's this sexy bit that gets the most press, and has arguably unleashed more harm than anything else in our tradition, through the disproportionate literalism with which it continues to be read in some corners.

But mostly the book is about ritual. Leviticus is the Levitical code. An instruction manual for the Levites, laying out all the ritual they will practice or oversee. The Levites, as you might recall, are a tribe of Israel, the descendants of Levi, one of Jacob's 12 sons. But unlike the other tribes, they do not possess a parcel in the Promised Land. Instead they have a function. They serve in the mishkan, in the Tabernacle in the desert, and later in the Temple. Which means that they are both the ritual guardians and the bureaucratic class of ancient Israel - part cleric, part clerical.

And one family, one clan from among the Levites, the Kohanim, were charged with being the priests. They would receive the offerings brought by the people, offerings whose requirements start getting laid out this very week, right at the top of the book. All sorts of offerings. Beasts, birds, first fruits, meal offerings. Guilt offerings. Shlamim - peace offerings, or offerings for the purpose of making something whole. The priests would offer the sacrifices. They'd slaughter the animals. They'd sprinkle the blood. They'd add incense to make the reyach nichoach - the scent that is pleasing to God: a smell of smoke and herbs and burning meat that is as irresistible to God as the nearly identical smell of sizzling bacon is to a Jew on a Sunday morning.

The priests, dressed in special garments that marked them as the human-divine gatekeepers, would enact all this ritual, grisly ritual to be sure, and they would become the vehicles for atonement and expiation. For fulfillment of a vow, for completion of an endeavor. The priestly ritual would bring a spiritual stamp of completion to an earthly problem posed. The Kohanim represented the people to God and God to the people. In doing so, they were a human reminder that what we do on earth is also l'shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. We are accountable to the Divine, our actions and inactions affect the Divine. They were a reminder that there is something overarching, unifying, sanctifying our homes and our fields and our bodies and our relationships.

I've often wondered why we read all the priestly instructions every year. Yes, we read it because we read all of Torah; the cycle of it is ancient. But the cycle could also have been changed by the rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple. They could have chosen to make the priestly code something that we read on the side, voluntarily, as we do later books of the Bible. But no, we read them year in, year out. Fixed.

It seems to me that although the Temple rituals described are no longer viable in the absence of an actual Temple, the need for such ritual, or the needs that those rituals addressed, are still alive in each of us. There are times I need forgiveness, or to express my gratitude, or give voice to my sorrow, to honor a new beginning or an ending. Modern rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism we know, gives us mechanisms for doing those things. Yom Kippur, Hallel, Kaddish, Shehecheyanu.

But I'd like to suggest that the synagogue and its liturgy are not the only successors to the Temple in Jerusalem. Each of us is its successor too.

There is a lovely tradition that in every Jew there exists a pintele Yid. A tiny spark of Jewishness.  The pintele Yid is the Jewish part of each of us that endures, no matter how Jewish or not we choose to live. But maybe that pintele Yid is in fact a kohen. Maybe in each of us is a spark of kehunah, of priesthood. In each of us is a human-divine gatekeeper, robed in holy garments. A part of us that serves us, that serves our inner Temple. A part that has the final say on matters of spirit. This is the part that can, at last, when needed, say, "Forgiven." And can say, "It's done." And can say, "It is l'shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven." When we feel heard by God, or forgiven, or blessed, or loved, perhaps that sensation is coming from, or through, our pintele Kohen, our tiny internal priest.

It might be that our internal priests dictate a different kind of ritual than we saw in the Temple in olden days or that we see in the synagogue today. Private ritual. Maybe our pintele Kohen decides the right dinner to help relieve a terrible day. Or the right walk to take after having been laid up in bed with an illness. The right person to call to share your good news. When to stop working and go do yoga. Where to hang the wonderful old photo of grandma.

How does your inner priest know what the right ritual is? Experience. Instinct. Svara - the Talmudic idea of an inner moral impulse that is at least as important in guiding us as the specifically enumerated mitzvot of Torah.

The pintele Kohen, the little priest, is, or should be, a Big Kahuna among our often-conflicting inner voices. A reminder that we are holy, and the fires of that holiness need to be tended, like the fires of the altar in the Temple.

And this - the vision of ourselves as holy, holy enough to require priesthood and holy enough to embody it - is perhaps the most enduring and beautiful aspect of the Book of Leviticus. The book that is better called by its Hebrew name, Vayikra, the book that reminds us that we are called, and that our lives - both our spiritual lives and our lives on this earth plane - are the answer to that call.

This book, Vayikra, is like a certain under-appreciated Broadway star. A daughter of Israel, with a great set of pipes; it sings a song that can raise our spirits and our sights. And ultimately, it doesn't matter at all if we get the name right.

Friday, January 17, 2014

From the Valley of the Shadow of Death

On Leadership, Gentile In-Laws & Recovery from Loss
For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ January 17, 2014

A shadowed road. Hampstead, London. Photo: IEK
It's good to be home I think. Although I am suffering from performance anxiety tonight, wondering how to even form words at this moment. Because I am freshly back from shiva, having dusted and vacuumed and locking the door behind me on the house I grew up in, a house only ever lived in by Kellers, standing now without occupant for the first time since 1958. A house that, like me, has undergone a great loss but doesn't yet feel that way.

After the cascade of events of these past 8 weeks, I ought to have something of value to say, or so I suppose people to think. But my head is aswim, and it's not clear to me that I have gained insight. I expect that insight, if it arrives at all, will come only in the long haul.

And besides anxiety about content, I have anxiety about topic. Because I have already delivered two drashot and a eulogy about my mother. Who really wants to hear more? Her death is painful  to me, but it doesn't objectively constitute tragedy. She lived a long life full of love, including the love of many people here. She affected people for the good. She died at a reasonably ripe age, even if her youthfulness made it seem oddly premature. No, not tragic. Whereas our community here and my own circle of friends have in fact seen tragic deaths in the past weeks. People dying young, leaving behind spouses, children and parents too. Deaths happening in an order that they should not happen; in a way that I suspect is not strictly necessary in the divine scheme of things, unless it's to teach some lesson about noticing the preciousness of life. But if so, it's an awfully high pricetag for mindfulness.

So instead, I imagine, what I should do is get on with business. The sermon business. And do what is done universally in the Jewish world when at a loss and talk about this week's Torah portion. And it's a good one, culminating in the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But it begins with a visit to Moshe by his father-in-law, Yitro, the High Priest of Midyan. Yitro tracks down Moshe and the Children of Israel in the wilderness, where they have just escaped the slavery of Egypt. Yitro praises God by name, a name and worship which some scholars speculate we got from the Midyanites to begin with. Yitro offers gratitude for God's benevolence. And then there follows much hugging, feasting and weeping.

Then the next day dawns and, surprise, it turns out to be "Take Your Father-in-Law to Work" Day. Yitro watches as Moshe spends every waking hour sitting and adjudicating the disputes of the Israelites, and there are many, considering that they are all displaced and disorganized and facing unprecedented difficulties. Moshe sits from dawn till dark and Yitro, his father-in-law, is appalled. He appeals to Moshe, explaining that this locating of leadership within a single individual is not sustainable. Moshe seems to know this but doesn't know how to break the cycle. Yitro presents him with a new system in which there are judges over the tens and appellate judges over the hundreds and then the thousands, with Moshe as the court of last resort, never again to listen to a small claims matter.

Yitro's idea was one that perhaps Moshe could hear because it came from outside. It was new,  not an inherited idea. It didn't come from Moshe's parents or his priestly brother or prophetic sister. It came from his father-in-law. His non-Jewish father-in-law. And perhaps that's the function of the gentile in-law in the Hebrew mythos. They are a source of newness, of freshness. Yitro, like the famed Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, is not of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob line. Instead, Yitro and Ruth represent the new idea. And they are beloved - their contributions lead to greatness. Yitro's advice to Moshe immediately precedes the moment of revelation at Sinai; it seems to ignite our people's ability to give (or receive) a system of law, that very Torah that has formed our identity and worldview for millennia. And Ruth, for her part, is depicted as the great-grandmother of King David and is, according to tradition, to be the ancestor of the Messiah. Naomi's gentle, gentile daughter-in-law, with her unexpected fount of kindness, becomes our people's source of future redemption.

In any event, Yitro's teaching to Moshe is about the sharing of leadership. And that, I can guarantee you, is a hot topic on the world's bimahs tonight. And, after all, it's New Member Shabbat here. How could anyone resist making a pitch for new leadership? Because as you might perceive, this community is growing - we have twice as many households as we did five years ago. But our leadership has not doubled. Instead, we largely see the same small group struggling to keep up.

And there are so many things we could be doing! Not just services. Not just classes or religious events. We could be streaming. We could be making a CD of our music. We could be visiting sick community members, fitted with songs and casseroles. We could be doing nice, easy stuff - bike rides or bagel brunches or bowling nights. Chances to just hang out as Jews, or mostly Jews, together.

So let me tell you about how this conversation then goes at our Kavanah Committee, which is our spiritual life planning committee. It is this synagogue's most active and successful committee, because it meets monthly over breakfast, and breakfast makes all the difference. So at the table someone has or relates an idea for something we can do. Something brilliant; and sometimes super easy. Something we really think people would respond to. Then the question arises who can put this together? And we all look at each other, knowing that everyone at the table is spread too thin with their Ner Shalom leadership commitments. Most at the table are already on the Board or on the bimah.

So up comes the idea of calling the membership and asking who would be willing to take the lead on this idea. After all, we have "new member forms" for everyone - we know your interests and skills. Plus everyone knows when they join, that this community will need a little of their time. So we all smile at the certainty and relief that just the right person (or almost the right person) exists in our midst already. Then someone asks, "Who can make the calls to find someone?" And we all stare at each other, knowing we're all spread too thin to sit and make those calls. The panic slowly rises. A clock somewhere in the restaurant begins to tick loudly, until someone says, "This is why we need a Volunteer Coordinator. To make these kinds of calls." And again we're elated as we all agree that somewhere at Ner Shalom is a Volunteer Coordinator waiting to be plucked like ripe fruit from the tree. Then someone asks who can make the calls to recruit a Volunteer Coordinator. And we stare at each other some more, keenly aware of the spiral of self-pity now in motion, our tears dripping into the remnants of our French toast. Until the Kavanah meeting begins to look like Moshe's reunion with his father-in-law, characterized by hugging, feasting and weeping too.

So on this week of the Yitro visit, this week of the breath of fresh air that says, "Others can lead too," how can I not make a pitch, and say, "Please, share the leadership here with us?" Don't stand on ceremony. Don't wait to be called, because we might just still be stuck at a breakfast table trying to figure out who, if anyone, has time to pick up the phone. Just step up. We need you. Newcomers and old-timers alike. Not hard labor. Just gentle leadership. A single event. A single project. A single idea. Honor us with your wisdom and your sparkling skills. And if you notice it being hard for us to accept your help, forgive us and gently remind us of this night and of Moshe.

So there. A pitch for your leadership was just the right thing to do tonight. Both legitimate and timely. And it got me out of my sermon-writing bind. So that I wouldn't really have to report back on the way that my life is now different, and not different at the same time.

Because it is different and not-different. Surreal. As if I accidentally got sucked into an alternate universe, where everything is the same but my mother does not exist.

You know, over my life I've had thousands of opportunities to recite Psalm 23, the calming psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd, that one. Still waters, green pastures. I recite it almost daily, and I continued to do so at each shiva minyan at my mother's house. But I think I am now understanding in a way I never have, the bit about walking through Gey Tzalmavet, the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Gam ki elech b'Gey Tzalmavet lo ira ra. "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil," says the psalm. I used to think this passage was about the fear of dying or the fear of death. When I'm afraid for my life, God is with me. That's what I was sure the psalmist was aiming for.

But now I'm no longer certain. Because it is now, after my mother's death, not in anticipation of it, that I feel like I am walking in Gey Tzalmavet. I am shadowed by death. Death's shadow obscures the road ahead. It is not an evil road that I'm on. Just a shadowed one. And a strange one, because it makes the routine things seem out of place. If I sent a postcard from Gey Tzalmavet, it would say something like, "Everything here is just like at home, but the people are so perky."

Tzalmavet, the odd Hebrew compound word that means "shadow of death" could also reasonably be voweled and read as tzalmut - and it would then mean something more like "self-image" or "identity". From the root tzelem, that we use when we say that we are made in God's image. Walking the path, after losing parents, as many people in this room know, is a challenge of tzalmut, of identity. Who am I now? What does it mean for me to be me, now that none of being me can be about pleasing my mother or rebelling against her for that matter? Who am I now that I am on the front edge of the generations? Who will I become? How will I change? When I look at my reflection in the mirror, will I see more of her now, or less?

Gam ki elech b'Gey Tzalmut, lo ira ra. But as I walk through the valley of this precarious new identity, I will not fear. Because it is not an evil road. Just a shadowed one, hard to see around the next bend.

So that's the report. When people ask, "How are you," I've begun to simply say, "The jury's out." I'm sad, I'm bewildered, I'm busy. But, lo ira ra. I'm not afraid.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Best Friends

My sister Lynn's eulogy for my mother yesterday.

I never expected to be here doing this. I thought of my mom aging and somehow always pushed the thoughts away. A couple of months ago Mom and I had a discussion about dying and she said to me that she wasn’t ready, she didn’t want to die. Mom had a way of being that made me feel that she would always be here, that dying was not a possibility and that comforted me. 

After my dad passed away 13 years ago, it seemed Mom and I got close and closer. We truly became best friends. I could and did tell her everything. I have many dear friends that I confide in but ultimately pouring my heart out to my mom always felt like a healing, no matter what it was I had going on in my life. Mom knew me better than anyone. I’d usually apologize for whining and she’d apologize back for whining too. So, we mutually whined and it was okay. We each trusted we could be honest. Last year when I played my show downtown, for 3 weeks she’d wait up for me nightly when I’d return near midnight. We’d talk, eat, drink wine, laugh, hold hands while sitting in the side by side recliners and watch TV till the wee hours….. One night I decided to bring home White Castle sliders since neither one of us had ever had that delight before. We had an absolute blast.

I have been thinking of what I wanted to share here. Truthfully, It’s really simple; just to say how much I love Mom and how greatly I will miss her. In reflecting on my feelings, I decided to go to Facebook (who doesn’t?!) and look at my year in review. I had numerous posts about my Mom but the most poignant one says everything I need to say:

May 12, 2013

My Mom and my best friend. I thank you Mom for always being there for your still little girl. I love you.