Saturday, August 16, 2014

Quick Kaddish in a Dreadful Summer

For Congregation Ner Shalom, August 15, 2014




A couple weeks ago I wrote an essay in my blog about going through my mother's basement back in Niles, Illinois, and the stories and sadness that were emerging for me from those long sealed, dusty boxes. I shared the essay with a new friend, a rabbi friend, that I've only known for a couple months. He emailed me back and said, "I didn't realize you were an avel.  I wish you constant comfort and strength through this year of mourning."

Those words hit me hard. Avel. The Hebrew meaning "a mourner." A word that signifies a special status that one maintains for a full year following the death of a next of kin. I felt myself choking up, feeling "seen" in a way that I hadn't been. And feeling "seen" made me feel the loss all over again. I wasn't used to being visible as a mourner. After all, in our culture, we don't have good words for people who are in mourning. If you lose a spouse, you're a widow or widower, and you stay that way. And while in Hebrew a yatom, an orphan, can be of any age (I choked up similarly a few months ago when a friend called me yatom sheli - my orphan), in English the word "orphan" applies to a child, and pretty much a child only. An adult who loses parents and says aloud, "I'm an orphan" is judged as self-pitying or overly theatrical. An orphan child who grows up will, at some point, gently morph from saying "I am an orphan" to "I was an orphan."

In our culture, "mourner" is an ephemeral state, situationally dictated. A mourner is someone at a funeral. Mourners can even be hired for the day. And then, after that funeral, you have no status. And you become invisible. But in Hebrew, avel is an attribute that sticks beyond that difficult day. It allows you, even requires you, to be seen. This designation reminds those around you to judge your actions and your moods not in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of loss. Not just at some moment where you are publicly singled out as a mourner. But in your day-to-day life, when you're running errands with jaw-clenched stoicism, or when you're having a private moment of crazy grief that can take any surprising form, even screaming obscenities at inanimate objects. For instance last night, driving home, trying to send a text message in a compliant and safely hands-free manner:

Me:   Siri, send a text to Anne and Suegee.
Siri: Do you mean Anna Bell Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Me: Neither.
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "neither." Do you mean Anna Belle Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Me: Neither one.
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "neither one." Do you mean Anna Belle Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Me: I mean somebody else entirely.
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "somebody else entirely." Anna Belle Kaufman or  --

At which point, crazy with rage, I hurled an uncharacteristically graphic expletive at Siri. To which she replied, "I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by," and then managed to repeat the profanity with absolute precision.

Anyway, the point is that being in grief means that sometimes you're just bonkers. And when your loss, your avelut, is invisible to others, no one knows or remembers why you keep sliding off the deep end.

But Jewish tradition does in fact encourage us to to be visible as mourners, to show up publicly as avelim. The custom is, as we know, for mourners to recite the Kaddish prayer, and to do so, when possible, publicly, in a minyan, a community of at least ten people. As I remind us whenever we're together, the words of Kaddish, in the Aramaic that was once our everyday tongue, are words of praise. In the face of loss, sometimes because of loss, we are called to express wonder; we acknowledge that the workings of this Creation are bigger, deeper, higher than we can possibly imagine or understand. But now that Aramaic is more remote for us even than Hebrew, it is not the lofty sentiment that speaks to us. Rather it is the heartbeat-like rhythm of this prayer - yitbabam v'yitbabam v'yitbabam - that hits us most profoundly, and that we associate not with death itself, but with the Jewish experience of death. I just finished reading Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and this little insight about Kaddish jumped out at me:

Most people in America, including myself . . . don’t know what these words mean, but nearly everyone recognizes the sobering message they bring: a Jew is dead. Another Jew is dead. As though death were not a consequence of life but a consequence of having been a Jew.

The traditional way of reciting the Mourners' Kaddish, in which only the avelim, the mourners, rise, was another way to make sure that you, the mourner, were seen. And in that moment of being seen, you would inevitably see your own altered state. The modern progressive custom of the whole room standing, either in support of the mourners or in the name of the 6 million, is beautiful also and well intentioned. But it inadvertently neutralizes loss and renders individual grief invisible. Standing as a mourner among a bunch of non-mourners has the perverse effect of making me, at least, feel more alone than I felt starting out.

That said, I do think there are times in which we are all in fact, and not just symbolically, avelim together. And I think right now is one of those moments. There is a pervading mood of loss and desolation that everyone I know has been experiencing for many weeks now, and that has only been deepening with each new turn of events. We're all feeling Robin Williams' loss this week with a surprising keenness. Because we were already primed for it by the grief we feel about the war in Israel and Gaza and all the senseless deaths there. But of course that grief itself was an explosive extension of the grief we already felt about three murdered Yeshivah bochurs and one cruelly killed Palestinian boy. And those shocking acts came on the heels of or intertwined with other things: the downing of a passenger plane over Ukraine; the still inconceivable kidnapping of some 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. And even grief about ISIS overrunning far-away Iraq, which brought with it the death of many members of ethnic minorities there, and the death of any lingering hope we might have had that despite our bungling invasion of that country we might somehow have left it better than it had been.

It's been a season of tremendous grief. It courses through all of us. What we are feeling this summer is not polite sympathy, such as we expect from those who obligingly stand to say Kaddish alongside the mourners. But real personal grief. We feel it and we act on it without naming it. Not just Jews. The country. The world for all I know. We feel it, our children feel it through us. Our pets probably feel it. Our tempers are short, our misunderstandings are frequent, our ability to find the right words eludes us.

This is because we are impaired. Impaired by grief. Traumatized might or might not be overstatement, but impaired is not. We are impaired like any avel is impaired. We can't always trust our reactions, we can't always trust our better selves. We don't know when we might start screaming at Siri.

But maybe there is some comfort available. This is the season for it, after all. After Tisha B'Av, after our holiday marking the destruction of the holy Temple, where the ruined Jerusalem is described as a widow; after this holiday of desolation comes a season of comfort, of slow, step-by-step emergence from our broken state, culminating with the last blast of the shofar at the ne'ilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, when we are, once again, we hope, whole. During this time in between, our tradition hands us weekly haftarah portions of comfort.

This week's haftarah, from Isaiah, offers repeated and insistent declarations that we are not forgotten, that we are engraved on God's hands like a divine tattoo, that our children carried off to captivity are bound to return, that our desolate city will once again be alive and bustling.

These prophecies might have been comforting to our conquered and exiled ancestors. But we are cynical moderns. We know that on the global scale there are rhythms of loss and regeneration. We know that destroyed cities fill up again. But we also know they don't fill up with the people who were lost in the conquest. The hope offered by Isaiah is pretty, but pretty hard to accept.

Still, Isaiah has some advice that might speak to us. He says:
Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
(Isaiah 51:1-2)
And there is something here. Which is, when you are without landmarks, and it feels like there is nothing to steer by, look back to your roots. When the path ahead is dim or unimaginable, turn around and look back at the path where you came from. If nothing else, it will be familiar. Re-orient yourself with what you know. When you see yourself plowing ahead in a panic, stop. Breathe. Inhale some of the good stuff at your source. Is there guidance there? How to handle loss? How to mourn?

Yes, there is. Our rock, that Jewish rock that we were hewn from, gives us some guidance. It says there is a name to this experience and if you name it then you can see it and you can be seen. Avel. That is the name. You are a mourner. We are all mourners. And seeing each other that way, seeing ourselves that way in these hard times, allows us to give each other some extra space. It allows us to give ourselves some extra space. To look at others with compassion, to look at ourselves with compassion. To care for ourselves the way we'd care for a dear friend who has suffered a loss. What might we say to our bereaved selves? Take time to breathe. Eat ice cream. Take a walk. If we are still going to have something to say or something to do to make this world better, we need to be careful and cared for so we can play our part and play it well. So, avel, take some special care of yourself.

And, one other piece of guidance. That quarry, that Jewish quarry we were dug from, that old tradition that seems to go back to Sarah herself, suggests that when we are in mourning, we say Kaddish. When we feel the pain of loss - the death of loved ones or a respected icon or innocent people far away or even the death of a long cherished hope or belief - we honor that loss with a Kaddish.

So in this summer of grief, say Kaddish. Not a symbolic Kaddish but a real one. Even if you don't know what the words mean. Even if you don't know the words at all. Think how this Creation is bigger than all of us. And notice that through all this loss, you are not gone yet. You are still here and that is your heart that is beating and beating.

Yitbabam. V'yitbabam. V'yitbabam. V'yitbabam.




Thank you to Ellen Atzilah Solot for pushing the point this week that it's not just me.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Mother's Words (and Stuff)


It's seven months today since my mother died. Her death, and this passage of time, are always on my mind. I replay her stroke over and over in my head, and the weeks after. Some of the intensity of these memories has dulled in the intervening months, as you might expect, even though I don't want them dulled. Then this month my sister and I began the arduous task of revisiting our mother's home, our childhood home, and beginning to sort through the things that are all that's left now that Mom is gone.

When our father died 14 years ago, the loss was tremendous, but not structural. That is, the house and the family remained intact. There was a chunk missing, but nothing crumbled. But losing a second parent disintegrates the family system. The family I came from is gone. My sister and I are close; we are linked to each other horizontally along the family tree. But there's nothing above us. And where there once was something, there's now only stories and stuff. A house full of stuff.

I've been cautious about writing too much about this. We all have losses; and terrible things are happening in the world right now demanding our attention and compassion. No one needs to listen to my droning on about my mother. But still, this week seemed right to yield a bit to the temptation. Because this week we begin reading the fifth book of Torah: Deuteronomy, in Hebrew called D'varim. It begins, Eyleh had'varim asher diber Moshe el B'nei Yisrael... "These are the d'varim that Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel."

This book is made up of the d'varim, (which we will, for now, translate as "words") that Moshe spoke. It is a great and lengthy speech given to the people on more or less the eve of the prophet's death. In it he recounts the people's journeys and struggles and the laws they were given, as well as offering a generous helping of advice of his own. This book being titled as the "words of Moshe" is in its way ironic, since all the words of Torah are, in our tradition, those of Moshe. Or those of God given through Moshe. And even here, Moshe is, in our imagination, doing the overall transmission, as he does for the rest of Torah. So in D'varim, as if in an iterative loop, he is now telling the story of his telling the story.

So why this second telling? In Greek it's called Deuteronomy, the second law. But it's not a different law or even just a recap of the law given in earlier books. It's a rerun of all the travels and traumas, a final summary, a postcard from the wilderness sent into the future. Is Moshe modeling something about how you make sense of a journey? You retell it, using d'varim?

But d'varim is a squishy and surprising word in Hebrew. It's root, d-b-r, as a verb typically means "to speak." As a noun, davar (plural: d'varim) means variously, and with fairly equal distribution, "word" and "thing." What is the connection between a "word" and a "thing?"

When I was an undergraduate in linguistics, we were taught a theory, unpopular at the time or at least unprovable, called the Whorf Hypothesis. Benjamin Whorf, in his work on what was termed "linguistic relativism," made an argument that language was essential and precedent to thought. That we cannot think about things for which we have no words. Language defines the categories through which we perceive, well, everything. The academic world, protective of its ability to think above all else, frowned on this idea. Sure, language helped you express ideas cleverly, clearly, but ideas were primary, and not dependent on having language to name them.

But there's been a resurgence in this kind of understanding as we grasp more about the brain through neurology and neuro-linguistics. The prevailing science now suggests that language itself builds brain pathways, forges connections between disparate islands of understanding within the brain. When language is lost, so are things. The ability to connect observations into complex thoughts; the ability to see oneself as separate from the whole are wiped away. Things lose their thinginess. Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor writes about the stroke she suffered 18 years ago, in which a left hemisphere brain bleed left her languageless. And in her language-free state, she was like an infant, without distinction between her world and the world. Without thoughts to trouble her, without thought even as to the passage of time.

So as far as perception and meaning are concerned, words and things turn out to be intimately tied up with each other. Words are the stuff of things.

My mother died without words. Like Bolte Taylor, hers was a left hemisphere bleed, depriving her of useful speech for the last five weeks of her life. She did not seem to lose her receptive language, or not all of it. She revealed an awareness of her surroundings, a recognition of people. She could respond appropriately with facial expressions to stories being told or greetings being relayed. She would roll her eyes at the mention of someone whose mention would normally have brought about the rolling of eyes. She would laugh at jokes, not just as a reflex to tone of voice and other social cues (as some of the more cynical doctors suggested), but even at subtle jokes delivered in impenetrable deadpan. For this reason she didn't seem as far gone as Bolte Taylor initially was; she wasn't in some pre-lingual state of Oneness with the vast universe.

Mom was present. She seemed to understand. But she couldn't create language. She could, in a garbled way, provide a missing lyric to a Gershwin standard; she could sort of speak along with the shema. She could give forth words when the giving forth of words was a rote act. But she couldn't use those utterances to communicate. It was as if understanding was on one island in her brain and language was on another, and there was no bridge between them. So while she might squeeze your hand lovingly, if you asked her to squeeze your hand to signify yes or no, her ability to squeeze your hand instantly left her.

Before her stroke, my mother was rarely at a loss for words. She read, she wrote emails, she mastered Facebook at age 80. She learned to read Hebrew over and over beginning in late middle age, never satisfied with her progress. Nonetheless at 79 she chanted Torah for the first time on Yom Kippur in Cotati, California; a beautiful piece of Parashat Nitzavim that I'd assigned her, saving the closest-to-home thought for her, ki hamitzvah hazot - "this mitzvah is not too wondrous or remote for you." She was frequently on the phone with her friends, or her cousins, or her cousins' children, or her grand nieces. She lived in the telling. Her primary way of relaying information was through the story of how she received the information, reenacting the dialogs involved in that process.

She, like me, was full of words. Kind words, as a rule. But words.

She was also not at a loss for things. And this part sometimes distressed her.

In 1958 my parents masterminded a move out of the city of Chicago. They would become suburbanites, transplanting to the Village of Niles which, though it abutted Chicago's northwest side, was still "the country." Otzinplotz.

The developers offered three home layouts. My parents chose the ranch house with the full basement. They chose the brick color and the window size too. They chose the paint and the flagstone and the trees.

The basement of the house in Niles soon became a "thing." It stopped being invisible architecture and asserted itself. First off, it was a dozen steps below ground and, it seems, situated below the actual water table, or at least the water table on stormy Chicago summer nights, when too many inches of rain in too few minutes would cause the Village sewer pipes to fill and overflow and back up into any structure stupid enough to live at that depth. My childhood, my parents' empty nest life, and my mother's old age were all punctuated by basement floods, wiping out whatever was unlucky or unimportant enough to be caught on a low shelf.

The natural rhythm of floodwater was, in fact, just about the only culling system ever deployed in that basement, whose vast holdings of untouched items continued to grow over time. I think of Bellatrix Lestrange's violently self-replicating vault contents in Harry Potter. Or another generation could think of Fibber McGee.

My parents were very central in both their families. They were beloved and trustworthy, and they were the people with the big unfinished basement. What this meant was that as generations died, whatever of those people's things remained unclaimed would end up in our basement. Silverware. Photo albums. Fur coats. Scrapbooks. Financial records. Sheet music. Never absorbed into use, but held in suspension. An additional burial. A genizah. And not just the personal effects of the dead. Relatives who moved out of state would consign to my parents' basement whatever keepsakes they didn't have room for in the moving truck, only to "forget" them there permanently. Meanwhile, my mother, who hated to entertain, whose anxiety dreams always involved company coming over unannounced or not having enough food to serve on Thanksgiving; my mother would receive gifts over time - wedding, anniversary, business gifts. Trays, punchbowls, coffee service, chip-dip sets. Beautiful items that would mostly stay in their original boxes in the basement, in the hope that there would never be enough guests in the house to actually necessitate their use.

Over time, my sister's and my childhood things took up residence down there as we went on to college and our adult lives. Papers, drawings, scout projects, school assignments from kindergarten through high school. Bicycles, furniture, board games and enough papier-maché to keep you fed for a good post-apocalyptic month. Add to this my parents' business records. And my grandparents'. And my great grandparents'. And then the items of pure sentiment - cards. Birthday cards, anniversary cards, Jewish new year, Christmas, get well and, the hardest to part with, condolence cards and memorial books for a variety of relatives. All these found their way into boxes and onto shelves.

My mother became helpless thrall to this sea of stuff. She was a museum guard, entrusted with keys but no instructions, then abandoned indefinitely by the rest of the staff. My mother saw the burgeoning basement as her failure. If she were a stronger or better or different kind of person, the past would never have accreted in such an aggressively physical form.

But it wasn't her fault. It was too great a responsibility for any one person. She was the vault keeper for over a century of family history. Nothing could be discarded guiltlessly; everything demanded a curator's eye or a historian's. Not for economic value, although certainly there were and are many collectibles sitting there still. But for some other kind of value. For the lives that these things represent; for the stories these things still have to tell.

Mom was not incapable of throwing things away; she just couldn't throw away stories, especially other people's stories, her loved ones' stories. And the basement became the repository, the library of all of those stories. All the words from those now-silent voices. And so, in her helplessness, if once in a while she unconsciously shelved a box or three too low and - surprise! - they were wiped out in the next flood, who could truly blame her?

Over the years my sister and I begged Mom to move to California. But she didn't want to give up her life in Chicago, her friends, her house. Of course if she moved west, she could have flown back and seen her friends with the same frequency with which she now saw her children and grandchildren. But I think the house held her; particularly the basement. She was someone who enjoyed the active retelling of the past, and I think she could not imagine its erasure, which is how I believe she saw the task of clearing the basement out.

Since she's died, there are no more words from her. And she didn't get her final chance to recap her story, like Moshe did. Not yet, at least. But even without words, there are the things, oh the things!

The basement full of memories - her memories, our memories, and the memories of other people long gone - memories about which we can now only speculate. In beginning the ambitious work, my sister and I have morphed from being liquidators to being curators. Every item has its story, every thing is a word. Our job is to release the story from the prison of physical form; to let it return to its existence in the world of word. We call each other over from opposite sides of the basement. "Look at this." "Remember this?" "Was this Aunt Hattie's? Aunt Anne's? Whose?"

Where we don't know the story, we guess. And in some cases we can only shrug.

My sister commented on the childhood papers and the greeting cards. She said, "You put these away thinking that some day you'll revisit them. And now that's what we're doing." On Mom's behalf, on Dad's, on our grandmothers' and grandfathers' and great aunts' behalves, we are revisiting them and trying, through the din of silence and years, to hear their voices one more time. Some of those voices might make it to this page. And others, well, if they just make it once more to my ears and my heart, that will be have to be enough.

Eyleh had'varim. These are the words. These are the things.

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.