Sunday, March 31, 2013

Can't we all just get along - Easter Sunday Edition

היום חמשה ימים בעמר

Today is five days of the omer
הוד שבחסד
A day of humility in a week of loving kindness

I've started reading A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism, published by Facing History and Ourselves, an educational organization founded in the 1970s that is dedicated to "linking the past to the moral and ethical questions of our time through a rigorous examination of the root causes of antisemitism, racism, and other hatred." Facing History believes that "education is the key to combating bigotry and nurturing democracy." They have amazing resources for the classroom and work with educators to bring important discussions and teachings to their students.

Last fall I was part of one of their workshops, "Holocaust and Human Behavior." The history, structure, and insights I gained from this curriculum has been invaluable in developing the Shoah class I teach to middle-schoolers at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. Too many of my students have no relationship to the Holocaust at all, no idea why it is important to them--as Jews or even as citizens of the world. With the help of Facing History and their resources, I am able to place them in that time, both as Jews and as German citizens. I can bring to them an understanding of the grand scale of this tragedy and what it means to us as Jews today. It also makes a space to talk about what we can do to combat the discrimination that goes on today--in ways both small and large.

I also teach about antisemitism in my classes, and am always looking for different ways to reach my students. This book, and the week-long online workshop I participated in last week will help me do that. As I read, there are times the phrase, "the more things change, the more they remain the same" pops into my head.

One example, especially apropos on Easter Sunday, concerns the beginnings of Christianity. We are reminded that Jesus was Jew. In describing Jewish life in Jesus's time, we learn that "Jews at that time were deeply divided over issues of faith and practice." Sound familiar? Instead of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Renewal, etc, they had the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes. After Jesus's death, the book tells us, ". . . small groups of Jews met regularly to pray together and discuss his teachings. Among them were James and Peter, two of Jesus's disciples, or followers. They tried to share their understanding of their messiah with fellow Jews in synagogues and other gathering places." This brought a wry smile on my face as I could just imagine how well that was received.

I can accept that the belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God, was never going to be accepted by the majority of Jews of any sect, making the break off of what was to become Christianity from Judaism was inevitable. But perhaps, in keeping with the sephirot we honor today, if both sides had more humility to see the good of each factions' teachings--those that include peace, love, honesty, compassion--there would be more loving-kindess between us all today.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Finding Common Ground in the Valley of Dry Bones

היום ארבעה ימים בעמר
Today is four days of the omer
נצח שבחסד
A day of perseverence in a week of loving kindness

Today on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach--the Shabbat in the midst of Passover--the haftarah that is chanted is the "Dry Bones" story - Ezekiel 37:1 - 37:14. Rabbi Moshe Levin of Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco teaches that this haftarah would be better placed in the week between Yom HaShoah--Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom HaAtzmaut--Israel Independence Day. I very much agree with him. It is a story that gives me chills each time I read it, seeing an ancient prophesy that came to life. I wrote about this during the counting of the omer in 2007. That was when I first really read the story and saw the link to being lifted from the ashes of the Shoah, restored to life in a land that we can call our home.

Three years ago, on this same omer day, I found another layer to this story. I saw that redemption doesn't just happen, we need to hear the prophesies and find the ways and the leaders that will make this happen. Finding the right leadership in Israel right now seems even more urgent. I fear that if things do not move forward towards a two-state solution, there will be no land to call home.

This year, I add another layer of commentary. When I read this today, verse 9 popped out to me: "Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, O mortal! Say to the breath: Thus said Adonai/God: Come O breath, from the four winds, and breathe into these slain, that they may live again." Not only do we need to be open to hearing the prophesy, but we, as Jews, need to come together from our different places, find a way to join our breath, our ruach, our spirit--physically, philosophically, theologically--to be able to live in our home. We need to find the commonality we have as a people in order to keep the land we call our home.

Once again I say:  "כן יהי רצון – May it be so"

Friday, March 29, 2013

Practical + Spiritual = Survival

היום שלשים ימים בעמר
Today is three days of the omer
תפארת שבחסד
A day of compassion in a week of loving kindness

I see Jewish ritual practice as fluid, a conglomerate of intersecting layers. Some layers exist in space, others in time, and still others cut through both time and space. Then there are the layers within the layers. Some divisions in space occur in one room, some across the universe. Time can be a day, a week, a month, a year, or multiple years through the millennia.

Then there is the practical vs spiritual aspect of many rituals, which can be rooted in tradition yet can change with each generation. Sometimes what seems very practical in one era would feel obsolete in another. The rituals surrounding kosher food is one example that comes to mind. I've had people explain to me how the rules of kashrut work in ancient times to keep people healthy. For example, they tell me, the clay dishes used were very porous, so not mixing milk and meat on the same plates would lessen the chance of eating spoiled food.

Giving health reasons for practicing kashrut is fine, the famous medieval Jewish commentator--and doctor--Maimonides would agree with that. But that is not the only reason to take on this practice. In the Torah, the reason for keeping kosher is so that we can approach holiness. What does that mean? Time to go to another level.

Maybe it's a way to be mindful about all aspects of what you eat--where it comes from, how it's prepared, what goes into the cooking. Eating is a very physical reminder that we are connected to other parts of the planet and need to think about the effects our intake will have on the rest of the world. And maybe we need to be reminded that nourishment includes feeding our soul as well as our body.*

My point in all this is to appreciate this multi-level Jewish practice that our ancestors have given us. Instead of kashrut, I could have written about Shabbat and the need for rest or Pesach as a way of clearing out the stale. All good ideas on a practical level. But there are always other strata in which to experience those rituals. Some work better than others for different people in different cultures in different generations.

And I think that is one reason why Judaism still exists when other peoples have not. We may be a vast, diverse tribe, but a people who can weave together the practical with the spiritual--feeding body and soul--will survive.

*For some other thoughts on the why of kosher in this era - check out this article from and this article from The National Jewish Outreach Program.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Equal Rights for All

היום שני ימים בעמר
Today is two days of the omer
גבורה שבחסד
A day of strength in a week of loving kindness

In July 1997, Ken was in a motorcycle accident and was taken to San Francisco General. I was working in Cupertino that day, and hightailed it up to the city as soon as I got the word. I made what was normally a 40 minute trip in under 30 minutes. When I got to the hospital, it was difficult to get information on where or how he was. It felt a bit like being in a medical TV drama--except it was real.

At the time, we were married for almost 6 years. Even though our last names are different, no one had ever questioned our statement of marriage. I think the only time we were asked to show our marriage license was when we bought our house. That day was no exception. When I was having issues finding the right people who could get me to Ken, I used the word "wife" as I had never used it before. "I'm his wife.....I'm his wife......I'm his wife" kept coming out of my mouth as I was shuttled from one place and one person to another. "You can't go there!", I heard as I started down a corridor that someone had pointed to. "Yes I can, I'm his wife" I replied.

There was never any question of my support for equal rights -- but that day made the need very concrete for me. I was able to ask questions, get people to talk to me, find Ken and see him before he went into surgery on his fractured wrist--because I was his wife. I could state it over and over again and everyone believed me. But my friends in same-sex relationships--committed, loving relationships--do not have that privilege. They can be denied access to their loved one because they couldn't use the magic words---husband, wife--that would open those doors.

Hopefully, in a few months, in California and the rest of the country, that inequality will be rectified. 

כן יהי רצון – May it be so

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The cycle continues...the counting begins...

היום יום אחד בעמר
Today is the first day of the omer
חסד שבחסד
A day of loving kindness in a week of loving kindness

With all good intentions, I meant to have this wonderful introductory post all written and ready to post last night after coming home from seder and my first night of counting the omer. While I managed a tweet--a new element added to the ritual this year, I'm feeling a bit stuck and almost nervous to start the writing practice. But like the Jewish yearly holiday cycle, the time comes and the ritual begins, ready or not. And that, one could say, is the beauty of following the cycle--you learn the practice is in the doing...the rest will follow.

For those who are new to this practice, I recommend you read this article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs. It gives a good basic explanation of the ritual along with the nuts and bolts of how to perform it. It is a counting time of 49 days starting on the second day of Passover and leading to the 50th day, which is Shavuot. It is a biblical commandment which was then adapted into rabbinical Judaism.

The Kabbalists added a layer by taking the 7 Sephirot -- emanations, illuminations, attributes that connect God, the Transcendent, to humans. For a bit more on this in a dogma-free manner, read this article from David Cooper. Each day of the week is one sephirah; each week is a sephirah. In the course of 49 days we encounter every combination of a particular day in a particular week. It can serve on a conscious, guided meditation on life as we count from Pesach to Shavuot -- from liberation to revelation.

This will be the 7th year that I have added my own ritual to the practice. I pledge to write each day. What I write is up to me. There doesn't have to be a thread, although there are years I've tried that. Sometimes my theme matches the sephirot of the day, sometimes not. The writings certainly aren't always stellar--but that's not the point. There just needs to be an entry, a counting, some words to mark the day.

There are friends who come on this journey with me in one way or another. Since I post the count and a link each day on Facebook, for some it's a helpful reminder to continue their own count. Others check in the blog from time to time; others read each day--with a shout out of love to my dad, who is my most faithful reader.

This year I'm added a tweet each night with the count--although the writing will mostly take place the next day. If you'd like to get those tweets, you can find me at @mdivah  

So, welcome to Omer5773. And appreciate that we start, as always, on a day of double loving-kindness.