Monday, November 29, 2010

Instilling Jewish Pride for the Next Generation

Last week, as my son and I were doing some last minute Hanukkah shopping, we found ourselves staring face to face with an aisle devoted to Christmas. You can imagine how appealing these items were to a five year old, and I have to admit that I found myself staring at them quite a bit as well, as they were a remarkable display of the holiday season. When he asked me what they were, I told him that they were for Christmas and we moved on to the next aisle. A few aisles later, we found the Hanukkah section, and it included a pretty small selection of items compared to all that we had seen just a few aisles back.

Unlike the merchandising selection at this department store, we can't let Hanukkah, or any Jewish holiday for that matter, be seen as the smaller or less significant stepchild of a more popularly held holiday. It's critical that we not compare Christmas and Hanukkah as if they are in competition. Each holiday stands on its own merits, and in their true celebration express very different theological messages. Hanukkah's central theme is the courage to maintain one's religious convictions in the face of persecution. When we light our hanukiah and place it conspicuously in our windowsill, we are actively engaged in publicizing the miracle of Jewish survival and are linking ourselves to thousands of generations of Jews who have fought for the right to practice the faith of their ancestors.

Often, Jewish professionals use the term "December Dilemma" to refer to the struggle that interfaith families have in navigating the challenge of satisfying the needs of both partners during the holiday season. However, Julie Hilton Danan, a Rabbi and Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Chico suggests in her book The Jewish Parent's Almanac, that the term might also apply to "the range of uncomfortable feelings that many Jews, in particular Jewish parents, experience while most of the rest of the country is celebrating Christmas. It’s as if the year’s biggest party is going on, and we’ve decided not to be invited…"

Indeed, although my family leads a very active Jewish life, my children occasionally feel that they have been left out of the mainstream, and want to "taste" what they are seeing on television and at shopping malls throughout Houston. What might be the solution to this "December Dilemma?" In my opinion it is making Judaism compelling year round. The more our children feel a sense of pride in being Jewish, the less they will look longingly at other traditions to fill a need their Judaism isn't providing.

On this issue Rabbi Danan continues: "I think that the people who experience the most problems with children and Christmas are those for whom December is practically the only time of year in which their children feel distinctively Jewish…When family observances revolve around the Jewish calendar, we know who we are, not just who we aren’t."

Hanukkah is just about to begin and Christmas is right around the corner. With four opportunities to celebrate Shabbat in addition to celebrating the Festival of Lights before Santa makes his yearly visit, consider ways to make your kids feel so happy to be Jewish that Christmas is just another day of the year.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

45 Volumes, 45 Years - An Amazing Accomplishment for Klal Yisrael

Even if you are an infrequent adult Jewish learner, at some point you have encountered the Talmud. Often inadequately described as a commentary on the Mishnah (a compendium of legal traditions that initially developed orally), the Talmud is really a conversation on all spheres of life: the home, street, marketplace, and field; and all types of human relationships: those between husband and wife, children and their parents, neighbors, teachers and pupils, and communal leaders and the general public. Its topics range from both the most mundane to the most theologically challenging. Developing as an oral tradition over centuries, it was compiled and set in writing around the fifth century. No Jewish journey is complete without an exploring this critical exploration of all things Jewish.

Until recently, studying the Talmud was an activity reserved for the most ambitious students. Beyond the challenges one faces in deciphering a text that appears both in Hebrew and Aramaic, a Talmudic discussion is often circuitous and its logic is very different from that of the western philosophical tradition. Today, there are numerous opportunities to study the text, either in its original, with a parallel translation, or in a foreign language altogether. This study can even occur online or through podcasts and software purchased through Jewish vendors.

Perhaps the most pioneering development in making the study of the Talmud accessible occurred in 1965, when Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz began his work in providing a translation and running commentary on the Talmud. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s work began a movement to bring the Talmud to the masses, and this groundbreaking initiative is about to be completed forty-five volumes and forty-five years later, when Rabbi Steinsaltz publishes the final volume this November.

On Sunday, November 7, communities around the world will celebrate Rabbi Steinsaltz’s achievement both personally and for the Jewish people, by participating in the first Global Day of Jewish Learning. This program, developed by the Aleph Society and supported by national and international Jewish organizations including United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Community Centers Association, and the Joint Distribution Committee, will include both Talmud study and the opportunity to participate in a Jerusalem-based live broadcast of a siyyum, a celebration of the completion of study, led by Rabbi Steinsaltz.

I study Talmud each week. Sometimes I struggle, sometimes it comes easily. I am personally indebted to Rabbi Steinsaltz for making the Talmud accessible both for me and my students. Thank you Rabbi Steinsaltz.

For information about a Global Day of Jewish Learning program in your community go to www.1people1day.org.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Jewish Take on World Issues

This blog was supposed to be published on Wednesday but I was still thinking about what to write. Over the past ten days I have been directing a ten-day scholar in residence program at the Jewish Community Center of Houston (where I work) entitled A Jewish Take on World Issues. The scholar, Dr. Alick Isaacs is a professor at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University and a faculty member at the Hartman Institute. The series included lectures both at the JCC and in private homes. Each night Dr. Isaacs explored a Jewish take on issues such as Universal Humanity, Community, Peace, Progress, Feminism, and the role of the State of Israel in the Modern World. The program was well received and every night participants went home with a little bit of a brain ache from working hard to understand the challenging ideas presented by our presenter. Since I attended all ten lectures I had a lot to think about and so this post is late.

In the lecture entitled A Jewish Take on Progress, Dr. Isaacs shared with us the Western understanding of progress as a linear development that will inevitably results in an improvement of conditions. He then proceeded to explore a Jewish understanding of progress, in which traditionalist and anti-traditionalist movements support one another in the mutual development and conservation of Judaism’s most important ideas and ideals.

In the lecture A Jewish Take on Feminism, Dr. Isaacs explored how the modern Feminist tradition is at odds with Judaism while a reading of Jewish texts supports a Feminist ideology based not on rights, but responsibilities both for men and women. Dr. Isaacs is an ardent feminist, and one of the founders of Congregation Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, where women lead portions of the service and read Torah in an Orthodox environment.

The big idea I took away from this series is that I am guilty of trying to make an accommodation for Judaism to fit neatly into the Western tradition. I need to work harder to explore Judaism on its own terms and not as a tradition that can so neatly fit into the surrounding culture I wish to belong. I walked away recognizing that Judaism at odds with a Western tradition can serve as form of protest against a tradition that needs a genuine critique in order to maintain its own authentic voice. In this way, both Judaism and the Western tradition are forced to evolve.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Two Types of Freedom

Imagine sleeping late for the most important appointment of your life! According to Jewish tradition, that is exactly what the Jewish people did the morning they were to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. To make certain that this doesn’t happen again, many Jewish communities stay up for an all-night study session the first evening of Shavuot (Erev Shavuot). This special tradition, called a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, hopes to ensure that the Jewish people make it to their Mount Sinai meeting on time.

Shavuot, also called the Festival of Weeks, is the second of the three Festivals of the Jewish year. Like many Jewish holidays, Shavuot has both agricultural and religious significance. Shavuot celebrates the harvest and dedication of the first fruits of the agricultural year and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For this reason, Shavuot is also often called both Hag HaBikkurim (Holiday of the First Fruits) and Hag Matan Torah (Holiday of the Giving of the Torah).

However, the connection between Passover and Shavuot is perhaps the most important aspect of this holiday’s celebration. Passover celebrates the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But what happened after that miraculous escape at the Sea of Reeds? Seven weeks later, the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai and were given the Torah. As Passover celebrates physical freedom, Shavuot celebrates spiritual freedom through the covenant made between G-d and the Jewish people millennia ago.

Unfortunately, Shavuot often falls during the summer and many people forget about this celebration altogether (There is no excuse this year, as Shavuot is at the end of May). Additionally, Shavuot may be less “memorable” because it doesn’t have a unique experience as part of its celebration. Sukkot has the sukkah, Passover has the Seder, Purim has the costumes, and Shavuot is primarily a synagogue based holiday exactly at the time when synagogue attendance starts to wane in the summer season.

Nevertheless, participating in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot is a great way to throw you into Jewish learning and provides a great opportunity to become re-inspired to explore Judaism anew. I have participated in all-night study programs that explore everything from classical biblical texts to the growth of the Israeli wine industry. With a diversity of learning experiences, everyone has the opportunity to stay engaged and awake. Plus, all-night learners really feel a sense of accomplishment if they make it to dawn on Shavuot morning.

Study is central to the Jewish people. Jewish study is not about mastering knowledge; rather it is about using what is learned to affect how we live. We study the Torah all year, every year because the work that we put into study has the potential to transform our lives. This is why Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that the process of Torah study is to “turn to it, and turn to it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, grow old and gray over it. Do not budge from it. You can have no better guide for living than it” (Avot 5:25). Take some time this year to study our tradition.


Shavuot begins the evening of Tuesday, May 18, 2010, the 6 Sivan 5770. For more information about Shavuot, check out www.myjewishlearning.com.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

After Passover: Celebrating and Commemorating the Modern Jewish Experience

With Passover having just ended, the celebrations and commemorations of the modern Jewish experience are just around the corner. These holidays, Yom HaShaoah (Holocuast Memorial Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) become the community’s focus as Israel begins its 62nd year. Not surprisingly, these holidays have an interesting and not so straightforward history.

Yom HaShoah was established in 1951 as Yom HaZikaron LaShoah u-Mered HaGetaot (Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Remembrance Day) but the name was changed soon afterward to Yom HaZikaron LaShoah u-LaGevura (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). The Israeli government considered several dates on which to establish this most solemn of days. Originally, Yom HaShoah was to be set for the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the beginning of Warsaw ghetto uprising, in order to express the complete purpose of the day, which was to also pay tribute to Holocaust heroism. However, more traditional segments of Israeli public objected to this date on the fear that it would create conflict with the celebration of Passover that begins just one day later. The date ultimately set as the 27th of Nisan. Nevertheless, Yom HaShoah is still not a universally accepted holiday. Segments of the ultra-Orthodox community do not recognize Yom HaShoah and continue to commemorate the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av, the day established by the Rabbis to mark other tragedies of the Jewish people including the destruction of both the First and Second Temple.

The commemoration of Israel’s fallen soldiers and civilians, who have given their lives in defense of the nation, was originally held on Israel Independence Day. It was not until 1951 that the idea of having a separate memorial day, preceding Yom HaAtzmaut was suggested to the government. It was only in 1963 that the Knesset voted into law what had by that point become the accepted practice of the State. The tone of the day is found in Natan Alterman’s poem The Silver Platter, which describes the sacrifice that Israeli youth, both a boy and a girl, have made so that the State of Israel can be founded. This poem was based on the 1947 statement of Chaim Weitzman that “a nation is not presented with a state on a silver platter.”

Israel Independence Day was established by the Knesset in April 1949. Since its establishment, the State of Israel has debated how to celebrate its birth. How to celebrate this holiday often depends on one’s religious and political orientation. The prayer books of the major American Jewish denominations as well as the official prayer book of the State of Israel each include liturgy designed especially to mark the significance of this day. Other anti-Zionist Jewish groups see no religious significance in the establishment of the State and do not celebrate at all. At the same time, both secular and religious Israelis can also celebrate this day by watching the annual fireworks over the Mediterranean or the presentation of the Israel’s most prestigious civilian honors at a ceremony on Mount Herzl. Nothing characterizes the uniqueness of Israel better than participating in both types of celebrations.

The convoluted history and commemorative practices of these holidays provides us with a window into often fractured nature of the modern Jewish experience. Nevertheless, each of us should take time to explore our personal commitment to celebrating these holidays and by extension the State of Israel. Israel must be part of each of our journeys toward creating a more enriching Jewish sense of self. Take some time to participate in your community's commemorations and celebrations to start you on your way.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Saying Thanks to Mom at Passover

When you sit down to your Passover meal this year, remember the Jewish women who got you there. Moses is not the sole hero of the Passover story. Every Jewish woman deserves a big “thank you” at Passover, and not just for all the hard work that goes into preparing for the holiday.

According to the Talmud (Sotah 11b) it was due to the merit of Jewish women that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt. The Talmud tells us that Israelite women continued to conceive despite the Egyptian repression and potential murder of their firstborn child. According to this same narrative, when the Israelite women were ready to give birth, they would go out into the fields to avoid detection and God would send an angle to assist the birthing and feed the child.

We must not forget the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, who defied Pharoah’s decree to kill all male Israelite babies because they “feared God.” We must not forget Yocheved, Moses’ mother, who hid Moses and placed her family at risk to protect her son, the eventual liberator of her people. We must not forget Miriam, who as a young girl helped bring her baby brother Moses to safety in Pharaoh’s home, and who led the Israelites in recognizing the miracle of G-d’s redemption at the Sea of Reeds. Without all these remarkable women, the Exodus would not have occurred.

We should also remember that these women freedom-fighters were not the last of their kind. Jewish women have always been at the forefront of demanding freedom throughout the generations. Just as we should remember Miriam, we should also remember the efforts and pay tribute to women such as Henrietta Szold, who offered freedom from disease to Jews and Arabs living in the Land of Israel, Barbara Myerhoff, who liberated the voices of the Jewish elderly through her writings, Golda Meir, who helped the State of Israel remain the only democratic state in the Middle East, Gertrude Elion, who offered a cancer-free life to thousands of leukemia-stricken children.

When you are sitting at your Seder table, remember these women, and may others that have had a profound impact on America, Judaism, and the world. If you would like to add their voices to your Passover celebration, you can learn more at the Jewish Women’s Archive. Their database of magnificent women can be accessed online at www.jwa.org. Perhaps their stories, both biblical and contemporary, can help you to find a renewed interest both at your Passover table and in your Jewish living.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Searching for Everyday Miracles

Most of us live our lives like commuters, not paying much attention to the "scenery" of life as we move from one activity to another. Commuters move on auto-pilot, and only pay attention to experiences that jar us from the everyday. So, the birth of a baby or a visit to the Grand Canyon is a miracle moment, but watching your toddler learn to talk is just the natural, developmental progression of a two year old. In today's miracle-jaded society, if an event would not make the evening news it isn't a miracle.

Judaism asks us to be more sensitive to the everyday miracles around us. In being more sensitive to miracles, we may come to greater appreciate Judaism as our tour guide to a miraculous world. In an important and often neglected teaching, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, reminds us that miracles are happening every day but we “take our little hand and cover our eyes, " and the miraculous disappears.

Judaism recognizes two types of miracles, the revealed and the hidden. The miracle of Purim, the saving of the Persian Jewry through the efforts of Esther and Mordechai, is considered a hidden miracle, because God is never mentioned explicitly in the Purim story. Nevertheless, Jewish tradition "writes" God into the story by recognizing certain plot twists as only possible through God's intervention. For example, when King Achashverosh is unable to sleep, checks his royal annals, and is reminded of Mordechai’s loyalty, the Rabbis understand this verse to mean that God, the King of the Universe, woke up to the plight of Persian Jewry and began to work behind the scenes, through Mordechai and Esther, to save the Jews from annihilation.

The revealed miracles of the Bible are more familiar to us, including movie-worthy moments such as the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. It is easy to forget that Purim is a miracle, so the Rabbis wrote Al HaNissim, a prayer that reminds us that Purim is no less of a miraculous event as the Exodus from Egypt. This prayer begins by thanking God “for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds and triumphs, and for the battles which You did perform for our ancestors in those days, at this season.” The prayer continues “You (G-d) in Your great mercy did frustrate his (Haman) counsel and upset his plan; You did cause his plans to backfire upon his own head, so that he and his sons were hanged upon the gallows.” Notice that the Al HaNissim prayer does not praise Mordechai or Esther at all, despite the fat that they are the heroes of the story.

The Al HaNissim prayer, which is also said during Channukah (a different version), reminds us to recognize the miraculous even when events don't stop us in our tracks. Treating our daily experiences as mundane might be necessary to get to work but does not need to spill into all of our daily experiences. Take some time to be awed once in a while and it will transform you into a more appreciative person and, at the same time, put your place in this world into perspective. This is a way that Judaism can make our lives more sensitive to the world around us. Ironically, we have the ability to cover our eyes and make miracles disappear. That doesn't make us powerful, just blind.