A Prayer for Beginning an Endeavor

וְעָל כֵּן אֲנִי מִתְחַנֵּן לְשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא בָּֽעַל הַיְּכוֹלֶת הַגָּמוּר וְהָאֱמֶת הַגָּמוּר שְׁיִתֵּן לִי עֹז וְתַעֲצוּמוֹת לְהַשְׁלִים כַּוָּנָתִי וְיַנָחֵנִי בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶמֶת וִילָמְדֵנִי ארָחוֹת יוֹשֵׁר, כִּי בוֹ בַטָחְתִי וְאֵלָיו קִוִּיתִי, כְּמָאֲמַר הַמְּשׁוֹרֵר, “הַדְרִיכֵנִי בַֽאֲמִתֶּךָ ׀ וְלַמְּדֵנִי כִּי־אַתָּה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי אוֹתְךָ קִוִּיתִי כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם: וְזֶה הֶחֱלִי בְּעֶזְרַת שָׁדַּי:

Therefore I pray to God who has absolute power and truth that He may grant me courage and strength to accomplish my purpose, that He may lead me in the way of truth, and teach me the paths of uprightness, for in Him I trust and for Him I wait, as the Psalmist says (Psalms 25:5): “Guide me in Your truth, and teach me; for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all day.” Now I begin with the help of the Almighty.

This t’filah is an excerpt from Ikkarim: Book of Principles, a four-volume beautiful theological statement and explication of Torah by Joseph Albo, completed in 1454. Albo closes the preamble to his work with this prayer.

What a beautiful sentiment with which to begin a journey.

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Love Your Neighbor… I am the Lord

Kids say the darndest things. And give the most wonderful, unexpected divrei Torah.

In Parashat K’doshim, the text states, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך, אני ה” — “[L]ove your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”. Today, in shul, I asked my nine-year-old student, Daniel, “Why, when God tells the Israelites to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ does it immediately follow with ‘I am the Lord’?”

I gave Daniel 25 minutes to percolate on the question. He came to find me when he had it.

Daniel’s answer: “Maybe it means that God created you and He created your friend, and you should each be thankful to God for creating your friend, so that you could be friends.”

The traditional interpretation of this verse, of course, is the well-known “Do unto others as you’d have done to you,” the so-called “Golden Rule”. Many of us remember the story of Hillel and Shammai, when Hillel tells a prospective student “Love your neighbor as yourself; the rest is commentary.” For better or for worse, we get stuck in the commentaries of our learned Sages and forget to reinterpret with the innocence of children. Let us, as we read our sacred texts, remember to read innocently and with our own distinct interpretations.

עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה
“[The Torah] is a Tree of Life to those who hold strongly to it.”

Talking about Gender and God

This week in the Mitzvah Initiative, participants engaged in an incredible discussion about God. The discussion reminded me of a paper I wrote when I was in college, for a class on Gender and Judaism. It seems like a good time to share some of the thoughts that I wrote in this paper with you.

The paper wasn’t about the general concept of God. It was entitled “(Not) Just a Pronoun: Where Feminist Theologians Differ,” and explored the exceptionally varied relationships that individuals in the Jewish community have with God, specifically related to the pronouns we use when we do speak about God. Some use primarily masculine pronouns, some use “God-neutral” (never using pronouns), and others switch back and forth situationally. I interviewed twelve students from different walks of life and Judaism, different backgrounds, upbringings, and denominations, and compared their narratives to those of a couple of Jewish feminist theologians, most notably Judith Plaskow, author of Standing Again and Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (1989), Tamar Ross, author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism (2004), and Rachel Adler, author of Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (1998).

I began to wite the paper with a distinct problem: I couldn’t begin to talk about God without knowing what pronouns to use myself. Could I talk about Him (note the pronoun) at all? I asked the question, “How do I refer to God in a way that is respectful, yet inoffensive to my reader; grounded, yet does not give away my own bias before I have even penned my thesis?” I proceeded, of course, to admit my bias. I couldn’t have done it any other way. I admit it again: I’ve always used masculine terminology for God. It is the convention I have been taught, it’s a space in which I am comfortable, and it is not a convention that I’m willing to give up.

I also began with another distinct problem. What do I mean when I say “God”? While Judaism is a monotheistic religion and therefore I as a Jew believe in one God, and that God exists (though this is interestingly not necessarily required by Torah), it is clear that there are many versions of “God” which exist in the world. Others might say that all that exists in the world is a part of God — that God exists in everything, and beyond everything. This view is called pantheism, rather than monotheism. Another modern convention is to say that all monotheistic religions pray to the same God who goes by different names. Perhaps this is true. However, as one of my interviewees, a female Conservative Jew from Atlanta, Georgia, pointed out, “I feel like Jews talk about God, but they don’t really talk about God. It’s a problem.”

My interviews for this paper revealed that the distance we feel from God-talk isn’t just a Conservative issue. Many of my interviewees had never taken the time to think about God, let alone God’s gender. When forced to think about the issue, all but two said that God is and continues to be male both in our conception and convention.

Judith Plaskow remarks that “Exclusively masculine imagery for God […] tells us nothing about the deity, but it does say a great deal about an androcentric Judaism that regards female images as degrading precisely to the extent that it has degraded and marginalized women” (136-137). Just because we use masculine imagery for God does not mean that God has a particular gender, really. In fact, we as Jews pride ourselves in specifically not having a human-like image of God, and thus we can’t define God by sex. As for degrading and marginalizing women, perhaps Plaskow should give more credit to those lay-thinkers who can think beyond the masculine pronouns into a realm where language does not define being.

Tamar Ross addresses this very issue. She states, “While describing God in gender-neutral terms reflects a philosophical understanding that the divine force is surely abstract and ungendered, to appreciate this transcendance of gender human beings many need feminine imagery to counterbalance to the male use of gendered language, to preserve as ense of personal relationship with God that is not captured by abstract pronouns” (119).

It is important to note that the problem of engendering God stems from the lack of neutral pronouns in the Hebrew language, much like Spanish or Italian. Our Bible is written in Hebrew, and thus everything — every object, every animal, every being — is gendered. In modern Hebrew, cars are female, computers are female, sinks are male, tables are male. Et cetera. On the other hand, according to another of my interviewees, a male Reform Jew from Massachusetts, “gender is a social construct that we make up for ourselves, that really has no basis in the godly world.”

Ultimately what I learned while writing this paper was that we live in a society that openly challenges gender roles. In our American society, who says that a male cannot be compassionate, loving and kind; that male ballet dancers aren’t just as graceful on the stage as their female counterparts? And who says that women can’t embody a strong, “macho,” warrior-like hero, in addition to fitting the paradigm of the sweet, compassionate, kind girl? By saying that we must ascribe God any “inherently female” attributes and use female terms to replace the previously inherently masculine terminology, we are in danger of perpetuating negative gender stereotypes rather than positive ones, as we at the same time work hard to combat them in our secular and in our Jewish society. We should embrace the fact that we live in such a society, which allows us to talk about God openly and to perceive Him — or Her? or God? — any way that suits our needs.

Shabbat Shalom.

Personal Theology and the Study of Religion

New school year, new classes. New wonderful thoughts. Happily, the new thoughts have started, full-speed ahead. I’m really excited!

My professor for Theory of Religion this semester presented us (indirectly) with a fascinating question this afternoon, during our first lecture of the semester: What is the place of personal theology in the academic study of religion? Asked a bit differently, Are our backgrounds relevant to our study? Do we truly have a right to keep our biases private?

Perhaps the two are slightly different questions.

As for the first question, before asking what the place of personal theology is in the context of the academic study of religion, we must ask whether it does belong. Does it? Of course. Our professor today noted that most academics come to their fields by virtue of some passion they have for the subject; however, he said, “the field of Religion is populated by many scholars who are kind of hostile.” Perhaps hostility is a kind of passion in itself: as Joseph Fletcher once wrote, “The true opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” Negative passion is still passion. In this vein, our passion — our baggage, more broadly — informs everything we do, especially in our academics.

Yes, I understand that passion, or baggage, is not theology. In a way, though, it is a large part. Theology is the part of my baggage that I pack in my carry-on backpack, right between my siddur (prayer book) and my science textbook, squished in there next to my water bottle and my music. Even if I don’t want it to, my own belief in God and religion — my theology — permeates into all of the thoughts I have, in all the activities I do, whether I present those ideas aloud in class or not. Like Franz Kafka, who once claimed that none of his works were autobiographical in the same breath as admitting that the subconscious consistently leaks into all his writing, one could argue that even if we try to assert that we are capable of divorcing our biases from our learning, all of our biases eventually sneakily leak out into our conversations and discussions like carbon monoxide.

The more pressing question, then, might be: Do we have an obligation to share our biases in a controlled forum, to inform our classmates of our possibly-skewed paradigms, or do we jut let them slide into our speech and writing? Some professors have different philosophies.

In my blog entry “Almost Atheist” (2/3/08), I discussed an experience at the beginning of last semester in which my professor in a different religion class required that we introduce ourselves and our religious backgrounds, as it would “define our perception of the material we are going to study,” a philosophy that grants us a much different — though not necessarily a negatively different — classroom environment than the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy of my current professor. In all honesty, I have great respect for any person who believes that he can, and does, keep his personal religious biases outside the classroom unless relevant and consciously introduced. Personally, I try very hard to leave my biases by the mezuzah when I enter a room, but it’s very hard. Especially being a religious person, who believes that the Torah is the word of God, I find it difficult to accept lessons like the Documentary Hypothesis (J, E, P, D, and sometimes H). While on the one hand it’s hard, on another hand it’s easy: If I believe that God wrote or somehow inherently influenced the writing of the Bible, and I believe that God is all-powerful, there is no reason that I couldn’t believe that God could write in four (or five) different writing styles. Heck, I write in more than four myself: between my To Do lists, my divrei Torah, my formal academic papers, my Instant Messaging to friends, my poetry, my lab reports, my e-mails to colleagues or e-mails to friends and family, and this blog, there are nine different styles in which I write, not to mention that I speak in an entirely different way. And when I talk about the wonderful things my mom does, sometimes I refer to her as “My mom”, or “Mommy”, or “Mom”, or “Susan”, “Susan Eisen,” or even sometimes “Susan Schor” (her maiden name) depending what I’m telling whom. It doesn’t change the fact that I am the author. Furthermore, while some Documentary Hypothesists would say that the intentionality of the four (or five) authors is different, that proof doesn’t stand here. All of my forms of writing also depend on my intentions.

But I have digressed. Getting back to the second question on hand, I still must ask: are our backgrounds relevant to our study? Do we truly have a right to keep our biases private?

Again, difficult. Of course we have a “right” to keep our biases private. That is what the Bill of Rights meant when it allowed people to “plead the fifth” in order not to incriminate themselves. Sure, this is not a legal issue, but in the American world we do have the right to say, or not to say, what we choose. However, we must remember that when someone “pleads the fifth” they do so in order to cover up relevant information on which they do not want to be judged. Our biases are relevant, and, in an ideal world, it would be important for us to share those.

But we don’t live in an ideal world; we live in a world full of judgment and Nose-in-the-Air syndrome. If we could assure concerned academics and students that they would not be bombarded with these, and that the field was a risk-free environment, then perhaps we would be able to freely air our biases in public. Perhaps there are some, the “good ones,” who successfully bury their paradigms and divorce themselves long enough from their own religions – religions of God or of Science or of hostility – to research and speak freely about their subjects. Many are not so talented.

A Woman in T’fillin: Must She Be a Lesbian?

One of the things I love about my classes at Boston University is the time it gives me to think about interesting philosophical issues, many of which have a very personal reality in my life. You’ve seen the fruits of these thoughts in some of my previous posts. This time was one of many times I’ve found myself writing little comments in the margins of my class notes, in “Gender and Judaism” with Professor Deeana Klepper.

In class, we’ve been discussing a fascinating issue: Torah as the “Other Woman”. Contrary to mainstream religious Christian beliefs that chastity is the ideal, Talmudic and Kabbalistic literature indicate that sex is not just a “necessary evil,” but that it is rather a duty that a husband performs for his wife. Sex, when done properly and with the correct intent, of course, brings new life into the world, and is therefore an inherently holy act — one of the holiest in which a layperson can engage. However, Torah is still the “Other Woman”. Or is a man’s wife the “Other Woman,” with whom he cheats on Lady Torah? It’s a fascinating discussion, completely unanswerable. But, once again, fun to think about.

But of course, that isn’t my point in this musing, as you may have already noticed in my title.
The dangerous question: Must a woman in t’fillin be a lesbian?

You may be reading this and asking, “What the H–?”. The question is designed to do that, I’ll admit; I mean it to elicit that response because that’s precisely the response I had when I first read our class materials and found this to be a necessary question. You may say to me, “Hinda, what does Torah as the ‘Other Woman’ have to do with women laying t’fillin, and being lesbians?” I’ll tell you.

Check out the series of b’rachot [blessings] and quotes a man traditionally says in the morning when putting on t’fillin:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו להניח תפילין

Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us in His mitzvot and has commanded us to lay our t’fillin.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציונו על מצוות תפילין

Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us in His mitzvot and has commanded us in the mitzvah of t’fillin.

ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד

Blessed is the name of the honor of His kingship for all time.

The above statements seem self-explanatory. The first occurs while wrapping the shel yad t’fillin on the arm, the second and third while he places the shel rosh t’fillin between his eyes and aligns the knot on the base of his skull. But take a look at the psukim that are said when he wraps the shel yad t’fillin around his middle finger:

וארשתיך לי לעולם

And you are betrothed unto me forever.

וארשתיך לי בחסד וברחמים

And you are betrothed unto me in kindness and in mercy.

וארשתיך לי באמונה וידעת את י-הוה

And you are betrothed unto me in belief and the knowledge of God.>.

Well that’s interesting! Using the word וארשתיך [ve’erastich], meaning “and you are betrothed,” grammatically must have a woman as the indirect object. Who is being betrothed to whom in this case? It seems that the act of laying t’fillin, and specifically wrapping the leather strap three times around the middle finger, is a “renewal of vows” that occurs daily in the life of a male Jew. Given that the time of prayer is traditionally regarded as a time to push all sexual desire from the male mind, perhaps it is here that the male pushes the thoughts of his wife from his mind and is free to allow and affirm his desire for Lady Torah, his mistress.

Perhaps I’ll develop this thought more at a later date. However, I do wish to explore what the above problem means for those of us women who lay t’fillin every day (or who feel obligated in the mitzvah). What does it mean for us? Clearly we as women have a great commitment to Torah and t’filah [prayer], but the idea that we must be betrothed to Lady Torah in order to fulfill the mitzvah, or as a result of fulfilling the mitzvah, is problematic. On the one hand, I am a proponent of sticking to original liturgy. I do not like the addition of the matriarchs into our Amidah prayer, and I don’t condone a change in the Hineni on the High Holidays when I lead those services, even though it professes that the ideal leader of a congregation has “a pleasant voice,” a “long beard,” and is “learned in the ways of the world.” I don’t like when our lengthy tradition of blessings and prayers is tainted by the ungendering or, worse, the change of gender of God in our prayers from Male to Neuter (the so-called “God tense”) or from Male to Female, respectively.

Calling God “He” does not upset my concept of Him, nor my concept of my own self-image as a woman who believes in God. In fact, I might say that if male and female are made to complete each other, then perhaps I as a woman fulfill a role that completes God. While both versions of the Creation story in our Bible (Genesis 1-2:4, Genesis 2) are significantly different from each other, they both culminate with the creation of Woman; perhaps this is the key support for Woman’s ability to be God’s complement as well as Man’s.

All the ranting in the world won’t solve the problem I’ve posed. Am I, in my own love affair with Torah, proclaiming myself a lesbian? Must Torah be “Lady Torah,” as I have labeled it, my tongue in my cheek? What is our intent as Jews in laying t’fillin? More importanty perhaps, what is our intent as women laying t’fillin? Is it just because men told us in the past that we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, and we use it as a form of rebellion? If that is a woman’s rationale for laying t’fillin, perhaps she should reconsider. If I as a woman, in laying t’fillin, am renewing my vows of betrothal with Torah and/or with God, how do I express that as a woman, without being problematic?

As I have already stated, I am not one to advocate for change in liturgy, most of the time. But perhaps, in this case, if we want to find a way for women to ceremoniously lay t’fillin without needing to step out of some proverbial closet, we need to find a different recitation to replace these inherently heterosexual, masculine vows.

Almost Atheist

Sitting in the first lecture of a course entitled “Catholicism” at Boston University, Professor Donna Freitas requested that we introduce ourselves by saying our name, our school and major (the usual stuff), but then also to include our own religious backgrounds, and how that drove us to take the course. She explained that our “baggage,” which she says, “some of us carry around with a forklift behind us,” defines our perception of the material we are going to study, and thus it was important for us to know about the “baggage” of those with whom we’re about to share our semester. This survey revealed that the student body in our class is composed of, among others:
— some religious Catholics looking to get an academic perspective on their religion
— some students who grew up nominally Catholic but whose families were never practicing
— one or two Muslims
— two Jews, including myself and an Orthodox friend
— some non-believers or non-practitioners.

While “unloading our baggage,” one student’s response particularly interested me. She said, “I grew up Catholic, but we weren’t really practicing, and I haven’t gone to church in a long time. I would say now that I’m probably almost atheist.

Almost Atheist? Does she mean almost a-religious?

My most handy Dashboard computer-dictionary, crafted by Oxford American Dictionaries, defines atheism as “the theory or belief that God does not exist.” The word is derived, by way of French, from the Greek word atheos, “a-” meaning “without,” and “-theos” meaning “God”. By this definition, can one ever be almost atheist?

I am sure this student didn’t mean her response to be so intensely and excruciatingly scrutinized, and I don’t fault her for this semantic error. It merely gave me fodder for pondering, so I used it to springboard an interesting excavation of thought. but there is indeed at least one great philosopher who can readily fall into the category of almost atheist: Primo Levi.

Primo Levi, author of the famous Holocaust survival memoir Survival in Auschwitz, consistently writes about how he wrestles with the existence of God in the aforementioned book. His beginnings were in an emancipated but Jewish family in pre-World War II Italy, in his twenties ending up in the Auschwitz death camp. Levi was a “non-believer, and even less of a believer after the season of Auschwitz” [Primo Levi, “Shame,” in Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, ed. Lawrence L. Langer (New York: Oxford UP, 1995), p. 115]. But Levi’s atheism is unique and interesting: he tells comrades and others time and again that he is an atheist, but occasionally acknowledges that a god exists in whom others legitimately believe. In this way, a number of times in Survival in Auschwitz and in his other writings, Levi essentially says, “God, YOU don’t exist.” He is uniquely defiant in his atheism, explicitly expressing that his belief is optional, that he chooses to resist God.

The same dashboard dictionary that I used to define the term “atheism” also intriguingly gives it the following synonyms: nonbelief, disbelief, unbelief, irreligion, skepticism, doubt, agnosticism; nihilism. Okay, so perhaps I was mistaken in my approach to the word: not that it is defined differently than I originally thought, but that, if “atheism” is legitimately a synonym for irreligion, then perhaps it can also apply in the context in which my classmate used it. Of course: leave it to me, ever to remain the Literal One.